We celebrate this week what I believe is the quintessential American holiday—Thanksgiving. It is a holiday that causes us to remember our roots as well as our present. It is a holiday that remembers. It IS a “holy day” in which we remind ourselves that giving thanks is a profound need inside of us all. A reminder that we didn’t create everything around us and we didn’t “set the table” for every good thing America has become. It’s a reminder that we belong to something bigger than ourselves. And a reminder that we owe thanks to those who came before us.
It’s a time for being with family or friends and sharing a meal. There are few moments as holy as this. It is a sacred thing to gather and laugh and tell stories and to say to each other—with or without words—that we love each other.
It is, then, with mixed emotions that I announce Joanna Cummings will be leaving our church staff to take a position with a sister United Methodist Church in the area. My emotions are mixed because I am so very grateful to have spent these seven years together with her. She has performed extraordinarily well for us and has proven herself to be such a good model of a servant-leader. I am saddened because I, like all of you, will miss her very much. Joanna has been a big part of the formative years of so many of our children and their families. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like without her.
At the same time, she will move into an exciting new position with a church that will be able to fully utilize her amazing gifts. We were fortunate to have Joanna with us for seven years. And as Dr. Seuss famously said, “don’t cry because it’s over—smile because it happened.”
Which brings us back to Thanksgiving. I hope you will share your own words and acts of gratitude with Joanna over the next few weeks. She will officially transition from us at the end of the year. I know we will create a moment in which we, as a congregation, can express our appreciation. Each of us offering his/her thanks for Joanna’s ministry among us is a sacred thing, too.
I hardly know how to begin, much less what to say. Another cowardly attack—this time in Paris. And make no mistake this attack, just like the one in New York on 9/11, was an attack against the world community. As of this writing it appears that 129 were murdered and some 350 or so were injured; 100 of those critically.
Like most of you I am struggling with feelings of profound sadness, deep concern, and anger. I don’t understand what such extremists hope to accomplish. Certainly they have managed to bring to a halt the daily routines of Parisians. But in the end, such attacks will only serve to strengthen the resolve of every civilized nation.
I find myself asking that question we all learned in church as young children, “What would Jesus do?” It’s probably not possible to answer that with any authority. Most of us would find a way to put in Jesus’ mouth the words WE would like him to say—to have him bless OUR notion of justice or retribution or forgiveness. The best we can do is consider his life as a whole to get a glimpse of what a true “kingdom response” might be.
Feel free to disagree with me, but I think first of all it is inconceivable to me that Jesus would favor returning violence for violence. I can’t recall a single instance in his recorded life in the gospels as recommending such a response. I more vividly remember him saying, “If someone hits you on the right side of the cheek, then turn and offer the left side, too.” That isn’t what we are hoping to hear today as we try to get our emotions in check. Don’t ask me why, but I imagine myself getting a sense of relief by gunning down all those who would seek to do harm. I don’t know why I would have those feelings and I’m not proud of them. Maybe that’s the reason our first response should be to reflect/pray. Emotional responses are usually wrong and only bring temporary satisfaction.
Would Jesus have attempted to physically stop the shooters had he been there? I don’t know. Maybe. But do I think Jesus would have stood next to someone and said to a shooter, “if you shoot them you have to shoot me too"? Yes I do. He proved as much by not avoiding a cross when he could easily have done so.
Do I believe Jesus would forgive these murderers? Yes. I just don’t know how he does it. It requires a strength that I don’t have—a faith that I don’t have—a belief that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God. I really do believe that—it’s just that today it’s hard for me to embrace it.
There will be those who will ask the question, “Where was God?” “Why didn’t God prevent this from happening?” Is it because He couldn’t? Or because She wouldn’t? Is it because God can see the whole board and that this attack somehow fits into a larger, overall plan? I wish I knew. What I believe most deeply in my soul today is that God WAS there and that the first scream and the first tear were God’s own.
For now, I plan to not only offer prayers for Paris, but I also plan to stand with Paris. Today, we must all be Parisians.
I have been asked recently to lead conversations about grief at two corporate/business complexes. This was part of an overall “wellness” program these businesses have instituted in order to promote health among their employees.
At the most recent workshop, there were a number of very fresh “grief points” — a suicide, a cancer diagnosis, a tragic accident, and others. You are familiar with the phrase “the elephant in the room” — when something huge looms over everyone in a place, but no one ever speaks of it. That’s kind of what the feeling was at this business.
I was struck by the variety of theological backgrounds in the room and some of the “religious soundbites” that emerge when discussing such things. “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” “God must have needed another angel in heaven,” etc. We are all pretty good at avoiding dealing with pain and trying to make it go away.
I was even more struck by how many in the room had no language whatsoever to deal with such grief. We, in the church, have our issues and God knows we don’t do everything right, but we DO understand pain and suffering. It is at the heart of the Jesus story and that story says we can overcome our grief—we can experience resurrection from our suffering.
The world we live in is full of wounds. You and I know too many Christian brothers and sisters who have been wounded by their own churches. For various reasons they engaged with the church and got hurt.
If you’ve been listening to the presidential debates, you also know that there are wounded Republicans and Democrats, too. And there are wounded Americans of every stripe—wounded soldiers, wounded workers, wounded immigrants. Many stories, but common elements. Things didn’t work out as we had expected. We trusted the wrong people. Maybe we were betrayed, maybe we were just unlucky—and maybe somebody really was out to get us.
Some wounds get healed. Some don’t. Mostly, though, we move on. We put the wound behind us. When we are at our best, we forgive the one who wounded us. Or else we try to ignore it—or the one who hurt us. We try to move on as if nothing had happened. We learn to live with a “limp” or a broken limb, as it were, because the urge to live is greater than the urge to give up.
Churches of every kind experience pain. We wound each other or we feel wounded by the world around us. There are always those who believe for reasons all their own that history can and must go backward. The church at its best does not go backward. We press on—conservative or liberal, old or young, progressive or traditional, male or female—all of us, onward!
We are wounded folks, all of us, in one way or another. But God is transforming us by love. Not by victory over the ones who wound us, not by revenge, but by love.
Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street. In his last year on Wall Street his bonus was $3.6 million. And he was angry because he thought it wasn’t enough. He was 30 years old, not married, no debts, no philanthropic plan. Sam said, “I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted.”
Sam arrived on Wall Street as a 23 year old fresh out of college as an intern. He watched as colleagues earned huge bonuses year after year. He had learned from his dad the dream of becoming rich. His father had made that a quest of his own, but died having never reached it. But he thought about it and talked about it constantly. His father would say, “Imagine what life would be with a million dollars?” His dad, Sam would say, thought money would solve all his problems. And at age 23, so did Sam.
His obsession with money caused him to lose an important relationship. His girlfriend of several years finally said to him, “I don’t like who you’ve become.” After that breakup, Sam worked like a fiend and moved up the Wall Street ladder. By the age of 26 he had a contract to work two years for Citibank at $1.75 million a year.
Still, he was nagged by envy. “When the guy next to you makes $9 million, $1.75 million doesn’t seem like very much.” And so it went. His quest eventually led him to a counselor who recognized the warning signs of addiction. She cautioned Sam that he was using the money to make himself feel powerful and that maybe he should focus more on healing the inner wound that was driving the obsession.
Sam says it was in a meeting with his “absurdly wealthy bosses” one day that turned him. They were talking about the new regulations that Congress had imposed on Wall Street following the big crash. Nobody thought the regulations were a good idea. Sam asked, “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” His boss shot him a withering look and said, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects OUR company. I don’t care about what happens to everybody else.” Sam said he felt like he had been punched in the gut.
From that moment he began to see Wall Street with new eyes. He remembers the rage so many traders felt at having their bonuses reduced after the crash. They despised anyone that threatened their bonuses. “Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his stash? He’ll do anything—walk miles in the snow, rob a family member—to get a fix. Wall Street was a lot like that.”
Wealth addiction doesn’t just occur in the “fabulously well-to-do” people. The “quest” for wealth is just as prevalent in those who don’t have it. It is a disease that affects the poor just as it does the rich—like Sam’s dad who died penniless, but never let go of the quest.
Jesus said more about money than he did almost anything else. He seemed to recognize the power of money—especially the power of money to corrupt and to create a barrier between people and God. Allow me to remind you that Jesus never had a bad word to say about those with money. He simply reminded them how hard it was to serve two masters, how hard it was to leave it behind in order to gain something even more valuable, how hard it was a for a rich man to enter the kingdom—as hard as trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle. But immediately after he says, “But it IS possible—Nothing shall be impossible for God. It’s even possible for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle.”
But as one preacher friend of mine once added, “But it will be very hard on the camel.”
In this season of stewardship in the life of the church, I encourage you to consider how your generosity impacts your spiritual life as a whole. If you don’t already know, trust me when I tell you it makes an enormous impact. Make this year the year of radical generosity in your household and see what difference it makes in all of you.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.