Sermon June 7, 2020    “  A New Lens”    by Rev. June Fothergill

Scriptures:  Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Matt. 28: 16-20

   I celebrate zoom worship today!  I really like the cartoon of the woman in her pj’s and slippers walking down the aisle at a worship service.   It is good to laugh at ourselves, is it not? Like only last week I forgot what day it was- oh the confusion I can sow!   Yet this past couple weeks has also had its tough times. Besides the restrictions of dealing with a pandemic, we saw another killing of an African American man George Floyd by police and the protests and anger that ensued.  Today I want to talk with you about seeking a new lens for our ministries.   What do I mean by a lens?  Well, a lens is that we use to see our world and what we see guides our decisions.   I want to share a couple examples.

    You may have noticed the quilt hanging behind me these past few weeks.  It is a quilt that my son Joe received when he worked at Suttle Lake UMC camp.  When I was a youth church camp gave me and many of my generation a new lens on the meaning of church.  At camp we had a new experience of Christian community that we didn’t get at home church or school.  This experience gave me a deep sense of belonging and an experience of truly being made in the image of God.   I and many others received a new lens for what church could be.  

  Another example for me is the experience of zoom worship.  I started out thinking that the lens of my computer screen was adequate.   Finally, I have realized that what I see on my screen is not nescessarily what others experience.    I have now a new zoom lens! ( tee hee) 

    This idea of changing lenses is one that we see many times in scripture.  In fact the Genesis poem of creation we read today is one of those times.

        For the people of Israel this poem of creation gave them a new lens on the meaning of their lives and faith.  It connected them with all of the creation as a good work of God the Creator.  It told them that they – both male and female-were made in the image of God the creator and God saw and proclaimed that this was good!     This lens opened the door to new more equal relationships between men and women.  It provided a way to celebrate the connection between themselves and the rest of creation.  It was a poem that gave them assurance of their own worth and relationship with their creator.  All of these continue to resonate today as we seek to understand our relationship with God and each other.  It is a foundation for the work of justice and the fight against oppressive structures and institutions that I think the Hebrew scriptures gifted to the world.

   This week I listened to a Webinar from our NW Area of the UMC about the sin of racism.  Last Sunday, we talked a little bit about the vandalism done by some folks during the protests in Eugene and other places.  What this webinar did was invite me to listen to the experience and pain of five African American colleagues from our NW Area.   So I tried to listen with curiosity and openness.    One of the things I heard was the idea that we as the church need to have a new yet actually old lens for our ministries.  That is the lens of the experiences and needs of the people on the margins of our society, the poor, forgotten, discriminated against,  discounted, and those harmed by our culture’s attachment to whiteness as somehow “ better”.   

     Genesis creation poem shows us that this equity/ anti racist lens we are challenged to acquire is rooted in our scriptures and the best of our judeo christian culture.    We don’t work for a more just and equitable culture and society just because someone today says it’s a good idea, we work to understand and do it because it is at foundation “ who we are.”  People male and female, all of us made in the image of God our creator. What would it mean for our church to seek to learn how to have this new/ old lens?  Old because it is the lens of the Hebrew prophets  and Jesus concern  for those on the margins and New because it means turning away from our business as usual  white mostly middle class ways of thinking and acting.  What would it mean for our church to seek to learn how to have this lens? 

  1. I invite us to understand that this new lens is not about judging anyone as “ good” or “ bad”. It is not about making moral judgments about who is racist and who isn’t. Rather it’s about looking at culture and institutions and ministry through a new lens, in new ways.
  2. This new lens starts with listening. Listening to the experiences of people on the margins and to how they experience our own culture and institutions.  This can mean reading books like White Fragility or How to Be an Anti – racist.  It can mean stepping back from talking and listening instead, especially when in  groups that include people from the margins.  It can mean listening to our own experiences of our culture and becoming more self aware.   For example some/ many of us have messages from childhood that taught us to fear people of darker skin color.   Becoming aware of such messages helps us to make choices about them.       
  3. A new lens means pondering. Taking time to think about what we are doing in our ministry together and how it affects the people on the margins around us and those we cannot or do not yet see. For example, my friend Lynn Swedburg who works with disability rights in our UMC sent to me several articles that can help us understand better how what we do  and say can affect persons with disabilities.  I have to admit that reading them over made me ponder about some of my own practices and what I might be willing to change. 
  4. Finally, a new lens invites us to act in new ways. This is not always easy but after we have listened and pondered, it is time to try something new.   For example, I serve on the Board of CALC. One of the actions we decided to make was to have the majority of our Board members be people of color.  I believe it is an important action for CALC to commit to and work on as we seek to become an anti racist group.

     In my experience action means that we will make mistakes, we will run into what I call cultural bumps  or conflicts.  As one panelist in the webinar said, it is messy!   Yet, we know that learning new things takes practice  as Royce so wonderfully  said about our zoom worship.  

     For our congregation one of the marginalized groups we now interact with the most is people who struggle without housing.  We have acted by providing meals and before the pandemic restrictions, some safe community. Yet, we know that truly making their lives and concerns and perspective the lens for our ministry decisions is challenging. 

     Yet, to be honest I think that sitting down to eat with people in this situation almost every week for the past eight years has changed my lens.  When I see people living in the concrete colverts in the vacant lot across from my housing complex, I am glad they have a place out of the weather.  When I go to City Council meetings, I watch what they do with the housing crisis in mind.  We started Ann’s Heart because we heard the cries, quite literally of homeless women.  The difference is that my lens today sees homeless persons as persons with stories and gifts and ideas and foibles and a culture different from my own.    Has the ministry with unhoused people changed our lens at Ebbert?  How is God challenging us to keep learning and discovering the new / old lens of equity and justice?    

      I want to close remembering Jesus and another example of a new lens.  In  Matthew 28. Jesus says,  “Go therefore to all nations teaching them all that I taught you and baptizing them. And low I am with you always till the end of the age.”   Jesus said this to all his disciples even those who doubted.  How patient he was!   He told them that the good news of his resurrection and his teachings, his baptism was for all people- there was no privileged group or any group to be left out.  From the beginning the church was given an equity lens!  His teachings were about love of others and even enemies, his actions were  to welcome and include even the outcasts of his society, his death was for all of humanity, his spirit connected disparit people together, overcame divisions of society, and creates a new beloved community.  In the midst of troubled times, in the midst of all our differences, Christ invites us to let the Spirit lead us and show us the new/old lens for our ministries together.     

       Finally,  I have a photo from National Geographic of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.   Some of you may remember that  there used to be a large statue of the Buddah in a grotto on carved into the side of a hill.  Some years ago the Taliban in a fit of fanatical rage destroyed the Buddhist image. It was an act of hatred that destroyed a priceless piece of religious art.  It was an image I was supposed to visit when I travelled in Asia in 1978 but was unable to visit. Now I will never see it.   So why did I keep this picture in a frame and hang it on my home office wall?   Well for me it is an example of a new lens.   The emptiness of the grotto could be and is a reminder of hatred and the violence it can inspire.  But the grotto is now empty and for me this also inspires other thoughts. This place remains a sacred spot. Because the grotto is empty it reminds me of the emptiness of  Christ’s tomb which brought resurrection. It reminds me of the emptiness of detachment from hatred  that in Buddhism brings enlightenment, it reminds me of the emptiness of a heart which surrenders only to Allah in Islam which brings compassion.  In other words the empty grotto is a new lens for me.  It reminds me that the way we overcome hatred and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves is by being open to seeing, pondering and acting a new.  To let a new lens  Ok a new old lens from God teach us the way.

Sermon  June 21 2020  Taking Care of Family by Rev. June Fothergill   

Scriptures:  Genesis 21: 8-21; Matthew 10: 24-39

     It seems like during this pandemic that family time is either feast or famine.  I see my husband and sons everyday but haven’t seen my mother except on zoom in months.   George Burns once quipped, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” ( p. 121 An Encyclopedia of Humor ed. Lowell D. Streiker.) 

     Family has many meanings for many people.  When Jim and I lived in Portland, we took a class called Cross cultural Communication.  In it we discovered that people from different cultures have different definitions of family.  They may use the word family but mean something very different than I do. We  discovered how hard it is to truly communicate well across cultures- almost impossible. I decided after that class that it was only through the work of the Holy  Spirit that cross cultural communication was even possible.   

     So as we read the passages from scripture this morning, it is good to realize that we are listening cross culturally.  Both passages come from different cultural contexts from each other and from our own.  For example- how many of you have been in a household with more than one wife?  Yet, that was a common family configuration in Abraham’s time.  Or how many  women listening this morning got married and went to live with their mother in law?  The relationships in the family that are described in the Matthew passage do not nescessarily correspond to many of our 21st century experience. 

     So with all that in mind, I ask myself- what is the human condition that these passages are dealing with?  Is there, despite the cultural differences some common ground? 

     One thing I notice is that Jesus is inviting his disciples into a new family, a family with a wider scope than the traditional families of his and the gospel’s day.  In Abraham’s case, God is being clear that he still considers Hagar and Ishmael part of  God’s family.  Jesus and  Hagar’s story invite us to have a broader understanding of who matters in our lives.  For Jesus the immediate family circle was too narrow.   AS he says, Anyone who follows me and does God’s will- that is my family. 

   Many years ago  our  Annual Conference Commission on Religion and Race had a training program called the  Green Circle. It was geared for children but was interesting to do with adults.  Children for the most part had little trouble realizing that their circle grew as they grew up. And that they decided who to add to their circle of friends and family.   Most of them could also empathize with what it felt to be left out of the circle and how important it was to welcome people into their circles.  It was interesting to me that when I did this pretty simple program with adults they  wanted to complicate it. Some  wouldn’t take responsibility for the choices to welcome or not people into their circle, some of them looked for excuses to exclude.   Jesus said to us that we needed to be like a child to enter the Kingdom of God- a child open to growing ones circle of love and family.

      A second thing I notice in both passages is the reality of conflict in human relationships.  The narrative in Genesis does not spare us the reality of conflict within the family of Abraham.   And it leads to a mother and child abandoned in the wilderness.  In Matthew,  Jesus tells his disciples specifically that  following him can lead to conflict within families.  Of course when we have loyalties beyond the immediate family, this can cause  tensions and conflict in the immediate family. Especially if this means a shift in the power dynamics of the family.   If you say to a patriarchal father,  I have a  loyalty to a father/ person God greater than you.  He just might get upset!   The gospel writers are simply saying that following Jesus can bring family tensions and conflicts. 

     I grew up in a family that avoided conflict whenever possible. Well, at least the conflict that came from strong emotions like anger and jealousy.   Around our dinner table conflict was to be about ideas and argumentation.  My father sat in the middle of this, calmly playing “ devil’s advocate” when his oldest daughter got too sure of herself.  What about this he would ask me, bringing up another point of view. That kind of conflict was ok. But the kind of conflict where people would get really angry and hurt one another.   Well, that we avoided.  Only much, much later in life did my father admit to me that part of his stoicism was not just that good old northern European reticence, but that his father had abused his mother when he was growing up- and he didn’t want to be that way!  And he wasn’t.   

    I am still learning that conflict and emotions like anger don’t mean the end of the world. That conflict is part1 of human life and intimate relationships.    The Bible is not afraid of conflict and in a sense,  I find myself invited to be less afraid myself.   Jesus says in Matthew  “  So don’t be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”  

     I notice also that the conflict described in the Bible is about issues of power.  Hagar is thrown out of her home because Sarah perceives her and her son as a threat.  Abraham is reassured by God that God will look after them but Abraham doesn’t show  them much support- he could have set them up in another household or at the very least  given them more food and water.   Hagar’s suffering is not overlooked by the narrative.  Her trauma reminds us of the suffering that can happen when we abuse and misuse power.   In Matthew,  the conflicts within the family that Jesus outlines all have to do with power relationships.  The son and the father, the daughter and the mother, the daughter in law and the mother in law. In each case the younger, less powerful person is not submissive but in conflict with the more powerful person. Could it be that the work of God in Jesus to liberate the oppressed could even affect  oppressive family systems?    

     Jesus invites us to a new way of looking at power and control when he follows this passage about family conflicts with the words,  vs. 39 “ Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will fine it.”     What does it mean to lose ones life?  To let go of the ways we have been in power and control?  Or submissive and silent?  What if God has another third way for us? The way of Christ where we build a beloved community that starts with humility and equity? 

    One example of this would be the way of CAHOOTS. As many of you know we in this community are fortunate to have a group called CAHOOTS which provides an alternative to the police when someone is in a mental health  crisis or just needs some TLC in order to go on about life.  They are trained in mental health triage, de escalation and  first aid.  Those of us who have helped at Egan or at our meals know that sometimes unfortunately  a police presence can  escalate  a conflict situation. The police represent a certain kind of “ gun toting “ power. But CAHOOTS’s emphasis is de escalation and seeking to understand the needs someone has.    What difference could it make to increase their kind of presence in our community and others across the nation?

     Finally,  these passages invite us to humbly realize that families come in lots of forms and configurations, even in the Bible and certainly in our lives and communities.  This array of ways we form our intimate relationships can be confusing sometimes.  Yet, I think it is rather liberating to realize that there isn’t just one kind of family in the Bible. Rather the Bible shows many.  Jesus in his statements about family reminds us not to put family on a pedestal  or as an idol.  Jesus invites us to put first our relationship with God.  Will this mean we always get it “ right?”  Well, like with Abraham, we will have our moments  and difficult choices.  Yet, Jesus suggests that putting first God and God’s ways or Kingdom, then the beloved community can be formed. Then we can learn how to love each other as Christ loved us.

    For, what matters in the Bible is how people treat each other, whatever the configuration.  When the second slave wife is thrown out, the Bible tells her story too. For Jesus and Paul, the family they had growing up may not become the most important family for them as adults.  What matters according to Jesus is the love and respect, the hospitality with which we treat one another.     He closes this discourse in Matthew this way, “ Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward and whoever welcomes a  righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple- truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.”  ( 10: 40-42)

   Could it be that Jesus is inviting us to form families- close relationships less about control and power and more about a welcoming spirit for all. In the midst of all the conflicts, Jesus sees the Beloved Community that flows from a loving God as POSSIBLE.

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