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Jesus’ Team

Jesus’ Team

“There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. . . . [And] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:4-6, 16

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

August 5, 2018

One of the challenging realities of my childhood was the fact that my family moved a lot. After my father finished his tour of duty with the Air Force during the Korean War, he landed employment with a military contractor and was required to move from job site to job site, following the work wherever it went. And so, as a kid I went to a lot of different schools: fourteen different public schools by the time I graduated high school. Counting nursery school and kindergarten, that is exactly one school per grade on average. And that doesn’t include college, a year abroad at a Scottish university, graduate school, law school, seminary, or the six different schools I have served as chaplain.

Being the new kid in school was not easy. Let’s just say that children are sometimes not as welcoming to newcomers as they should be; and, as I discovered, their own insecurities can lead them to tease the new kid for being different, for not knowing the ropes, for being an outsider. And so I quickly figured out that if I wanted to belong, I needed to figure out a strategy for winning my peers’ respect and finding some common bond.

For me, that strategy was team sports. It is not that I’m a super athlete by any stretch; indeed, truth be told, and as I later discovered in college, I’m more of a nerd than a jock. But, at least among the kids with whom I grew up, being a nerd was not the way to endear yourself to the group, whereas finding the right niche within the world of sport and games certainly was.

My parents, I think, sensed this reality too, and so, from an early age they encouraged me to play different sports, to figure out what I was good at, and then to join a team every season wherever I lived. They knew, and I learned, that this was the surest way to make friends and find the community I longed for. And so it was football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball, my true love, in the spring and summer.

What I did not know then, but now appreciate, is the profound theological and moral virtue of team play. It is no exaggeration to say that most of the really important lessons I have learned in life were first introduced to me, not in the classroom, or in church, or even at home, but rather on the playing field.

If you have been a part of a successful and healthy team, you know these lessons, these deep truths of team play. On a team, you learn that it is not your interests that matter, but rather the greater good of the group. You are asked and expected to subordinate your own desires to those of the whole, knowing if the team flourishes, you will too. As the cliché goes, there is no “I” in “team.”

On a team, you also learn that not everyone plays the same role, but that there are a variety of gifts and skills, and that finding where you can contribute is the key to being a good teammate, as is supporting and encouraging others in their own distinctive roles. The whole of a team is greater than the sum of its parts.

You learn, too, that you answer to one coach who calls the shots, develops the game plan, and in whose judgment and care you learn to trust. Teams teach a healthy respect for authority, and how one generation can learn from the next.

Flourishing as a team requires hard work, the development of healthy habits, practice, and a range of other qualities such as perseverance, resilience, discipline, cooperation, and patience. You learn about forgiveness and redemption too: When a teammate makes a mistake, you don’t browbeat her, but you help her to learn from the experience, and then to put the past behind her and to move on to the next play stronger and better than she was before. And when a teammate makes a great play, you cheer her success, not so much because she is the star, but because the good of the team has been enlarged.

At their best, team sports also develop our appreciation for fairness and equity, as well as respect and affection for our adversary when the game is well-played. And at the end of the day, when your team loses, you grieve together and share the pain and burden of the loss. And, when your team wins, you celebrate the victory together and hold up for admiration each member’s contributions to the whole.

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Gather Up the Fragments

Gather Up the Fragments

“After the people were fed, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’” John 6:12

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 29, 2018

In 1989, Robert Egger was an unknown nightclub owner trying to scrape together a living in Washington, DC. One day, Egger was approached by a friend who invited him to go along on a community service outing to a soup kitchen sponsored by a nearby church. As Egger tells the story, he didn’t want to go, but felt too embarrassed to say ‘no’ to his friend; so he went. The soup kitchen they visited was a traditional one: the program enlisted volunteers to purchase ingredients for the meal at the nearby Safeway in Georgetown, to prepare and cook the meal themselves in the church kitchen, and then to serve anyone who wandered in off the streets looking for a warm supper. At the end of the meal, the unhoused guests said their good-byes, went back out onto the streets, and the volunteers cleaned up. The model is a common one, and I’m sure many of you have volunteered in just such a program.

Eggers’ experience of the evening, however, was different than the usual volunteer’s. As he explained it to me years later when I first met him: “the whole model made no sense to me. It seemed designed primarily to make the volunteers feel good about themselves for doing a good deed, while keeping the guests at a safe distance in a state of helpless dependency. Moreover,” he told me, “this traditional model is grossly inefficient. Why buy ingredients at the most expensive market in Georgetown when perfectly good food is being thrown away every single day at restaurants and markets across the city?”

Drawing on his prior experience in the restaurant business, Eggers knew just how much food is wasted every day either because it is just beyond some arbitrarily imposed ‘expiration date,’ or because it is deemed too bruised, misshapen, or aesthetically imperfect to sell. So, rather than patting himself on the back for his one night of volunteerism, Eggers went about constructing a new model for feeding the hungry. He contacted all the restaurant owners in town he knew and secured from them commitments to donate food they no longer needed; he did the same thing with a handful of grocery stores; and he put together a small team of volunteer chefs and restaurant workers who were willing to train any homeless or unemployed person interested in learning how to cook and serve food. By inviting the homeless and unemployed to participate in the project of cooking and feeding, he explained, we not only put food in people’s bellies but we give them a skill that can help break the chains of poverty, and offer them a liberating sense of purpose and self-determination.

When Eggers promoted this new model to local church leaders, they resisted, convinced they knew better than he did how to serve the needy. The church leaders were worried about the liability risks of using donated food; so, Eggers did some research and secured a legal opinion that local ‘good Samaritan laws’ in fact protect non-profits from such liability. The church leaders then insisted that homeless populations would be too challenging to train; Eggers dared them to give it a try, offering to manage a pilot training program himself. But the church leaders were unmoved.

So Eggers set out to prove them all wrong and established what is now known as DC Central Kitchen. Since its founding nearly 30 years ago, DC Central Kitchen has prepared more than 27 million meals for homeless shelters, transitional homes, and other nonprofits in the Washington area. Moreover, it has done this at little to no cost, using donated food exclusively and relying on a program of previously unemployed persons enrolled in its culinary arts program to do the preparation, cooking and serving. Not only that, but ninety percent of the graduates from this culinary arts program now go on to secure jobs in the restaurant industry.

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Just Mercy

Just Mercy

“This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand.” Amos 7:7

 The Reverend Luther Zeigler

July 15, 2018 – 8B Pentecost

Our gospel lesson this morning is a lurid one, and if it weren’t in the Bible, I’m not sure it would be suitable for church. It is also a bit challenging to follow, so let me see if I can offer you a “Cliff’s Notes” version of what is going on:

Herod Antipas is the governor of Galilee and, more than anything, he wants to succeed his father as king, and spends much of his life chasing after this goal. Herod also craves women. Even though he is already married, Herod desires his brother Phillip’s wife, Herodias. Herodias shares these feelings and leaves her husband, Phillip, to marry Herod. The problem is that Phillip hasn’t agreed to divorce her.

Into this picture enters John the Baptist. Now, if we know one thing about John the Baptist, it is that he is slightly crazy. Remember this is the guy who appears at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, clothed in camel’s hair and wandering the wilderness, proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom, and pointing to Jesus. And a big part of John’s craziness – and the reason we call him a prophet – is his penchant for telling it like it is, calling people on their hypocrisy, and urging them to change their ways. So, when John the Baptist meets up with Herod and gets wind of his recent marriage to the already married Herodias, you can guess what happens: John tells Herod that he is an unfaithful polygamist, and for that John ends up in jail.

Herodias, however, is not satisfied with mere prison for John. She is livid at him for trying to undermine her marriage. But since Herod is the one with all the power, Herodias is forced to hatch a secret scheme to trick her husband into getting rid of John. And so she uses the pretext of Herod’s birthday party as the stage upon which to exact her vengeance.

Herodias coaxes her beautiful daughter, Salome, into providing entertainment at old Herod’s birthday banquet by doing an exotic and sexually charged dance to the great delight of Herod and all his buddies. Indeed, Herod’s lust becomes so whipped up by Salome’s seductive charms that he essentially pleas with her in front of all his friends: “Ask me for anything you want and I will give it, but please just keep dancing!”

And here is where Herodias lays her trap. She whispers into her daughter Salome’s ear: Ask him for the head of John the Baptist. And so she does. Now Herod is in a bind. He doesn’t want to execute John – for Herod secretly respects John – but he has publicly committed to granting Salome a wish, and a ruler has to keep his word or risk losing his claim to authority. He can’t appear to be weak. And so, Herod begrudgingly orders John’s execution. The depths of Herodias’ anger, however, are so deep that she not only wants John killed, but wants his head, so that she can mock him even in death.

It is quite a story, with a plot every bit the equal of a classical tragedy. It is a tale of the many ways in which power can corrupt the human soul: of how the powerful can be tempted to think they are above the moral law that guides the rest of us, of how ambition often blinds us to what is good and right, of how sex can be one more tool in our thirst for power over others, of how prone we are to deceive even those closest to us when it works to our advantage, and of how truly vicious we can become when others get in the way of our plans.

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