This is appropriate, because I had a profound sense of the importance of human relationships, or more accurately put, humane human relationships. I was keenly aware of how one’s values, attitudes, and beliefs largely determine how one responds to others in times of crisis- whether we recognize the neighbor in the other, or only see the potential for economic profit at the expense of the most vulnerable.
My experience of this storm helped to crack open the reality of what many other people are going through all over the nation and the world in a way reading stories or watching documentaries cannot achieve.
As I watched the icy, swirling waters rising around the house and in the basement I thought of the countless, nameless migrants, refugees, survivors of hurricanes in places like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands- people still waiting for relief and the basic necessities of life- water, food, shelter, and safety. I remembered the faces and places of the news segment that reported 40% of all the people in Puerto Rica are still without power, and it is estimated they will remain this way for another eight months.
Neighbor or stranger? Communal well-being or profiteering? Human Relations Sunday forces us to think about such uncomfortable questions.
At the very least, an event like this recent historic storm leads one to examine values; to assess one’s priorities in life. These themes and questions are present in the morning Scripture readings.
In beautifully descriptive language the psalmist declares the experience of being grounded and surrounded by the presence of the Holy, “Where could I go from your Spirit?” The answer: absolutely nowhere.
For the author of Psalm 139 this experienced reality is the source of spiritual comfort, and human challenge.
Yes, God is present throughout everything; but, there is the everything part:
19 Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
20 They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain.[b]
We do not know all the psalmist is referring to here, but we get the picture that these are life events that provoke visceral responses of anger, fear, or grief; experiences that when prolonged lead to trauma- emotional numbness, and a sense of powerlessness.
Through it all, the author takes comfort in the unwavering presence and protection of God:
“I come to the end; I am still with you.”
The gospel reading also produces a response about human priorities and relationships:
45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”
From the initial perspective of taunting and bigotry, i.e. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael experienced a spiritual transformation that allowed him to see, hear, and learn far more greater things as a follower of Jesus. Nathanael assumed a new set of priorities; priorities, like the psalmist, grounded in the experienced presence of God.
The insight and awareness gained from these faithful relationships became the impetus for everything these God-seekers said and did, providing the foundation for their life choices- including the values and meaning of human relationships.
These faith stories compel us to consider the personal choices and values by which we live today.
Last week The United Methodist Weekly News service included an article relevant to this:
In our baptismal vows, we commit to "renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world" and "resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves." Since the earliest times, the vows of Christian baptism have begun with the renunciation of evil and then the profession of faith and loyalty to Christ.
The renunciation of evil is rooted in Scripture. In Romans 12:9, we are taught to, "Love unambiguously, hating the evil, holding fast to the truth." Amos 5:15 similarly says, "Hate evil; love good. Maintain justice in the courts."
Loving and hating are not seen in Scripture as mere attitudes, but are rather understood as always being embodied in real action. The verb in Romans 12 for hate in particular means to hate violently or specifically, to abhor so completely that one takes action against the object of such hatred (the evil itself).
A persistent theme, especially in the Old Testament and through the prophets, is the constant call for evil to be resisted, for an end to unjust economic practices, unjust courts, and to oppression or failure to care properly for widows, orphans, the marginalized and foreigners in the land.
This biblical and baptismal history is the reason that the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church and many of the items in the Book of Resolutions so frequently call United Methodists to direct action to resist evil, whether that be by boycotts, by witnessing against irresponsible use of the earth and its resources, or against war as a normal instrument of national policy, or against racism, sexism, capital punishment. . . the list goes on (and on and on).
It was the Methodists in England who were primarily responsible (on the ground) for the abolition of slavery, the creation of the labor movement, and the radical reformation of the penal justice and prison code of the whole British empire, not simply because they avoided evil in their own lives, but because they organized to fight it as it appeared in the larger society.
United Methodists today, as servants of Christ, are sent into the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation.
(This content was produced by InfoServ
First published Dec. 10, 2018.)
Our denominational vows calling us to resist evil, like the psalm and gospel reading, beg the question: “How am I/ how are we actively resisting evil in all of its current forms today? Right here and now?”
This cyclone bomb harshly revealed our common vulnerability and the essential importance of genuine human community; neighborly relationships that foster the ability to trust that others care about our well-being and will act in ways that support it.
To doubt that others care about our well-being and survival, or, worse yet, actively work against it leads to tremendous anxiety; it is spiritually and emotionally draining, and it is physically debilitating.
In his January episcopal message to our annual conference, Bishop Devadhar spoke directly of this anxiety:
“My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Greetings in the precious name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As we reflect on the events of the world in 2017 and witness and experience the things around us, one word that may describe us is anxious. Anxious about everything! Anxiety everywhere! Anxiety, not only among adults and youth, but also children!
As I write this letter, I am spending some time with my family out of state - playing with grandkids, catching their phrases and vocabularies, having fun and sharing laughter. However, despite the relaxed atmosphere and fun, I sense anxiety in my eldest granddaughter, who is just seven, especially about global warming!
Since most of you reading this newsletter are people of faith, may I say that even in many quarters of our denomination, I sense a great deal of anxiety, particularly regarding the future of our denomination beyond 2019.
You may be personally experiencing anxiety related to your health, job, business, family matters, or other things. Undoubtedly, anxiety may lead to fear, anger, frustration, resignation, and a variety of health issues.
Anxiety is not a modern phenomenon. The ancient Israelites were anxious as they journeyed from the wilderness to the Promised Land. Their leaders were anxious, too; Joshua was reluctant to take charge.
God assured him, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)
Jesus also sensed anxiety among his followers. "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?" (Matthew 6:25)
St. Paul also addressed the issue in the early churches of his day, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).
Brothers and sisters in Christ, none of us knows what lies ahead, but one thing we do know is that the God who created all of us in God's own image is a faithful God! Our calling is to glorify our Creator in everything we do, filled with the love of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, our Guide.
Contemplating how to connect the anxiety we feel and its reality in our own spiritual journeys, I remembered a statement about one of the influential people in my own call to ministry, Mr. Augustine Salins.
His daughter, Dr. Monica Jayakumari Benjamin, wrote, "It is the portrait of a helpless man who was taken from weakness to strength, doubt to deliverance, hopelessness to hope and confidence, darkness to light, to present the Good news of Jesus Christ, to enlighten people ..."
(Taken from Monica Jayakumari Benjamin, "The Strength of Weakness: Biography of Mr. Augustine Salins and Mrs. Kunjalia Augustine Salins," Bangalore, IEM Outreach Publications, 2013, p. 11.)
It is my personal prayer that our Creator God will grant us the strength to see light in the midst of all our unresolved questions, searches, and anxieties.”
This is my prayer as well. On this Human Relations Sunday may we begin to see light as we engage in words and actions that demonstrate and promote humane human relationships and acts of our common vulnerability, unity, and welfare- rather than words and actions of divisiveness.
This is could not be more important as we are faced with a divisive and inhumane political Administration.
Past months have only revealed increasing words and acts designed to divide people one from another; to ignore or even to deny our common humanity and worth as beloved children of one God.
In response to the Administration’s latest attack on human dignity and worth, this time regarding immigrants, our United Methodist Council of Bishop’s issued the following statement:
We are appalled by the offensive, disgusting words attributed to President Donald Trump who is said to have referred to immigrants from African countries and Haiti, and the countries themselves, in an insulting and derogative manner. According to various media accounts, President Trump made the remarks during a White House discussion with lawmakers on immigration.
As reported, President Trump’s words are not only offensive and harmful, they are racist.
We call upon all Christians, especially United Methodists, to condemn this characterization and further call for President Trump to apologize.
As United Methodists, we cherish our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world and we believe that God loves all creation regardless of where they live or where they come from. As leaders of our global United Methodist Church, we are sickened by such uncouth language from the leader of a nation that was founded by immigrants and serves as a beacon to the world’s “huddled masses longing to be free.”
Thousands of our clergy, laity and other highly skilled, productive citizens are from places President Trump has defamed with his comments. The fact that he also insists the United States should consider more immigrants from Europe and Asia demonstrates the racist character of his comments. This is a direct contradiction of God’s love for all people. Further, these comments on the eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Day belies Dr. Kings’ witness and the United States ongoing battle against racism.
We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, whose parents during his infancy, had to flee to Africa to escape from the wrath of King Herod. Millions of immigrants across the globe are running away from such despicable and life-threatening events. Hence, we have the Christian duty to be supportive of them as they flee political, cultural and social dangers in their native homes.
WE will not stand by and allow our brothers and sisters to be maligned in such a crude manner. We call on all United Methodists, all people of faith, and the political leadership of the United States to speak up and speak against such demeaning and racist comments.
Christ reminds us that it is by love that they will know that we are Christians. Let’s demonstrate that love for all of God’s people by saying no to racism; no to discrimination and no to bigotry.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough
President – Council of Bishops
This Human Relations Sunday we have much to think about in terms of the humanity of our relationships, and our baptismal vows to resist evil and oppression in every form.
In his January letter Bishop Devadhar suggested that as we step into the new year and beyond, we say the following prayer, composed by the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu. Though composed for a different purpose, I agree that it is a meaningful prayer for us today.
God of Our Pilgrimage, Thank You for Your Friendship.
Be the Fire Leading Us.
Be the Star Guiding Us Be the Good Shepherd Calling Us.
May the Spirit, Strengthen Us
For All that Lies Ahead.
May Your Holy Angels, Surrounding Us:
Watch, Defend and Protect Us Against All Evil.