Sunday, January 22, 2017

Moriah Hurst: Reflections on Psalm 28

Epiphany 3: Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday - “My cry is heard”
Psalm 28

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I woke up on Friday morning to read the first post in my news feed saying: “stay safe people”. As I kept reading, I saw that a man had driven into a pedestrian mall in the middle of Melbourne, the city I used to live in, killing 4 people and injuring over 20 others. As I continued to scroll I saw that some of my friends were there witnessing this tragedy that happened just blocks away from where I used to live.

This is just one story among so many of violence and pain in our world today. On this World Fellowship Sunday we recognize that at least 875 people have risked their lives to reach Europe by sea so far in 2017. The numbers of drowned or those who are dead or are missing from attempting this crossing, range in numbers from 11 to possibly 230. The UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) says “Increasing numbers of refugees and migrants take their chances aboard unseaworthy boats and dinghies in a desperate bid to reach Europe. The vast majority of those attempting this dangerous crossing are in need of international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution in their country of origin. “The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are.”

Like the Psalmist we call out to God. We join with the world lifting our hands and calling out for help.

            On the UNHCR’s website there are 6 regions or countries listed as emergencies: Europe, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and the Central African Republic. Refugees are fleeing in massive numbers and flooding into countries around them putting pressure on places that might not have been stable in the first place before receiving thousands of desperate, frightened people.

The theme for Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday is: My Cry is Heard. The problem is we don’t hear them, don’t see them, we don’t feel connected, we are so far away and there is so much pain. Or we hear their cry but it fills our ears along with the cries of so many others and we cover our ears and duck our heads because we are overwhelmed and want to silence the shouts of pain.
Then there are natural disasters: Earthquakes, avalanches, winter storm warnings, floods, bushfires – the clamor of disaster and devastation sweeps over us in a cloud. How can we possibly hear God’s still small voice in all of this?
In the USA already this year there have been 16 mass shootings, that means a shooting where 4 or more people were involved, these shooting have resulted in 23 deaths. With 795 people killed already this year by gun violence in the USA. That’s just in the 22 days we’ve had in 2017. And this may seem brutal but to bring those numbers home that would be like all the people in our church and those attending Community Mennonite Church being killed in gun violence in 22 days.

At this point our eyes glaze over and we start to zone out and think about what we are having for lunch or the cleaning that needs done at home, or anything that numbs us from the flood of pain and cries that our systems can’t handle. It is overwhelming. Where is God’s peace? The psalmist called it a pit that we need to be saved from– well I think we’ve worked up to a gigantic gapping cavernous hole.

How can we continue to be present when we see and hear these heart wrenching stories and statistics. So many of us feel compassion fatigue and withdraw to be able to cope.
What does it mean to be in world fellowship when this is our world?
Oh Lord, you are our rock – do not refuse to hear us.

Let’s bring this closer to home. Our politicians like to tell us that we need to work at our economy, get out of debt and make America great again. But most of us in this room are in the top 5% of richest people in the world. “Unless you are homeless, you are far wealthier than the average person, and you live in the richest time period in history.”  At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.

We also have the status that comes with the color of our skin, the country on our passport and the education we have been provided.
But we don’t always feel that privilege and power. In this election season and two days after inauguration many of us are feeling scared, maybe not for our selves, but for our communities and the vulnerable or marginalized around us. Hundreds of thousands of people reacted to this fear and resisted this marginalization yesterday by taking to the streets and giving voice to those that our society has too often silenced. In these next days, months and years can we see our new president as both an opportunity and a challenge? Will we respond to ugly public rhetoric by retreating into ourselves, will we react with attacks on others or can we find ways forward that draw people together in a world that so quickly moves towards division?

            We are fearful. Fearful about what will happen after inauguration. Fearful of people with Trump or Hillary signs. There is fear of walking to the grocery store, of deportation, of losing health care, of being assaulted, of being stopped and searched because of your race. How do we trust in God in the middle of this fear?

            When we first read this Psalms passage in our worship planning meeting Ken said, “That could be ok minus all the vitriol in the middle bit where people will just blame the other or everyone else who doesn’t agree with them.” But I kept it in. Because we need to hear this bit. Need to face the fact that we have come out of a season of finger pointing. We know who the bad guys in the Psalms are…You, you out there, not me, you, you are wrong. We want to read the enemy in the Psalms as those other people that we don’t agree with who are making the world a bad place. But we need to know that there are Christians who read these Psalms and are pointing at us too, Ouch! And all of us follow a Jesus who told us to love our enemy and to pray for those who persecute us, not to finger point and condemn the other who stand in front of our pointing finger. The psalms invite us to confess our own baggage and admit that not all brokenness is just out there.

Our own Mennonite conference in Virginia is struggling, people wanting to leave on different sides of an issue that we don’t want to talk about. Petitions being signed. A report coming out this week names work that needs to be done around abuse that was perpetrated in a church community and our denominational school. We are not sheltered from the pain of the world, it is present here, we have it in the stories of our lives.
We cry with the Psalmist: Do not drag us away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil.
In some of the bleakness in our world the psalms are raw and itchy in our throats.

            What holds us together with our fellow finger pointers? Who are we as this international body of Christ? What are we called to in these times? While the church is struggling to find relevance and is shrinking in North America and Europe, the church in Latin America, Africa and Asia is growing.

We are one body but hold different understandings. “We all read the same Bible, but we interpret it differently and find differing degrees of relevance in its various parts. We all claim the presence of the Holy Spirit among us, but experience very different manifestations of that same Spirit. We have all joined the same peace church tradition, but military service or policing roles are alternatively tolerated or resisted. We have all received the good news, but some are much more likely to evangelize than others.”

We believe in things together – Jesus, God, the bible, and that God’s Spirit is with us. We believe that we are not alone. God is in and through all, goes before and behind all – never leaving or forsaking. We are part of rituals and actions that my non-Christian friends find weirdly wonderful. Singing together and hearing stories from an old book. Finding deep meaning in a loaf of bread and some juice. Dipping people in a river or splashing them with water. Closing our eye and reaching out to something beyond ourselves. These are things that help to hold us together in this broken body of Christ.

When relating to the international church we in the West need to be mindful. Christena Cleveland a social psychologist and theologian spoke at the seminary this week. Cleveland reminded leaders of the church that we do have a place at the table in this upside-down kingdom of God. And our place is uncomfortably clear, the first shall be last and the last shall be first – we who live lives of privilege are welcome at the table but we will be last.

The Psalms are great at not leaving us in this place of fear. And we move with this Psalm to a place of good news and praise. God hears and helps. God is a saving refuge.

How do we deal with the flood of stories about our broken world? How do we connect our lives and experiences to the lives of so many others without drowning in the vastness and false connection that globalization and social media invites us into? When teaching about organizing over the last few years we used to ask our students – “How do you eat an elephant, how do you tackle something that seems that big and impossible?” You eat an elephant one bite at a time, you have to break it down into small pieces. We have to attend to one story at a time, truly hearing and letting ourselves care.

On this World Fellowship Sunday we can look to other Anabaptist brothers and sisters around the world. To a church in the Netherlands that sheltered Armenians and Tamils in the back rooms of their church in the mid 80s. Even though they didn’t get everything right or agree on how they should do this, they worked through their fear and with other churches to hide these people from deportation and the police. They even celebrated orthodox Christmas with their guests. One member told of the experience “Our normally simple Mennonite Church got a metamorphosis that (Christmas) morning for the two-hour- long service with many rituals (water, oil, candles, icons, painting). Afterwards, we celebrated with a big meal.” Just as they were finishing the service they received word that their guest would be allowed to stay.

Another Mennonite church in Germany was founded by refugees after WWII. Then they integrated Christians from Croatia and South America in the 1960. In the 1970s they worked to include Mennonites from the former Soviet Union even though their traditions were different and this changed the culture of the church. Then a few years ago they were asked to start a youth club for 12-17 year olds from immigrant backgrounds.  30 young people from Muslim and Yazidi background found a home in (their) church building.” The youth claimed the building as their own and would show up whenever the church was open and hang out in the space no matter what activity was going on. This caused some conflict that they had to work through. Eventually they started welcoming more refugees and asylum seekers and started a Bible study group in Farsi and later another in Arabic. When a brother from Iran was baptised these orderly German Mennonites were a bit surprised by the jubilant response from his friends and have since learned to integrate spontaneity and a deeper hospitality into their church.

            A group of plain dressing Hutterites in Manitoba, Canada have welcomed a Syrian refugee family and found that they have surprising similarities and common ground. The mother in the Syrian family “Najwa, who wears a hijab and felt nervous about arriving in a new country with unknown customs, was relieved when her sponsors came into view. “When I saw their dress – preserving their heritage and their origins – this made me happy,” she says. She loved that the Hutterites still spoke German as their first language and that minorities in a large country could keep their identity and traditions.”

            In our own church there are families that have opened their homes and their lives to the stranger in so many ways. Inviting someone in for a meal, for Christmas day, helping them learn English, helping them shop for school supplies, teaching about dressing for cold weather, playing soccer with new immigrants and partying together in new ways.
            I’ve been asked multiple times over the last few months if we have been having Sanctuary Church conversations here at Park View. Are we ready for those conversations? We don’t know what the weeks and years ahead might hold. Are we ready to extend radical welcome and to act out our faith even if it contradicts the leaders of our land?
            One thing I have started saying we have to do is to start a kids club here at Park View. A kids club will help us to learn to know our neighbors and learn who lives in the streets around us. Welcoming kids from the community into our church will open a space for the spirit to make connections in us and with them. I look forward to learning about hospitality in this new way as we think globally and act locally.
            Maybe we will find additional ways of moving towards the other, maybe even the other in our own church? This may feel awkward or be disorienting, like coming in a different door to church and sitting next to different people.
I believe God goes with us as we take one small step towards the other – that God guides us in being brave as we take the time to listen.

How do we work against the de-personalization of our world? We take a step towards the other. We unstop our ears long enough to hear another's story. We stand up with a million other women or with one person experiencing abuse, and we say no, not in my name. I will stand with you, hear your story and together we will ask for a better way forward for us all.

As you hear statistics and stories of our world and global church family, may we not be shut down by our own guilt but may these stories lead us into an openness to listen, lead us to curiosity, and to an ability to welcome the other.

Jesus often asked questions that created space for marginalized people to tell their own stories. Jesus used his power to empower their voices and elevate their lives. May you use your privilege to elevate the voices of others.

God is our Shepherd showing the way. May we know God as our strength and our saving refuge.
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