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The King isn’t God

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 22:1-14

I have to admit- I have some big problems with today’s parable.

I think it is partly because I love so much a similar story that Luke tells in his Gospel.

Here is Luke’s version:

Jesus replied with this story: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations.  When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’  But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’  Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I now have a wife, so I can’t come.’

 “The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full.  For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.’”

I love this story. And this is a story that tells us what God is like, because God is like the man who welcomes everyone at the table, with no one turned away.

But this is not the text we are looking at today.

Instead, this text is not about a man, but a king. And to be honest – this is not a very good king.

This king tries to force people to come to his banquet. And when some of them kill his messengers, he not only kills the ones who did it, he burns down their entire town. Then when he invites the common people, the good and the bad, and when he comes to the feast, he sees one guy dressed wrong, and has him tied up and cast into “outer darkness”, whatever that means. It does not sound good, regardless. I think this king has some issues.

Almost all the historical scholars want to make this king represent God. And the urge is high, since we think of God as like a king, and this king had a son, and so on. I get where they are coming from, but I just can’t see God that way.

In the 11th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence at the hands of the violent. But the king in this story does not suffer violence – he dishes it out. The quiet guest – the one who wears the wrong clothes, the one who does not belong – this is the one who suffers violence. He is accused; he does not respond to the accusations and is then punished and killed at the hands of a violent government.

Sounds a lot like Jesus to me.

And it sounds like what seems to me to be the normal experience of those who reject power and violence. The Kingdom of God experiences violence at the hands of the violent. Experiences it, not dishes it out.

The way of Jesus calls us to be on the side of the one who is neglected, the one who does not fit in, who is rejected, instead of being on the side of the King that uses violence to get his way.

Hell is Real

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 16:13-20.

Having grown up on a farm, surrounded by farmers and spending countless nights rounding up the cows that got out because the fence was loose, I know a little bit about fences and, more specifically, gates.

Gates are funny things – they either keep things out or they keep things in. And if they do that, if they keep things out or keep things in, then they are doing their job.

In this passage, Jesus says, “…I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

How does a gate prevail?

The definition of prevail is “to be victorious”. In other words, to win. How do gates win?

Gates win when they are doing their job – when they keep things out or in.

And Jesus says the gates of hell will not win when they are confronted by the church.

You get that? The gates of hell won’t keep the church out.

Jesus built his church, and the gates of hell won’t stand up to the church.

Jesus wants us to go to hell.

To invade hell, actually.

Nowadays, it is fashionable for pastors to say they don’t believe in Hell. But not me. I am convinced – Hell is real.

I once met with a homeless woman whose infant son had been raped. That family was in the middle of hell. Or the man whose addiction cost him his family, his job and his home. He is in hell.

Because hell is where we find the broken-hearted. Hell is where the addict is. Hell is where the hopeless are. Hell is where people go when they have nowhere else to go. Hell is filled with crushed dreams and loneliness and fear. Because hell is real.

The Jesus I know calls us to go to hell itself, to bust through the gates and to rescue the people trapped there. To spread the word that there is a new way to live and a new hope for humanity and that the way the world is isn’t the way the world has to be.

When we bust down the gates of hell, we will be bringing food for the hungry, clothing for the naked and good news for the ones who mourn.

Jesus has built his church – now it is up to us to storm the gates of hell. They need us there.

Amen.

The God who waits on us

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 14:13-21.

If you grew up in church, you probably know this story really well. And honestly, that’s a problem.

Because with stories we know really well – like this one – we edit the stories in our head. We have heard them told so many times, and every time it is told, it comes with a preacher or a Sunday School teacher who tells you, “The important part is X”. So when we remember the story, we focus on X, and edit out the other parts.

Like in this story – we remember there wasn’t enough food. We remember that there was bread and fish. We remember that there was a miracle, and everyone was fed.

And because we remember the story that way, the next time we encounter there not being enough food, we think, “Oh, I know this story. What we need is a miracle!”

But that isn’t what the story says. It says that when the disciples told Jesus there were people who were hungry, Jesus said, “Give them something to eat.”

That was Jesus’ plan – share your food. If the people are hungry, feed them.

It was only when what the disciples had to offer wasn’t enough that a miracle was needed.

But that really isn’t where we are today. Today, we say to Jesus, “They are hungry.” And Jesus still tells us, “Give them something to eat.”

But now, instead of only having fish and bread, we live in a country where we throw away 40% of all our food. Where, on the remaining 60% of the food, more than one in three of us are obese. We live in a country where people are routinely dying of over-nutrition, while others starve.

The problem with serving a God who performs miracles is that we expect them, and we respond to the pain of the world by waiting on a miracle.

People are hungry, and Jesus tells us to feed them. And this time, we have the food – we just need to do the self-criticism and hard work necessary to do it.

God sees the pain of the world

just like we do.

God hears the prayers of the brokenhearted

and the cries of the oppressed.

God is paying attention

and God is faithful.

God has a plan.

God has a plan to solve hunger

to fill the bellies of dying children

to right the wrongs that have been perpetrated

to recognize those who have been neglected.

God has a plan. God’s plan is us.

See, it is not we who wait on God to act, but God who waits on us.

Two kinds of kingdoms

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Ezekiel 17:22-23 and Matthew 13:31-32

Sometimes, things are hard to describe. Imagine what it would be like to describe a kiss to someone who had never been kissed. Or describing the taste of bacon to someone who had never eaten pork.

That is Jesus’ problem here in the second passage we just read – he is trying to describe something awesome to people who have never experienced it, and so he is reduced to using metaphors.

The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed.

Oh. Well thanks, Jesus. That clears it all up.

OK, Jesus. We give. How is it like a mustard seed?

In the story Jesus tells here, where the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed, there are several things going on you have to know for this to make sense.

The first is that there is a guy planting mustard seeds. That just did not happen – at least, not usually. See, mustard grows like crazy. It the book of Leviticus prohibited the planting of two kinds of seeds in the same field, and mustard grows like crazy and takes over the whole garden. So, if you planted mustard on one row and beans on the next row, then the mustard would eventually work its way into the beans, and your field would be unclean.

So, you kept mustard over in its own place, and you did not have to plant it but once, because it went crazy after that.

So, right off the bat, here we have Jesus saying the Kingdom of God is like a guy who is making his field unclean.

Huh.

And then, Jesus says that the mustard seed, which is very small, grows into a huge, giant… shrub. And that shrub – that is what the Kingdom is like.

A shrub.

See, in the first reading today, the kingdom of God was compared to a cedar tree. For the folks of that time, a cedar was the tallest tree they knew of.

Imagine, instead of a cedar, we say “redwood” or “sequoia”. A tall huge, tree. And according to Ezekial, God is going to plant a cedar on top of the tallest mountain, and that cedar represents the Kingdom.

Majestic. Powerful. Mighty. Strong.

But Jesus says Ezekiel was wrong.

The Kingdom, Jesus says, begins with the unclean, and ends not with a majestic tree on a mountain proclaiming greatness to all who see it, but instead with a much more modest weed that at best grows into a small shrub that shelters the defenseless birds in its shade.

The Kingdom is coming, Jesus proclaims. But it doesn’t look like you think it will.

A lot of time and money and effort has been spent trying to bring about the Kingdom as envisioned by Ezekiel. A kingdom that proclaims greatness and power and might. Jesus invites us to another Kingdom, however – one that is nothing special to look at, but spreads like wildfire and shelters the defenseless.

The question before us is simply this: “Which Kingdom do we wish to be part of? And which Kingdom do we want to help build?”

Bad things happen.

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

The Rabbi Harold Kushner says that all conversations about God either start with, or end with, the question: “Why do bad things happen to good people.”

Why, indeed.

The fundamentalist Christianity of my youth would answer that there are no good people, that the question is not why do some folks have it bad, but why are we not all burning in hellfire, because of our inherent unworthiness next to God’s righteousness.

That was not very helpful, you know?

I know a woman who spent her whole life working in a rural Mississippi school, teaching rural country kids to read. On the weekends, she taught Sunday School and in the summers, ran her church’s Vacation Bible School. She and her husband personally helped at least a dozen kids to go to college. The woman was a saint.

She was retired and serving as volunteer librarian for her small town when she found out she had cancer. The phones in this small town lit up, spreading the news that Martha was sick with the cancer, and that the family was asking for prayer.

The town prayed. All five churches in the town held prayer vigils. Every Sunday school class in each of those five churches put her on their prayer list. I bet it is safe to say that over the next six weeks or so, there were thousands of prayers for Martha.

But Martha died. Her last few days were horrible, as she coughed up blood and was drugged beyond sensibility on morphine to make the pain bearable.

As deaths go, that one sucked.  Not sure where our prayers helped.

And then there is a guy I know, who has impregnated six different women, taken responsibility for none of them, who is a crack addict, who is always stealing other peoples things, who defrauds the government and churches… and he is doing fine. He seems to thrive, actually. If I could pick who would get afflicted by cancer, this guy would be a candidate, for sure.

But no, he keeps rocking along, while good folks like Martha die horrible deaths.

And anyone with sense thinks this is sorta jacked up.

Why do people get raped? Why do people end up homeless? Why do good people lose the job they desperately need to feed their families?

Why, why, why?

I used to scream at God about this. I used to get so mad at God – I mean, God is in charge, right? God has a plan, right? Is this the plan? If so, it is a pretty stupid plan.

Then I read this parable.

In the parable, Jesus tells a story about a farmer who plants good seed, but an enemy comes at night and plants weeds. When the weeds show up, the workers want to pull them up, but the farmer says no, because if you pull them up, it will hurt the wheat. So they let them grow, and get rid of the weeds at harvest time.

One thing you probably ought to know is that this was no ordinary weed. It was a weed called Darnel, and it looks a lot like wheat while it is growing. In other words, it is hard to tell it’s a weed. It also was poisonous and had a pretty intense root system that wrapped itself around the roots of whatever was nearby, so if you pulled up the Darnel, it would pull up whatever was around it – in this case, the wheat.

OK, make sense now?  Maybe not. But you are not alone. It made no sense to the disciples, either.

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

So, Jesus is saying, “God has a plan. There is an enemy to God’s plan, who seeks to disrupt it. The weeds are mixed in with the wheat, and to pull the weeds means I hurt the wheat. But one day, the harvest happens. Then, the weeds will be destroyed and the wheat harvested and God’s plan will be fulfilled. ”

In other words, I hear in this that God is not yet completely in control. God has enemies that disrupt God’s plan. So right now, God’s plan is not fully realized. But one day, it will be.

And until then, we have each other.

Wasteful love

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23

I grew up on a farm.

Well, a has-been farm. By the time I was born, we didn’t depend on the crops for our living. Dad worked in town, and so we just had a huge garden, and some chickens and pigs and goats.

Because ours was a farming community, and because Dad worked in town, I spent a lot of my time with farmers, and retired farmers. People who had spent their whole life planting seeds and then waiting to see if this year they would earn a living. To see if this year there would be money to pay the bills, if this year there would be new clothes for the kids, money to provide a Christmas.

These were people who were drop dead serious about farming. They farmed as if their life depended on it. Because, in lots of ways, it did.

So, the one thing you did not do was waste seed.

Every year, you would hold back a part of the crop to use as seed next year. That seed was the means to your whole livelihood. Every dream you had about the future was tied up in that seed. It was precious.

The ground was no less important than the seed. You had to bust it up, then run the cultivator over it, and then use the harrow to smooth the clods. Then, and only then, when the ground was at its most perfect, did you risk putting your precious seed into it. To do less would be wasteful.

So, when Jesus tells the story of the planter who scatters his seeds all over the place, my first thought is that this planter is a really bad farmer. He is risking his future on bad soil, and he is wasting his seed.

See, if you only have so much seed, you can’t take chances on the soil.  You only bet on the sure thing.

But this planter doesn’t think that way. This planter takes chances. This planter is willing to risk it. This planter is almost promiscuous with his seed, scattering it here and there. Maybe it will grow in the rocks. Maybe it will sprout on the path.  To not take a chance is to not ever know.

In the church I grew up in, I always heard this passage as an evangelism text. “You share the word, and those that are ready will snatch it up!” In the way they told the story, they wanted to make it a story about the ground.

But Jesus says it is a story about a sower – a planter. In other words, Jesus is saying, watch what the planter does in the text.

The planter takes risks on all sorts of ground. The planter is reckless and has hope that the seed will sprout on the rocks, on the path, in the thorns. The planter has hope, and the planter is generous.

That is what God is like, and what we are called to be like, by imitating Jesus.

When we follow the way that Jesus modeled for us, instead of only sharing our love and our hope with the people that are worth it, we love generously. We love hopefully, because we have high hopes that the love we share in the bad places will take root and sprout and bear something.

So instead of looking for the right kind of soil, we can focus on sharing love instead. Because unlike seed, there is enough love for everyone.

Imitating Jesus

This was the homily from this week’s worship service, delivered by Hugh Hollowell. The text was from from Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Children like to pretend to be adults. It’s one of the ways we learn how to be adults.

Children play with baby dolls, and pretend to be parents. Or they play fireman or cops and robbers or they play at their Fisher-Price kitchen with the plastic pots and pans. When I was a kid, my best friend was a guy named Paul, and I had stark blonde hair and Paul had black hair, so we would play the Dukes of Hazard, and I always had to be Bo Duke, because Bo had blonde hair.

The problem was, Bo was a little dense, so I always wanted to be Luke, his smarter, craftier cousin. Paul wouldn’t hear of it, though, because he had to be Luke, since Luke had dark hair. Later, it occurred to me that we could pretend to have a car, girlfriends and be 20 years older, but couldn’t pretend to have a different hair color. But by the time I figured that out, we no longer played together.

But pretending, imitating, that is all part of what it means to grow up, to mature, to learn.

In the passage I just read, Jesus says that this generation is like children that say ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ In their day, there would be circle dances of men at weddings, who danced to flute music, and women would act as professional mourners at funerals. So, Jesus is describing children who are pretending to do these things – the same way I would play church as a kid, complete with hymns and the offering plate – and the other children are not playing the game right. “We played the flute, but you did not dance!” “Play fair!”

This passage is a bit confusing, but it is really about imitating. About learning.

Jesus says his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.

If you plow a field with oxen, you really need two oxen – one of them is the experienced ox, and the other is the new one. They were strapped to each other with a device called a yoke. You have seen pictures of one – it looks like an upside down W. Because they were strapped to each other, the old ox taught the new ox how to plow.

The ancient Rabbi’s or teachers all taught different things. If you became a student of theirs, you attached yourself to the Rabbi, and did what he did. His teaching was his yoke, because you were strapping yourself to the Rabbi.

We don’t have Rabbi’s wandering around anymore, but we still strap ourselves to things. We see the stars on TV, with their bling and all, and we pretend to be like that, with our new cars and fancy clothes, buying things we cannot afford to impress people we do not like.

We go to the movies and see the bad guys get beat up by the good guys, and so we pretend we are like the good guys, looking for someone to beat up. The next thing you know, we have been in Iraq for 14 years.

We can’t help but to imitate someone – it is how we humans are. We learn by imitating. Jesus wants to teach us another way than the ways the world wants us to strap ourselves to. Jesus tells us his yoke, his way, is lighter. Not carrying all the baggage, the hatred, the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ that the powers that be try to get us to buy into that just weighs us down.

Instead, Jesus invites us to strap ourselves to him, to learn to live a life based on love and sacrifice.

Joint Statement of the Boards of the Love Wins Community Engagement Center and Love Wins Ministries

Over the last eight weeks, we have felt the support and prayers of so many people who have reached out to us. Thank you for that – we have been grateful beyond words. The Love Wins Community Engagement Center continues to be open and serving our community, those experiencing homelessness. We are grateful for new staff and dedicated volunteers who are so welcoming and caring every day, who help us create a safe place to be for those who have no place.

Now to address the recent upheaval:

Our Process. Following the April 17, 2017 public allegations made by then-employees Rev. Michael Raburn and Rev. Laura Foley, the Love Wins Community Engagement Center (LWCEC) Board of Directors in concert with the Love Wins Ministries (LWM) Board engaged in an extensive investigation. We have collectively spent well over 450 hours since April 17 in this process. We have consulted with outside experts as needed.

We are disappointed that the concerns raised by the disgruntled former employees were never brought to the members of the LWCEC or LWM Boards. The LWCEC Board routinely meets at the LWCEC, and all of us are available by phone and email to staff. We are confused as to why these allegations were made in the hurtful and frankly unprofessional manner they were, and in a way that jeopardized the ongoing mission of the LWCEC and relationships the LWCEC has with other community organizations.

Organizational Structure. To clarify: LWM is organized and legally established as a church, not a 501(c)(3) entity. The IRS does not require a church to have 501(c)(3) status in order for donations to the church to be tax-deductible, and the Board of LWM decided long before the LWCEC was a dream such status was not necessary for LWM.

As to LWCEC, the process of applying for that 501(c)(3) status was done by submitting a Form 1023 to the IRS. That application was received by the IRS on or before May 18, 2017. Meanwhile, the LWCEC has been operating since its inception as a mission program of Love Wins Ministries, the church. Anyone who has donated to the work of LWCEC has done so by donating to LWM, the church. Then the income that makes up LWCEC’s operating revenue is given by the church to LWCEC.

April 18, 2017 Statement. The LWCEC Board made a statement on April 18, immediately after the statement made by Revs. Foley and Raburn, incorrectly asserting that a “staff member” was responsible for failure to pay withholding taxes. We were wrong. The failure to pay withholding taxes was not her fault. The fault lies with the executive director of the LWCEC, Rev. Hollowell. The Board is very sorry for its mistake, and hopes she will accept our sincerest apology.

Current and Former Staff and Contractor Grievances. LWCEC Board members have offered to meet with numerous former employees and former independent contractors of Love Wins Ministries and the Love Wins Community Engagement Center. The Board has met with or otherwise heard from nearly a dozen former employees of both organizations. Others declined to meet or to comment. Several former employees do not have fond memories of working with Rev. Hollowell. At the same time, current LWCEC volunteers and staff are very happy to be contributing to the work of LWCEC.

Rev. Raburn and Rev. Foley claimed that Rev. Hollowell was “not an ethical steward of monetary gifts” and “may have misappropriated thousands of dollars of donated funds.” They gave the LWCEC Board copies of LWM bank statements with numerous transactions marked to indicate what these former employees alleged to be examples of unethical behavior or misappropriation. They did not provide any explanation of how they got these bank statements from LWM. Neither Raburn nor Foley had access to nor were they entrusted with the bank statements as part of their work with the LWCEC, a separate organization from LWM.

Nevertheless, the LWCEC Board Officers in concert with the LWM Treasurer conducted a thorough internal financial audit with counsel from an outside CPA and outside legal counsel. The Officers examined all questioned transactions for 70% of the period in question and randomly sampled questioned transactions for the other 30% of the 13-month period in question. We found the following:

  • As to the claim that, withholding taxes had not been paid; in fact, withholding taxes were delinquent in part, but were completely caught up by May 12, 2017. New procedures have been installed to ensure this does not happen again.
  • The Board found no evidence of “unethical stewardship” or “misappropriation of funds.” However, one instance was found in which Rev. Hollowell used the Love Wins Ministries debit card instead of his personal card to purchase coffee while on vacation. We determined this was a simple mistake. He has subsequently reimbursed LWM the $7.98.
  • As regards some of the other questioned transactions, some appeared to be reasonable concerns. For example, Rev. Hollowell uses a taxi from time to time to go from Love Wins to a work-related meeting when his wife needs the family car. While most organizations reimburse for work miles driven, LWM does not. Instead, therefore, Love Wins Ministries covers the cost of taxis as needed. This has always been LWM’s practice. While some may disagree with this practice, it is not illegal.
  • Some former employees also raised questions about Rev. Hollowell’s out-of-town travel. Rev. Hollowell speaks all over the country — nine events in 2016. Love Wins Ministries values engaging in dialog on issues of homelessness and housing vulnerability, and these speaking engagements serve that value. In addition, they enlarge the church’s potential donor base. Thus, covering such travel costs is an appropriate practice. Each out-of- town travel episode was examined, and confirmed to be appropriate, and related expenses were deemed reasonable.
  • Foley and Raburn flagged numerous restaurant meals as questionable. We do not understand why. Some of these meals were off-site meetings. Many, if not all of these meetings, were attended by one or both of the reverends. Some of these meetings were actually staff meetings. These expenditures were routine.
  • The former employees questioned three payments made to Duke Progress Energy. From time to time, Love Wins Ministries pays to keep the power on for housing insecure families. These transactions were examined and deemed appropriate.
  • By the same token, to prevent homelessness, Love Wins sometimes assists with rent to forestall eviction, or pays for a few motel nights under special circumstances, such as if one is discharged from hospital with no home to go to during further recovery. Again, no evidence of anything other than appropriate financial assistance was uncovered.

These practices were not a secret from staff of LWCEC. Rather, they were a routine part of the work of LWM. It is puzzling that these routine expenditures drew such concern from the former staff. The audit revealed that some finance-related systems, including the petty cash systems for both LWCEC and LWM, need to be improved. Steps for improvement have been identified.

Rev. Hollowell. We have seen instances where policies could be improved, to be sure, but we have found no evidence of financial wrongdoing. Instead, we find that repeatedly, Rev. Hollowell attempted to do too much by himself. Rev. Hollowell is a gifted preacher and storyteller and his vision for the healing power of community is contagious. He’s something of a prophet, speaking hard truths no matter how receptive folks are to them, and no matter what the cost to him, personally. That gift is a double-edged sword and it is an important calling.

Rev. Hollowell, however, is not a great manager. He has failed to delegate work to competent staff, failed to maintain sufficient staffing levels, and the organization has suffered as a result. As executive director of Love Wins Community Engagement Center and the pastor of Love Wins Ministries, ultimately, every shortcoming is going to be his responsibility – the buck stops there. As the Boards of LWM and LWCEC, we recognize the need to increase oversight to ensure that these lessons learned result in changes.

Conclusions. As a result of what we have learned, the following steps will be taken:

  • Just as the LWCEC has done since April 24, the Center will remain open a minimum of four hours per day, with paid staff and volunteers under the leadership and the supervision of the Boards.
  • Financial management and reporting will be improved. A member of the CEC board will meet with Reverend Hollowell monthly regarding finances.
  • Employee and volunteer relations will be enhanced through strengthened policies and Board supervision. A member of the board will be assigned as a staff liaison.

Prior to this upheaval, the LWCEC was open for 36 hours a week. Our greatest sorrow has been that the LWCEC has reduced its hours to 20 hours a week. Our greatest solace has been that our community, both housed and unhoused, has continued to show up and make this thing work now that we have reopened, even if we can no longer provide services eight hours a day.

Thank you so much for your interest in our community. Those of you who have provided faithful financial support have made it possible for the Love Wins Ministries and the Love Wins Community Engagement Center to continue serving this vulnerable community. And during this season of stress and change, your gifts are still greatly needed.

Love Wins Community Engagement Center

Sarah Jessica Farber

Carolyn McClendon

Al Reberg

Love Wins Ministries

Brian Ammons

Scott Bass

Chris Simes

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Never Alone

Hugh preached this sermon on April 30th 2017 at Raleigh Mennonite Church. The text was Luke 24:13-35.

Her name was Nina, and she was in her early 30’s. One of the first things you noticed about her was that she was beautiful. You would also quickly realize she had a 13 year history of opiate addiction, and of life on the streets, and of living the sort of life one leads when one is beautiful and lives on the streets and needs to finance an opiate addiction.

She had two daughters, by two different men. The oldest lived with her dad, who is some years sober now. The birth of the youngest had been the catalyst for the brief period of sobriety she was in when I first met her two and a half years ago.

She had gotten into a program for single moms in recovery, but then she got sick – her body was very frail after years of the abuse she had put it through – and she ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, and the state took her daughter. This put her in a catch 22 scenario – she was no longer eligible for the program that housed her, because she no longer had custody of her daughter, and she could not gain custody of her daughter until she had a place to live.

It broke Nina’s spirit. The life she was working for was gone now – the fairy tale of her and her daughter living a sober life together – and she relapsed. She relapsed hard.

She moved in with a guy who was her dealer. He was sometimes nice to her, and sometimes abusive, and whether he was treating her kindly or treating her as a punching bag or pimping her out to his friends, he was always providing her with heroine.

She would sometimes make the court-mandated visitation dates with her daughter, and sometimes she would not. She would call the foster parents late at night sometimes – drunk calls the foster mother called them – and sometimes she would show up at their church and sometimes she would do it while sober and sometimes she would do it while she was high as a kite.

During the 18 months or so following her losing her daughter, she was in and out of the hospital, as her lungs and her kidneys began to deteriorate. I would get a call from Rex Hospital – I was listed on her chart there as someone to call – and I would go sit with her, hear her stories, pray with her when she wanted it, and sometimes, I would just sit beside her and listen to her breath when she had drifted off to sleep.

And then, in the fall of last year, she disappeared. None of us knew where she had went. She quit making her visits. She missed court dates. I expected a call from Rex Hospital again, but it never came.

One day in February, I got an email.

Hello,

My name is Lisa, I am Nina’s sister.

I want to take a moment to thank you for all you have done for my sister.  Unfortunately we have some bad news. Nina is currently on life support at Wake Medical Center in Raleigh. She passed out on Tuesday with no pulse and went into cardiac arrest . They had to preform CPR for 25 min. We were told to prepare for the worst. I’m so very sorry for writing to you with such heart breaking news, but we thought you should know. My mom, dad, brother and myself will be visiting her within the next few days. I ask you to please say a prayer for Nina.

Thank you so very much for everything.

God Bless You

I wrote back right away, and learned that Nina had apparently overdosed and went into cardiac arrest. Her family was in New Jersey and in Florida, and none of them had much money, and none of them could afford to miss much work, so the doctors had told them to wait before they came, since they would probably only be able to come once.

Once again I was sitting at Nina’s bedside while she was unconscious, this time in a different hospital, the ventilator rising and falling, the nurses coming in and out. But this time, there would be no follow-up conversation when she woke up.

The tests were done, and our fears confirmed – she had failed the neurological tests, and was only being kept alive by the machines. She wasn’t going to make it.

Lisa asked me if I could be there with them when they took Nina off the machines. Of course I can.

They all came into town the following week – mother, father, father’s new wife, sister, sister’s husband, and baby brother – and they all stayed in two motel rooms at the Econolodge, because that is all they could afford.

The family dynamics were a mess. Mom and dad had been divorced for years, and this was the first time they had seen each other in nearly a decade. The sister had left home because she was afraid of falling into the life that ultimately consumed Nina, and so felt all sorts of guilt and “what if I had stayed” questions.

And we all met over the hospital bed of Nina, who was not going to wake up, and who we all loved, and who we had come to hold vigil with until she was gone.

Being there at death with a family is a holy thing. I prayed. Nina’s bed was draped with favorite childhood toys and family pictures. The family sang sing-along songs that they had all sang with Nina on childhood road trips. And then the nurses remover her ventilator, and dimmed the lights and we all said our goodbyes and we waited for Nina to die.

It isn’t like in the movies. She lingered for hours. It would be nearly 21 hours before she would breath her last, and in the meantime we sat there, telling stories about Nina, sharing memories, looking at pictures. Sometimes it was light-hearted, like when mom showed pictures of a birthday party where Nina as a toddler was covered in cake and sometimes it was serious, like when Mom asked me what I thought happened to people after they die.

I don’t care who you are, when you are watching your child die, you are probably going to be mad at God. You are going to have anger. You are going to have doubts. You are going to have questions.

Somewhere around 4am, Nina began to decline. Her heart slowed and her breaths dropped and it looked like it was finally the end. We roused from our drowsiness and prayed and sang again. It would be another 11 hours though, before she was finally gone.

But we were all wide awake again, so someone went to the cafeteria and bought pastries and coffee and we sat around that bed in the ICU unit and had a serious conversation about life and death and afterlife and all of that. There was room for doubts and room for anger and room for cursing. And then we prayed and, in the midst of all of that hurt and pain and anger and loss and heartbreak, over a shoddy meal of tepid coffee and stale pastries, our eyes were opened and the presence of God was made known to us in the midst of the tragedy.

We sang more songs and maybe it was the exhaustion, but the family finally let her go. Eleven hours later, she finally passed, entering more fully into the love of God and more completely into our memories.

In the midst of all of that pain and loss, God was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

The two men walking in the scriptures we read today were also in the midst of tragedy. They also had their own stories of loss and pain, and were filled with doubts and fears about what is next.

They had watched, just days before, as Jesus rode into town, triumphant, palm leaves scattered before him. The crowd wanted to crown him king.

They had watched as Jesus flipped the tables in the Temple, calling shenanigans on the ways that money and religion interacted then, and continue to interact today.

One of them may have been in that upper room as Jesus broke the bread and drank the cup that gave us the Lord’s Supper, and felt the breath of Jesus as he invited the Holy Spirit to come upon them.

But maybe they were also in the garden when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. Were they in the courtyard with Peter when he denied knowing Jesus, and did they see the flush of shame on his face when he heard that rooster crow for the last time?

Had they watched Jesus stagger enroute to his death, carrying his own cross across bloody shoulders? Had they watched him get nailed to the cross, had they stood on a distant hill and watched this Jesus, who they thought would be king, die a horrible death?

Today, all around the world, Christians will wrestle with this text. There will be a lot of discussion about what it means and what we can take from it, but here is one thing that stands out to me:

As the disciples walked the long road to Emmaus, as they tried to make sense of the pain and the tragedy, Jesus journeyed with them.

Even though they did not recognize him – they were not alone.

Just like in Nina’s hospital room, as we gathered around her and prayed and cried out to God, we were not alone. Jesus journeyed with us. And he was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.

And when they ate together, suddenly, they knew Jesus had been there all along. They knew as they went to Emmaus that they had not been alone.

The whole time they were on this journey of escape, Jesus walked beside them. Jesus taught them, showed them how to make sense of what they had been through and gave them hope to go on.

And I believe that Jesus still does.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen

Resurrection is a Team Sport

This is the Lent 5 A sermon Hugh gave at our Wednesday Prayers service on April 5, 2017.

Text: John 11:1- 45

Sometimes, we reach a point where things have to change.

Sometimes, the path we are on is one that is guaranteed to destroy us, and we have to change course. We have to change direction, we have to stop – to really stop. And when that happens, the person that we were, the person who was doing those things, their ego – it has to die. And then you have to start again.

For the last few weeks, we have seen various examples of this.

When the rich man Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night so no one would see him and asked Jesus how to change, Jesus told him he must do nothing less than be born again.

When the woman at the well wanted to know how to end her perpetual thirst, Jesus told her she needed living water.

Last week we learned about a man born blind who then met Jesus and began to see for the first time, giving us hope that one day we too can learn to truly see.

With this week’s story, it’s as if the writers were tired of playing with metaphor and decided to get very literal: We are going to talk not just about new life, or going from blind to seeing or perpetual thirst – we are going to talk about what it means to come back from the dead!

Lazarus and his family were friends of Jesus, and Jesus wept when he learned of Lazarus’ death. Lazarus’ sisters believe Jesus can bring him back to life, even though he has been in the grave for four days.

So Jesus stands at the door of the tomb and shouts, with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And he does! Lazarus, still bound up in the shroud that bound him in the grave, comes to the door of the tomb, alive!

And that is where we often stop the story. Lazarus was dead, and now he isn’t. Jesus has healed Lazarus, brought him back from the grave, so let’s talk about something else.

Often we do that in our own lives, too. I quit drinking, so let’s move on. I stopped living with the man who hurt me, so let’s move on. I got a place to live now, so let’s act like nothing happened.

But the dirty secret is that it isn’t just about being born again, or getting spiritual water, or learning to see again or even about coming back from the grave. It’s about what happens next.

Because there is Lazarus, who is now alive, but still bound up. And Jesus tells his friends, his community, those who love him to unbind him, and let him go.

Jesus tells us that resurrection is a team sport. That while Jesus breathed new life into Lazarus, it lies with his community to free him, to unbind him from the things that hold him back, to pull him from the tomb and give him a second chance.

Because when we are in the midst of things going to hell in a handcart, the question that lies in front of us isn’t can we come back from this – because almost always, we can. We can have a fresh start, we can be born again, we can learn to see anew, we can have our thirst quenched. We can even come back from the dead.

No, the question isn’t can we do it – the question is, who is going to help us do it?