Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Retirement


Dear members of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan,
   After much discernment in prayer, I’m writing to announce my retirement from middle council work effective August 1 this summer.  For the past ten and a half years it has been my honor to serve you as General Presbyter.  We have faced many challenges together-- a great recession and cultural shift over which we had no control.  What we did have some control over was opening ordination to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and officiating at same sex marriages, to the joy of many and the consternation of others.  We dismissed three congregations because of it, dissolved another, and said good-bye to some beloved members who chose not to walk with us.  We introduced polarity both/and thinking and New Beginnings assessment tools.  Just this month the Leadership Team affirmed participation in the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Vital Congregation Revitalization Initiative as a key element of our ministry plan to support our congregations.    
   You are a gifted, healthy Presbytery.  When visitors join us from other presbyteries, they tell me, “It isn’t like this elsewhere,” referring to our gentle spirit and congenial matter with one another.  During the past fifteen months the Leadership Team and I have focused on discerning how God is calling us to be faithful with strategic planning.  I look forward to meeting with you at regional gatherings on May 7, 10, 22, 23 and at the June 12th Presbytery meeting in Edwardsburg when the Leadership Team will share a comprehensive 2018-2021 Ministry Plan proposal. 
    I have loved serving as your General Presbyter and am proud of the ministry we have shared and the transformation we have experienced.  According to my records I have traveled somewhere over 117,000 miles on your behalf, assisted with 115 pastoral transitions, helping to find 64 interim/temporary pastors, and 51 installed pastors.  Now it is a new day and time for me to step aside and allow new leadership to emerge to accompany you into the new thing that God is doing.  
   Eileen and I plan to stay in the Kalamazoo area.  As I retire from middle council work, I look forward to returning to congregational ministry, supporting nearby congregations as they have need. 
   With special gratitude to the members of the Search Committee who called me to Michigan and to all of you for affirming my call to the most rewarding season of my 34 years in ordained ministry: Thank you.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Dr. John M. Best, General Presbyter

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Like a Watered Garden


“Like a Watered Garden”
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11    Jeremiah 31:1-14      Luke 4:18-19
Sermon by the Rev. Dr. John Best to the Presbytery of Lake Michigan 
at its meeting March 17, 2018 at the First Presbyterian Church in Paw Paw, MI

I was raised in a gardening family.  My parents, raising a family of four on a pastor’s salary in the 50’s and 60’s before minimum terms of call, gardened, and my siblings and I were their slaves.  Everyone helped.

One June day, when the strawberries were in, my dad called from the church told me to get the kitchen colander, you know the bowl with holes in it for washing fruits and vegetables, and go to the garden and pick the strawberries.  I must have been 6 or 7 years old at time and home alone.  Think Macaulay Culkin. I thought daddy said kitchen calendar.  Our kitchen calendar had a pocket to put tickets, receipts and papers to file for the month and such.  So, I go to the kitchen, get the step stool, climb up and take the calendar down off the wall, go to the garden and started picking strawberries and putting them in the paper pocket of the calendar.  All the while thinking, “This is stupid.”

Come to think of it, that’s about when my siblings started calling me Dummy and Stupid.” Either one would do, me being the youngest to learn everything they had just mastered: buttoning buttons, tying shoelaces, riding a bike.  You name it, I was the last to learn it. I carried that shame filled identity well into my adult ministry years.  It took some therapy for me to recognize that with every member’s complaint, I’d unconsciously absorb the criticism as authentic.  “Stupid me.”  Instead of standing up for myself when I should have, I’d internalize the criticism and get depressed.  Praise God for good therapists, for personal growth and transformation, for siblings who also grow up, mature and loving.  Praise God for the call to ministry, AND FOR GARDENS and getting our hands in the dirt.

The prophet Jeremiah describes the joyful return of exiles using garden imagery.
“Again the planters shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant and shall enjoy the fruit…
Their life shall become like a watered garden.” Jer. 31:5b, 12b
           
When it comes to understanding God’s gardening instructions, so many American Christians today respond like my home alone second grade self.  Jesus tells disciples the harvest is ready, go bring in the fruit, the fruit God desires being JUSTICE. 
           
The Deuteronomist writers and prophets interpreted their exile as a result of their unfaithfulness. The eighth century prophets, Amos, Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah earlier warned Judah and Israel of their sin of greed.

Micah said, "Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds. When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power.  They covet fields and seize them; they oppress householder and house  (Micah 2:1-2).

Amos said, “They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way….  Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate… I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…take away from me the noise of your songs, I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”  (Amos 2:6-7, 5:15, 21-24).

Hosea said, “Like grapes in the wilderness, I found Israel. Like the first fruit on the fig tree in its first season, I saw your ancestors, but they came to Baal-peor, and consecrated themselves to the thing of shame and became detestable like the thing they loved.”  (Hosea 9:10)

Isaiah said, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines. He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it. He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes…for the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; He expected justice but saw bloodshed; Righteousness but heard a cry!…Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!  My people go into exile without knowledge…People are bowed down, everyone is brought low, the eyes of the haughty are humbled, but the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice. And the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness”  (Isaiah 5:1-4, 7-8, 13, 15-17). 

It seems these texts haven’t had much preaching time in America’s pulpits.  Or seemingly so, because when I read the polls published in the Christian Century, of the positions held by white evangelicals and various Christian groups on the issues of the day my heart sinks. How is it that so many Christians today hold opinions and support policies which cater to the rich and carve away the public safety net?  With the psalmist I want to lay down my lyer by the waters of Babylon and weep! 
           
Thank God that’s not us, we smugly think, while we make plans for just about anything but what will upset church members.  We can’t afford the prophets role to offend anyone.  Let me suggest that if we have ears to hear what God is saying, we can’t afford not to.  In our privilege and desire to protect our self interest, justice does not easily register in our ears.  God says colander, we hear calendar.

I’m wearing today a necklace of paper clips. I assembled this as part of a workshop exercise designed to help me recognize my privilege as a white, male, physically abled, mentally abled person.  Each paper clip represents a challenge some folks face, which I don’t. The purpose of the exercise is not to condemn, but to sensitize, bring my privilege to awareness, and begin putting myself in the shoes of others--that’s compassion. To name and face my demons, do my work.

The good news is that God is more powerful than our demons.  Redeems us in Jesus.  Goodness is stronger than evil. Disciplined, transformed exiles return home, humbler, wiser, and joyful.  We can do this!  Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.…See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here…Their life shall become like a watered garden.”

Jeremiah’s vision of watered garden suggests a well tended garden where justice abounds, where everyone is blessed, not just a few but everyone. It suggests a matured people who have grown up and done the therapy named and faced their demons, who’ve reacquainted themselves with their God and God’s ways.  God loves justice and hates the robbery of the privileged sticking a thumb on the scale.  God despises systems, practices and policies, which tip scales in favor of those who already have, to the detriment of the poor.

Isaiah’s disciples writing in those last chapters of Isaiah, also addressing the returning Exiles,
envisioned Israel’s call to be a servant people who would bring good news to the poor, release the prisoners, God with their/our help will build up the ancient ruins, raise up former devastations, repair the ruined cities, a result of many generations of greed.

Jesus launched his ministry in Nazareth quoting Isaiah’s vision of the Servant, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” (Luke 4:18)
As the body of Christ in the world today, we are anointed to carry out the vision. 

Isaiah’s vision is not some trickledown charity from the rich throwing a crumb to the poor, but of a community organizing itself so that all are blessed, and righteousness is measured by how the community cares for the most vulnerable. If you’re looking for the vision, there it is.  And whether we get on board or not,“God will do this…” Isaiah writes, “for as surely as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations”  (Isaiah 61:11).

Yet the dissonance between the prophet’s vision and public policy grows wider every day.  Over the past 25 years our criminal justice policies, have incarcerated more people in America today than any other nation in the world.  And a grossly unproportionate number of those imprisoned are people of color.  These policies are clearly the new Jim Crow law.
                                          
In recent weeks, women have courageously broken the silence saying, “Me Too! Time’s Up!” So that during those same 25 years we have been locking up disproportionate numbers of the poor, people of color, the mentally ill, we have turned a blind eye to men in positions of power
who have harassed, abused and raped women without consequence.

In the last few days, the youth of America, who only know a post 9/11 world, are standing up. Since 9/11 we’ve spent trillions fighting terrorism and fueling irrational fear of others. When in reality our schools, theaters, churches and malls are terrorized NOT by Muslims, immigrant neighbors, or people of color, but by white civilian men gunning down crowds with legal weapons of war. While law makers bow down to the gun lobby, sacrificing the lives of our children.  

Last night in Kalamazoo, I attended a community read gathering with Matthew Desmond, the author of the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.   The book tells the story of eight families in the city of Milwaukee a few years ago who were evicted.  His thesis is that housing is a foundational human need and should be a human right.  Every other challenge of feeding the family, keeping a job is exacerbated when families are evicted and uprooted.  And what is our public policy? We subsidize homeowners like me with six figure incomes with a tax break on our Schedule A tax returns, and shrink funding for HUD for those who need the support.  Only one quarter of the people who qualify for housing assistance, get it. The other 75% get no help at all. We subsidize the rich, and the poor wait for years on waiting lists.  We subsidize corporate America, military contractors, privatize prisons making them for profit ventures, and cut funding for addiction treatments. We subsidize corporate agro business and stiff the family organic farmer.

I’m not a social scientist, journalist or economist, nor are most of you, but we’re NOT STUPID!  We are students of Scripture. We are theologians.  We are moral leaders. We are GARDNERS called to work the soil and tend to tender plants of justice. 

The gospel seed is good: love, kindness, mercy, compassion, joy and humility. The fruit God seeks is justice--healthy, functional, sustainable communities. But justice never came easy without resistance, gardening can be back breaking work. Still Jesus fulfilling the prophets words,“Set his face like flint” (Isa. 50:7) toward Jerusalem, the seat of power.

Winter is ending, spring is around the corner, and gardening time is here.  It’s time to get out the shovel, turn the soil, remove the stones and rocks.  It’s time to dive into the weeds of public policy and advocate a better way.  It’s time to get our hands dirty.

And let the people say, Amen.