Bible, Justice, Sermon

i can’t do this without you: a sermon on james 5:13-20

I preached this sermon on Sunday, September 27th at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC.

Prayer: O God who continually loves us, I am grateful. I am grateful that no matter how we’re feeling, you stay the same. I am grateful at your faithfulness even when we’re not faithful. May your spirit linger in this place and may our hearts hunger after your Word. In Christ’s name, Amen.

Over the years I’ve been part of several denominations, but the one service I attended faithfully until I moved to Philadelphia was a Wednesday Evening Prayer Service. It was a combination of testimonials, hymns, prayers, and something like craigslist. Once I needed a stove, mine was beyond repair, and I didn’t have the money to buy a new one. After I raised my concern, an older couple said they had an extra one in their garage that worked just fine. Other times folks who needed to go to doctor’s appointments would ask those in the service for a ride and rides were offered. That service embodies today’s passage from James.

In the final verses of James’ letter, he spells out what community looks like. He writes, “Are any among you suffering?” “Are any cheerful?” “Are any among you sick?” He implicitly assumes that the answer to these questions is yes. James knows members of communities do not act, feel, or even think in unison.

Because James knows this, after each question he offers a way one can act during the service. For those who are suffering hardships, pray. For those cheerful, sing a song. For those sick, and here James doesn’t give a short response, James writes that they should be anointed with oil and prayed over by the elders of the church. My interaction with these verses was present from birth until my preteens. I attended a church that had an anointing oil odor. And I, at least once a month, was anointed with oil, whether I was sick or not. Now I’m pretty sure this is not what James meant by anointing with oil.

So let’s segue into a quick history lesson into the world of ancient Israel and Judah. Anointing with oil was mainly meant for authority figures. Some prophets were anointed and most kings were. It set them apart. Even the word Messiah and the Greek translation of the word Christ means Anointed One. One of my favorite anointing stories in the Hebrew Bible is when Elisha in 2 Kings 9 gave instructions to a younger prophet to anoint Jehu, who was a macho warrior. Elisha told him to find Jehu in this group of military people, separate him from the group, tell him that he’s going to be king over Israel, anoint him, and then run like hell.

Translating the Hebrew Bible idea of anointing as mainly for kings and prophets, this becomes very peculiar in James’ community. In essence, he’s saying it’s those who are ill in the community that should be treated with the dignity of dignitaries . It’s the ones who are losing their eyesight who should be queens and kings. It’s those who pray for their scabs, their diseases, and their depressions who are royalty among us. Except that’s not how sick people are treated. We hear more stories about people like Martin Shkriel who raised an AIDS and cancer drug from $13 a pill to $750, a 5000% increase.

Yet, in James’ community, healthcare was not based on who could afford it. It was based on who was present. It didn’t matter if you were wealthy, penniless, or somewhere in between. Those who were sick were treated with dignity, respect, and honor.

Through the rest of these verses, we hear a parallel notion about those who wander from the truth. The community is called to bring them back. To bring them back to where they can be themselves: happy, suffering, or sick.

Related, there is this strange little story in Galatians 2 where Paul calls out Peter. The story goes, Paul and Peter are eating together in Antioch with Gentiles believers. When some Messianic Jews from Jerusalem arrive instead of Peter continuing to eat with Gentiles, he eats exclusively with the Messianic Jews. Using the words of James, Peter wandered from the truth of the gospel and Paul called him out and brought him back.

What I’m trying to get at is this: Everyone belongs. Everyone belongs. No matter what. Yet, it’s not that simple.

Belonging to a community requires that we are honest with one another. We are upfront with how we’re feeling. Are any among us joyful? Are any among us indifferent? Are any among us struggling to find your voice?

And in this honesty, we become vulnerable. Sharing with the community our mistakes, our struggles, and our dreams. Are any among us regretting your past? Are any among us afraid of our future? Are any among us not ready to move on?

On the front of the bulletin, there’s a quote by Lilla Watson “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This, my friends, is community.
This, my siblings, is what James and Jesus are calling us to.
This, my friends, is the gospel.

May we open ourselves in being honest, truthful, and treat one another, especially those society deems the outcast, with love and dignity. Amen.

Later in the service, the congregation participated in prayer stations.

Prayer Stations

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#BlackLivesMatter, Justice, Sermon

leaving our nets behind: sermon on discipleship

[I preached this sermon last Sunday at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC. I’ve included the passage, prayer, and sermon. It was written between overnights at the shelter, a Student Senate Retreat, and supporting another friend who preached earlier that morning.]

Mark 1:14-20 NRSV
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fisherfolk.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John,
who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them;
and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

brick testament Jesus

Prayer: Oh God, we can be a stubborn people. We like things the way they are. We depend on being comfortable. But you, O God, search for us, and push us in directions that some of us would never have imagined. This morning, open us to hear a tender and vital word from you. We ask this in the name of the one who calls us to follow. Amen.

This past week has been exhausting, exciting, anxious-ridden, and surreal all at the same time. With Martin Luther King Jr. day, the start of classes, and the Emergency Shelter Network Annual meeting, it couldn’t be anything, but less. What I want to highlight is the Annual Meeting of the Emergency Shelter Network (ESN). It was held on the third floor of the Fifth Ave Presbyterian Church. 30 people were present, representing about 40 churches in the 5 boroughs. The deputy commissioner of Homeless Services shared some of the ways the city was helping house people, along with some overwhelming statistics, including that NYC in 1983 14,000 people were in shelters or on the street. In 2008, when ESN became a non-profit, 35,000 people were homeless, and the count in December 2014, our city has over 60,000 people without homes. After hearing these statistics, a hush swept through the room. A shelter coordinator piped up and asked, “Is anything we are doing actually alleviating poverty?” No answer was given that night. We moved onto other subjects and eventually spent the rest of time discussing ways to recruit volunteers. Because unless your church or synagogue that has over 1,000 members and hosts a shelter once or twice a week, you are probably scrambling to find people. Needless to say it wasn’t the most uplifting meeting I’ve ever been to. As I made the trek back to 1 train, I just couldn’t get out of my mind, the purpose of a volunteer.

Before I became the volunteer coordinator at Broadway Community, for years I volunteered at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. I volunteered because it made me feel good, which is how some of the other coordinators at the meeting told us to pitch it to those wanting to volunteer. “It will warm your heart to help those in need” and “build your resume.” Or even “just doing a little can go a long way.”

And with the backdrop of American Christianity, I can hear some of these same reasons for why one would want to call themselves Christian. “Follow Jesus, my friend. It’s easy; just say a prayer and you’ll be right with God.” Or “read your devotions in the morning, I do, and it’s like they last the whole day.” And often, this is how we read the discipleship stories. Jesus comes walking along this beautiful beach, happens to run into some fisher folk, calls out to them, “Hey, follow me.” It doesn’t take them a second to think about it and they’re following Jesus.

But reading our passage today, it seems more complicated than just Jesus moseying by the Sea of Galilee calling for disciples. Our passage begins with, “Now after John was arrested.” Let’s just have that sink in. In the ancient world, prisons were full of rabble-rousers, people who struggled economically, political prisoners, and those who didn’t abide by the Roman Empire. John the Baptizer fits all of those descriptions, as well, according to Mark, baptized Jesus forty days earlier. These are the kinds of people Jesus hung out with and even was baptized by.

Mark’s Gospel seems to point out that it was because of John’s arrest that Jesus’ ministry began. That there was sense of urgency.

And thinking about world history, there always seems to be something catastrophic that happens, that builds momentum for a movement. For us last year, it was the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner that lead to the movement Black Lives Matter. It happened in El Salvador in the 1970’s when Archbishop Oscar Romero’s dear friend was killed that he started to side with the oppressed. And it was the drought in the Caesarea in the 4th century, that St. Basil the Great emptied his barns, giving to those in need.

Jesus’ ministry starts in turmoil. During a time when everything wasn’t okay with the world. It wasn’t Bible Play Land, where the mountains are lush, the fishermen are always smiling, and Jesus’ hair is blowing in the wind.

John had been arrested and Jesus starts to proclaim the good news of God. Now we need to stop right here because in ancient Rome, this phrase good news was usually paired with Caesar, not God. The good news of Caesar included the Pax Romana, that if you didn’t assimilate to Rome’s ways you would be killed or enslaved. Additionally, it was written in several places in the Empire, “the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him; therefore let a new era begin from his birth.” These were the kinds of proclamations Jesus had to compete with. When we proclaim the good news of God, we are proclaiming that no person, nor political or economic system can hold a candle to God’s Realm. This is what Jesus is declaring.

Then Jesus exclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” God’s Realm is so close we can taste it. We saw a glimpse of it at Jesus’ baptism. God is ready to take reign of the world bringing true justice and equality. I get so excited by these words, “the kingdom of God has come near.” It fills me with hope, but Mark wastes no time. He immediately has us walking beside Jesus along the Sea of Galilee.

There we meet two sets of brothers who also happen to be fisher folk, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. But here’s the weird thing. Rabbis, in the ancient world, would not go after potential students. Rather, students would follow the Rabbis around, trying to gather as much wisdom and hopefully they would be included in the group too. As well, the disciples who usually followed Rabbis were fairly educated themselves. Jesus goes against the business as usual Rabbi and disciple relationship. He goes out of his way to find those who were as John Calvin called, “rough mechanics.” Jesus could’ve called anyone, but he chose those who were not the elite.

As Paul would later write in 1 Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

And in the case of fisher folk, they were nearly in the lowest class of society, the artisan class. The Roman Empire also made sure that they stayed there through heavy taxation to the tune of 80% of fish they caught. Those fish would then be dried and salted at a factory, which was owned by the Caesar at the time. Then the fish sold would contribute to the benefit of the Empire, never the fishermen.

I wonder some of the thoughts going through the brothers’ minds when Jesus asked them to the follow him. Were they happy to give up the family business to follow this stranger? Had they seen Jesus hang around John the Baptizer and assumed that he was one of the good ones? Or were they frightened, not knowing what would happen next. Scripture doesn’t say, but I can’t imagine it being an easy decision. Simon and Andrew left behind their nets. James and John left behind their father. Following Jesus changed the course of their lives.

In 2009, I read many stories of saints of old who after hearing the Gospel message gave everything away and dedicated their life to helping those in need. I felt that this was what it meant to be a disciple (and still do). So during winter break, I donated most of my clothes to the shelter, and kept two pairs of pants, five shirts, and one coat. Mostly because after reading the words of St. Basil the Great,

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes.”

I wanted to make sure that I wasted nothing. And there was something freeing about that experience. I felt closer to God and worried less about what to wear. A few months later though, I got a job at a Thrift Store and started to swap out clothes and things went downhill from there.

To follow Jesus, in a way, means to me to be less distracted. To not let petty concerns eat up your time.

We are not called to be volunteers for God’s Realm.
We are not called to add an hour or two a week to our lives, so that we can feel good.
Jesus disrupts our lives from the ordinary ebb and flow to an alternative way of life.
We are called to be disciples and to follow Christ wherever he may lead.
To leave behind those nets in our lives that hold us back from doing so. Whether that be our self-doubt, or anxiety about what others may think,
or that we do not feel worthy enough to do something like that.
Christ still calls over and over, yet never away from world, but into it.
May we listen to that call and leave our nets behind. Amen.

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Liberation Theology, Sermon, Spiritual

an epiphany sermon

This sermon was preached on January 4th, 2015 at The First Reformed Church of South River, NJ. 

McKenzie, Epiphany

A few summers ago, I lived at St. Joseph’s Catholic Worker in Rochester, NY. For those who do not know about it, the Catholic Worker was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930’s. They wanted to build a new society in the shell of the old. So they created houses of hospitality. Essentially, it consisted of a soup kitchen, shelter, community center–sometimes with a farm–all built into one. In Rochester, I was in charge of the clothing closet, meal tickets, and  laundry sign up sheet. When I wasn’t busy gathering toiletries or pants, I would sit, talk, and play card games with the guests. The work was exhausting, but inspiring and made me who I am today. Toward the end of that summer, I wanted to do something meaningful and very spiritual. So a few of us got together and planned to take a pilgrimage to a monastery 30 miles south of Rochester, called the Abbey of the Genesee. We knew about this place because they would donate bread to us every week. So on a Tuesday, after we were all done our shifts at 2pm, we began our pilgrimage walk to the Abbey. We took with us water bottles, flashlights, one cell phone, and a prayer book. Every other half hour we would walk in silence. By the time it hit 4:45am, we were all tired, worn out, and extremely cranky. We found some large boulders and rested there for a quick 10 minutes. When we got back up, I started to hum the lyrics Precious Lord Take my Hand, Lead me on, help me stand. I am tired. I am weak. I am lone. The others joined in. As we sang, it turned 5 o’clock, and we could hear the bells of the Abbey chime. We made it! Although, most of us had blisters on our feet, we started running. It was a joy to finally arrive to our destination on our pilgrim journey.

When I think of other pilgrims in Scripture, the Magi quickly come to mind. They travelled for months and not just for 15 hours as we did. When they arrived to Jerusalem, they assumed that they had made it, but later found out that they still had 6 more miles to go until Bethlehem, where the Messiah was born. Scripture doesn’t tell us the kinds of conversations the Magi had, but I’m sure there were some stressful ones. Some of them probably questioned if they really saw a star in the sky or if they were just delusional. I can imagine, since after 12 hours of being with the same people on the journey, you can start to wonder if you’re doing the right thing.

Last week, our Gospel reading from Luke was about the circumcision and celebration of Jesus as salvation enfleshed.
This week, we hear not of older men and widows, but of Magi.

The root of the word Magi means magic. In Acts, we read of Simon the Magician or Simon Magus in chapter 8, then another magician in the 13th chapter named Elymas. Translators in both cases either use the word magician or sorcerer. But when it comes to the birth story of Jesus, more often than not they’re called wise men. Or as we began our service, we sang “We Three Kings,” which is also just located in our Christmas imagination and not in Scripture itself. Because we don’t know how many Magi there were. But we can know by other translations that these were some kind of magicians or sorcerers, not kings or wisemen.

When they arrive in Jerusalem, they go straight to King Herod. And this makes total sense. Jerusalem is the seat of power. It has the Temple, the priests, the money, and this is where King Herod reigns. When the Magi show up, they were expecting to see the newly born King of the Jews.
But did the star take them to Jerusalem or were they just assuming this because this is where all the power comes from?
Did the star lead them there or were they questioning the star’s guidance?
Did the star guide them there or did they need to stop for directions because clearly the star is lost?
We’ll never know for sure, but there is something curious about them stopping in Jerusalem.

When the Magi shared with King Herod that they travelled so far to pay homage to the new born King of the Jews, Scripture says “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” Why was everyone frightened? Because this is not how thing are suppose to go. Kingship is about being born into the family line. When these foreign sorcerers came into Herod’s court and told him that someone other than his child was going to rule, he would’ve had the overwhelming feeling that he is no longer in control.

Immediately, King Herod gathers his court of the scribes and chief priests and asks, “Where is the Messiah to be born?” They answer by quoting the fifth chapter of Micah to Herod, saying that he was to be born in Bethlehem.
After Herod knows the location, he calls a secret meeting with the Magi to learn when they exactly saw the star appear in the sky. He then tells them that they should send word back to him so that he too could pay homage.

Once the Magi left Jerusalem, they could see the star before them again, guiding them to Bethlehem. Then like that, the star stops above the house, not manger, to where Jesus and his family were. The Magi were overwhelmed with joy.
After this extremely long journey, they finally get to see the Christ-child.
When they entered the house, little baby Jesus was with Mary. They bowed before him and offered him those traditional (baby shower) gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense.
A few verses later, we hear of Herod’s horrible act of the killing of the innocents, all males two years and younger. So I wonder with the information given to Herod by the Magi, if Jesus was a little over 1 year of age.
Maybe Jesus was already walking by the time the Magi arrived.

And if it was over a year since they saw the star and started to follow it, the Magi must’ve given up a lot.
They would’ve forfeited relationships with significant others.
They probably didn’t always have a roof over their heads to stay some nights.
They probably thought about using their gifts for the Christ-child to get their necessities, but didn’t.
In a sense, the Magi were one of Jesus’ first disciples.
As the bearded adult Jesus will say later in Matthew, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

This is exactly what the Magi did. And at the end of their journey, they received an Epiphany. Their journey was not in vain.

So what kind of journey are we willing to take this New Year?
One of my favorite Christmas songs is “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
In the last verse, we sing,
“What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man (or Magi), I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.”
Knowing that not everyone is called to take a pilgrimage, or bear gifts.
We are, although, all called to discipleship: to follow Christ
sometimes in the most uncomfortable situations
sometimes in bearing a friend’s burden although it might keep us up at night,
and sometimes in loving our enemies, even if we have never met them.
Let us make our New Year’s resolutions, alongside the Magi, to go deeper into discipleship wherever Christ may lead.

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