Tuesday, March 14, 2017

To live as pilgrims

Genesis 12: 1-4a
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 12, 2017

            Let me take you on the pilgrim journey that is often the writing of a sermon. I was going to write about our troubles with moving and going, stopping and staying. I was going to talk about how God is always calling not only us as people but as the church to move forward into the unknown. I was going to turn it into some fun, use Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go”, and make our pilgrimage as Christians through Lent sound lighthearted, not so difficult.

            Then Saturday morning I looked at the news headline on my phone and read that near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, which houses Shia mausoleums, pilgrims arriving by bus were bombed in Damascus, killing 40 Iraqis and wounding 120 others.  Once again God was dragging me out of my plans, out of my safe, protected privilege, off my predictable path, making me an unwilling pilgrim, a reluctant traveler.

            Which is only right and not nearly enough.  More than 300,000 people have been killed and 11 million others displaced since the uprising against President Assad began 6 years ago this month.  If God wants to displace my heart, it’s the least, the least I can do and certainly not the last.

            Then in my Facebook news feed I read an opinion article by Kevin Baker posted in The New Republic calling for a “Bluexit”—for Blue America to pick up its proverbial soccer ball and go home.  On paper we’d still be the good ole’ US of A, but in essence it would be a divorce because purple is just too messy and common ground is just too damn hard.  Stay put but leave.  Leave Red America behind, even more than it already is.

            When God called Abram and Sarai to go, God wasn’t telling them to go so much as to leave.  Leave behind all their family; leave behind the inheritance of his father’s land for a land that God would show them, a unfamiliar place, a land in which they would be strangers, migrants, refugees.  Leave civilization and power and safety.  Go where life is primitive, vulnerable, and dangerous, and it is from there, on the margins, where God will bless all the families of the earth.

Camino de Santiago - Michael George

            When God says go, when God says leave, it’s not to isolate or divide or conquer or punish, but to leave what is comfortable, what is familiar, what is safe, and take on the servant journey toward God and her ways of compassion, forgiveness, restorative justice, and unconditional love.  

Pilgrims in Mecca
It’s to displace our rooted hearts, upturn our complacency, our satisfaction, that we would be a migrant, a refugee, a hadji for God.

            You see, as those created in God’s image—us and God—we’d gotten off to a rough start.  We were created for paradise, our nakedness a symbol of our innocence—at least, we thought that if God created humankind, that’s what any parent would want for their children: untouched, pure innocence.  But that’s not how human beings grow.  It’s not how we learn to make meaningful choices.  And so it was in our disobedience, in our rejection of a helicopter parent God, that we began one of the messiest, often violent relationships in the history of humankind.

            We seem to bring out the worst in each other—us and God.  No sooner had we been kicked out of the garden, and then one brother kills the other.  And so God decides to start over again with Noah and his family and sends a great flood for everybody else.  When human beings thrive again, this time speaking and acting as one, building a great tower to defy you-know-who, God confuses our language and scatters us across the earth.  Action and reaction; a cosmic power struggle if ever there was one.


            And so God tells Abram and Sarai to leave; to go to place where they will learn to depend on each other, on the hospitality of strangers, and on God’s promises.  There’s a lot of waiting involved, painful mistakes are made along the way; egos get the better of everyone.  People get hurt, their strength and trust are tested. Sometimes it feels as though God abandons God’s people, usually when it gets really bad—war, famine, slavery, exile, captivity, death—but then God calls her people home once more and makes promises again and again, even though we continue to reject God and God’s ways of life and love.

            Lent is the season when God reminds us that we are a pilgrim people and that through our pilgrim life, God desires that we would be a powerful blessing. A blessing that can change the world.  Living with God means a life of going and leaving.  God is always getting us ready for the next journey, the next displacement.  God calls us into the church so we can go, so we can leave.  Just like real life, the church, real church, is out there, where sometimes it gets primitive, always vulnerable, and even dangerous at times.  It means going where we would not choose to go.  It means stopping what we’re doing and listening to what God is doing.  Being a pilgrim means persisting and being faithful, even when all evidence points in what looks like the wrong direction.

            I did all that thinking, all that processing, wept tears of grief for the Iraqis that died, that were wounded, for their families; for those in our country who would rather divorce the rest of the nation rather than persist in living in covenant.  

Israeli students dressed for Purim in Jerusalem
 And then I remembered that last night was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish festival that reenacts the story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai and how they saved their people from the evil Haman and his plot to destroy all Jews in a single day.  I remembered that Jews all over the world would’ve gathered after sunset, dressed in costume, eaten sweet pastries called hamantaschen, and retold the story of Esther with jokes and puns, using current politics and popular culture.

            One of the most persecuted pilgrim people on the planet, over 100 bomb threats since January, and they laugh, they make jokes about that time that someone tried to thwart God’s people, God’s promises, God’s ways of life and love.  So why not?  Why not some Dr. Seuss, a rather flawed person himself, to show us how to be a pilgrim people, servants of God:

“God’s Spirit is upon us!
Today is our day.
We’re off to Great Places!
We’re off and away!

We have brains in our heads.
We have feet in our shoes.
We can steer ourselves any direction we choose.
But we’re not on our own. And we know what we know. But are we the only ones who’ll decide where to go?

We’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some we will say, “We don’t choose to go there.” With our heads full of brains and our shoes full of feet, we’ve got too much heart to think any street is a not-so-good street.

And who knows?  God may not go down any street we’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, God will probably call us to head right out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy and gutsy as us.  Toodle-oo!

And when things start to happen, let’s not worry. Let’s not stew. Let’s just go right along. We’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places We’ll Go!
We’ll be on our way up!
We’ll be seeing great sights!
We’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

We won’t lag behind, because we’ll have the speed. We’ll pass the whole gang and we’ll soon take the lead. Wherever we fly, we’ll be best of the best. Wherever we go, we will top all the rest.

Except when we don’t.
Because, sometimes, we won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to us—boo hoo!

We can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And the holy church gang will fly on. We’ll be left in a church lurch.

We’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that we’ll be in a Slump.

And when we’re in a Slump, we’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping ourselves is not easily done.

We will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place we could sprain both our elbows and chins! Do we dare to stay out? Do we dare to go in? How much can we lose? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

And if we go in, should we turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid we will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up their mind.

We can get so confused that we’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across a weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for the membership or budget to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for a committee-free night or waiting, perhaps, for enough money or a pot to boil, or a few more members or for wisdom—you know those pearls, or another chance for taking a stance. Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for us!

Somehow we’ll move beyond all that waiting and staying. We’ll find the bright places where UConn and UD Women’s Basketball are playing! With banner flip-flapping, once more we’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because we were made to fly!

Oh, the places we’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are people to be empowered. There are races to be run. And the marvelous things we can do with God’s call will make us the church-iest church of all. Glory to God! We’ll be as amazing as grace can be, with the whole wide world watching us sing!  Glory be!

Except when they don’t. 
Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that sometimes we’ll have lonely times too.  Things we can’t do ‘cause we’ll work against us—oh pooh!

All Alone!

Whether we like it or not, Alone will be something we’ll resist quite a lot.

And when we’re alone, there’s a very good chance we’ll meet things that scare us right out of our pants. There are some things, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare us so much we won’t want to go on.

But on we will go, though the weather be foul. On we will go, though the powers that be growl. On we will go, though our sinking hearts howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though our arms may get sore and our sneakers may leak. On and on we will hike. And I know we’ll hike far and face up to our problems with God as our North Star.

We’ll get mixed up, of course, as we already know. We’ll get mixed up with some mighty strange birds as we go. So let’s be sure to speak up when we speak. Let’s speak with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And when we dance, let’s always forgive when someone mixes up our right foot with their left.

And will we succeed?
Yes! But that’s not the point when God says “Proceed”!
(One hundred six and ¾ percent no money back guaranteed!)

Folks, with each other and with God’s help we’ll move mountains!

So…be your name Kitty or Chris or Cathy or Clay or Kim, Debbie, David, Dennis, Frank, olĂ©!  

We’re off to Great Places!
Every day is our day!
Our mountain is waiting.
So…let’s get on our way!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The Jesus way through

Matthew 4: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 5, 2017

            No sooner had the Spirit of God descended like a dove and alighted on Jesus, and the voice from heaven declaring that he was God’s son, the Beloved, that same Spirit led Jesus out into the desert to be tested. We tend to think the test comes first, the proving of oneself, and then comes the affirmation, the conferral of the degree, the graduation event. And yet God always seems to be doing things backwards: offering grace before it is deserved, forgiving us before we’ve even acknowledged the wrong, loving us wholeheartedly without condition. Before he had performed one miracle or healed one person or preached one word, Jesus is given the whole truth about himself: he is God’s son, he is beloved, and God is pleased with him—no qualifiers, no expectations, and nothing to prove.

            Jesus begins his ministry on a foundation and ministers from within a grounding of grace.  He knows who he is, God’s child, and yet he doesn’t take that for granted.  And so the same Spirit that lavished that grace leads Jesus out into the desert to test that grace, that beloved identity.  Like a shaman or a medicine man, Jesus goes on a vision quest.  Like the Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years, he fasts for 40 days and 40 nights.  In the Jewish tradition, the number 40 signifies a time of purification, transition, change, renewal, transformation.  Jesus will not be the same person walking out of the desert as he was walking in.
            In the desert he encounters the devil, the tempter, Satan—in the Jewish tradition, the Satan or the Accuser who puts him to the test.  The Satan is the challenger or prosecutor—the embodiment of human difficulties.  The Satan is a servant of God who provokes, disturbs, and afflicts human beings so that our choice for what is righteous and good is a meaningful choice.

            It has been suggested that Jesus, and perhaps his cousin John, might have been an Essene—a desert Jewish sect that rejected temple Judaism.  Or maybe there was some home-grown Pharisee who took Jesus under his wing in Nazareth.  So I imagine this accuser, this prosecutor as a wizened old rabbi.  With crooked, arthritic hands, wild hair, a mischievous smile, and piercing eyes.  Jesus was his star pupil and was ready to go into the world to prepare the way of God’s kingdom, the Beloved Community.

But not so fast.  First he must be tested.  Being famished, Jesus might’ve been ready to think with his stomach.  The old rabbi tries to goad and hook Jesus’ ego with the words, “If you are the Son of God…”.   Jesus keeps the focus not on himself but on the One who sent him.  He answers in true rabbinical fashion by quoting from scripture, his foundation, from whence came his grounding in grace, or in Hebrew, chesed, lovingkindness, covenantal love.  That scene at his baptism was a reminder of what was true, what he had known from the very beginning.

This accuser asks Jesus three times if he wants the easy way out—the easy way to end his hunger, the easy way to prove he is the Son of God, the easy way to have the world at his feet.  He makes it personal.  He prosecutes Jesus’ ability to withstand, trying to make it look as though he is more merciful than the God who sent Jesus.  Because God does not offer us a way out but a way through.  

Lent is the soul’s version of spring cleaning: to find what we’ve been hiding, get rid of things we’ve been holding onto, and look at those times we have chosen the easy way out; how we think with our hunger and make choices based on our emptiness; how we distract ourselves and moderate our fear of the fact that we are dust and to dust we shall return.  And it is this accuser, this prosecutor—the embodiment of human difficulties—who challenges us in these forty days—minus Sundays— so that our choice for what is righteous and good would be a meaningful choice; so we would leave the desert not the same person as when we entered.

Why?  Because Jesus wants disciples, not sycophants.  Because even more is being asked of us.  Because in our privilege we still have a safe place to lay our head at night.  Because at some point we will come face to face with evil or we already have and we need to know not only how to keep living but how to keep loving.    Because the world needs people who know what it means to be faithful, not for survival’s sake, but so that others will know what love looks like through us. Because we are food for worms and we are wasting our joy.  Because we are beloved, we are a child of God, a child of this universe, and with us too God is pleased.  Before the test.  Before the mess.  Before any of it.

This is the Jesus way through.


Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Matthew 17: 1-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

            I have always been fascinated by how a human being can become someone else, whether by changing one’s appearance, acquiring knowledge, learning a skill, getting rid of a habit, or by acting either in a movie or on a stage. Just changing one’s posture can give the impression of someone much older (hunch shoulders forward) or younger (stand with squared shoulders). We can modulate our voice to be inviting or irritating or intimidating. We are complex beings with an uncanny ability to mimic and to tell a story through our bodies.

            We also enjoy a performance, to witness this transformation of one person into another.  Sometimes while watching a movie or a play, we become more than our everyday selves.  We get caught up in the drama or the comedy, and if it’s done well, we are drawn into the story to the point that we feel like we’re a part of it.

            But when actors break with their character and accidentally slip back into themselves, however briefly, we witness something most human.  While we would never want to reveal our flaws in front of an audience, it seems almost magical when it happens on live television or on the stage or in movie outtakes.  We see both the remnants of a character and the vulnerable human being who plays them. 

Back in 2011 I had the opportunity to play Florence Unger in the female version of The Odd Couple.  Before every performance I had to sit backstage for the first twenty minutes of the play in character, ready to go on:  my hair in a curly, poofy ‘80’s style, uptight posture, pitiful pouty face, and an emotional, hypochondriacal, neurotic attitude—I had to become an entirely different person.  During one of the last performances, Bettie, who played Olive Madison, and I lost our stuff for a few seconds after a funny line.  I thought it was one of the best moments in the whole play. 

It was as if a light came on, we pulled our masks off, and everyone got the real joke—two middle-aged women playing two middle-aged women.

Six days before Jesus climbed that mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked his disciples who did people think he was.  They hemmed and they hawed, dancing around the truth.  “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Jesus then got to the point and asked them who they thought he was.  Peter went for broke and said the whole truth: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It was as if a light came on, the masks of pretension and denial and role-playing came off, and every one of the disciples got the real story.  Every promise God ever made to God’s people was standing right in front of them.

Transfiguration, Macha Chmakoff

Except Jesus said he would be telling a different story with his body than the one hoped for, and that any who would follow him would do the same.  With our bodies, with our lives we tell the story of the cross, the story of transformation:  how we become not another person, but who we really are, our divine humanity, our flaws and goodness, our pain and love in one glorious whole.  Jesus says that we will lose the life we know that we may find our real lives, our true selves, our wholeness.

And so six days later on that mountain Jesus makes it clear exactly who he is.  Why six days?  The sixth day of creation is when God created humankind in the image and likeness of God.  Six days after foretelling his death and resurrection, Jesus is transfigured into glory.  Where Jesus goes, we are also headed.  God is not done with us yet.  We, too, shall suffer.  We, too, shall be resurrected into life.  We, too, shall be transfigured into glory.  We, too, have been called to be what Jesus is:  a child of God, a human/divine presence of love.

We celebrate Jesus as the light of the world, and Jesus says that we too are the light of the world and to let our light shine.  Yet when God said let there be light, God said the light was good and separated the light from the dark.  When Jesus is transfigured his face shines like the sun and his clothes become a dazzling white.  Two weeks ago, in our discussion about white privilege, we talked about whiteness as norm, as something we who are white take for granted.  If we all are intended for transformation, the values we attach to light and darkness, black and white also need to be transformed.  Jesus took a few of his male disciples up the mountain, which was consistent with tradition then, yet a new narrative is needed to liberate all God’s people.  All the masks need to come off.

What if Jesus’ face shone like moonlight, or like a raisin in the sun?  What if his clothes became dark like the night sky and a dark cloud overshadowed them and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?

What if his face shone because, along with prophets like Elijah and Moses, he was joined by his cousin Mohammed?

What if his face shone like undocumented immigrants harvesting strawberries or mowing lawns or lifting a hospital patient from their bed or graduating from college and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?

What if his face shone like a transgender woman or man or child who could use the bathroom they feel most comfortable using and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?

What if his face shone because he was holding hands with his beloved and kissed him in front of God and everyone, with nothing to fear?

What if his face shone because he knew he could afford his healthcare?

What if his face shone like a refugee family who sees nothing but green lights at customs and immigration and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?

What if his face shone like a reporter from CNN or Breitbart, from the Washington Times or Fox News, from BuzzFeed or the BBC, all on the same mountain, each freely telling what they see and hear, and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?

What if her face shone because she received equal pay for equal work, because she could move freely and fearlessly in the world, because her body is her own, and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?

What if the shining face was yours and mine and everyone’s, everywhere, because we no longer judged ourselves or anyone else as not enough or unworthy, as anything less than a child of God, because our divinity and our humanity had become transparent, obvious, and glorious and every moment we heard the word ‘beloved’?


Benediction ~ written by Roddy Hamilton

Not all is as it seems:
there is a glory hidden in everything
waiting to be revealed
to those who are willing to look
beyond what seems inevitable
who do not want to live in the status quo
but in the promises of God.

Hold onto the vision
as we turn towards Lent
and walk the more difficult path;
there is yet a greater glory
still to be revealed.

Go in peace,
Go in hope,
Go in love.