Encouraging Commitments


November 20, 2016

Hebrews 10:22-25

Epworth United Methodist Church

Linda Loessberg-Zahl

My commitment to my children was something I celebrated as I wrapped them in my arms and rocked them when they were infants. My celebratory mood quickly vanished in the middle of the night, holding them while trying to manage their full-force, projectile stomach flu, after some nasty virus infiltrated the house. My commitment was also tested when I tried to hold them close, and they made it clear that parents were the least cool people in their adolescent world. We often make commitments when times are good, but we don’t need a commitment to do what is easy or enjoyable. Commitments are made for difficult times.

These are difficult times. Reported acts of hatred are up since the election. Most involve anti-immigrant incidents, followed by anti-black, and anti-LGBT acts. Some reports involve multiple categories like anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant.[i]

The FBI says hate crimes against Muslims have increased, growing by 67 Percent in 2015. [ii]“Authorities on two California State University campuses, in San Diego and San Jose, investigated reports that two women wearing headscarves were attacked. At San Diego State University, authorities said a Muslim woman had her car keys and vehicle stolen by two men who targeted her while she wore a hijab and made comments about [the] election.”

Many incidents have happened close by. A 16-year-old African-American student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California went to the bathroom during fifth period on the day after the election and spotted the words "whites" and "colored" scrawled on the wall over the urinal. Carole Klokkevold told me this morning that someone spray painted a swastika and wrote “2017 Martial Law” on the side of one of the buildings of Oakhurst United Methodist Church in our conference. Rev Gayle Basten reported the crime to the sheriff & the Southern Poverty Law Center. Caryn Pelegrino told me that last Friday her Latina sister-in-law was followed by a white man on a skateboard who spit on her on University Avenue in Berkeley.

It’s happening everywhere, in small towns and cities across the country. Do you know where in those towns and cities those incidents most often happen? In K-12 schools.[iii] Children and youth are being scarred emotionally and spiritually, as both the victims and the perpetrators. Just this fall, 9-year-old Leo Pelegrino was profiled by police in South Berkeley. He was playing soccer with his sister and her teammates outside of a friend's house when he was approached by police in response to a call about a robbery in south Berkeley. Fortunately, a parent intervened. Leo is our child, baptized here.

What are we teaching our children? There’s a disease in the house and it’s making the children sick. It’s enough to make us all nauseous. Hatred and rage are contagious infections that can touch off more incidents.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a prescription for the same disease of bigotry and violence that affected the early Christians. The Letter to the Hebrews is really a sermon to a discouraged congregation that had witnessed and experienced evil all around them. What does the preacher tell them? That this is the time to remember their commitment and to hold on to hope. How do we do that in the middle of the night surrounded by shadows and disease in the house? The letter tells them and us to get together to help and encourage each other.

Years ago I felt called to do something but I wasn’t sure how to move forward and worried that I would not have the courage to live up to the call. I talked to a clergyperson who told me something that dispelled my guilt and empowered me: you cannot do this alone. “Gather others together with the same commitment first.” That’s similar to the prescription from the Letter to the Hebrews, which refers to the fact that many in the community were not showing up for worship. The author calls them out of their isolation, to come together and deepen their commitment. In fact, the word commitment means to unite, connect, to bring together. The author tells them that God loves them and is with them. That’s a promise they can count on, and they cannot do this alone. They need to get together to worship, pray and encourage one another.

There is encouragement – and then there is encouragement. When you have a crying, sick child in your arms and someone calls from across the hall, “You’re doing great! Hang in there!” that is not encouraging. In our privilege we live far across the hall in another part of the house from those who are in the most pain in our country and our world. Calling out “You’re doing great! Hang in there!” doesn’t cut it with them either. We need to wake up and get out of our comfortable beds, walk across the hall and get to work at the root of the disease, because none of us can do this alone. We need to en-courage each other, give each other courage, to strengthen our commitment to do what needs to be done.

Another translation of the word “encourage” in this passage is provoke or spur each other on. It’s the kind of provocation to action that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. intended when he wrote,

“Was not Jesus an extremist in love? …Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[iv]

Dr. King didn’t pen those words from the comfort of his bed, he wrote them on the margins of a newspaper from his cell in a Birmingham jail.

Will we be extremists for love in the face of hate? Will we take the call of Jesus to love our neighbors and our enemies seriously? He wasn’t kidding. How will you be an extremist for love? How will you deepen your commitment to the way of Jesus? How will you and I follow Jesus in respect not derision for the outcast, advocacy not blame for the victims, care not expulsion for the foreigner, help not contempt for the poor? Let’s encourage each other to deeper commitment to the world Jesus envisioned. If we open up our deepest commitments we will see that they protect what is most precious, our children, our society, our world. Talk with me if you would like to explore how we can come together to work against acts of hatred and for greater respect.

That’s what Epworth strives to do. Epworth has lifted up community, compassion and action since long before I first walked through the doors years ago. I am so thankful for you and this church. What about Epworth makes you thankful? You should have received a folded piece of paper entitled Ministry Snapshots thanks to Mary Pratt for editing and publishing it! It highlights the many ministries you make possible, ministries that encourage our children, spur on our youth, support our adults, welcome community groups in our building, work for justice, and serve the community. Thank you for the many ways you make a difference out of love through your support of our church.

Today is commitment Sunday. You may have received two different commitment cards in the mail. If you don’t have the cards with you there are cards in the pews and the ushers have a few as well. The first card (with the recognizable Epworth logo) is for your one-year annual stewardship pledge. The second (with the campaign logo) is for your three-year commitment to the capital campaign. This is an invitation to give over and above your annual pledge. We ask that no one reduce their annual stewardship pledge in order to give to the capital campaign. The support of our ongoing ministries and operations is our first priority.

If you are able to give to our campaign, A Community Building – New Spaces for New Graces, it will allow us to make our space reflect the vitality and abundance of our church. Your generosity and commitment will allow us to make it more accessible, safe and inviting, creating new graces, new opportunities for ministries of healing and justice, hope and encouragement, today and for years into the future. As we sing “What Gift Can We Bring” I invite you to come up and place your cards in the basket as an act of commitment and thanksgiving.

So, who cheers you on? You’ve heard about home field advantage. Do you think it’s real? Yes. A 2010 meta-analysis of studies on team sports and individual sports, going back more than six decades, found that “those who are competing at home tend to win slightly more than 60 percent of the time.”[v] Why do you think that is true? Who cheers you on? Who encourages you? Who urges you on?

Let’s cheer each other on. We’ve got the home field advantage – together. So, let’s do it – full of the love of God within us. Let’s be the community we are called to be, coming together and encouraging each other to wake up, get up, and care for that which we hold most precious. Amen.

[i] http://www.vox.com/2016/11/17/13639138/trump-hate-crimes-attacks-racism-xenophobia-islamophobia-schools

[ii] http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/fbi-hate-crimes-muslims-67-percent-2015-43525153

[iii] http://www.advocate.com/election/2016/11/17/more-400-hate-incidents-reported-trumps-election

[iv] https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[v] http://www.seeker.com/why-does-home-field-advantage-matter-1767908680.html


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