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God's Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers:

Empathy Today and It's Significance for Being the Best Neighbors With Those in Your Neighborhood--Kindled and Seized: a Reflection on Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Matthew 16:21-28

Letting go of self and grasping on to God produces good outcomes. The way you live your life in the difficult times indicates how you are connecting to the One who knows you the best and loves you the most.

On Tuesday, September 8th, 2015, a British Airways jet caught fire at the Las Vegas airport, sending smoke billowing into the air, after suffering what the pilot described as a “catastrophic failure” of the left engine. The plane—a Boeing 777 heading from the U.S. city’s McCarran airport to London Gatwick—could be seen with flames around its fuselage. The pictures of a burning jetliner in Las Vegas were certainly riveting. But as the plane burst into smoke and flames, some observers saw something even more startling: People stopped during their evacuation to grab their luggage. Authorities are certainly concerned about planes that burst into flames, but they’re also worried that we’d risk our lives to grab our carry-on bags. So what’s the big deal with grabbing one carry-on bag? The FAA requires planes to be evacuated within 90 seconds, but as a Chicago-based air traffic controller wrote: Let’s say the average delay time per bag is 5 seconds. This includes the time needed to reach up to open the overhead compartment, pulling the bag down, and the extra delay hauling it through a crowded aisle. If half of the 170 people on board Flight 2276 took the time to take their bag the evacuation would have taken an additional 7 MINUTES longer than necessary. Imagine being the last one to exit the smoke-filled cabin knowing that your one-minute evac time is now over 7 minutes! One veteran pilot with a major U.S. airline said, “We’re always shaking our head. It doesn’t matter what you say, people are going to do what they do.” Or as one blogger summarized this news story: “People love their carry-ons more than life itself.”[1]

No one would disagree that the COVID-19 Pandemic and racial tension are placing stress on our lives worldwide. In crises, many will choose to risk their lives to save possessions. What would you risk your life for? What would I risk my life for?

Injustice weighs heavy on me, just as it did in Jeremiah’s. When I see it and participate in it, I understand God’s indignation. The bad actors who are haters, white supremacists and racists, as well as violent activists, whatever their color, are not bringing about justice. And when I remain silent, in fact when I do not become actively engaged, I become complicit. I, like Jeremiah must admit my sin, repent and work for repentance in others and society.

Jeremiah 15:19 reads, “Therefore thus says the Lord: If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them.” Anne Lamott writes, “Broken things have been on my mind lately because so much has broken in my life this year and in the lives of the people I love-hearts, health, confidence.”[2]

My friends, the discussion we are having about public health disparities and racism is important. How we discuss the reality of injustice around health care and race, either moves us closer to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven, or not. Perseverance is God’s gift for us to accept with confidence that “what is” does not have the last word. God strengthens, motivates, and works in and through our lives in all circumstances.

Words that align with Jesus’ mission require action, actions that promote the common good not self-interest. God calls us to speak the words of Jesus and live the actions of Jesus in an unrighteous and unjust world. This is the theme of our texts in Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Matthew 16:21-28.

Jeremiah 15:15-21 asserts that a person can move from devastation to restoration by living within the presence of God who is the One who eternally is.

Matthew 16:21-28 announces that God gives us divine insight, but we too can behave like Satan. This is the significance of Peter’s life. His is like ours. Jesus built his ministry on Peter, the confession by Peter that Jesus is Savior and Lord. But then, at a time not too far removed, Peter was selfish and again wanted his way not Jesus’, thus Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan.” According to the text, we are to take the road less travelled, that is one of suffering. Matthew 16:24 reads, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus spoke and lived inclusivity to a common and shared experience with him, not exclusivity, isolated in the self-centered prison of personal preferences and avoidance of life’s injustices. Jesus’ call for inclusivity builds the value of people and their quality of life.[3]

The COVID-19 Pandemic and racial discrimination open wide the doors for words and deeds of righteousness/justice. Both are inclusive. All humans are created in the image of God. All humans have dignity and worth. All humans have equal access to participate fully in the abundant life promised by God. And, the words “Equal Justice Under Law” are engraved on the West Pediment, above the front entrance of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

This focus on being righteous/just and speaking/doing righteousness/justice is the mission of every Christian and faith community. In this regard, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller in Neighborhood Church reflecting on the ministry of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas remark that Covenant helps its members to define personal goals for their ministry. Anyone who desires a mentor to walk with them in this intentional process is given one. What the leadership of Covenant sees is a church that has a commonly articulated sense of direction. The Pastor of Covenant, the Rev. Thomas Daniels says, “We are defining success in the same way, seeking to journey together toward common goals…This gives us greater purpose and greater results both individually and as a congregation.”[4] Remember, the imposter self says doing the right and just thing for the common good does not kindle or seize your personal, selfish and exclusive preferences.

Are you being kindled and seized by the words and actions of Jesus? Brenda Salter McNeil, the author of Becoming Brave, the resource book for my five week Pastor’s Study beginning October 14 reminds us that there is a kindled time to be seized for words and deeds of righteousness/justice when she writes, “The appointed time can perhaps best be understood as a time when the circumstances of life are so mammoth as to be beyond the control of the individual yet are sufficiently intimate to require or even demand a response from the individual, one that only he or she can provide.”[5] You and our congregation has strengths and gifts (assets) to leverage for growth and outreach in being just and championing justice. The Geneva campus has assets to leverage for growth and outreach in being just and championing justice. Take time now, and throughout the day, to identify the strengths and gifts (assets) you bring and can give to the Geneva Presbyterian Church faith community for its growth and outreach.

On this Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost let’s mobilize our individual strengths and gifts (assets) within our church to work for being righteous/just and leverage our words and deeds, together, in the larger community to make a difference for kindling and seizing God’s righteousness/justice in God’s world for all people. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.Be kindled and seized by God to participate with God in someone’s liberation from the oppression of unrighteousness/injustice to the life changing experience of righteousness/justice.[6]

[1]Taken from Contributed by David Finch, Elk Grove, California; sources: Justin Pritchard and Sally Ho, “Vegas Plane Fire Passengers Escaped With Lives—And Bags,” Associated Press (9-12-15); Bob Collins, “People love their carry-ons more than life itself,” NewsCut (9-11-15). [2]Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 106. [3]In the three paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of John W. Wright, Lincoln E. Galloway, David J. Schlafer and Raquel St. Clair Lettsome in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 262-265, 265-267, 276-278 and 278-280. [4]Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 115. [5]Brenda Salter McNeil, Becoming Brave (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2020), 31. [6]Some insights in this paragraph are adapted from Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 123-124.

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