Monday, July 21, 2014

What is Dying to Be Born or You Have to Wash a Lot of Potatoes -- Guest Sermon by Rev. Terri Stewart

Hi! I’m Rev. Terri Stewart and I work with kids affected by incarceration. That is young people who are locked up. These are kids that society has already given up on. From the age of 11 or earlier, they are entering into secure detention after years of acting-out in their schools and homes. When I think of a suffering, voiceless population, I think of these children. Children who don’t know how to articulate their problems, who don’t have power to change their situation, and children abandoned with their own parents often being incarcerated themselves. One of my dear friends, a former chaplain named Joe Cotton, used to say, “These aren’t kids with a crime problem, they are kids with a trauma problem.” That is too true. 

In March, I was watching television and heard about a shooting on the news. I hate when these 
events happen. My first instinct is to wonder if I knew anybody involved. This time, the answer 
was yes. It was a young man I knew from the work that I do. He was sitting in the backseat of 
a car, when the driver stopped at a gas station to fill up. The driver got into an argument with 
some kids at a bus stop, and when they drove off, one of the kids at the bus stop shot at the car. The bullet went into the back taillight and hit Ruben Kastillo in the back. Ruben had his life 
taken away in an instant. It is tragic. Or, as the Poet Dorothy Parker said, “This wasn’t just plain 
terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

Now, don’t imagine that Ruben was an angel who got caught in a terrible mischance. He wasn’t. He was gang involved and pretty high up in the hierarchy of teenage gangsters. When we met and talked, he was quiet and self-possessed. The question always comes up in detention, “How do you tell a gangster from a wanna-be?” The answer is that the “wanna-be’s” wear all the bling and sag their pants as low as possible but the real gangsters are self-possessed and quiet. They don’t need loud bluster to get respect. In gang culture, they have already earned it. Ruben was really gangster.

What must happen in a teenager’s life for him to already be a leader in a gang by the age 17? What suffering, disappointment and frustration has he experienced?For example, there is the story of Joseph. Joseph was the biggest 15-year-old you will ever meet. The problem with being a large 15-year-old is that you don’t get treated your own age. If you look 20, people treat you like you’re 20. Joseph was gang-involved and was what we would call “muscle.” But his biggest problem was his addiction to alcohol.

I talked to Joseph a lot over the 9 months he was in juvenile detention. We met for at least once a week during that time. I asked him how he started in the gangs. He told me that he first became affiliated with the gang when he was in first grade. He lived within walking distance of his elementary school, but that was unfortunately, gang territory. So in order to get from his home to the school safely, he started walking with some boys who were gang bangers. Over time, his involvement grew and they became the safety net that he needed. 

He also was abandoned by his father and he was from a family that had alcohol in the home at an early age, fueling his use and addiction to alcohol. And then, it was not helped by our justice system. He was charged with robbery in the first degree, that’s robbery while using a weapon, for stealing a six pack of beer and throwing one of the beer cans at the store clerk when he was trying to get away. 

This was a kid who suffered in his life and did not hold out much hope for his own future. In those cases, I think it is my job, the job of the chaplain, to hold hope for the youth.

While the Apostle Paul was not exactly dealing with modern day gangs in the Roman community, he did understand what it meant to suffer and what brings hope. In today’s scripture, he articulates the process by which creation will be saved. 

1. Paul’s starting point is that creation is suffering. 

2. He then tells us that creation is waiting for God’s sons and daughters to be revealed so 

that frustration will be eased.

3. Then he tells us that creation is not only suffering, but it is in pain! Labor pains! Hoping 

for a new birth.

4. And last, creation is saved by hope.

Before we can even get into this list, I would like to briefly go over a couple terms that Paul uses that I don’t think we use quite in the same way that Paul did.

First, the word creation. Scholar NT Wright says, “Paul believes himself to be living in a story, the real story of the real world, which stretches back to creation, and comes forward, through Abraham, the exodus, the monarchy, the prophets, to the exile, which in the political and theological sense has continued to his own day. He believes that the real return from exile, which is also the new ‘exodus’, has taken place in Jesus the Messiah, and that this has brought to birth the ‘new age’, the ‘age to come’, by freeing God’s people from ‘the present evil age’.” 

Creation encompasses the very beginnings of the cosmos and stretches all the way to the hope that can be found in the resurrection of Jesus. Creation includes everything and everyone. 

Typically, when we say creation, we don’t include ourselves. Paul very much includes people. That is a bit more expansive than the way we use the term “creation.” The other term to grapple with is what Paul means by being children of God. Throughout his letters, Paul talks about being God’s children through adoption. During the time of Paul and in Roman society, families held a much broader meaning than they do today. Typically, when we say family, we are referring to our immediate family—mother, father, children. The ancient Romans would include the extended family. And then, if there were people that had tragedy, perhaps the father died, they would be “adopted” into another family. Adoption was a wide-spread practice in the Roman aristocracy and vital to children and adults who were found in more tragic circumstances. Paul talks about being children of God through adoption. And what enables the adoption is the Spirit that cries with us, “Abba!” Then, Paul explains in an earlier verse, we are God’s children, and if we are God’s children, we are God’s heirs. And we are fellow heirs with Christ. Adoption through the spirit and being a child of God is very important to Paul. And it is huge! The magnitude of being an heir of God and fellow heir with Christ almost seems heretical! We rarely think of ourselves as being that close to God and that close to Christ. 

Creation. And Children of God through adoption. Now for the list. Creation is suffering. Can I get a big groan or something? That is a given. All we have to do is hear the story I told you of the incarcerated youth and you know that suffering is in the world. Children suffer, wildfires burning, war waging, people starving, the earth is groaning. That one is self-evident. 

But this is where we come in! We are the hope of the world. While creation moans and groans as if in labor, God’s sons and daughters are called into action to do what? Provide hope for a new creation that is unseen. Paul defines what we, as children of God, are called to, in Acts 17:30. He tells us that we are called to a changed heart and life—belief and action.

What would happen to the world, all of creation and everything and everyone, if we as Christians all acted with a changed heart and life to embody the call that Jesus gave us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and to visit the imprisoned? It would be amazing! And creation is waiting for us to transform the world by such acts of loving kindness.

I don’t know about you, but the acts of loving kindness that I can achieve, seem pretty small compared with the overwhelming suffering that is experienced in creation. We have to trust that God has a way to bring it all together. And you know what? There is a way. God gives us evidence of the way that “bringing it together” actually works. The evidence is in creation.

Here’s a story from biologist, Rupert Sheldrake about the Japanese monkey, Macaca Fuscata.

The original story appears in Lyall Watson's book Lifetide, where he describes research on Japanese macaque monkeys, which have been studied intensively for more than four decades in a number of wild colonies. In 1952, a researcher first provided monkeys in one colony on the island of Koshima with sweet potatoes, which were thrown onto the beach and hence were covered with sand. One of the monkeys, an 18-month-old female, called Imo, solved the problem of the sand on the potatoes by carrying them down to a stream and washing them before feeding. This new form of behaviour spread through the colony. By 1958 all the juveniles were washing dirty food and some of the adults learned to do so by imitating their children.

Watson goes on to say: "Then something extraordinary took place. The details up to this point in the study are clear, but one has to gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened. ..... I am forced to improvise the details, but as near as I can tell, this is what seems to have happened." Watson then tells the original version of the 100th monkey story, making it clear that this is not literally what happened but a kind of dramatisation of it:

In the autumn of that year [1958] an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea, because Imo had made the further discovery that salt water not only cleaned the food but gave it an interesting new flavour. Let us say, for arguments sake, that the number was 99 and that at eleven o'clock on the Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the 100th monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone in the colony was doing it. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerine crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies in other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiama.

By doing small solitary acts towards a better world, even a better monkey world, more monkeys joined in until an entire society was transformed and then that transformation jumped outward from one society to others. Transforming the world.

I work with a young woman named Amy. She is incarcerated in a state institution and recently had a baby. She is just 16, in prison, from an impoverished area, and miles and miles away from her family. I met her and our plan was to do a program that I run called the “MAP” program. MAP is “My Action Planning.” It helps youth create action plans so that they can have more successful transitions. After learning about who she is, what her plans are, what her desires were, I thought, “She doesn’t need this program, she just needs to be loved. What if we had a baby shower so she could see love in action?” Well, what I meant by baby shower was that I was going to contact my Facebook friends and we were going to throw her a virtual baby shower! 

I put it on Facebook and my friends responded. People dropped by my house leaving boxes of diapers and cute little things. Boxes arrived. Quilting groups sent blankets. It was a bonanza of baby presents!

I filled up my little VW Beetle and drove to Yakima. She was asleep when I went in. The group home bought decorations and I brought a cake. We fixed the whole place up. She woke from her nap and thought I had not showed up. That I was just another adult that had let her down. But guess what happened when she walked into the kitchen? She was confronted with a pile of gifts and beautiful things given to her by people she does not know. But by people, the church, that loved her regardless. All those people that joined together to create a loving experience for this young lady transformed her life with loving kindness. For each one, it was not a huge act, but all together, it was monumental. It gave her love and hope for a new future.

I want you to take a moment and think of someone that you have offered loving kindness to and not known the results. Someone you helped and have no idea what happened. But whose name is still engraved on your heart. I’m going to ask for it in a minute. This is your fair warning!

We don’t know what will happen in Amy’s life any more than I know what happened in Joseph’s life. But that does not stop the hope. Paul tells us that hope is in those things that we do not see. We cannot see the consequence of loving kindness. It is like all the monkeys up to the 100thmonkey. It is unremarkable when a slow change occurs. And that is the reality that most of us live in.

We are called to ministry of washing sweet potatoes. A potato here named Joseph. A potato here named Amy. A potato here named Ruben. Are you ready! What is the name on the potato that you would wash today? Take a moment, say their name out loud, and give them up and over to the community of God, setting them free. 

Creating a transformational movement is hard work. You have to wash a lot of potatoes! But getting in there and doing the work is the beginning of what will bring new life to a dying world.


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