Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"I Need You to Survive" by Joshua Butler

Scripture - 1 Thessalonians 5:11-15
Sermon given on April 20, 2016

I just wanted to give you a brief history of this text. 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament, written around AD 52. It was written by Paul the Apostle and intended for the people of Thessalonica. This particular passage speaks on how Christian should behave. What I like about this particular text is that your behavior shown through how you treat others. We see that we are supposed to treat people this way and that way. We are supposed to look at each other as brothers and sisters of Christ. We are supposed to do good for each other and for everyone else. Of course that’s hard to do. I’m a witness that it is hard to do. However, we should look past the wrong of others and not fight fire with fire. Instead, we should build up one another.

The question becomes how do we build up one another? We should acknowledge and encourage one another. I want to provide an illustration of what I’m talking about.

The summer after my sophomore year, I worked in an youth enrichment program and worked with a group of about 20 children. I don’t know if you know this or not, but I don’t play when it comes to children. Back then, although my policies have changed, I adopted a “one bad apple spoils the bunch” rule, meaning that one (or some) children’s bad behavior could possibly ruin a good time for everyone. One day, the group was supposed to go on a field trip to a museum at noon, but they needed to do their assignments first. At around 8am, 5 of the kids decided to act a fool, being defiant and even encouraging others to misbehave. After several warnings, I decided to call off the field trip. But then I noticed the discouragement in the faces of those who had great behavior.  I didn’t acknowledge those who did behave, those who did their work, and those who did everything right. I didn’t acknowledge how hard they have worked. I didn’t acknowledge some of the learning challenges that they have to overcome. I didn’t acknowledge the fact that there may be reasons outside of this program that explain why some of these kids are misbehaving. I acknowledged the bad without acknowledging the good and with this system in-play, I was not encouraging at all. In fact, some of them began to act worse.

We have to acknowledge things for what they are, whether it’s good or bad. To acknowledge means to accept the existence or truth of something. The scripture says that we acknowledge those who work hard and love them for their work.We can accomplish this by appreciating and utilizing the fruits of their labor. A reward, a “good job”, “I appreciate you”, and even a smile can suffice from time to time. Many times it’s hard to acknowledge the good in others because unless it’s something huge, they are doing the things that they’re supposed to do! But what happens if we don’t acknowledge the work of others? Some people may keep working and some people may stop but let’s be real, the most of us would stop working, especially if we are working with the intent of supporting and helping one another. Some acknowledgement can go a long way and I know it worked for my students! After I called off the field trip, I did some thinking and thought “I should give credit to those who did what I asked them too”. I began to acknowledge those who did their work in a decent manner and those who behaved well by complimenting on their efforts. I acknowledged those who misbehaved and asked them if anything was wrong. For a few of them, issues at home led them to be disheartened, and the smallest things could trigger their bad behavior. Once we acknowledge the good works of people, then everything is..well, good! But then we have to acknowledge some of the negative things that we experience. Without acknowledgement, things cannot be fixed. The idle will not be moved. The disruptive will not be silenced, and the disheartened will not be enlightened. Acknowledging things for what they are can be hard and uncomfortable, or perhaps humbling like my experience with my children, but acknowledgement is how things get better.

Once we acknowledge the good or the bad, that gives us an opportunity to encourage one another. To encourage means to support and uplift. Sometimes we acknowledge something for what it is but we have little reinforcement or solutions. What do we do when we acknowledge the disheartened? What do we do when we acknowledge the weak? Encouragement is the key to mitigating the issues that surrounds us. Acts of encouragement can be the same as acts of acknowledgement, such as a “good job” or a smile, but the difference is that encouragement comes with the intent of pushing people to move forward. With my children, I encouraged them to remain positive (by this point I hope you realize that we actually did go on the field trip) and for those who had not completed their work, I encouraged them to keep pressing. By this time, the nerves of everyone in the room has calmed down. After I assessed the work of every student, I decided that it was okay for the entire group to go on the field trip.

I wish my illustration could stress more the importance of acknowledgement and encouragement, although I did think you could get the point. But in all seriousness, this walk that we have called “life” is not an easy one. The tragedy last week still resides in my mind and it made me realize as human beings, we deal with a lot. A lot. In this walk, we deal with bumpy terrain, worn shoes, twisted ankles, and many other distractions. Some of us deal with things that no one else could fathom. Some of us walk as if we are invisible, as if we cannot be heard, as if we do not matter. I’m here to tell you today that you are not invisible as you are a light among the darkness. You can be heard as God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power. And as God’s children, you always have and will always matter. As I look around and acknowledge the presence of every person in this room, I hope these words of encouragement mean something to you. I hope that you will be able to see and acknowledge the light or the sadness in others so that they can be encouraged. With acknowledgement and encouragement, you will never know the magnitude of the power that you have, all by the grace of God. As you acknowledge and encourage the people that have been placed in your path, you’re saying “I Need You To Survive”. My friends, you are more than you think. You have a capacity that exceeds your expectations. You are important to me. I Need You to Survive. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Wisdom by Catalina Mullis

Sermon given on April 13, 2016
Scripture - James 3:13-18

When I first read this passage, the word that stuck out to me the most was disorder. Disorder. It’s probably because I have been feeling like my life has been in disorder for the past couple of weeks. I am graduating next month, so, as you can imagine, my life has been filled with thoughts about the future. In addition to thinking things like, “What will I do after Penn? What will my career be?” And “ Who will I become?,” I have been working two jobs to save up for the summer, while trying to stay on top of work for my five classes, while preparing for my dance show that is coming up for my dance troupe, African Rhythms, while fulfilling my board duties at the CA, while trying to stay on top of my friendships and familial relationships, while trying to find time to care for myself and sleep. Fewwww. Just getting all of that out was a lot. Sounds like a lot of disorder right?

And yet, at a place like Penn, what I just described is unfortunately very normal. Almost everyone here is overcommitted; you will see most of us trying to do it all and be it all and know it all because we feel like we have to; because we are told, either directly or indirectly, that doing this is what makes us valuable by our institution, by our society, and by each other; We must be the best in class, we must have the best internships and jobs, we must be involved in the most clubs and extracurriculars, and we must be the most popular; the more we have to write on our resume, the more we have done and accomplished, and the more people we know, the more likely we will be successful and the more likely an employer will choose us.

But in the process of trying to fulfill what is expected of us, we inevitably lose sight of ourselves and others; we forget to take care of ourselves; we don’t sleep, we don’t eat right and we don’t do things just because we enjoy them; we lose sight of how to pick up on how others are feeling and we stop hanging out with them and sharing quality time with them, and they with us;  we become so consumed with what we have to do that we forget about the others around us and they forget about us; we stop checking in with our friends and family, they stop checking in with us, and pretty soon, we all start feeling alone, really alone. We start leading pretty bad, disconnected lives, instead of the good lives that James talks about.

In this passage, James tells us that when we, either individually or as a whole, choose to follow these earthly ways, or what he calls the “ways of selfish ambition”, disorder, suffering, and chaos ensues. He even goes as far as to say that selfish ambition is demonic and evil mainly because of the tragic repercussions this way of life has for a lot of people: anxiety, depression (something I am all too familiar with), exhaustion and the list goes on and on. He tells us that selfish ambition makes us unstable, like “a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the  wind.” I know that this happens to me  when I succumb to this culture. I feel disconnected from everything and I tend to get very existential. I question the meaning of life, I wonder why life has to be so hard, and I doubt God. Let me just emphasize that: I doubt God A LOT.  I start to question if life really does conquer death, if this world can be restored, and if good can actually prevail. A culture of selfish ambition really is demoralizing and alienating, and everything seems pretty dim.

But James tells us that when we, individually and especially as a society, choose to follow the ways of God, something remarkable happens. Disorder disappears and is replaced by peace, love, mercy, compassion, and righteousness. When we follow God’s ways, we are filled with His wisdom, and so we are liberated from the pressures of the world and from the belief that we have to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor in order to be valuable. God’s wisdom tells us that we are valuable independent of what we do, because we are God’s children; God’s wisdom tells us that all of us matter, that all of us must be taken care of, and it propels us towards the right action, towards selfless action; it propels us to focus first on our communities, on each other, and to do whatever it takes to restore our world and to make sure that everyone feels safe, whole and loved. In God’s world, righteousness and justice reign, and doubt disappears, because we can visibly see God’s world through our actions.

So how can we follow God’s ways? Where can we find this wisdom? Well, I personally think that God’s ways and wisdom can be accessed in faith communities like the Christian Association, which are countercultural, and which exist to remind students that they are never alone and that they don’t have to pursue a life of selfish ambition to be valuable. On our own, it can sometimes be very hard to break free from the messages that surround us, but in community, we are fueled with strength and Truth, the Truth with a capital T, which rings louder because we have people that love us to keep us grounded and balanced. In my case, I found the CA because I sought it out, and I never looked back. But not everyone finds what they are looking for; and so that is why at places like the CA, we seek to live out God’s call to care for and love each other, to reach out to those in need, relying on his wisdom to guide us in that process and slowly but surely, restore the world around us.


Monday, April 11, 2016

"Imagining Redemption" by Peter Hawisher-Faul

Sermon given on April 6, 2016
Scripture - Romans 8:22-27

            Have you ever watched a movie and wondered why the characters can’t think of a better way to act? Do you sit on the edge of your seat saying or thinking “Why would you open that door? Don’t open that door!”  or maybe “Don’t go out into the jungle! You know the clever raptors hunt in packs.” Or have you ever finished the end of a movie or tv show and looked back and thought of ten ways the characters could have had a better ending? I know I have. Maybe if the hero had been just a little more suspicious of the villain, or if a character could have just stayed home, everything would have worked out better. There is a whole youtube series called “How it Should Have Ended” that looks at movies and finds a better way to resolve the plot.
            The thing is, it’s a lot different to watch a movie than it would to be a character in a movie. Can you imagine being put in some of the intense situations that characters are put in? It’s easy to say they should have known better, but if you were placed under the same pressures you might not be able to see the best way forward. Like, when you go through a bad breakup, when you chose whose advice to take, or when you are placed under pressure of deciding your future, it’s not always clear what the best choice is.
            Our choices are limited by our imagination. When we are living the story, we can only see so far and anticipate so much. In the midst of a crisis it can be hard event o put our hopes into words. We might not be able to name what exactly is wrong, much less see how to make it right. Our imagination could even be filled with everything that could get worse, making imagining hope not only difficult, but impossible. There are so many ways that our imagination can stop us from finding what we are looking for; after all, we might not even be looking for the right thing.
            This is why Paul says that we are groaning. We experience suffering and much of the time it feels like there is no way to make it right. Whether that pain be from damaged relationships, the pressure to put on “Penn face” and be an all-star student, or from the anxiety of facing an uncertain future with poor job prospects and broken political system, whatever our personal source of pain, we are left waiting for more and hoping for change that we don’t know how to name and might not even be able to imagine.
We are not groaning and suffering alone, Paul says, but with all of creation. This in fact is the focus of the story of redemption that God is working out. It is not just humans that need to be reconciled with God, but all of creation must be reconciled with her Creator. Where we might normally think of the life of the world as a macrocosm of our lives as individuals, Paul speaks of the redemption of our bodies through adoption by God as a microcosm of the redemption of creation. Our salvation is tied to the salvation of creation because our sin has impacted all of creation. When humanity was cursed after disobeying God in the garden of Eden, the ground was cursed with us; cultivation of life on the earth becomes a difficult task because of our sin. 
While we might not experience the thorns, thistles, and toil of farming, we don’t have to look far to see how humans have hurt the world. There is an “island” of decomposing plastic bottles the size of Texas in the Pacific ocean. Pollution has yet to be kept in check by our governments and corporations. We might hope for peace, but it is all we can do to imagine a world with less violence. So many species have gone extinct in recent history that many scientists claim that humans are responsible for starting a mass-extinction. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
But these groanings are labor pains, birth pangs. As characters in this story, we may not be able to imagine what the redemption of creation will look like, but God is creating new life. Jesus shared in our suffering and in the suffering of the world, living a life that is not silenced by death with love that surpasses all boundaries. Paul says that we are adopted as children of God and co-heirs of Christ and we live by the Spirit that filled Jesus in his ministry. We may not be able to imagine what redemption of all of creation will look like, but we have hope in the Spirit, who intercedes on our behalf with “sighs too deep for words.”
The Spirit is the source of our hope, not our imagination or the world we see. Paul says “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes[p] for what is seen?” Paul looks around at his world at sees nothing worth hoping for. His hope is not in the peace and supremacy of Rome or the success of his tent-making business, which I’m guessing was not a terribly lucrative field. We look for hope in our world, but creation cannot redeem itself; it must be redeemed by the Creator. We may look for a political revolution, a career filled with meaning, a lucrative job on Wall Street, a loving family, or recognition of our personal accomplishments, but none of the things we long for will ultimately satisfy our yearning for a better world. We long for good things in the world, but we don’t need to give up on our dreams and settle for what we see in the world. We are unsatisfied for a reason, because our true hope is the new life that only God can bring, the new life that Jesus embodies and the Spirit breathes into our world to redeem all of creation.
Where we are weak and unable to bring change or even to properly imagine it, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf. We long for change, but we don’t know what it would even look like. We cry out, but we cannot really grasp the cause of our suffering. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit hears our groaning and the groaning of creation as prayer. The Spirit hears our cries, and God knows what our hearts long for, working for the good of creation in our lives beyond what we could imagine for ourselves.
When we look at the stories told by movies and tv, some of the struggles that characters face can feel meaningless because the authors of the stories are not writing just out of love for the characters. Characters may be killed off, take bad advice, or betray their own values as it suits the authors’ interests. When we look at our lives and the world and see no signs of hope, we might wonder if we can trust God’s creative work in our lives. We know that God’s love is sincere and that God’s love has the power to set the world right because of the love Jesus showed for his disciples and the world, the love that not even death or Roman power could silence. That love is our true hope.
We long for a better world, but we cannot see the way. With all of creation we groan in labor pains, and the Spirit hears our longing and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. We wait for the redemption of all creation, placing our hope in God’s plans, which surpass anything we could plan for ourselves.
Wendell Berry wrote a poem that I think expresses what he hears in the groaning in labor pains of all creation. Read it, and reflect on what is the new life you long to see in the world. The poem is called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready-made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head. 
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you 
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something 
that won't compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor. 
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias. 
Say that your main crop is the forest 
that you did not plant, 
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. 
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees 
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion -- put your ear 
close, and hear the faint chattering 
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful 
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child? 
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields. 
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn't go.
Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction. 
Practice resurrection.

"Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" from The Country of Marriage, copyright ® 1973 by Wendell Berry

Monday, April 4, 2016

"Is God Dead?" by Scott Sprunger

Sermon given on March 29, 2016
Scripture: John 20:1-18

We Christians have been taking death seriously lately. But it’s so easy to avoid the reality of death in the world. It’s easy to avoid death by turning off the television. But death is always surprising and always devastating, especially when it happens to people we love. In the Christian calendar, last week was Holy Week. But at the same time, terror attacks killed dozens in Syria and Belgium and Iraq. In the United States, people die every day from lack of access to quality health care, poverty and homelessness, and senseless police violence. But God takes death seriously too. God takes death so seriously that God took on a human body and participated in death alongside us.

But today’s story is about resurrection. Life after death. This story is not perfect. It raises more questions than it answers. And this story asks a lot of us. It asks us to believe in something we can’t see. It asks us to hope when hope seems impossible. So that is what we’re doing together tonight in this room, wrestling with hope while surrounded by hopelessness.

In the 19th century, there was a famous German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche once boldly proclaimed, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us?” And we as Christians agree with Nietzsche, at least, for two days out of every year. Last friday we commemorated Good Friday, remembering Jesus’ death on the cross. Growing up, my parents took me to a Good Friday service every year. And I hated them. They were always so somber and morbid. I never left feeling good. And that’s kinda the point. Two days later we celebrated Easter, remembering Jesus coming back to life. I don’t know why but the season of lent and the celebration of Easter is always the most spiritual and reflective time for me. And even though Easter always felt like a big celebration, it seemed like there was something heavy - something transformative - about Easter, and Jesus coming back to life. That’s what I want to talk about tonight.

When I was in high school, I worked at a family-owned ice cream shop. This particular ice cream shop had a tip jar. Now while tips were by no means mandatory, they were deeply, deeply appreciated. On summer weekends, the line could stretch out the door and around the block so the tips we received made our long hours of grueling work worth the effort. On one such summer night, I remember a middle-aged couple that came into our shop. After serving them a few samples and scooping their orders, I saw them slip a ten dollar bill into the tip jar. So after they left I reached into the jar to get a better look at it. But after picking it up, I realized that it was fake. On the back were the words: “Disappointed? Some things are better than money. Like your eternal salvation that was bought and paid for by Jesus going to the cross.” Now I was a little ticked off at the time. But in fairness, these people thought they were giving me a gift much greater than money could buy, access to eternal salvation.

There is a strand of Christian faith is deeply concerned with the afterlife. You have heaven and hell. And when you die, your soul leaves its body so that God can judge it and send it to the appropriate location for the rest of eternity. This style of living one’s faith is pretty common today, you don’t have to look any further than Penn’s campus to find it. Every year the nice spring weather brings preachers to locust walk who call on us to leave behind our secular academy because it’s leading us on the road to damnation.
Also, I went to the religion section of the Penn Bookstore to see what kind of Christian books it had. Here are a few of the ones I found: Proof of Heaven, My Journey to Heaven, Flight to Heaven, Heaven is for Real (Now a Major Motion Picture), Touching Heaven, To Heaven and Back, and finally Getting to Heaven: Departing Instructions for Your Life Now.

My dad likes to call this fire-insurance Christianity because even if everything goes wrong in your life - if your metaphorical house burns down - you have the promise compensation after death. The story of fire-insurance Christianity goes like this: God created the world. Then God made humans. And after about two minutes we started sinning, and we haven’t stopped since. Sin is bad because it separates us from God so we can’t get into heaven. So God sent God’s only son to earth to receive the punishment for our sins. Now, if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, our sins are forgiven and we go to heaven when we die.

You’ve probably heard that story or something like it before. The thing that I notice every time I hear it is this: there is no resurrection in it. The story wraps itself up nicely. You could tack a resurrection on at the end, but it’s more of a happy afterthought than a major turning point in the plot. My dad might call this fire insurance Christianity. Karl Marx called it the “opium of the masses.” But I prefer to call it “God is dead” theology. By “God is dead” theology, I don’t mean that God is literally dead, but that God is trapped beyond the veil of death, powerless to intervene in the affairs of this world. In “dead-God theology,” Christianity is also dead. Christianity is dead in two ways. Christianity is dead because it deals almost exclusively with things that happen after we die. But Christianity is also dead because it fails speak to the suffering and injustice of this world. And religions die when they are no longer capable of telling the truth about our lives.

This is what Harper Lee was talking about in To Kill a Mockingbird when she wrote that, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hands of another. There are some kind of men who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one.” The important thing I want to tell you tonight is that Jesus’ resurrection disrupts this narrative. Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. But Jesus’ resurrection is a new beginning. And when we embrace that new beginning, it challenges us to change not only how we think about Christianity, but how we live our lives.
So let’s go back to the original Easter morning, some two thousand years ago. The disciples are scared. They are hiding in a room in Galilee and they are scared. You see they had left behind their jobs and their families and their lives to follow this revolutionary of love, Jesus. And they’ve seen him do some pretty amazing things. And they’re just starting to think that this guy might be the real deal. He might be the Messiah. But then he gets himself killed. The political and religious leaders of the day decided that they could not abide this Jesus guy or his message of love and justice. So they torture and kill him. And the disciples are scared because just as they were beginning to hope and believe, the light of the world was snuffed out. They were scared because they were not in on the divine secret. A secret that would turn the world upside down. So on the very first Easter, under the cover of darkness, Mary Magdalene and two disciples visit the tomb where Jesus is buried. To their surprise and horror, they find the tomb open and the body missing. Who could have done this to their God?

Two of the disciples leave but Mary stays behind to mourn. And it is precisely at this moment, in the darkest hour, on the darkest day that Jesus appears. Not dead, but alive. Not a ghost but a flesh-and-blood human body. The very same human body he was born and buried with. The body that carries the wounds of crucifixion. Mary becomes the first disciple to “get it.” The world is different than she thought. Life and death are different than she thought. The Christian story itself is different than she thought. Because Jesus is back. Life has conquered death. But Jesus is not content to stay there. He tells Mary to go tell others the good news. I’m used to hearing this phrase often but it’s worth repeating over and over again: In a time when a woman’s testimony is not even admissible in the court of law, Jesus picks Mary to be the world’s first evangelist. Mary is the first Jesus-follower entrusted with the Easter-secret. And shortly after, the rest of the disciples receive the Easter-secret as well. Because the Easter secret is too good to keep to ourselves.

The Easter-secret is this: This world matters to God. You matter to God. Your body matters to God. This city matters to God. All people - from every corner of the Earth -  matter to God. Black Lives matter to God. The people of this world matter so much to God that anything that stands in the way of the full dignity of their humanity also matters to God. Therefore white-supremacy matters to God. Poverty and homelessness matter to God. Violence and war matter to God. Relationship abuse matters to God. Homophobia and transphobia matter to God. Sexism against women matters to God. Imperialism and colonialism matter to God. And the increased xenophobia and islamophobia that we’re seeing in this country, particularly from Donald Trump, also matters to God.

After Jesus did his work on the cross, he came back to this world because this world is important to God. And what is important to God should be important to us. Christianity does not end with the promise of heaven, it begins with that promise. It is not simply the promise that we will see heaven we die, but that we will see it before we die. That is “God is alive” theology. This is the Easter-secret.
When Jesus came back from the dead and revealed himself to his disciples, he was letting them in on the divine secret. And we, two thousand later, follow in the footsteps of those disciples. We are in on the secret too. In I Corinthians, Paul says that we are coworkers with God. But tonight I would prefer to call us co-conspirators with God. Something is happening in the world. It started on the cross but continues to this very moment. It began with Jesus but continues in us. We are conspiring with God to build heaven on Earth. In many ways, this puts as at odds with the pattern of this world. But we as Christians reject domination in favor of love. And we reject injustice in favor of liberation because we are called to follow the example of Christ instead of the ways of oppression. So we are conspiring with God to build a new world inside of this one. That world is the kingdom of God.

Put another way, The resurrection of Jesus is still going on. The work is started but it is not finished.
Jesus was restored to life on Easter morning but there are communities around the world and in this city waiting for restoration. What does resurrection look like for ongoing generations of families forced into poverty and homelessness? What does resurrection look like for those who have experienced abuse at the hands of the church? What does resurrection look like for Syrian refugees? What does resurrection look like for the people of color who live in constant fear of police brutality? We are agents of the resurrection. We are conspiring with God to build life where there is only death. In an empire where death and domination are the norm, we pledge our allegiance to a different world order. Because we know the Easter-secret. God is bigger than death. Death itself is dying. Christ is arisen!

One of my favorite things about Jesus’ resurrection is that it doesn’t just happen once. Jesus keeps coming back. He keeps bursting into the lives of his followers at the least expected moments. And if I may be so bold, I would say that Jesus continues to burst into the world and disrupts business as usual. That is my prayer for you tonight, that you would encounter Jesus in new places and at unexpected moments, in ways that bring love and justice and draw the world a little closer to the kingdom of God.

Monday, March 21, 2016

"Just as I am" - Catalina Mullis

Yesterday I came across this quote on my way to Old City:

"Go and love someone exactly as they are. And then watch how quickly they transform into the greatest, truest version of themselves. When one feels seen and appreciated in their own essence, one is instantly empowered." ~wes angelozzi

Wes' words instantly struck a chord with me because they reminded me of the transformation that I went through when I rediscovered Jesus at the Christian Association. 

Before entering that place, I always thought of Jesus as a God that did not love me as I was. Instead, I thought He saw me as a creature tainted by sin, one that needed to be reformed through punishment and guilt. I was afraid of Jesus and to be honest, I didn't really like Him very much. It really just didn't seem like it would be all that fun to be His child if I was constantly going to be reminded that I wasn't good enough to actually receive His love. 

But when I joined the Christian Association, I discovered a Jesus that loves me as I am. I discovered a Jesus that accepts every part of me, that thinks that I am beautiful, and that wants me to be whole. I discovered a Jesus that views sin as the injustice that permeates our world, not as an innate condition of humanity, and as something that can and should be restored now. I discovered a Jesus that invites me to follow His example; to privilege the marginalized, to oppose systemic inequality non-violently, and to rely on community as my strength in this process. 

When I discovered that Jesus, when I learned that Jesus appreciated me in my own essence, I was instantly empowered, I was instantly sold on Christianity, and I never looked back.

"Martha's Tale" by Megan LeCluyse

Sermon given March 16, 2016
Scripture John 11:17-27

Mary has always been the one of us who truly gets it, who understands what ultimately matters. It makes me envy her actually, in the way the siblings always envy the parts of their brothers and sisters they wish they had. I’ve always been the responsible big sister, the one who would take care of all the practical things. Mary is always in the present moment, she’s thoughtful and smart, but maybe a little too willing to go wherever the Spirit leads her, though this means she is truly led by the Spirit, who guides her to sit at the feet of our Savior.

I’m Martha, by the way. It’s wonderful to be here with all of you, to tell you about the experiences, challenging, tragic, and wonderful, that Mary and our brother Lazarus and I had with Jesus. You probably know us best from the story that Luke told, the story of Mary and Martha. We had been following Jesus and his teachings as best we could, when one day we received word that he was soon to be arriving in town! We figured that of course we should invite him to our house. Now, we tended to keep things in order, but you know, there is always work to be down to keep things picked up. And this wasn’t just any guest we were about to host. I mean, what were we going to feed him? And not just Jesus, but his disciples as well. “Was there enough food in the house?” I wondered. I got to work straight away, but before I knew it, he arrived, and there was still so much to be done, plus they brought in a whole new wave of dust with them. Mary had been helping, don’t get me wrong, but as soon as Jesus arrived, she just went and sat by him, listening. This was quite bold of her, I thought, sitting in a place normally only a man would sit in. I kept right on working, the work had to get done right? And I was listening to the conversation as much as I could. But after awhile, I started getting frustrated, here I was doing all the work while Mary acted just like the guests. But when I mentioned this to Jesus, who spent so much time teaching us how to live, he responded that Mary had the better way figured out! He gently asked why I was distracted and worried by so many things, while my sister had the one most important thing figured out.

I tried to change, to be less worried about the daily tasks of life and pay more attention to my faith and trying to just learn from Jesus. Some of the time we were able to follow him, and watch and listen to what he did and said. I tried to trust him and what he taught us. We got to know him pretty well, he came by our house when possible, and we enjoyed the fellowship and laughter that we shared. A year or so after that first dinner, our brother Lazarus, who is between Mary and I age-wise, took seriously ill. We had seen Jesus heal others, and Jesus and Lazarus were close, so Mary and I sent Jesus a message telling him that the one whom he loved was sick. One of the disciples later told me that when Jesus heard the message, he said something that at the time seemed fairly cryptic, something about this illness not leading to death but to the glory of God. You see, at the time it did not make sense because Lazarus died. Jesus had stayed where he was for a couple days more, and by the time we received word he was coming, our brother had died four days earlier. We had even performed the ritual of opening the tomb on the third day to confirm that he was dead. Family and friends were at the house with us, mourning. When they were close enough, I left to go meet Jesus, but Mary did not want to go with me – I think part of her was hurt that Jesus had not come more quickly. I felt that too, but I also felt that a miracle was still possible, and so I told Jesus this. Jesus told me he is the resurrection and the life, and asked if I believed this. I did, with all of my being. I went and told Mary that Jesus wanted to see her, and she came, tears still streaming down her face. As she approached Jesus, she once again sat at Jesus feet, this time saying had Jesus come, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus began to cry, too, and asked where he had been buried. Then he asked that the stone be rolled back. Now, I told you I’m working on the whole trust thing, because while I trust Jesus, I couldn’t help but exclaim that our brother had been dead for four days, and if they rolled back the stone, the stench would be horrible! Jesus reminded me of what he had said, that he is the resurrection and the life, and he raised our brother from the dead. Even now it’s hard to believe!

Unfortunately, you don’t raise somebody from the dead without making some people suspicious of you, people who were already looking for a way to get rid of Jesus. They feared that the way people were now following Jesus might upset the Romans, and there were rumors spreading that they were going to try to have him killed. Jesus and his disciples went to Ephraim, and then, six days before Passover, came to our house one last time for dinner. We all sensed it would be the last time, felt it in our gut. But we also wanted to make the most of it, and so, as had happened in times before, I prepared a meal and served the dinner, though this time I was not stressed or anxious, but present to the moment. Lazarus sat at the table with them, and Mary, once again, fell at Jesus’ feet. This time was different though, this time was about what she could give to Jesus. After Jesus had raised Lazarus, we felt we wanted to do something to express our gratitude and sheer amazement, so we had bought some nard, a very expensive perfume. Mary now took the nard, and poured it over Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with he hair.  I could see in his face that evening that Jesus knew what lay before him, and this act of love, which Jesus said was for the day of his burial, gave him a brief moment of being cared for, of being ministered to. Yes, it upset some of those there, who saw it as a waste of money, but it was an offering, an offering for someone who had given us so much and was about to give us so much more. And it was an anointing, of a man who was prophet, priest, and king, the man who was our savior. It was an incredible moment, one that I’ll forever remember, but it also was just that, a moment, one I could have so easily missed had I been more concerned about the evening’s chores as I once would have been.

When Jesus left, he was headed toward Jerusalem. But as we stood watching them go, Mary and I standing with out brother who had so recently been dead and was now alive, we knew that whatever might happen, with Jesus, death would not have the final word.

So I urge you to be present, present to the moment and to those you are with and who are around you. Be present when Jesus calls, and know that Jesus is with us always. Learn to serve Jesus, to love Jesus, to listen to Jesus, for in doing so, you’ll find yourself fully alive. Be present to this table, where God’s love in shared with us, but where we also celebrate our Savior, who laughed with us and cried with us. Be present to the this season of Lent that we are in, to the next days that lead to the cross, and be present to the one who is the resurrection and the Life, and the season of resurrection that will follow. Mary always got it, she has the gift of being present. I had to learn, but I learned that it makes life so much richer. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

"This Year for Lent" by Megan LeCluyse

Last fall, my sister came home from working at the orchard one day and suggested that we pick a month where we buy only local or fair trade food or items. As we were approaching Lent, we decided that would become our Lenten discipline. While we have by no means done it perfectly (ie things involving Penny don’t count), and while choosing this also has its own flaws, it has been a wonderful exercise, and created some great bi-products of living in this way:

  • Saturday mornings start out the way they normally do, taking Penny out for a walk, and then enjoying breakfast while catching up on Words with Friends or doing some reading. By 10 , we are ready to head out to do our food shopping. We’ll walk over three miles as we head to the Rittenhouse Square farmers market, and to Reading Terminal Market. It’s been great to get outside, do some walking, and spend time shopping for our food not in any kind of rush.
  • Since we now have been doing the bulk of our food purchasing once a week, more intentionality is required to determine what food we need for the week. We’ll actually do what all those articles suggest and plan out several meals for the week ahead of time. As a result, we have found that we not only waste less food , but have had less trash in general. We also have done a better job about using what is in the freezer or cupboard, instead of letting things sit there until they go bad. Plus, the food often tastes better. We just made our first batch of mashed potatoes from potatoes bought at the farmers market, and my comment was, “They taste earthy." 
  • We also have found that we are spending less money, and we aren’t even sure how or why! Maybe it’s because there are fewer trips to the store where you end up buying things you don’t need. I also can’t just hop online and buy that thing that looks cool. Overall, we’re finding that this is not more expensive, but is actually saving us money.
  • Physically, I’ve been feeling great! Now, to be fair, I’m also training for my first 10-mile race, and am probably in the best, or close to the best, shape I’ve ever been in. So that’s obviously part of it. But I also feel like the fact that I’m putting good food into my body is probably helping, too.
Yes, when Lent is over, we will lift the restrictions on what we can purchase, but I’m hoping will continue a lot of the practices we have established. As we are moving into spring and then summer, there will be a lot more fresh produce available! And it’s been good for us, both to think about our purchasing and buying habits and choices, but also to try to live a little closer to God’s creation, and enjoy the benefits that brings. I hope this Lenten season has brought something meaningful for you as well, whatever that might be.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Reflections on the Spring Retreat by Daniel Yan

Over the weekend of Feb.12th, the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania went to the Poconos Mountains for its annual winter retreat. We left campus at 7:30pm and arrived at the retreat house around 10pm.
                  Leaving the overwhelming University City is always refreshing because it reminds you that there is something on Earth that is other than Huntsman, Van Pelt or Smokes.
                  During the retreat, as the retreat theme stated, we had a lot of discussions about what it means to relax with God and to live freely and happily following God’s guidance. However, implementing them in life is way harder than you think. We are always carried away by the materialistic things in this world.  And most of time we are chasing after those things not because we are selfish, but because we were born with responsibilities. We have seen our family members sacrificing their dreams and money so that we can chase ours. It will be hard to choose when your responsibilities are not resonating with God’s calling.  When that time comes, please pray and open your ears up to God, and listen to what he thinks you should do. As Scott said during the discussion, “Mother Teresa’s life is not for everyone.” For most of us, committing our entire life to love and help people is not a feasible option but that is not the only way you can help to make this word a more loving place. Tell your family that you love them every day; ask the people walking next to you how they are. Anything counts and everything matters.
                  Another discussion I felt mind blown was when Catalina and Arianna brought up that no matter how many times they try to help others, they never felt satisfied afterwards. In mother Teresa’s 1971 Nobel Peace Prize reception speech, she said, “And we read that in the Gospel very clearly - love as I have loved you - as I love you - as the Father has loved me, I love you - and the harder the Father loved him, he gave him to us, and how much we love one another, we, too, must give each other until it hurts.” I guess it is pretty self-explanatory that’s why someone has never felt satisfied after helping others. It also works with everything else in the world that fulfilling satisfaction is never together with comfort. As to whether we should commit our life to finding this particular satisfaction, as discussed above, is another story.

                  Every time I walk into the Christian Association house and see the slogan of “At the CA, you get to be whoever the heck you are,” I can’t help think of how blessed I am to be around this diverse, engaging community which, instead of telling you what is right, constantly guides you to find the truth. The Christian Association is showing the campus that you can have it both ways this time – your faith and your identity.

"Abiding to Bear Fruit" by Megan LeCluyse

Sermon given February 24, 2016
Scripture: John 15:1-17

This passages is normally separated into two chunks, one being verses 1-8, the other being 9-17. In some ways, this makes sense, because there is a ton of stuff here, and there is absolutely no way to touch on it all, even if we only were to look at half. So just so you know, we aren’t going to talk about the branches that get removed, but there is a lot we can discuss there later if you want. It involves digging into some horticultural learning about vines and what it means to tend vines. Good stuff actually, and yes, it is a vine the passage talks about, like what grapes grow on, and not a tree, which is what I tend to picture in my head. And while will talk about what it means to love one another, we’re also not going to dig into Jesus saying, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” But, it is important to know that this whole speech happens while they are gathered for the Last Supper. We’re reading in John, so two chapters earlier, at this same meal, Jesus had washed the disciples feet, which was normally a servant’s task. Jesus has shown his disciples and friends that he loves them. There is so much here, and it is so rich, we could go in any number of directions. But what we are going to focus on, and why we read this whole passage, is what does it mean to abide in Jesus, and how this is absolutely necessary if we are going to be able to bear good fruit and truly love one another.

Jesus makes it clear that we are meant to abide in him, and there is no way around that this means making time for Jesus and God in our lives. Jesus doesn’t specify what this looks like, but that it is critical to our ability to bear good fruit. Using the vine metaphor Jesus uses hear, in order to produce fruit, the branches literally have to be connected to the vine, or they die. And this will probably look like a whole bunch of different things for each of us, from prayer, to worship, to serving, to retreating from normal life to be with God, it can and does look like a lot of things, and part of that is because abiding in God provides us with many different things. We abide in Christ to find rest, which was part of what we talked about at our retreat this past weekend. We looked at Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus says, 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” When we abide in Jesus, we are given rest, a chance to trade in a heavy yoke for one that is light and easy. But we also abide in Jesus because in doing so, we are challenged, challenged to live into who God wants for us to be, challenged to not be complacent about the injustices of the world, challenged to live life as a disciple of Christ. When we abide in Christ, we are able to be sure of our identity as Children of God, and we have knowledge of who we truly are. Sure, we will experience seasons of doubt, and even dark nights of the soul, but even in the midst of those we can seek to abide, to rest, to dwell, to live in and with Christ. 

The passage tells us that if we abide in Christ, we will bear much fruit. And this is true. When we live into the life that Jesus offers us and calls us to, we enter a space in which we can thrive, in which as Frederich Buechner said, our greatest passion meets the world’s deepest needs. Jesus also commands us to live one another. Which is, in many ways, what makes life worth living, have community, family and friends, and even strangers, who we are called to love. But we all know that while fulfilling, this also is demanding, and requires energy, patience, strength, service, a willingness to put others ahead of ourselves, or to lay down our life for a friend. That’s not always easy to do, and in fact, we can’t do it on our own. Loving one another is part of the fruit that we bear, and that we can produce only when we remain close to the vine. There’s a poem by poet Ann Weems, talks about living love, and what it really looks like.  She writes:
“Living love is a complicated, painstaking, patient path.
An all-the-time, every time, watch-where-you’re-going
    Living love means making decisions all day long to
        Living love means patience with those who don’t
        care about living love,
            Living love means watching our words
            as well as our actions,
                Living love means treating others as we
                ourselves want to be treated,
Living love means not hitting back,
    Living love means loving our enemies,
        Living love means loving those who speak all
        manner of evil against us.
And these things are just the beginning of living Love.

Living Love means forgiving, means forgetting,
    Living Love means there is no room for
        Living Love means being the people of God
a community of those who love one another
and who love all the one anothers that God created.
            Living Love means understanding those
            who hate.
Living Love means going into all the world and telling
    God’s story.”

This living love she describes isn’t going to be easy, but it is what God calls us to. And we can only do so when we abide in Jesus, who gives us the strength to do so. So may you abide in the vine, and be branches that bear good fruit. Amen.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"Struggling with Religion" by Scott Sprunger

“What religion are you?”

That’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I can count. And I’ve asked it myself once or twice as well. Sometimes, among Christians, we ask each other “What denomination are you?” as though by naming the particular historical group in which you find yourself, you are naming something deeply true about your identity.

I’ve answered this question many times. I tell people that I’m a “Christian” (and I tell other Christians that I’m a “Mennonite”). But more often than not, it feels like a lie. Because there are a lot of ways I don’t feel at home in a “Christian” identity.

I much prefer the question, “What religion do you struggle with?” To that, I can unequivocally respond, “Christianity.”

There is some gravity to Christianity that I can’t ignore. Sometimes I hate it and sometimes I love it. I was born in a Christian family. I attended church, and Sunday school, and church camps, and conventions, and youth group meetings. At times in my life when my belief system would best be described as “Agnostic” or “Atheist,” I still took comfort in Christian rituals and hymns and traditions. Sometimes I attended church just to be around warm, caring people. Even when I had left Christianity behind, I still remained in its orbit.

Since then, I’ve made the return trip to Christianity. And sometimes I really miss the warm nostalgia I experienced in my agnostic days. There are times when I can’t stand church and church people. There are days when I want to wash my hands of organized religion altogether. Jesus and I can go off to our own private island, just the two of us. But I know it doesn’t work that way.

When I believe in God, I am also placing my belief in the church. I’m placing my belief in the idea that complex, messy people from all stations in life can come together and follow Jesus by making positive change in the world. So to believe in God also means to hope. But hope comes with the risk of vulnerability. To hope means to look at the world as it is and imagine what it could be. But the churches I’ve known have rarely lived up to the dream that hope has given me the power to imagine. And when that happens, it is a powerful reminder that the dominant social order is often more powerful than our ability to imagine a better world.

One such moment was last summer, when my denomination voted to make permanent a temporary agreement that aimed at excluding LGBTQ people, as well as silence all dialogue on the issue for four more years. As a gay Mennonite, I have often struggled over questions about whether I can be loved and welcomed by the religious community that raised me. To be honest, I still don’t know the answer. After that vote, I thought that I may have lost the strength to remain in a religious community.

What is the virtue of daring to hope? Of loving something so much that you are willing to struggle against it? For me, giving up on Christianity is the same thing as giving up on hope. And for some reason, God will not let me give up on hope. The Bible is filled with stories of hopelessness. Of marginalized people who see no way out of an oppressive social order. Then God intervenes. God breaks the rules. God tells the truth. God delivers hope in the midst of hopelessness. God is a God of hope.

I can’t give up on Christianity because I need to help move it (and I need it to help move me) toward a better reality. A reality of love, and of liberation, and of hope. There are days when I’m not sure I can call myself a “Christian.” But I can always honestly say that “Christianity” is the thing I choose to struggle with.

"Bread of Life" by Peter Hawisher-Faul

Sermon given on February 17, 2016
Scripture: John 6:35-51

The crowd that Jesus is speaking to followed him hoping he would perform another miracle. The day before, Jesus used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed five thousand people. Then Jesus snuck away from the crowd, walking on water to join his disciples on a boat.  Jesus and the disciples went to the other side of the local sea, but the crowd got in boats and followed Jesus the next day. They were looking for another miracle, maybe some more bread and fish, but Jesus doesn’t give them another miracle. Instead, he says “I am the bread of life.” “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus is saying, you think want bread, you think you want a miracle, but what you are really looking for is me. Jesus feeds people not just for their survival, but that they might know the Creator through the Son.
Here at the CA, a lot of people first come for the food and community. People hunger and thirst for food and fellowship, but that alone will not satisfy our desire to know God and our place in the world. We long for food and community for the sake of survival, but we also have many other needs that capture our attention. We might not be longing to see God feed five thousand people. We may be thirsty for God to show us a career path that will lead us to success and a meaningful impact on the world. We may be hungry for a sense of belonging in a community where our voices are recognized and heard. We may be looking for hope in a nation where power is misused. I think we all have miracles we pray for, ways that we want God to feed our hunger and thirst for life. When we pray “give us our daily bread,” it means much more than providing food for us to eat.
When we think of Jesus as the bread of life, it might be tempting to think of Jesus as spiritual food that fulfills disembodied needs rather than an answer to earthly problems. But I think it is no coincidence that Jesus says “I am the bread of life” the day after feeding bread to five thousand people. Jesus feeds people because he is the bread of life. Jesus cares for our hungers and thirsts, but they will never be satisfied. We will always be hungry for more. No matter how full or satisfying a meal is, we’ll still be hungry again in a matter of hours. It is not enough to find meaning by satisfying our own needs. We have to look beyond ourselves, toward the needs of others, and ultimately toward God. We were created by God and we will only find true fulfillment directly from God.
Jesus says he is the bread of life because as God’s son, only he can satisfy our existential need to find ultimate meaning in God. Jesus is saying that the only way our hungers and thirsts will truly be satisfied is if we understand our lives to be fulfilled in him. Jesus says that he will receive everyone his Father sends to him, he will never drive them away, and he will raise them up on the last day. In Christ our hunger is satisfied because it doesn’t have the last word. For as long as we live, we will have needs that we cannot survive without, but Christ calls us beyond our individual needs. Because Jesus is the bread of life, we can always come to Christ, we will never be turned away, and our lives will have meaning beyond our own needs. Jesus is “food” for us because he fulfills our needs, but unlike any other food the bread of life satisfies our eternal and existential needs.
This might seem pretty philosophical, but I hope to make clear that having faith in Jesus as the bread of life changes the way we approach our other needs. First, it puts our needs in perspective. Our hunger and thirst do not provide ultimate meaning beyond survival. Second, the bread of life uses our hunger and thirst to call us beyond our own needs. While hunger itself does not give our lives meaning, it make us aware of our dependence on God and each other, pointing us toward dependence on God. This is part of why Jesus feeds the five thousand, to call attention to what God has done. Jesus feeds people so that the crowd may see and believe that he is the bread of life. Jesus also compares himself to the manna that came from heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness. Just as manna sustained the people of Israel when nothing else could, Jesus, the bread of life, gives our lives meaning beyond our needs and limits. Our hunger for food shows our dependence on the earth, farmers, and the environment, each of them calling us beyond self-sufficiency and toward dependence of God in Christ.
Every Wednesday night at the CA we share an experience of what it means to receive Jesus as the bread of life. When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” he calls us from the meal we just shared to the meal we are about to share. Much like when Jesus feeds the 5000, we share a meal together. While this meal satisfies our hunger for food and community, the meal we had anticipates the meal we are about to have, communion, sometimes called the Eucharist which means “thanksgiving.” The Eucharist is a celebration of Christ as the bread of life, that Christ’s life was given for the world and we share in Christ’s life in gratitude. In gratitude, we give our lives for the world as an extension of Jesus’s work. This is why the church is sometimes called the body of Christ. Martin Luther once described eating the Eucharist like a wolf that devoured a sheep, but the sheep was so powerful that it turned the wolf into a sheep. The bread of life is food for us that turns us back toward the world that we might feed others.
As followers of Christ, we meet other’s needs, feeding the hungry as Christ did. Sometimes we feed the hungry on Wednesday nights, but we also look beyond our community. We may not feed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, but at the CA we serve at places like Broad Street Ministries and UniLU’s Feast Incarnate. When we feed others, we not only meet immediate needs but extend Christ’s invitation to receive the bread of life to others as we have received it from Christ.

Jesus said “I am the bread of life.” He is food for us and for others. He is food that satisfies a hunger for meaning that could only be satisfied by God. This calls us beyond our own needs into community as the body of Christ, turning our hungers and needs into symbols of desire for God.