Focus Factor

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.(Matthew 6:33)

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3)

I have been ruminating for some time about the colliding kingdoms we are living in as Christian pilgrims. If you have lived through this last decade you likely have been too. Last night we had a great discussion in Wednesday Night book group about faith and politics, about the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world. We shared the common sense that the church in America has lost its focus on the kingdom of God and rooted its faith in the hopes and realities of politics and government. The lingering question was “How did we get here?”

Leaving with that question rolling around my head, my phone beeped and someone had responded with another question on Facebook about an article I posted and found helpful in the ongoing debate about prayer and the first amendment in Washington state, and the Supreme Court. . The question was, “why do you feel the need to continually post and repost divisive political arguments?”

What is so interesting is that I post articles like this because I’m thinking about the gospel, the kingdom of God, and the way of Jesus front and center, and how these holy things shape the way as Christians we think and act in the world. My sense is that for the questioner, this is a political article, argument, and issue first and foremost, front and center.

In my now close to thirty years of pastoral ministry, I have sensed a great increase in the Christian community of politics (the struggles for power and control in our society) as the forming center and starting place of faith conversations, rather than Jesus of the gospels and the kingdom of God. I Often have this experience where I’m hoping to have a theological or faith conversation with a fellow christian who can only hear and receive it as political.

My theory is that because of 24/7 news and its spin, its commentary, many of us in Christian community have made the kingdom of this world more central to our faith than the kingdom of God. Our minds are more focused on things below than things above. We come to theological and faith conversations from political positions rather than coming to political debates from minds focused and rooted in God’s kingdom come in Jesus. One of these directions is inherently focused on what’s best for me; the other is focused on what’s best and right for my neighbor. And the truth is, my human self always wants what’s best for me, while my “Raised with Christ” self seeks the good and right for others. It’s no wonder that the way of Jesus ones across as “politically divisive.” It’s true. The call of Jesus is non-partisan and divisive, because it calls us out of ourselves — our rights, our privileges, our power — to seek through service and self sacrifice the good of others, the love of neighbor. This, from John Pavlovitz:

“The problem with all this is Jesus himself. He apparently had very little interest in such geographically determined supremacy or birthright blessings, or in the accumulated power that has proven to be such a seductive selling point to so many of his followers. He talked of the last being first, of becoming servant of all, of laying down’s life for one’s friends. He affirmed the priceless values of denying oneself, of healing the hurting, of caring for the poor, of elevating the marginalized, of freeing the oppressed, of seeing the overlooked; of being peacemakers, foot washers, cheek turners, mercy givers. He wasn’t in the business of nation building but community making, not about consolidating wealth but spreading it around and making sure no one went without. He was always doing the social justice work of raising valleys and leveling mountaintops. Jesus’ life as witnessed in the Gospel stories was a beautifully subversive manifesto of smallness and kindness and goodness, continually reiterating the sacredness of sacrifice, the dignity of humility, the redemptive nature of forgiveness.” (If God is Love, p. 69.)

The Christian life is a call to displacement and downward mobility after all!

This underscores the importance of our gathering together for worship, study, prayer and service, so that the kingdom of God can get into us, and get a hold of us, as we seek first God’s righteousness. And it would behoove us to remember that we who have been raised with Christ to new life live and move and have our being now in a kingdom not belonging to this world.

Seek that Kingdom! First!Turn off the TV, and focus your energy and spirit on the kingdom of God.

Blessed to be a Blessing

“You are blessed to be a blessing.”

How many times have I heard that before?

So many, if I’m honest, that I can tune those words out. It seems like a way to explain to especially privileged people why we are so blessed, over and above others. And it often thus feels to me like a rationale for the inequities that persist in our world, whereas I would offer another explanation: human sin and brokenness.

But this week, at our Central Conference Annual Meeting, I heard those words again – as if for the first time.

During our Thursday evening worship service, Ramelia Williams, director of Ministry Initiatives in our denomination’s Love Mercy Do Justice office, preached on God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis. She focused on how Abraham was blessed to be a blessing.

This time, the words didn’t feel so hollow.

She told us how the very act of acknowledging yourself as blessed is to recognize the connection between you, the receiver and God, the giver. It is to see WHO before the WHAT of your blessing. And it is to know that God, who gives us gifts, gets a say in how we use them.

Then she posed several questions that have stayed with me:

What if we viewed our blessings as a blueprint for the work God has called us to?

What if we viewed our blessings as ways to connect us to each other?

What is the meaning of a blessing from God if I keep the fruit of it for myself?

As a person who was born into privilege and continues to live in that privilege, I have often grappled with the purpose of my privilege. I can see now that I conflated privilege (the result of an unequal and unjust society) with blessing (the act of God).

There’s something to be said for using your privilege on behalf of the underprivileged – that’s work we need to keep doing, too.

But today, I’m thinking about my blessings. Things that are gifts from God. Like a loving family, and a wonderful church. Deep friendships. Meaningful work.

God gave me those things – and God gets a say in how I use them.

I invite you today to reflect on what you would list as your blessings, and how you might use them to bless others.

I will leave you with these thoughts, right from Ramelia:

You are privileged to free others from oppression

You are wounded to be a healer

You are employed to support your family and community

You are free to break the chains of others.

What might you add?


Pastor Jen

The Narrative of the Other

Luke 7:13
When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

The first half of this week I made my way to Lansing Michigan for my first clergy retreat with Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ) colleagues. Though it felt strange to be a complete stranger to everyone in the room, I was warmly welcomed and gained many new friends.

For 2 days we considered the power of stories, narratives. We told our own and listened to others, and considered with the help of a prodding presenter the unique opportunity and challenge of following Jesus into the seething pain of our world.

We were left to reflect on and consider that to walk with Jesus into the world means that we take the narrative of others as more primary than our own, especially the narrative of those who are suffering injustice. The basis for this is self-displacement of Jesus, who is constantly moved with compassion for those who are hurting and makes their pain his own. Ultimately, of course, he offers up his own suffering and death so that we might have new life. Talk about the narrative of the other!

The idea we were wrestling with is how we are called as followers of Christ to embrace by our own volition the forming narrative of those suffering around us. To say, for instance, to our African American sisters and brothers, “Your pain is now my pain”, and to then act in ways to seek justice and healing for the atrocities that black people have experienced in our own country’s history even to this present day. It is not simply to be concerned, or to care, but to listen to, learn about, and one actually come to accept the narrative of another as my own, and therefore, to work for justice and the healing of the human family. The hope is that in taking this step we can break the cycle of perpetuating injustice.

As we know, the word compassion means to “suffer with”. The first part of this involves acknowledging my own complicity, mostly in the privileges I have which have been gained through the suffering of others. the second part is identifying with, suffering with those whose narrative is one of experiencing all kinds of injustice. Here the words of Paul say it best:

“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete….Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the very form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.” (Phil 2)

Our lives have been redeemed by this action of Jesus, who embraced our human narrative in all its brokenness and pain. This now is our work as those walking out into the world with the mind of Christ.

God bless us one and all as we seek to follow Christ!

Peter Hawkinson

Christ, Our Passover

Today, on Maundy Thursday, we heed the haunting words of John the Baptizer, who saw Jesus and said, “See the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Today we remember that first passover night back in Egypt, when death did not have its way with God’s chosen people. Passover, if it is anything at all, is a life and death tale.

And it is in the feast of passover that Jesus washes the feet of the one who will betray him, and rips apart the bread while he says “this is my body that is for you”. “This cup is a new covenant in my blood” he tells them as he pours out and passes the wine. As we say so often at the communion table, “Christ, our passover, has been sacrificed for us.”

Here we come to the heart of the matter, to realities of life and death, his and ours. To the table tonight we can only come broken, sin-scarred, and repentant. We come to the table headed for death, hallowing this night on which Jesus was betrayed. Judas, yes, but all of them to be honest, and all of us.

Many recent communion liturgies have changed the word “betrayed” to “arrested”. The Lord Jesus, on the night he was arrested…. “Arrest” is administered by external authorities. “Betrayal” discloses a a breach among family and friends. Paul tells us that “Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took a loaf of bread and broke it and gave it” to who? To the betrayers.

Christ’s greatest wound of all is administered by friends, not Roman executioners or religious opponents.

You and I, we cannot come to this table tonight any other way but broken. This is a table of only for sinners, for betrayers, for penitents who know well more than anything else their trespasses. t’s no wonder, then, that historically this is the moment when those identified by the Church as “penitents”, who have been separated from the church and doing penance since Ash Wednesday, are reconciled to the community. On the night Jesus was betrayed, sinners are welcomed back. Here is the account of a medieval Roman rite:

“The penitents lay prostrate outside the doors of the church. they are barefoot and have unlighted candles in their hands. The bishop sends to the penitents an old deacon who holds a very large, lighted candle. At the door the deacon chants — “Lift your heads. Behold, your redemption is at hand!” and the deacons light the candles of the penitents. The deacon continues, and chants — “Stand now in the silence and listen to what is said.” The deacon turns around and faces the bishop, who is at the communion table and chants — “The acceptable time has come. Now is the forgiveness of sins granted and the welcoming of those reborn in grace. The waters wash. So do tears. Blessed are those who weep, for they will be consoled.”

The bishop then comes out from behind the altar and goes to the door and chants: “Come, come, come children and hear me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” The invitation is repeated twice more, and then the penitents stand. The bishop takes one of them by the hand, and all of them join hands as in a chain. The people, as one, chant: “there is joy among God’s angels when one sinner repents.”

Then the bishop leads them, hand in hand, into the middle of the church. Everyone present then kneels or lies prostrate on the floor as psalms are chanted. Finally the bishop sprinkles the penitents with water and restores them to their baptism, and then leads them to the altar for the holy meal, where the reconciled take off their penitential garments and put on clean clothing. The bishop then says, “Come to the feast prepared for you.” (A Lenten Sourcebook, Liturgy Training Publications).

Whenever we come to Holy Communion, and especially on the holy night before us, you and I are among those penitents. We have no merit on which to stand.And this makes so beautiful, so wonderfully beautiful the welcome of Jesus, who says, “For you, a new covenant in my blood.” Grace abounds for sinners. The penitent find mercy in the wide open arms of God. See Jesus there looking into the eyes of Judas to say, “Come to the feast prepared for you.” Watch Jesus wash Peter’s feet.

As we gather tonight — hope you can join us! — tonight, on the night Jesus was betrayed, he will take the passover wine and bread and give it to us, and tell us that he is God’s passover for us. Come in humility, remembering that Jesus offers his life for us not because we are worthy, or charming, or faithful, successful or strong, but because we are none of those, because each of us in our own ways has betrayed him. As the deacon says to you, “The body of Christ, the blood of Christ, FOR YOU” — remember again that it is not some idea or philosophy or wonderful teaching that we receive from Jesus, but his own suffering and death for us, to set us free from our own slavery to sin and death.

Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Peter Hawkinson

The Hour of Darkness

Well, friends; we have made it! For those of you who’ve been following along with our Lenten reading project, Backyard Pilgrim, we have finally reached the last week of the book. The week where we are no longer asking the questions “where is God?” or “where are you?” but hearing Jesus’ declaration: “Here I AM…for you.”

And today, his statement is: “For you, Here I AM…facing the darkness.”

Matt, the author, encourages us today to look at this passage from the end of Luke chapter 22, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!'”

Matt points out that Jesus, unlike us, does not seek to explain why there is evil. Instead, he acknowledges it, and then enters “into sin, suffering, and death to conquer them on our behalf.”

“Jesus puts the emphasis,” he writes, “not upon explaining evil, but defeating it.”

These words of Jesus also put to mind the words of Genesis 1, when “darkness covered the face of the deep.”

That darkness is back – perhaps it never really went away – but the Creator God who first spoke words of light over that primeval chaos is still here, still speaking, still creating. And still able to call forth light out of darkness and life even out of death.

This is something we will be called to remember again and again this week, as we journey deeper into the darkness with Christ. Not that we need the excuse of a Holy Week to do so; as I was reminded this morning, reading details of war atrocities perpetrated by Russian troops in Ukraine, there is no shortage of darkness in our world.

Like Christ, let us acknowledge it head on.

Let us not seek to explain it away or rationalize it, as is often our tendency.

But let us also remember that the darkness we see here has already, and ultimately, been defeated. So that as we work against it, we do so knowing that we will ultimately be victorious.

That God will once again speak over our darkness: “let there be light.”

Thanks be to God.


-Pastor Jen