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Loving Your Enemies

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In June 2015, South Carolina was not the only state to remove the Confederate Flag from its Capitol. Alabama, too, finally removed the symbol of hatred from its state Capitol. Montgomery, Alabama, in the 50s, seemed like the perfect picture of beauty. Enormous Magnolia and Cypress trees outlined the roads. From above, the town looked like a model train village that could be in a Macy’s Christmas window. Immense Spanish moss vegetation shrouded the granite and marble government offices. A statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, hovered at the entrance of the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery, and remains to this day.

Montgomery, Alabama, may have appeared to be a beautiful town, but hatred and distrust was very much a reality. In 1952, events that mirror the fictional story told in To Kill a Mockingbird occurred in Montgomery, Alabama. High school student Jeremiah Reeves was accused of raping a woman—an accusation he denied until the day of his execution six years later at the verdict of an all-white male jury.

In 1955, a classmate at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School, and friend of Jeremiah Reeves, refused to give up her seat on the city bus and was arrested. Her name was Claudette Colvin. Nine months later, Rosa Parks would follow in her steps.

Why am I telling you all this? Centered in the middle of Montgomery, built during Reconstruction on the site of one of the city’s slave pens, where slaves would be kept until they could be sold to local plantation owners, stands Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The church had gone through 19 pastors in 68 years. In 1954, a 25-year-old preacher was hired to be the pastor at this church. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.. Montgomery was ground zero of the rising tension of the Civil Rights movement, and the nation was looking at the young pastor to lead them. Meanwhile, deacons of the church were distrustful of their young pastor because he was away so much. The young pastor records in his diary, “I am not doing anything well.”

In 1956, King had what he called a very transforming experience for his prayer life when after midnight the phone rang—but on the other end it was not someone from the church, but a racist threatening to kill him and destroy his home. In the fall of 1957, the Little Rock school desegregation riots captured the nation’s attention. Tired of the hatred and judgment in the country, in Montgomery, and in the church, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a sermon entitled Loving Your Enemies. I believe that in order to pray for someone, you must learn to love them. And in order to love someone, you must pray for them. This morning, I share much of his sermon with you.

What does it mean, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”

The Fun of Stewardship!

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Acts 4:36-5:11
I think it is important to be aware of our surroundings, to wonder what the connection is between our spiritual journey and the world around us. I think laughter is very important to our soul. A few months ago, I had the incredible opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama in person. Who knew the Dalai Lama was quite the comedian (check out on You Tube his response to Piers Morgan when asked about our election). After telling a funny story, he said: “Laughter is as healing to our spiritual journey as giving.” Imagine, permanently exiled from the Holy City of Llhasa in 1959 when the Chinese invaded, living as a refugee in India and still he has a tremendous sense of humor. To overcome adversity, the Dalai Lama relies heavily on laughter and generosity. He talks about inner peace being the root of happiness, and how money and happiness are diametrically opposed, saying, “Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion and loving-kindness.”
What if there is a connection between laughter and generosity, and if we re-read Scripture through that lens?
Overall, I think we take the stories in the Bible way too seriously. Talking snakes and a donkey with an attitude, women getting pregnant at age 90, don’t get me started about King Eglon, a prophet named Jonah causing a large fish to have awful hurling episodes, death by falling out of a window because of a boring sermon, a well-known prophet saying those who are self-righteous are like tampons (Isaiah 64:6). The Gospels record Jesus speaking about money more than any other topic, and quite a bit of it is humorous. Strain out a gnat while eating a camel, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, it is easier for a camel go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God, and as we heard last week, if you need money, start looking in the mouths of fish.
Then we come across the story you heard today. About Barnabas, who stewardship books categorize the cheerful giver as he gives all the money from the sale to the apostles. He gets one little verse, but eleven verses tell the depressing tale of Ananias and Sapphira. Like Barnabas, the married couple sell a piece of land but do not give all the money to the apostles. Peter individually asks Ananias if that was the full price of the land and plop, he drops down dead. Then Peter also interrogates Sapphira, who has no idea what happened to her husband, and she plunks down dead, too. Isn’t this a bit harsh? After all, they did give a generous donation and just did not disclose all of their assets. Maybe they had a legit church tax loophole?
But… what if this story follows the Jesus monetary humor theme?
In the grim tale of Ananias and Sapphira, we forget Peter, representing the role of the pastor, who lacks compassion. Through his method of pastoral care, one could argue, the church lost two of its major contributors. Don’t worry, I don’t think pastors are called to induce coronary heart failure in the faith community. However, we are called to shepherd the faith community, and that requires addressing tough topics like racism, materialism and pledge cards. Maybe that’s why there was so much wine in the Bible—people seem to give more with liquid refreshments.
There is no exercise better for the heart than laughing and generosity. May we reveal the love we have for one another by the outward expression of generosity.

 

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

 

Being Church

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I forced myself to turn off the tv and head to the church. I needed to get in to the office, or I maybe I just didn’t need to be home alone. Arriving at my little church, the ladies were gathered for their Tuesday morning sewing circle- as always. Each year they combined their talents to craft a quilt to raffle at the fall fair. Week by week, bits of fabric strips slowly joined as one. This day they were not at their individual sewing machines piecing blocks. That phase had passed. Today they all sat around the perimeter of the whole to place the last threads within it by finishing the binding around the edge.
People went to work that morning, sent their kids off to school, caught their bus or train or elevator to work or missed it and lives were forever changed. Sept 11, 2001 – one of the days on our calendar that gives pause. Those of us old enough remember know where we were and what we did that morning.
The repercussions of that day rippled out from the east coast across this country and around the world. American flags sold out in hours, waving and hanging on display claiming unity in adversity. Lines formed down streets at Blood Banks cross the nation of folks hoping there would be lives found to save. In the days and weeks to come, military recruitment centers flooded with eager young faces ready to serve, and church pews filled like they hadn’t been since the 50’s. Americans went looking for comfort, for answers, for faith, for hope; people were looking for God; they went to church. Even the “spiritual but not religious” folks went to church -for a while.
National and global crisis get our attention and spur a religious response for moments or weeks, even months. Personal crisis or transitions can recalibrate spiritual priorities that last longer. All of those good and bad are reasons people seek out a church, but why do some stay? Why do you come back here after the joyful or sorrowful event passes?
What you find here is God of us All who is Love. We are inclusive. It doesn’t matter about the shade of your skin or the amount of your checking account, or who you love. We believe God made everyone, and all are beloved.
What you find here is “progressive theology” that means that along with no hell, fire or damnation, it’s ok to use your brain and ask questions of your faith. We need a faith that is strong enough to withstand all our questions and wide enough to hold all the mystery. We don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay too. We are not to arrogant to think that we are the only ones who encounter the Divine. We acknowledge other paths are as true for others as ours are for us.
The church is people who help us grow our faith and deepen our relationship with Divine and our awareness of Divine within us. The church is people who help us connect body, mind and soul as one. The church is the people who enact social justice and offer mercy.
Today, our nation’s history and our calendar remind us: life is short – life is precious it can change in an instant. Our lives can crumble like a steel skyscraper, so every day matters, building community matters, and working together matters. That’s how we get through it; that’s how we grow through it.
For some church is a new experiment; for some it as common as your breath. Church was important to my mother all her life that’s why she took me to church every Sunday. At first, she didn’t understand how a woman could be called to ministry, that wasn’t in her tradition, but she came around on that after a bit. Then she supported and encouraged my ministry. She came to visit when my little church held their annual fall festival. She was a quilter too, and she admired the work on that quilt. She bought some of those “non-raffle” tickets the sewing ladies sold, and I inherited it from her.
They signed the quilt that day,
“Medina Valley United Methodist Church Sew-n-Sews 2001 Raffle Quilt.
Pieced in joy and bound in love on Sept. 11, 2001.”
May we be the church the world needs today.    Amen.

Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska

To view the video of this sermon check out: https://vimeo.com/182439893

to see the full text go to www.fumcomaha.org

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See the People

 

Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska

Those who would follow the way of Jesus are called to risk. Risk what others might say about you when you treat all as brothers and sisters and not some as less than, not some as named useful as far as they can serve our wants, but as full human beings created in God’s image.

How many of us know the names of our postal carrier who brings us mail every day, our garbage collectors who remove our garbage every week, even our neighbors all the way down the block? How many of us know the names of our co-worker’s family? How many of us know the trials and joys of people we speak to every day? How many of us see a young man sacking our groceries on the late shift—and give no thought to the homework that will be started at midnight? And the school bell that will ring a few hours later?

How many of us get frustrated with the young lady serving up our fries, not thinking about her young child who was crying when dropped off at a crowded day care that morning? How many of us put one another on pedestals because of their work—then get angry when we discover our hero is really a human and can’t meet our need of perfect? How many of us see one another only to the degree that we are Useful?
Paul writes in his letter to Philemon, speaking of Onesimus, “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” Onesimus is useful—not as an object or a slave—useful not as a function of a task.

Onesimus is useful in teaching about Love given to all. Onesimus is useful as an example of a new relationship status not slave but brother and sister. Onesimus is useful in giving an example of Jesus’ principle of non-dominance—of embodying a refusal to dominate other people and judge other people by their usefulness to us.
Onesimus is useful in helping us to open our eyes to the Invisible ones all about us: invisible ones upon whom our nation runs, our economics thrive, our food is produced,
Our homes are built—and even the invisible ones in our own family.

As followers of this strange Way of Jesus we are called to truly see the people all around us. May it be so.

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Pulpit Voices in us All

Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska

The author of our scripture today was a prophet of Israel some 700 years before Jesus. Amos was not seminary trained to ascend to a lofty pulpit, but a simple herdsman preached nonetheless to both king and commoner. He condemned the selfish luxury of the women of nobility. The fat rich wives who lay on their expensive ivory lounge chairs calling for drinks and fine food and good wine while they trampled on the poor and deprived the poor of justice in the courts. The well to do were living with hardened hearts against the needy. That was 2700 years ago across the globe, but what’s “hardened hearts” have to do with us Americans in 2016?

In a nation where unequal income is the norm: (white families: $63,000 and families of color: $34,000), then we know our hearts are hardened.
In a nation of inequitable net worth (white families: $629,000 and black families: $98,000), then we know our hearts are hardened.
In a nation of incarceration (there are more African American males under the control of the criminal justice system now than were enslaved in 1850), our hearts are hardened.
In a nation of imbalanced education, of uneven health care, In a nation of housing value inequality between white families: $132,000 and families of color: $71,000, our hearts are hardened.
These are difficult sermons when narratives of hardened white privileged hearts linger in the air and images of slain people of color haunt social media.
Well intentioned white folks often fall silent even today – or maybe even more so today, in street and in pulpit because we fear whatever we say will be wrong. We fear our efforts to help will turn to offense. Our carefully chosen words will be ‘called out’ as insensitive. Our rhetoric will seem empty; our words too little, too late, untrusted by some and toe stomping for others. Our voices fall silent.
Amos came down hard on the hard hearted, but in the end, he offered them a glimmer of hope. He gave them a new way, a new narrative, where the destruction ends, and hardened hearts are opened, and people are healed and restored, and justice is present and right relationships restored.

The biblical narrative we follow is about liberation over and over again. The Bible offers a story of salvation from oppression and salvation from hardened hearts and silence that conspires to kill. It is a story of liberation of slavery, liberation in the work force, liberation of poverty, liberation of unjust court systems and unfair market practices. These are not new problems in our society. Our faith story proclaims that God’s love liberates and makes right.

If we believe the Christian story of transformation, then we believe hardened hearts can be opened then we can author a new narrative for our country. We can join our voices with those who have not been silent in the cause of justice. We can be the voices that challenge old narratives of racism and inequality and white supremacy into voices resounding God’s love for all.

Mamie

Narratives We Live

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

I want to tell you of an extraordinary woman living in Chicago while her husband was deployed during World War II. They had one child, a two-year-old son. Deployments are a strain on families. The couple divorced, and the father killed a few years later. That would be enough to bring on despair to any single mom, but this mom, as I said, was extraordinary. Though a woman growing up in the 1920s, she was well educated. She had to work long days—12-16 hours, her son helped with the chores. As an only child, he missed what his friends had, brothers and sisters, but he knew he had lots of cousins living in Mississippi. When he was 14, he begged his mom to see them. If we were to go back in time to this day in 1955, to the 63rd Street station in Chicago, we would witness a tearful mom saying goodbye, who devoted her life to raising a son, giving him his father’s signet ring engraved with the initials LT.
If we could go back in time, we would break down and weep watching the farewell at the train station because it was the last time Mamie Till would look into her son Emmett’s eyes. When I first learned the story of what happened to the only son of Mamie Till, I wept. Many here remember what they were doing when JFK was shot, or where you were on 9/11. African Americans who were alive in August 1955 remember the horrific murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till.
In a month, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will celebrate its long awaited grand opening in DC—built right there on the National Mall between the Capitol building, the White House and the Washington Monument. The Civil Rights Movement display starts with the story of Emmet Till. Those who were teenagers in the South at that time still react with fear and pain when they hear the name Emmet Till. Memories are recorded, and I share with you the recollection of Bonnie Jones:

It’s like a stabbing pain with an ice pick. Yes, because…see, I was a child then. I didn’t understand. The one thing that actually made it worse is to have the adults…the adults did not talk to you about your feelings, so you just had to hold up with those things yourself and absorb the pain and deal with it the best you knew how. You didn’t talk to anybody. You looked at your parents and see the pain on their faces. They expressed fear and pain and you just accepted it. You didn’t talk about it.

We have to talk about IT. What is IT?

“It” is the myth we live, based on the weakness of those in power and privilege who, over and over, since the founding of our nation, decide to live in our nation of white superiority rather than seeking to bring equality and justice as God would have it.
Which is why the African and American History and Culture museum is so important and impressive, for it captures history. We have to know history. Not history as we learned it, but history as it happened. And our national history, from the Native American Indian, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to the use of our military, is based more on a national myth than what really happened. Twenty years ago, in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen argues that history taught in our schools is dominated by textbooks, and the textbooks are full of myths that perpetuate a nationalistic narrative that make heroes out of those who are undeserving, while ignoring true heroes. Myths that fuel stereotypes. Myths that keep us from talking about IT. Myths that create fear that take our propensity to love and turn it in to indifference. Indifference occurs when we suffer pain, allow bitter memories to infiltrate every aspect of our soul and forsake hope.

That is the mental state of the author of what has been named as the “blood-thirsty” Psalm, Psalm 137, often set to music. I can think of no other Psalm that totally juxtaposes joy and sorrow, grief and anger, love and power. Last week, Preston Love addressed the aspect of evil when it comes to poverty. I want to continue that dialogue about the evil that surrounds us—poverty that leads to despair, which leads to hopelessness, which leads to criminal actions born not from love, but evil. This Psalm transports us back to a time of despair for the Jewish people, who were taken from their lands to Babylon—taken from present day Palestine to present day Baghdad, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. The Babylonian Captivity occurred some 600 years before Christ was born—it was a time of great injustice, when the Jewish people experienced despair to its core, and felt the absence of God. In exile, the people remember Zion—in the Psalms Zion represents the presence of God rather than an actual city. Zion symbolized a safe place, a place where exiles long to be, a home—the people cry out because remembering Zion brings joy and suffering because the security of Zion has been invaded and taken away. So no more songs of praise.

Yet, without mercy, their captors torment them, “Sing us a happy song about Zion!!!”

When I think of the narrative of racial injustice, from the millions of Africans exiled from their homeland, to the thousands who died during the harsh oceanic journey, to those enslaved, emotions are overwhelming. When I think about slavery in the United States and the way people treated people, I don’t think the story can get worse. But after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery evolved—at least slave owners needed slaves alive. After the Civil War, law enforcement became the new slave trade where those arrested were sentenced to hard labor. Industrialized black labor became very profitable in the South. Local law enforcement, lawyers, business owners, elected officials, even clergy, all worked together to create a system far more horrendous than slavery. Lynchings were the new terrorism. Horrific evil was lurking in America.

The worst possible response to evil is blindness.

Two white men were accused of murdering Emmett Till, whose corpse could only be identified by a ring on his finger, engraved with the initials LT. Because his mother insisted on a public, open casket funeral, the pictures of his tortured body restored sight to many in our nation to the evil occurring. The racist culture and the unfair trial, threats to eye-witnesses, alarmed many Americans. Even though the two white murderers admitted to torturing Emmett Till, after deliberating for only 67 minutes, the the all-white jury returned a verdict: not guilty. Reporters said they overheard laughing inside the jury room. One juror later said: “We wouldn’t have taken so long if we hadn’t stopped to drink pop.”

There are times when I feel like the author of Psalm 137—I feel like I am in exile. Maybe not physically, but my heart, my mind, my soul feels so deported. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally we all experience isolation.

Twelve years after the trial of Emmett Till, in August 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the three evils of society, saying, “We are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple prong sickness… the sickness of racism, excessive materialism and militarism.” He called for a “Radical revolution of values” and challenged Americans to face the inevitable choice between “materialism and humanism.” In the midst of struggle, Martin Luther King, Jr., found hope.

I wasn’t there during the aftermath of Emmett Till’s murder. I wasn’t there when Martin Luther King, Jr., over and over again, called for people to love one another.

We cannot be indifferent. We cannot be blind. We must learn the historical narratives that obliterate the myths that shape racism and prejudice. How to tell better sacred myths is the focus of author Melvin Bray, who will be leading a workshop Thursday night and Friday morning at Countryside—his passion is to enter into new narratives by creating intersectional space where white people and people of color can risk loving one another and share experiences.

I wasn’t there in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson declared the indigenous people of our land savages in the Declaration of Independence. I wasn’t there when in 1787 when Congress declared anyone from Africa to be 3/5ths of a human. I wasn’t there in 1790 when Congress voted naturalization of citizenship was for people of white skin. I wasn’t there when black lives were sacrificed to build levees along the Mississippi River. But I am here when historic floods in Louisiana strike those in poverty. I am here during the time when daily a new hashtag goes out of racial oppression. Black Lives do Matter.

Where is God in all of this? God was with Mamie Till, who a month before she died spoke how God revealed to her in August 1955

“Hate destroys, love builds”

And so she dedicated her life to teaching forgiveness and love. God was with Martin Luther King, Jr., who embodied the teaching of Jesus, that “hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.” God is with President Obama, who reminds the American people that “we are one nation under God, and we may call that God different names, but we remain one nation.”

Where is God in all of this? Look around you. Each of you is extraordinary. In what narrative will you participate?

 

 

racism week 1

Hanging on a Tree

Trigger Warning: discussion of racial violence and abuse

The Roman Empire crucified thousands of people; Jesus of Nazareth was not the only one. The reason stated in the Bible is that Jewish religious leaders were afraid that Jesus was stirring up the crowds. The ones in power were afraid Jesus was getting out of hand, so they plotted to kill him. They conspired with the Roman authorities to have Jesus crucified. They got the crowds all stirred up and angry, so they were jeering and chanting, watching the execution like it was entertainment. People in power and privilege hung Jesus from a tree because they were afraid that they couldn’t control him.  He was empowering the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized – so they mocked him, tortured him and hung him on a tree to die while the crowd watched.  It was a horrendous act of human cruelty.

This technique of “keeping people in their place” is also part of our own American history. From 1880-1940, known as the Lynching Era, nearly 5,000 African Americans were lynched.

Lynchings increased after the Civil War and the end of slavery. Slavery ended with a signature on paper, but the hatred did not. White southerners were outraged by the Reconstruction Act giving black men citizenship rights. The Ku Klux Klan formed. A black person could be lynched for any perceived insult to white people.

Without slavery to control African Americans, a new means and rational for control emerged.  An acceptance of lynching became the cultural norm – blessed by both the government and church. The imagined threat to white women gave the moral and “Christian responsibility” of white men to “protect the purity of their race” by any means necessary. It wasn’t just the South; white people lynched black men and women in nearly every state.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone explains that lynching and torture became a

white media spectacle in which prominent newspaper announced to the public the place, date, and time of the expected hanging and burning of black victims. Often as many as ten to twenty thousand men, women, and children attended the event. It was a family affair, a ritual celebration of white supremacy, where women and children were often given the first opportunity to torture black victims – burning black flesh or cutting off [body parts] as souvenirs. Postcards were made from photographs … and onlookers smiled as they struck a pose for the camera. They were sold to members of the crowd, who then mailed them to relatives and friends, often with a note saying something like: “This is the barbecue we had last night.” (Pg. 9)

Everyone knew about them, and no one stopped it. Lynching was not ruled illegal. Lynching was not preached against in churches. White people knew it was happening, because White Christians were doing it, so they did not stop it.

White Christians went to church on Sundays and sang of their Lord crucified, not seeing the lynching of innocent men, women, and children tortured, burned and hung as anything similar. We crafted theology of suffering that did not include us as sufferers or slayers. White theologians turned crucifixion into “God’s plan” saying the crucifixion was God’s love through Jesus. They spoke of this hideous act as an expression of God’s Love, instead of humanity’s hatred.

Jesus was an innocent victim of mob hysteria and Roman imperial violence – as were African American lynchings a sign of white supremacist violence. Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists. The purpose was to strike terror in the subject community; it was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not “stay in their place.”

It is difficult for us to accept the Lynching Era as part of our history since most of us were not taught much about it in our history classes. It seems too horrible to be true. But they are part of our nation’s history. Part of American church history.  Part of who we can be at our very worst.  Part that we’d rather deny than confess.

How could they do that?  Why didn’t someone stop it? 

What is even more difficult is to admit that we are still lynching people of color today.

Every time a person of color is gunned down in the streets by police, or a back is broken while being transported in police van, or a mysterious death occurs in a jail cell, and no one is held accountable – the lynchings continue.

We did not stop the Lynching era of last century, but by God, we can stop this one in ours!

The cross was used by Romans and then by White Supremacists as a symbol of intimidation and control and dehumanization.  But the cross is also transformed into another symbol.

The cross became a symbol of solidarity.  Black Christians believed that just knowing that Jesus went through an experience of suffering in a manner similar to theirs gave them faith that God was with them, even in suffering on lynching trees, just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.  (Cone, Pg. 22)

They found in the cross the spiritual power to resist the violence they so often suffered.

The cross has been transformed from a symbol of human evil into a symbol of Hope.  God does not leave us in pain and suffering.  God does not leave us in hatred in violence. God was with Jesus during his lynching. God was present with every person lynched in this country. God is within every single person still today. When we see Jesus in the crucified bodies imprisoned unjustly and lynched on our streets and in our judicial system today because of the color of their skin, then we see the Christ crucified today.

We recognize the scandal of the cross, and the mystery of redemption through it.

The empty cross now proclaims that evil does not win; death does not defeat.  God prevails.  God liberates.  God loves. 

We must too.

Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
stained glass

Grace Trumps Shame

Shame and guilt are like quicksand to our understanding of grace. I think the church has not helped in this area—right away in Genesis Three we learn about sin when Eve follows the advice of a snake and seduces Adam to eat an apple. They hide from God, full of shame.  Read that story literally and theologically our spiritual narrative is rooted in guilt and shame, not grace.

Without grace, legalism occurs.  Legalism is taking the words of Scripture and applying them to a narrow code where our actions determine the reaction of God, resulting in thinking that we have to act a certain way in order to earn the love of God.

From a Christian perspective, this rational leads to a form of righteousness where I can think I’ve earned grace because of my law-abiding righteous ways.  That way I have control over my destiny.  Legalism is the ultimate road map for those who want control.  If I follow my legalistic road map, then my final destination is Heaven. However, if I stray from the map, then I end up in an awful place called Hell.

But grace renders the map unnecessary. 

Grace says my worth isn’t tied to anything I can control—it is a gift from God that helps me to become the person God created me to be and brings peace that no matter what the world may say, God sees me for who God created me to be.  Grace defines me as beloved by God.  I’m not defined by legalistic shame-filled interpretation of Scripture, and the narrative of Hell is no longer my reality!

But it is difficult to really grasp because legalism makes so much sense in the world we live in.  We want to be in control.  Institutions want to be in control.

In the parable of the Prodigal son, the older son stays to work by his father’s side and the younger son skips out on the family. When he returns home, the father’s celebration is not for the dutiful son, but the runaway.  If we think we earn God’s love by righteous living, we relate to the elder son, and may miss out on the joy of grace.

Grace doesn’t need to make sense. God is loving, graceful, merciful, and active—God is on the move, searching, seeking and saving. May we begin to live in a world that receives grace as a gift that says, “You are worthy.  You are noble. You are loved. And you owe me nothing in return.”

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
god is love

If Grace is True, There is No Hell

The modern concept of Hell as eternal punishment is not in Scripture.

Our English translates the Old Testament Hebrew word “Sheol” or the Greek word “Hades” as Hell.  “Sheol/Hades” are words that mean the place of the dead where all who die go. Ancient Hebrews did not conceive of an afterlife – certainly not one of damnation by God.

We also translate the name “Gehenna” as Hell.  In ancient day, it was a valley where Israelites sacrificed children.  The ground was deemed cursed by innocent children’s blood spilt, so it became a pit outside of Jerusalem where the animal carcasses and garbage was dumped.  A fire burned there to consume the rubbish and carcasses.  Gehenna was a place outside of town — outside the community and the safety of the city walls — beyond the communal fellowship. “Gehenna” was used as a metaphor: how horrible it would be to live beyond community, apart from God.

Neither Jesus nor Paul or any of the authors of scripture conveyed the notion of a burning lake of fire where evil or unrepentant people suffered for all eternity damned by God.  But by the time the scriptures were translated into English (in the 14th or 15th century) the Hell myth had such strong roots that whenever a translator saw “Gehenna” or “Hades”, he translated it as “Hell.”  The notion of eternal damnation of one’s soul became a prime motivator for church growth and power.  For along with the threat of hell, the church offered the only way out.  The fires of hell grew hotter and the anguish grew more miserable with each passing generation. Then Dante delivered the church her greatest gift, The Divine Comedy.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante takes the reader through three realms of the dead: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  The poet has developed places for every type of person, allowing him to editorialize about people’s actions in the world of his day. Dante’s vivid scenes became the basis for virtually all of the artistic depictions of hell in the middle ages and our modern conceptions of a hell with demons, torment, and fire.  The church was delighted with the horrific images that would frighten the flock into submission and encourage conversion through fear, so it adopted them even though they weren’t biblical.

Pope Francis said:

“Through humility, soul searching, and prayerful contemplation, we have gained a new understanding of certain dogmas.  The church no longer believes in a literal hell where people suffer.  This doctrine is incompatible with the infinite love of God.  God is not a judge but a friend and a lover of humanity.  God seeks not to condemn but only to embrace.  Like the fable of Adam and Eve, we see hell as a literary device.  Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”

Hell doesn’t fit with the notion of Grace.  There is no lake of burning fire for all eternity— and Dante’s demons and gruesome creatures of the underworld are not images of hell — but there are other images of Hell in our world…

Images of violence, racism, terrorism, poverty, exploitation, and pollution.

Images of hatred, greed, arrogance, and bigotry.

Images of the Hell — not from God’s creation, but our own.

If there is no Hell of eternal damnation to which the church holds the keys, why be part of a faith community? We gather not to be in the church, but to be the Church. We gather to celebrate the gift of life and the beauty that exists even beyond the images of Hell that flash across our news screens.  We gather to hold one another in the hard times and to work for justice.  Because we know where two and three gather, or two and three hundred, we can make a difference in the hells we have wrought.

We gather to come together to sing and pray and serve and claim peace and hope.  We hope in knowing that as long as there is one heart of love in this world, there is a God.  For God is LOVE, and it is this divine love that lives in you and you who live in it.

Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
dallas shooting

If Grace is True, We Must Live It.

God’s blood was spilled on our streets in the shootings last week in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. In the week following the celebration of our freedom, we know that ALL are not free.  ALL are not equal in education, employment, opportunities, or in the actions of the law.

Our greatest sin as humanity is how and who we hate.  Our sin is we aren’t accepting and loving each other as blessed children of God. Instead, we are afraid of each other. The racism in this country is proof of our fear.

People of color in this country live in fear for their lives, and it is wrong. Our society lives in fear of one another.  People are taking up arms in fear for their lives.

To live in God’s grace means we claim our belovedness, and we show belovedness to others.  We are recipients of God’s love and acceptance no matter what. But in order for us to know that love – to make it who we are, to write it on our hearts at the core of our beings – then must live it. It’s not enough to just say we believe it. Grace is true. God does love us all, but the love doesn’t become real in our lives if we are not living it toward others.  We make God’s love real when we take that love into us and allow it to calm our fears of one another and inspire our actions for peace and our protests against racism.

When there is no love between people, it feels as though we have killed God. It is imperative that we live God’s love for all people. For that is God alive. That is Grace, and it is Grace Alone that will save us from our own self-destruction. We must write a new story that shows God’s love for all; a story of Grace that will overcome our fears and hatred of one another and lift up the oppressed; a story of Love that refuses to die and refuses to let others die in violence.

To watch the message in full, click here.

Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska
Rev. Dr. Jane Florence is the Senior Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska