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Laughter’s Healing Art

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For June 14, 2020:Note: This installment is still being edited and assembled. For purposes of immediacy we are posting this for your use now with the understanding that any errors or omissions will be corrected between now and Tuesday afternoon.


Tom WilladsenLaughter’s Healing Art
by Tom Willadsen
Genesis 18:1-15 21:1-7

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Laughter is a possible response in an impossible situation. Take a break from the news for a while and marvel at the origin of Judaism and Christianity, the birth of laughter.

“Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. Laughter must be heard in the outer courts of religion, and the echoes of it should resound in the sanctuary….” — Reinhold Niebuhr

“The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence.... Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those that do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.” — Reinhold Niebuhr

In the News
Niebuhr makes it pretty clear, while laughter is important — and in this writer’s opinion underappreciated — faith is the better (only?) response to existential threats. There has been very little to laugh at in the news recently. Covid-19 and its effects on the economy have drifted into the background of the news cycle, like a deadly white noise, as the news of George Floyd’s death in police custody has sparked outrage, demonstrations and, in a few places, rioting.

There has been very little to laugh at lately. No, that’s not true, there has been much to laugh at, but little to laugh about. The prepositions are really important here; laughter is powerful.

In the Scriptures
The only place where laughter is a response to appreciating humorous incongruity in the Bible is the stories around the birth of Isaac. Ooh, sorry about that, I reverted to seminary-speak there. The only stories in the Bible where laughter comes at something funny are those around Isaac’s birth. For 15 years I’ve challenged church and civic groups to find another place in the Bible where laughter is a response to humor and no one has ever found one. The Bible never records Jesus as having laughed, though I’m pretty sure he rolled his eyes at the disciples a time or two. Jesus displayed a quick, even playful wit on occasion. He was laughed at (Luke 8:53), but the Bible never says, “Jesus laughed.”

Generally, in the wider world, not just in the Bible, laughter falls one of three categories.
  1. Laughter of derision, laughter at something. In Psalm 2, for example, the Lord laughs at the plans of mortals. In Proverbs 31 the woman of virtue laughs at the troubles of the day; they do not threaten her.
  2. Laughter as emotional release. Laughter and tears are related; they accomplish many of the same things. Laughing until one cries is a common experience; crying until one laughs is less common, but still real. Crying and laughing are both involuntary communication. One could say that tears and laughter are how we express emotion, passion, psychic energy. It feels good to have a good cry or to belly laugh. Both are often followed by sighing as our lungs seek to replenish air that we have exhaled from deep inside us.

    In the Bible laughter and tears are often presented in parallel, “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) and “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). There is little doubt that these texts informed Kevin Cronin as he penned “Oh I make you laugh and you make me cry/I believe it’s time for me to fly,” for REO Speedwagon’s 1978 hit, “Time for Me to Fly.”

    This is also the laughter of children at play or of running into an old friend unexpectedly. It may not be at anything, just a release of happy emotion.
  3. Laughter at something humorous. See the birth of Isaac.

    The story starts before today’s readings from Genesis, after God called Abram to leave Haran and head to Canaan in Genesis 12. In Genesis 17 God appears to Abram and Abram falls on his face in an attitude of worship. After changing Abram’s name to Abraham and imposing the requirement of circumcision on Abe’s descendants, God tells him that Sarah (formerly Sarai) will have a son and nations will proceed from their child. This time Abraham falls on his face in laughter. (Have you ever laughed so hard you lost muscle tone? It happens and it’s funny, but it can hurt too, depending on what one falls on.) Faith and laughter are thisclose together, just as Niebuhr suggests.

    In the today’s texts there are some interesting things happening. It’s not clear exactly who appears to Abraham at Mamre, but he welcomes the guests with appropriate—though non-kosher—hospitality. (Technically, curds, milk and calf weren’t forbidden until Leviticus.) The visitor(s?) tell Abraham again that Sarah will have a son. This time Sarah overhears the announcement and laughs to herself. Apparently the visitor heard her laugh and ask herself, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The pleasure she mentions may be that of sexual congress or of having a child; the text does not specify. The Lord seems upset by Sarah’s response and asks Abraham, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” The reading concludes with Sarah denying having laughed and God answering, “Oh yes, you did.”

    Let’s look at this in a larger context. What was the Lord doing 17 chapters earlier in Genesis? Back then, when God spoke things were created. Light, the sky, earth, animals, humanity, now the Creator is having an argument with an 89 year old woman and they sound like grade schoolers.

    Why did Sarah laugh?

    I did not laugh!

    Ya huh!

    Nu-uh!


    (This free translation of the original Hebrew will appear in the as yet unpublished “Book of Tom.”)

    It just goes to show how humanity can drag God down to our level.

The second reading from Genesis records the fulfilling of God’s repeated promise, Isaac is born and Sarah is filled with joy and says, “Everyone who hears will laugh with me!” (21:6) Abraham named their son Isaac, יצחק  Yitzak in modern Hebrew.

The story of Isaac’s joyous birth is followed immediately by an example of how threatening and powerful laughter can be. At the feast Abraham held in celebration of Isaac’s weaning, Sarah saw Isaac’s half-brother, Ishmael, the child Abraham had had with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, “playing” with his younger brother. The Hebrew verb for play is the same as the root for the name Isaac. It is as though Ishmael is trying to Isaac Sarah’s Isaac and she cannot stand that. She has Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael from the household. There is not enough laughter for Sarah to share.

In the Sermon
“It only take a spark to get a fire going,” when I went to church camp in the mid-70s we sang that song around our campfires. Last week in our nation there were fires burning in virtually every major city, reactions to and demonstrations against the death of George Floyd in police custody.  (“Death in police custody” is the preferred term used by news outlets. “Murder” is a crime of which one is innocent until proven guilty. I have used that term “murder” myself while preaching about Mr. Floyd’s death, while not technically correct I think I am merely premature, rather than inaccurate, in using it.)

Americans have expressed strong emotions on seeing the video of George Floyd suffocating under the knee of a police officer. It is horrifying and some have been traumatized and physically sickened by seeing this video. It comes mere weeks after the video of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery was released. That video and the subsequent developments in the legal case against the assailants took a little of the spotlight off Covid-19. Again, Americans felt strong, visceral emotions, physical reactions of revulsion, horror and injustice. All of those reactions are valid, and majority Americans need to feel them, and perhaps George Floyd’s death has us really feeling them for the first time. The one thing no one can be is surprised.

There have been two different “sparks” for every race riot in the United States since Watts began the Long Hot Summers in 1965. Most have been sparked by incidents, or rumors of incidents of police brutality against people of color, or court decisions acquitting white police officers in those cases. The other spark was the assassination of the Revered Doctor Martin Luther King in 1968. Riots sprang up throughout the country as an immediate response.

There is a long list of names of black people who have been killed at the hands of the police: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice.

Maybe this time things will be different. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?

Maybe this time the outrage will be strong and sustained enough that real change — systemic, cultural change will begin in city governments and police departments. Maybe. If the percentage of white people at protests and the volume of hand-wringing on social media are indications, this time, maybe, the needle will move a little.

God made a promise to Abram. God reminded Abram of that promise. God changed Abram’s name and identity. It took 25 years before God got around to fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. God waited an impossibly long time. The New Revised Standard Version says, “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Abraham even suggested an “out” for the Lord, remember Ishmael? “God, why not just go with Ishmael?” (again, Book of Tom). God waited too long. God waited beyond the endurance of all possible hope. This was no Hail Mary pass as the clock was running out, this was the winning touchdown after the game had ended in bitter disappointment.

Isaac was that spark. Laughter, the laughter of the Lord coming through after Hope had died. Judaism began with the Laughter of an old, barren woman. Christianity, rooted in Judaism, began at first light on the first day of a week when the Hopes and Fears of All the Years that had hung dead two days before left the tomb. New life after Hope had died.

It only takes a spark. Nothing, nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.


Dean FeldmeyerSECOND THOUGHTS
A Call For Shepherds
Dean Feldmeyer
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-23)

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd… Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. (Mattew 9:35--10:1)

In the Scripture
The entire text for this morning (Matthew 9:35-10:23) is very long and so full of hermeneutical meat that it may very well overwhelm a preacher who is tasked with a 10-minute homily or even a 20-minute sermon.

Current events, however, leap off the page in the opening verses. How, the text asks of us, shall we react when we behold a crowd that is “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd?”

Jesus provides an answer by his example: (1.) he has “compassion for them,” and (2.) he sends out his disciples as shepherds to care for them. Specifically, they are to (a.) have authority, (b.) to cast out unclean spirits and (c.) cure diseases and sicknesses.

In order to sustain the sheep/shepherd simile, the preacher may want to consign the harvest metaphor (9:37-38), at least for now, to the ellipses as above. This way, the text provides both an indicative (the crowd is deserving of Christian compassion and charity) and an imperative (go to them as shepherds, casting out unclean spirits and curing sicknesses.)

Determining how we are to do so is the real challenge that we shall address, presently.

In the News
At this writing, the demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which was captured on video and broadcast around the world, have not abated. Those who exploited peaceful demonstrations to promote violence and theft, have, for the most part, withdrawn while peaceful demonstrations by those whose hearts are moved by compassion and a sincere desire to address the evil of racism, continue apace.

In cities, towns, villages, and suburbs around the world (the world!) people of good will, young and old, white and black, men and women, are joining together their hands and voices, singing, shouting, and carrying signs that are printed in bold letters so all can see: “George Floyd,” “I can’t breathe!” “Hands up, don’t shoot!” “We’re better than this!” “No Justice, No Peace!” “End Racism!” “I am a human being.”

Like sheep without a shepherd, some of them are, in broad daylight, with cameras running, still helpless in the face of harassment and oppression:

In Buffalo, a 75-year-old demonstrator peacefully, nonthreateningly approaches a regiment of city police officers in riot gear and they shove him to the ground where he strikes his head, is knocked unconscious, and is left to lie there, bleeding from his ears. It is not until after the city police have passed him, ignoring his plight that two state troopers stop to assist him and call for an ambulance. Buffalo police follow up with a report that falsely states that he was injured in a scuffle between protestors and police.

In New York City, police watch passively as peaceful protestors pass by and then, the moment the curfew hour strikes, they suddenly wade into the crowd, swinging batons and spraying mace.

In Washington, DC peaceful protestors on the street in front of the Whitehouse and clergy on the porch of St. John’s church are attacked by federal police and military units with teargas and rubber bullets, in the middle of the day, to clear a path so the president can cross the street and have his picture taken holding up a Bible in front of a church he has only rarely attended.

But that is not the whole story.

Shepherds and healers are also visible in and around the crowds.

Chiefs of police, police officers, sheriffs and deputies, governors, mayors, celebrities, sports figures, clergy, business leaders, and volunteers are coming together to minister to the protestors and, often, kneel in honor of unarmed people of color who have been recently killed by police: George Floyd in Minneapolis;  David McAtee and Breonna Taylor in Louisville; Sean Reed in Indianapolis; Ariane McCree in Chester, SC; William Green in Prince George County, Maryland.

Those are just a few of 83 black boys and men killed by police since December 2019. They do not include Ahmaud Arbery who was shot and killed by white civilians while jogging near his own home in an Atlanta suburb or the unnamed scores of African Americans who have been detained and/or held by police for “driving while black” (in the wrong neighborhood), “shopping while black” (in the wrong stores), “sitting while black” (on the wrong bench or picnic table) or just “birdwatching while black,” in Central Park.

Into this milieu of prejudice and pain, of suffering and subjugation, of anger and abuse, Jesus calls us to go as shepherds, healers, and harbingers of peace, love, and reconciliation.

But what does that look like?

In the Sermon
The shepherds Jesus sends are his disciples and they go forth to (a.) have authority, (b.) cast out unclean spirits, and (c.) healing sickness and disease.

The modern mind may, on first glance, recoil from any literal interpretation of this closing verse of our truncated passage (10:1). Casting out (exorcising) unclean spirits is best relegated to horror fiction and Hollywood films, to writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin. But let us not pass this reference by without considering its metaphorical value.

Who would deny that a spirit of greed is very real and just as evil as a fictious demon that inhabits the body of a teenage girl and causes her to spit pea soup at Max Von Sydow?  Who would brush aside as ludicrous the notion of a spirit of lust, of envy, or of gluttony?

Or of racism?

Jesus Christ has given us authority over those spirits. By proclaiming, “I am Christian,” we give fair warning to all unclean things that might possess the children of the living God that we will not excuse, nor tolerate, anything that cheapens ourselves or estranges us from each other.

Likewise, we moderns, we of the logical, reasonable, linear, 21st century minds will, for fear of being lumped in with televangelists, “faith healers,” and other charlatans, quickly turn aside any suggestion that healing is within our purview and should best be left up to medical professionals.

Yet, who among us would deny that love has a healing power unique unto itself?

And who has not been so ill that we would have gladly spurned the attention of a doctor in favor of the ministrations of our mother?

Even the most insensitive of us cannot deny that a human touch, an embrace, a moment, a tear — has the power to overcome the disease of hate, the illness of fear, and, what Kierkegaard called, “the sickness unto death,” despair.

With our words, with our gestures, but most importantly, with our presence, we can be the disciples whom Jesus sends out into the crowd, the shepherds come to bind and to heal.


ILLUSTRATIONS

Mary AustinFrom team member Mary Austin:

Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7)
The Many Forms of Hospitality
Quaker author Parker Palmer talks often about his encounters with deep depression, and what he learned from those times in his life. He says that many people found it hard to be around him while he was in the grip of depression, and they struggled with seeing where he was spiritually. “I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful; and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know, intellectually, that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day. And then, other people would come and say something along the lines of, “Gosh, Parker, why are you depressed? You’re such a good person. You’ve helped so many people…And that would leave me feeling more depressed, because I would feel, “I’ve just defrauded another person who, if they really knew what a schmuck I was, would cast me into the darkness where I already am.” There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about 4:00, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks, and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything — he was a Quaker elder — and yet, out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word, like: “I can feel your struggle today,” or, farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report, from time to time, what he was intuiting about my condition. Somehow, he found the one place in my body, namely, the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just — in a way that I really don’t have words for — kept me connected with the human race.”

That man showed an unusually sensitive form of hospitality. Parker Palmer says, “What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became, for me, a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

Hospitality is about welcome, welcoming the stranger, and also welcoming the familiar person as they are in this moment of meeting.

* * *

Genesis 18:1-15 (21:1-7)
Unusual Hospitality
In Genesis, God appears to Abraham in the guise of three visitors, and Abraham hurries to provide them with his finest hospitality. In Washington, DC, one homeowner found himself with similarly surprising guests one night, after protesters were herded onto his street. Rahul Dubey looked out of his home to find a group of young protesters, some of whom had been sprayed with pepper spray. He opened his door to the protesters, who hurried in. The first moments were chaotic, as people crowded in, some injured. In all, Mr. Dubey ended up sheltering over 100 protesters. “Mr. Dubey said that by 12:30 a.m., he knew that everyone would need to settle in until the curfew lifted, at 6 a.m. Mr. Dubey organized for pizza to be delivered, and the group received pizza donations from at least one neighbor. Over the course of the night the protesters, whom Mr. Dubey described as a mix of all ages, races and sexual orientations, talked extensively with one another. “They were talking about where they had been that night, where they were peacefully protesting,” said Mr. Dubey.

“The houseguests offered to help clean up and offered to send him money, Mr. Dubey said, but he refused. “We made up a rule about 3 a.m. that no one is allowed to say ‘thank you’ anymore because I was getting tired of it,” he said. It wasn’t until several hours after he let the protesters in that Mr. Dubey remembered the extraordinary night was taking place amid a pandemic, he said. The fear of the coronavirus “became secondary” to “the brutality that the authorities were inflicting upon some of the guests in my home, now friends and new extended family members.” By 6 a.m., the protesters had organized a caravan of escorts so everyone could get home safely…”

His visitors were as unexpected as the three men outside Abraham’s tent, and he rose to the occasion with a tremendous gift of hospitality.

* * *

Matthew 9:35--10:8 (9-23)
Travel
Jesus sends his disciples out to minister to the lost sheep of Israel, to heal and teach and proclaim good news. The important part of their journey is that they’re going without him, in a way that will disorient and stretch them. The purpose of traveling to a new place, says writer Pico Iyer, is this same kind of disorientation. He says, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more...” He adds, “for me the first great joy of traveling is simply the luxury of leaving all my beliefs and certainties at home, and seeing everything I thought I knew in a different light, and from a crooked angle.”

This is how the disciples will now see the world — everything in a different light.

* * *

Romans 5:1-8
Suffering Produces Endurance
The apostle Paul, who knew what it was like to suffer both mentally and physically, writes to the church that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” Resmaa Menakem, a therapist and trauma specialist, says that his interest in suffering began years ago with his grandmother. His trauma work has included US military contractors in Afghanistan as well as American communities and police forces.

He recalls, “My grandmother used to always shake her hand and complain of arthritis. And so when she used to lay on the couch. So we would be watching the Bucks game or something like that — my grandmother loved the Milwaukee Bucks. So we would be sitting there…and we would just rub her hands. And I can’t remember the exact age of what I was, but I was rubbing her hands one day, and I was comparing her hands to my hands. And so I’m rubbing them and I’m rubbing them, And I go, “Grandma” — and this was a half-joking — I had the tonal quality in my voice that was a half-joke there. And I said, “Grandma, why your hands so fat?” — like that, as I’m rubbing her hands. And without missing a beat — my grandmother didn’t even look at me — she goes, “Oh, boy, that’s from picking cotton.” …She takes her other hand, and she does her hands like this. She goes, “Them damn cotton plants got a burr in ’em. They got burrs in ’em like that.” And she goes, “I started walking up and down them rows when I was four years old.” And she said, “As you walking up and down the rows, you put your hands in; them cotton plants rip your hands up. And so when they rip your hands up, your hands bleed.” He adds, “Einstein said energy cannot be created nor destroyed. But it can be thwarted. It can be manipulated. It can be moved around. When we’re talking about trauma, when we’re talking about historical trauma, intergenerational trauma, persistent institutional trauma, and personal traumas — whether that be childhood, adolescence, or adulthood — those things, when they are left constricted, you begin to be shaped around the constriction. And it is wordless.” Our sufferings live on in our bodies, continuing to shape our lives.

* * *

Romans 5:1-8
Suffering
Author Parker Palmer, who has suffered from depression, says that it’s important to be clear about the origin of our suffering. “It’s awfully important to distinguish in life, I think, between true crosses and false crosses. And I know, in my growing up as a Christian, I didn’t get much help with that. A cross was a cross was a cross, and if you were suffering, it was supposed to be somehow good. But I think that there are false forms of suffering that get imposed upon us — sometimes, from without, from injustice and external cruelty; and sometimes, from within — that really need to be resisted. I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who’s ever suffered that way knows that it’s a life-giving way to suffer; that if it’s your truth, you can’t not do it, and that knowledge carries you through. But there’s another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It’s death in life. And that is a darkness to be worked through, to find the life on the other side.”

He adds, “I understand that to move close to God is to move close to everything that human beings have ever experienced. And that, of course, includes a lot of suffering, as well as a lot of joy.” In this same sense, the right kind of suffering draws us toward God.

* * * * * *

Mary AustinFrom team member Chris Keating:

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Creating a welcoming community
The beginning of this week’s story from Genesis emphasizes Abraham’s generous hospitality the patriarch offers to the strangers who appear before him. Abraham and Sarah’s welcome embraces the strangers, modeling what Rabbi Kerry Olitzky calls a “welcoming community.” Olitzky reminds us “Abraham didn’t wait. He rushed to greet his visitors. He made sure that they were comfortable and satiated. And then he walked them out, away from his tent, to make sure that they found their way.”

During recent protests over the death of George Floyd, some churches have found ways to extend that type of hospitality. In Washington, DC, for example, New York Presbyterian Church — among other congregations — opened their doors each day to offer restrooms, water and a cool place of rest for protestors demonstrating near the White House. Church leaders voted to open the church in order to offer what they called “protest hospitality.”

* * *

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
An ally’s offer of hospitality
Sometimes offers of hospitality come in unexpected ways. Journalist Michael Harriot writes of his ambivalent feelings toward white persons  who have been showing signs of solidarity with black protest movements recently. “All of a sudden,” Harriot wrote in The Root, “white people are ready to take a stand against racism after saying nothing about it for years.” Harriot reflects on this by sharing an anecdote from his family.

For religious reasons, none of the members of Harriot’s family eat pork; they will not even cook the food they eat in pans which have been used to prepare pork dishes. Yet everyone in his family has what he calls a “pork pan.” His aunt tells him that this is because Mr. Elmore had bought the pan for his grandparents.

Elmore, it turns out, was an owner of the local grocery store in the town where Harriot’s grandparents lived.  When racial protests broke out in their town, black protestors could not cross streets in order to get food. Harriot’s grandfather would pack the trunk of his car full of food donated by Mr. Elmore, a man who always hired black persons and who routinely fed anyone who was hungry. To entice people to turn out, Harriot’s grandmother would tell them she’d fried pork chops for lunch --  even on days when there wasn’t any pork chops. Her pork chops would always draw a crowd, and were a particular favorite of Mr. Elmore’s.  Her pork chops mobilized protestors.

When Mr. Elmore died, his funeral was held in a black church. Following the service, his grandmother came out of the kitchen and told those who were present about Mr. Elmore’s pork chop protests. Harriot’s words tell the story best:

The old people nodded in agreement as she recounted his quiet activism. They smiled when she recounted how she would lie to everyone when they called and asked what Mr. Elmore had brought for the protests. They laughed when she recounted how she always lied and told people she was frying pork chops because more people would come out. She even used a word that wasn’t en vogue back then (the early ‘90s) but is ubiquitous on social media these days.

She called him an “ally.”

By the time it was over, I was starving because I didn’t even get any of the usual repast food. None of my family members had a chance to eat that day because we were helping my elderly grandmother in the kitchen for the wokest white man no one ever knew.

She served pork chops.

She used the pork pan.

That’s all.”

* * *

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
Is it OK to laugh?
In response to the promise that she and Abraham are about to become parents, Sarah breaks out in a fit of knee-slapping, teary eyed laughter. It is an utterly preposterous proposition. But it is also an indication of how humor is often a gateway to hope.

Comedy, argues Humanity in Action, can lead to profound social change. “Comedians don’t start out to change the world, but in the end, that’s what they do,” says Stephen Rosenfield, founder and director of the American Comedy Institute in New York City, where he teaches aspiring comedians the art of writing and performing comedy.  Rosenfield says it’s not necessarily a comic’s primary job responsibility, yet it still happens. “Comedians are aware of the power of jokes to change societies, but they’re not necessarily idealistic about it.  A comedian’s first concern is to find funny material. That is his job.”

* * *

Exodus 19:2-8
Everything the Lord has spoken we will do
Moses leads the people of Israel into the Sinai wilderness, where he ascends into the mountain to encounter Yahweh.  God recounts the story of Israel’s redemption, and instructs Moses to remind the people of their obligation to keep the covenant. Moses returns to the people and shares what Yahweh has told him. Without hesitation the people unanimously respond that they’re on board. “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

The words are hardly out of their mouths and the sinning begins. We’re familiar with the pattern. It takes more than a single moment in time to change. Internalizing God’s covenantal promises involves more than just showing up at a single rally.

Writing about the protests following the death of George Floyd (and others), Michelle Alexander, author of the The New Jim Crow, writes “our nation suddenly caught a glimpse of itself in the mirror and people of all races poured into the streets to say “no more.” But Alexander understands that if the nation is truly going to change — if we are to pursue the sort of justice God intends — it will not be “enough to learn the broad outlines of history. Only by pausing long enough to study the cycles of oppression and resistance does it become clear that simply being a good person and not wishing black people any harm is not sufficient…raise your voice and march with your feet.”

* * *

Psalm 100
Come into God’s presence with singing (but not quite yet)
Few things stir the soul more than congregational singing. A congregation that can rise to its feet, raise its voice and discover the harmonies of God’s grace is a true gift. Whether it uses classic four part harmonies or contemporary songs of praise, a singing congregation communicates joy and inspires hope.

This is why one of the great tragedies of Covid-19 will be the loss, at least temporarily, of sung music. The prevailing scientific view is that the novel coronavirus is an airborne virus spread primarily through droplets passed person-to-person. Aerosolized particles, such as those emitted by singing, are especially dangerous because they linger in the air for hours.  Just saying “ah” for 30 seconds produces twice as many particles as coughing nonstop in the same amount of time.

One example of the spread of coronavirus through singing was a single rehearsal of a choir in Mount Vernon, WA.  After a single practice, 45 of the 60 participants all contracted Covid-19, and two died. Other outbreaks have been traced to funerals, worship, and even karaoke singing in Japan.

William Ristenpart is a chemical engineer who has studied how viruses can be transmitted through aerosol droplets. His conclusions are sobering, especially for congregations.

“Would singing cause a large number of expiratory particles to be emitted? I would say absolutely,” Ristenpart says. Whether those aerosols actually transmit disease depends on additional factors — like airflow, to name a big one. Still, says Ristenpart, “if that choir in Washington had sat for two hours of meditation instead of singing, the transmission would almost certainly have been much lower.” There is abundant evidence to suggest that Covid-19 is spread via aerosols, he adds, “but a lot of people are very resistant to that idea, because the potential implications are a bit terrifying.”

* * *

Matthew 9:35--10:8 (9-23)
Take no gold, but you better have a website
Jesus commissions the disciples into ministry, sending them out to proclaim the good news. He reminds them that the servants of God pack lightly for their adventures, and adjures them against taking money, extra clothes, or even a walking stick.

It was a remarkably lithe way of establishing a mission—and a bit different from the way many congregations are started today.  A posting on the Missional Challenge blog explores two very different approaches to what leaders should take with them on their missional journeys of faith.

One church planter is up front about the funding challenges faced by missional entrepreneurs. Stephen Gray, a church planter for the General Baptists, says “Let’s not be shy about it: church planting is very expensive. If you are not willing to invest multiple thousands in a church plant, don’t even begin. Remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for”? Whoever coined that phrase must have been a church planter. If you are a denominational leader and you want to start a new church by rubbing a couple of dimes together, remember, “You get what you pay for.” The quickest way to kill a church plant or at least doom it to a life of anemic survival, is to shortchange it.”

Gray suggests funds in the neighborhood of somewhere between $200-300,000 are needed for a two year period.

Another expert pushes back, reminding readers of Jesus’ call in Matthew 9. Neil Cole, another church planter, says that the money will come if the laborers appear. “All we need is to get out there and reap. There is much power in showing up.”

As congregations emerge from the coronavirus shutdown, it may be helpful to consider the missional mindset proposed by Jesus in Matthew 9. There might not be an abundance of resources, but there will certainly be an abundance of need.

* * * * * *

Bethany PeerbolteFrom team member Bethany Peerbolte:

Genesis 18:1-15
Radical Welcome

When Abraham is visited by these three men his first response is to offer hospitality. He jumps at the chance to welcome these men, offering them nutrition and rest. Abraham has a no questions asked approach to hospitality. He does not first ask Sarah if there is enough to eat, or if there is room for them under the tree. Abraham does not question their motives or where they have come from. Abraham first sees need and connects that with the abundance he has been blessed with. His gut instinct to help is the thing that blesses him beyond measure. The men tell him and Sarah they will have a son within a year. Their hospitality has brought their deepest longing.

As protestors take to the streets locals are finding ways to meet the needs of the people in their neighborhood. Even opening their home to dozens of people who need protection and shelter.  Rahul Dubey fed and sheltered 70 people in his home when protestors in Washington D.C. were cornered in his neighborhood by police. With a crowd of 70 people in a home it is clear very few questions were asked. I have questions though. Does he often have enough food in his home to feed 70 people or was this a feeding 5000 kind of miracle? What blessings will Rahul find he is blessed with this year that his act of hospitality has ignited?

* * *

Psalm 116:1-2
Listen like God

These first two verses of the Psalm show the confidence God’s people can have in the attention God gives. God is a God of listening to the cries of the people. We saw these in the Genesis passage too. God hears the cries against Sodom and goes to check it out personally. This affirmation of God’s commitment to listening remembers that our confidence in God is well founded and worth our continued adherence. It also affirms that our job as God’s image carriers is to listen as well. We are God’s stand-ins in this world and need to mimic God’s attentiveness.

Listening is the top advice experts are giving white Americans during this resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests. The leaders want black voices to take the lead. On Tuesday June 2 there was a collective effort to only listen to black voices on social media platforms. There is some debate if this was ultimately helpful or not, but the initial idea was for white content creators to post a black box and take a break from posting. They had hoped this would free up space for black content to be shared higher on news feeds. What seems to have happened is the conversation stopped completely with algorithms still choosing to promote the black boxes rather than original content made by black creators. Social media may not be the best platform for listening it turns out because the algorithms still only suggest voices you are assumed to like.  The best way may be books, articles, movies, and other media that is written and directed by black creators about their experiences.

* * *

Psalm 116:12-19
Will we be thankful?

The second half of this Psalm reminds God and the believer of the importance of giving thanks. It recognizes the bounty God has given and remembers that a portion of that is to be offered back to God. The Psalm references the offering of thanksgiving. Leviticus 7:12 tells us what a thanks offering is supposed to be “unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour well soaked in oil.” Those last cakes mentioned are specifically leavened cakes, so this offering includes both unleavened and leavened bread. Leaven in the Bible is associated with sin, things that are false and impure, so one might wonder why it is here in an offering. This alludes to the need to give thanks in the good and in the bad. Even something that is impure cane be used by God to further the mission.

One business owner who had his business damaged and looted this week found a way to be thankful in the chaos. He told reporters that he can’t be mad or angry because this is how progress happens sometimes. He still supports the protests even though there is some “leaven” in them because he knows he will be thankful when their cause advances. There are also reports of thankful people who are feeling the love of their fellow protestors. One man was carried to safety by a stranger. In another city, protestors protected a thankful police officer when we was separated from his unit.  It seems there are many people being inspired to kindness as they unify for a common cause. We are to give thanks for these moments even in the chaotic times.

* * *

Romans 5:1-8
Hope and Proximity

The lectionary seems to have had forewarning about what we would be facing this week. These verses are filled with our needs, the peace of God, access to grace, hoping, suffering, endurance, character, God’s love, the Holy Spirit, all while we are still sinners. The opening about being justified by faith reminded me of a conversation Bryan Stevenson and Rev. Tim Keller had four years ago. Their discussion titled Grace, Justice, and Mercy explores the call Christians have to seek justice. Keller argues this is not a call on a few of us but on every single Christian believer. It is not an option to let some justice minded people do the work. Stevenson stresses that this happens best when we put ourselves in proximity with the oppressed. When we are proximate to injustice we cannot help but work for justice. Stevenson also implores listeners to hold tight to hope, because without hope we stop in our tracks. Hope is the thing that makes us take the risks we need to end racism. If we do not hope it can happen then we will not even make an effort.


* * * * * *

George ReedWORSHIP
by George Reed

Call to Worship:
Leader: We love God who has heard our voice and supplications.
People: We call on God who inclines to hear us.
Leader: What shall we return to God for all this bounty to us?
People: We will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of God.
Leader: Let us offer to God a thanksgiving sacrifice.
People: We will give thanks and call on the name of God.

OR

Leader: The God of love and compassion comes to us.
People: We open our hearts and lives to God’s love.
Leader: God’s love is the hope of the world.
People: We will share God’s love so people have hope.
Leader: The Good Shepherd comes to tend all the sheep.
People: In Jesus’ name we will care for all people.

Hymns and Songs:
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
UMH: 103
H82: 423
PH: 263
NCH: 1
CH: 66
LBW: 526
ELW: 834
W&P: 48
AMEC: 71
STLT: 46

To God Be the Glory
UMH: 98
PH: 485
AAHH: 157
NNBH: 17
CH: 39
W&P: 66
AMEC: 21
Renew: 258

Amazing Grace
UMH: 378
H82: 671
PH: 280
AAHH: 271/272
NNBH: 161/163
NCH: 547/548
CH: 546
LBW: 448
ELW: 779
W&P: 422
AMEC: 226
STLT: 205/206
Renew: 189

Hymn of Promise
UMH: 707
NCH: 433
CH: 638
W&P: 515

O God, Our Help in Ages Past
UMH: 117
H82: 680
AAHH: 170
NNBH: 46
NCH: 25
CH: 67
LBW: 320
ELW: 632
W&P: 84
AMEC: 61
STLT: 281

Lord, I Want to Be a Christian
UMH: 402
PH: 372
AAHH: 463
NNBH: 156
NCH: 454
CH: 589
W&P: 457
AMEC: 282
Renew: 145

The Gift of Love
UMH: 408
AAHH: 522
CH: 526
W&P: 397
Renew: 155

Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life
UMH: 427
H82: 609
PH: 408
NCH: 543
CH: 665
LBW: 429
ELW: 719
W&P: 591
AMEC: 561

Jesu, Jesu
UMH: 432
H82: 602
PH: 367
NCH: 498
CH: 600
ELW: 708
W&P: 273
CCB: 66
Renew: 289

More Love to Thee, O Christ
UMH: 453
PH: 359
AAHH: 575
NNBH: 214
NCH: 456
CH: 527
AMEC: 460

As the Deer
CCB: 83
Renew: 9

Lord, Be Glorified
CCB: 62
Renew: 172

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELW: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day/Collect
O God who is love and compassion:
Grant us the hope that leads us to know your love
and to share that love in compassion to others;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

OR

We praise you, O God, because you are loving compassion. You pour your love out on all creation. Help us to place our hope in your love so that we may love others with your compassion. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially our failure to act out of love and compassion.

People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. In love and compassion you have created us in your own image and yet we act selfishly and with little regard for others. We esteem ourselves better than those around us. We look down on others instead of seeing the Christ within them. Forgive us and renew your love within us that we may reflect your glory and your love. Amen.

Leader: God is love and always grants us forgiveness and renewal when we seek it. Receive God’s Spirit of love and share it with others this week.

Prayers of the People
Glory and honor are yours, O God of love and compassion. We praise you for you have created us in your own image and likeness.

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. In love and compassion you have created us in your own image and yet we act selfishly and with little regard for others. We esteem ourselves better than those around us. We look down on others instead of seeing the Christ within them. Forgive us and renew your love within us that we may reflect your glory and your love.

We give you thanks for all the blessings of your creation. Most of all we thank you for your love which is evident in the beauty you have made. We thank you for those who have taught us in words and in their actions that you are loving compassion.

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for one another in our need. We pray for those who find that their life makes it difficult to believe that you are love. We pray for those who are treated with disrespect and violence. We pray for those who are hated because of the color of their skin. We pray that we may embrace all your children as our siblings and as part of your holy family.

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together saying:

Our Father....Amen.

(Or if the Our Father is not used at this point in the service.)

All this we ask in the name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Wouldn’t it be fun to build a robot that looked just like you. You could use it to fool others into thinking it was you! But what if it decided it didn’t want to act like you? What if it did things you would never do? Then you might end up in trouble. While we are not robots, we were created in God’s image. We were meant to be like God who is a God of love. Yet sometimes we don’t act in love. Sometimes we are selfish and maybe, sometimes, we are even mean. That doesn’t reflect too well on God when we are supposed to be God’s image. God is love. We are made in God’s image so we need to act in love to everyone.


* * * * * *

Ron LoveCHILDREN'S SERMON
Full of Color
by Ron Love

Materials
Easel
White board & color markers
or
Newsprint & color markers

Sermon
  • Begin to draw a picture of a house using a brown marker.
  • Next, start to draw the sky with the brown marker — this does not work since the sky is blue — so now use a blue marker.
  • Next, start to draw the grass with the blue marker — this does not work since the grass is green — so now use a green marker.
  • Follow this procedure for the rest of your picture — bushes, flowers, side walk, trees, etc.
  • Conclude by saying our picture can only be beautiful with a lot of different colors — this is the same for society, we need a lot of different colors for our community to be beautiful — these colors would be race, national origin, gender, age, occupation, and so on — create a list that you feel your church community needs to hear and understand.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, June 14, 2020 issue.

Copyright 2020 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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Acts 1:1-11

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