Tuesday, July 31, 2018

#HumanityIsMyTribe

Ephesians 3: 14-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 29, 2018







In the first century of the Common Era, fathers in the Roman Empire had absolute power. The term ‘paterfamilias’ entailed more than just being the head of the family. Only the father could own property; sons would receive an allowance for their own household until their father died. Fathers could decide whether a child lived or died or was to be sold into slavery, even if the child only angered their father. When a child was born, the midwife would place the baby on the ground. If the father picked up the newborn, then the child was formally accepted into the family. The father could also choose not to pick up the baby for any reason: deformity, female gender, or unwanted children for lack of support. The child would then be placed outside in a particular place and abandoned. Some of these children survived as slaves; others died of exposure.




So when Paul refers to God as Father and says that every family in heaven and on earth takes their name from God as Father, to those who are reading this letter it means that God claims everyone—those who have gone before, those who are on earth, and those to come—everyone is a part of God’s family. No one is rejected. No one is abandoned. When Paul writes from prison to a church of primarily Gentile Christians in a rich cosmopolitan city of the Roman Empire, it’s like he’s writing to a primarily white church of the 1%, people with privilege and power, people like us, reminding us what are the true riches of this world. Earlier in his letter Paul writes about a new humanity in which peace is made between Jews and Gentiles, no longer strangers and aliens but members of the household of God that we would all become a dwelling place for God.




What would it be like to have no dividing wall between human beings, no hostility between groups? What does it mean for us to be one human family? We are still so tribal, so provincial, so comfortable in our bubbles, our own points of reference. Friday night I went to a Billy Joel concert in Philadelphia. I’ve never been to concert so highly attended—about 25,000 – 30,000 people. At first I thought about the power of music to bring people together. At one point, when Billy sang “Piano Man”, he and the band cut out and 30,000 people sang “Sing us a song, you’re a piano man; sing us a song tonight; well we’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feeling alright”. I’d like to think that if there was some kind of global peace barometer, those few moments would have bolstered the human peace index up a smidge. Didn’t matter who we voted for or where we live or who we love, and we didn’t seem to care.



But then as I looked around that stadium, I saw mostly white folks and people who had enough disposable income to drop anywhere from $65 to well over $200 for a ticket, plus parking and food and drink and maybe a t-shirt. So even though a moment like that feels like church, like power and healing and wonder, like the breadth and length and height and depth of the fullness of God, there are still barriers and obstacles that we are quite comfortable with. And I confess—that churchy feeling pretty much dissipated when we were making it back to the car and folks were picking up their tailgating right where they left off and a bazillion cars were trying to leave the parking lot.



So I think we have a ways to go when it comes to the big crowd, transformational events to heal and restore the unity of the human tribe. I wish it was that simple, the power of the mass. Jesus knew how to work a crowd but then it’s the stories involving individual lives—Zacchaeus who vows to continue his generosity, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, any of the healing stories, the woman who was almost stoned for exercising bodily autonomy, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, you may have your own favorite—these are the ones in which people are restored to themselves and to community.



It’s an evolution we’re talking about but it happens one life, one person at a time, when we step out of our bubble, our point of reference, and dare to understand what it’s like to be someone completely unlike us. Like Elin Ersson, a 21 year old Swede who held up the takeoff of an airline flight so that an Afghan asylum seeker would not be deported and possibly killed when he arrived home. She filmed the entire event—all 15 brief minutes of it—how one man tried to intimidate her, irritated and inconvenienced by her protest to save one life; how others supported her and rallied with her; her tears of relief and joy when she succeeded and the pilot allowed the Afghan citizen to disembark. And when I watched that video, I asked myself, “Would I be so brave? Would I be willing to make myself so vulnerable for the sake of another?”







Stan Mitchell, the senior pastor of GracePointe Church in Franklin, TN, speaking about a young trans person in his church, boldly declares: “If you claim to be an ally of a group of people—if you’re not getting hit by the stones that are thrown at them, you’re not standing close enough.” Talk about the breadth and length and height and depth of the fullness of what it means to live a life in the love of God. Are we willing to get that close? Are we willing to ask God “Let me get that close”?







It’s no easy thing to ask. It’s nothing short of taking up someone else’s cross for a while that they carry 24/7. It’s taking our privilege and spending extravagantly on someone else. It’s divesting ourselves of our power that another power might work through us. In the words of the poet and storyteller Oriah Mountain Dreamer:



“I want to know
If you can sit with pain
Mine or your own
Without moving to hide it
Or fade it
Or fix it.


"It doesn’t interest me
To know where you live
Or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
After the night of grief and despair
Weary and bruised to the bone
And do what needs to be done
To feed the children.


“It doesn’t interest me
Who you know
Or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
In the centre of the fire
With me
And not shrink back.”



This is how we knit our human line together: one excruciatingly small, flawed, tenuous, tender, daring step at a time. It’s how we become rooted and grounded in love. It’s how we grow into nothing less than the dwelling place of God.



Fear thrives on division.


Love dares to understand.


Humanity is my tribe.


Amen.


Monday, July 30, 2018

Professional Christian vs. dilettante disciple

Ephesians 1: 17-23
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 28, 2018 – Rev. Fa Lane Ordination 







A couple of weeks ago I attended a week-long theological conversation called a colloquy, another one of those churchy words, and it was centered on immigration and refugees. One of our guest speakers referred to several people in her family as “professional Christians”, which she translated as ordained ministers. Another guest referred to himself as a dilettante when it came to Christianity, which means “a person who cultivates an area of interest with no real commitment or knowledge”. One of the synonyms for dilettante is “amateur” but another is “layperson”. Yeah.





He called himself a dilettante because sometimes he really doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he knows that something needs to be done, and he can no longer get away with “Who do I think I am to be doing this work?” And I thought, “I’d rather be a dilettante disciple than a professional Christian”. Because often us clergy types are looked at as professional Christians, answer people, shamans with the magic words when really there are days we really don’t know what we are doing but we know something needs to be done and we can no longer get away with “Who do I think I am to be doing this work?”.




Verily I tell you, there is a Facebook page entitled Things They Didn’t Teach Us in Seminary and it has 15,712 members! You could fill a library with all the posts and comments. When asked if I can do anything about the weather or bring down some thunder and lightning upon certain persons or it’s generally assumed I have some pull with the Almighty, my go-to response is, “Hey look, I’m in sales, not management!” It’s not intended to be self-deprecatory nor is it false modesty. We all have the same questions, the same fears, problems with shame and inadequacy and being vulnerable, letting ourselves be seen, flaws and all. But it’s also about knowing our place in the universe; that if anything is “reverend”, it’s not us but the call we hold tenderly that overflows in our cupped hands. And we all have that call no matter who we are. It is the call of the authentic human being.





Nadia Bolz-Weber, dilettante disciple extraordinaire, says that “Faith is the thing that tells me that I am already enough. Faith tells me that I am loved quite apart from anything I do or not do.” Which sounds an awful lot like Paul, who told the truth as he experienced it and wished the same for others. “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know and be known, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which you are called, what are the riches of this glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of power for us who believe, according to the working of the Divine’s great power.”



Eugene Peterson begins his introduction to the letter to the Ephesians with these words: “What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives. The moment the organic unity of belief and behavior is damaged in any way, we are incapable of living out the full humanity for which we were created.” And so Jesus, living out his full humanity, embodying the Divine’s great power, went to work to heal that brokenness so that we could live out our full humanity and know that we are enough, just as we are.






That is the calling for all of us: to lean into our own healing between belief and behavior, to become an authentic, whole human being that we would be part of the healing, the transformation of others. We all do this in our own way. Teachers do it. Parents do it. Writers and storytellers and poets do it. Artists and musicians and actors do it. Scientists and engineers do it. Nurses and doctors and healers of all kinds do it. And pastors and chaplains and rabbis and imams and monks and nuns and priests and gurus. Whatever you do, you are a part of it too. And so as we will soon lay hands upon Fa and ask the Holy Spirit, the Divine’s great power, to come upon her and enable her to fulfill the call to healing and transformation, I invite us now to lay our hands upon one another, to ask the Holy Spirit, the Divine’s great power, to come upon us and enable each of us to fulfill our own calling.



Let us pray, and this is a repeat after me prayer:

God in community, Holy in one,

grant to this one

upon whom I lay a hand

of challenge and encouragement,

a spirit of wisdom and revelation,

that they would know themselves

and be known,

that the eyes of their heart be enlightened,

that they would see exactly

what God is calling them to,

that they would grasp the immensity

of this glorious way of life,

the utter extravagance

of God’s work through them,

endless energy, boundless strength.

Following in Jesus’ way,

Amen.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

#TheStruggleIsReal

Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 22, 2018





This past Thursday a friend posted the following:



“What happened to all that outrage about kids in cages?!?

Oh...Russia.

Don't think you aren't being told what to care about.”



What if there’s just a boatload of things to care about? What if we really are like sheep with no shepherd, going to and fro from one heartbreaking event, issue, policy wounding human lives to the next frustrating, mind-boggling, overwhelming one? What if those whom we are resisting are counting on us sinking under the waves of “liberal tears”? The struggle is real.


Brené Brown in her book Daring Greatly, wrote “...we're sick of feeling afraid. We all want to be brave. We want to dare greatly. We're tired of the national conversation centering on ‘What should we fear?’ and ‘Who should we blame?’”. That book was published in 2012. We forget how long we’ve been having this conversation, what now feels a shouting match, long before 2012, and the heat beneath it has been slowly increased each year, with each event, like that frog in the boiling water.


I woke up at 1 a.m. on Friday morning with my body covered in hives. Later that day I also developed some intestinal trouble and a stuck feeling at the base of my sternum. Most likely it’s due to some new food allergy, but I think David nailed it when he said I’m allergic to BS and I’ve hit my threshold. The struggle is real.


What if we’re the ones who need healing in mind, body, and spirit? Do we ever wish we could just touch the hem of whatever Jesus is wearing and feel that power flood through our bodies, our lives? What if we’re the ones who need to go to a deserted place and rest for a while?




And yet to follow Jesus is not only to serve the stranger but to become the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant, the person needing safe refuge—vulnerable and defenseless—seeking sanctuary, hospitality, and the true humanity of others, to meet them where they are. Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message, in the gospel of John: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Jesus came not to be fed, but became holy food and fed others with his life.




In between the deserted place and the boat ride and the crowds who came for healing, the people follow Jesus and stay so late that it’s time to eat. The disciples want to send everyone away to get their own food, but then Jesus says my favorite line of his: “You give them something to eat.” But all they can scrounge is five loaves and two fish. The disciples see scarcity, but Jesus sees enough. Not abundance. Enough. As in, “You are enough”. As in, “Trust me”. As in, “You are worthy, all these people are worthy, even in the face of this present uncertainty.” And then Jesus uses words from the Eucharist, the Last Supper: Taking, blessed, broke, gave. We hardly ever think of that small meal that we share with each other once a month as scarcity but as enough.


Later Jesus sends the disciples off in a boat while he goes off to pray. The text reads that the disciples strained at the oars against an adverse wind. The struggle is real. When the disciples see Jesus on the water they are terrified but Jesus tells them to take heart and to not be afraid. He gets in the boat with them and the adverse wind ceases. Mark pairs feeding stories with water miracles as reminders of the exodus, when God parted the Red Sea, fed the people and provided water for them in the desert. And yet Mark reports that the disciples didn’t understand about the loaves because like Pharaoh, their hearts were hardened.




Sometimes our hearts are hardened too. Or as Peterson puts it, sometimes what Jesus has to teach us hasn’t penetrated our hearts. Like the fact that we’re enough. Like we can trust ourselves, trust Jesus, maybe even trust each other. Like we’re worthy even though the way we are is flawed and imperfect and some days a real hot mess. Or that other people are enough and worthy just the way they are and that they are doing the best they can with what they have, just like us. The struggle is real.




However we need to remember that most of us come at this from a place of privilege: white, straight, cisgender, the wide range that is the middle class. Those who are marginalized, oppressed, discriminated against, or otherwise invisible to us are the stranger, the alien, the foreigner, the immigrant, the person seeking safe refuge every single day of their lives and they do what they have to do regardless of whether they believe they are worthy or enough. Their struggle IS real. There isn’t just a boatload of things to care about, they are in the boat in that adverse wind 24/7 and they need us to get in the boat with them. They need not just to be given what they need to get food but for us to give them something to eat and break bread with them. And by doing so, we all will be healed. We will have touched the power of Jesus.




To do this we need to take care of ourselves, to believe that we are enough and worthy of rest, to take time away and then to come back to it wholeheartedly. We need to do what we can because we can’t do it all. And it won’t always feel good. Sometimes we will strain at the oars. Sometimes it’s just hard. But we can’t allow the hard to convince us that we don’t have what it takes, that we’re not enough, that we aren’t brave. 39 years ago this church was started by wholehearted, brave people, who believed they were enough and worthy, and when you walked through those doors or served at Hope Dining Room or volunteered at the Empowerment Center or spent the night at Code Purple or walked for Friendship House or sang in the choir or taught Sunday School or took on a leadership position or served on a committee or prayed for someone or brought a meal or gave a hug, you became one of them: a wholehearted, brave person.




Being the Church means being vulnerable to our lives and the lives of others, no matter who they are or how we find them; it means we stop trying to live up to others’ expectations of what it means to be who we are and accept we are enough and worthy; it means we cease equating emotions with weakness; it means we can admit to one another “Me too, friend, me too”. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, and uncertainty. Yuck. That struggle is definitely real. But these are also what make us brave. And they also sound a lot like Jesus, whose struggle was real. And so was he. We can be too.





Amen.









Benediction


Hear these words from Maya Angelou, from her poem, On the Pulse of Morning:


Give birth again To the dream. All genders, all ages, Take it into the palms of your hands, Mold it into the shape of your most Private need. Sculpt it into The image of your most public self. Lift up your hearts Each new hour holds new chances For new beginnings. Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally To brutishness. The horizon leans forward, Offering you space to place new steps of change. Here, on the pulse of this fine day You may have the courage To look up and out and upon me, the Rock, the River, the Tree, your country. …Here, on the pulse of this new day You may have the grace to look up and out And into your friend’s eyes, into Your neighbor’s face, your country And say simply Very simply With hope Good morning.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

#IAmFredRogers

Mark 6: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 8, 2018




         


         This past Monday I went to see the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and I forgot to bring tissues. I was about 30 seconds into it, the theme music to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” began, and the tears were flowing like streams of mercy never ceasing.



It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, 
A beautiful day for a neighbor, 
Would you be mine? 
Could you be mine? 

It's a neighborly day in this beautywood, 
A neighborly day for a beauty, 
Would you be mine? 
Could you be mine? 

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you, 
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you. 

So let's make the most of this beautiful day, 
Since we're together, we might as well say, 
Would you be mine? 
Could you be mine? 
Won't you be my neighbor? 

Won't you please, 
Won't you please, 
Please won't you be my neighbor?


         If your soul is hurting, if you need some tenderness, if you’re feeling empty, if you haven’t had a good cry in a while (and trust me, you need it), do your heart some good and go see this movie with the biggest handkerchief you can find, with someone who loves you just the way you are.



       
         If people were astounded and offended by anything Jesus taught, it was probably “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Why is unconditional love not just hard but scary? Because we might have to really and truly love ourselves? Because we might have to love those who are difficult to love? Or for the very valid reason we’re scared it would put us in a dangerous place with those who have hurt us? It’s not an anything-goes kind of love but neither is it contingent on anything except our willingness, our faith in it.





         Unconditional love is messy and vulnerable and imperfect and it feels impossible. It has plenty of room for transparency and accountability and healthy boundaries but it’s also wide with forgiveness and letting go of resentment and keeping score. It’s justice for those who have been wronged, and sometimes that’s everybody involved. It’s about the long haul and wholeness and evolution as much as it is about the present moment and what’s passed before us.



       
         Unconditional love has always been hard and scary, long before Jesus, ever since Leviticus proclaimed “Love your neighbor as yourself”. It’s even harder and scarier given the current social and political climate where there are only winners and losers and a renewed attitude of “us and them”, as in “good us” and “evil them”. Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan was probably not popular at all with those who first heard it because it could’ve just as easily been called “The Good Enemy”. We—the “us” we—loved Mr. Rogers when he invited a black police officer portrayed by François Clemmons to share his cool pool on a hot day, but Fred could not accept for the longest time that François was gay. Even Mr. Rogers couldn’t practice everything he preached, not all at once. Even Jesus got schooled by a Syro-Phoenician woman, an immigrant.



         Unconditional love is how we learn to trust, and when trust is broken, it’s how we heal and begin again. Last night CNN had a headline that read “The immigration crisis is about the devaluation of love”.  Even more so, it’s about our nation’s history, our world’s history with the devaluation of love. Which means we have chosen something else, many things, above love as our highest value, and lately even more so. In Luke’s version of this story, the crowd drove him out of the synagogue with the intention of throwing him over a cliff. Mr. Rogers was parodied by Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon, Robin Williams, and Johnny Carson, sometimes even going so far as to cast aspersions on his motives toward children. And yet both Jesus and Mr. Rogers would probably agree that children grasp the gospel of unconditional love and practice it better than most adults.



         Now in these mean times we yearn for Mr. Rogers and his gentle ways but we still bristle against that love, that big Jesus love of his, that love being for anyone who makes fun of differently abled people; anyone who carried a torch in Charlottesville; anyone who would tear children away from their parents; anyone who views LGBTQ persons as less than deserving of equal rights and safe space; anyone who perpetuates a system of evil.



       
         But then that last one is all of us. We all live in it; we all have it in us—good and evil, care and harm, creation and destruction, love, hate, and fear. And I don’t how we do it, but it is love that will heal humankind and the earth, not fear. It is justice that will restore, not violence. It is compassion that will bring people together, not shared animosity. It is forgiveness that will reconcile, not power. It’s giving that makes for enough, not withholding. Together is how we will create the future, not in our bunkers and silos. I don’t know how we will do it, but I do know I don’t want one more drop of blood to spill to accomplish it. We despise the cross and misconstrue its bloodshed. It was a sacrifice made not to appease a monster god but to show love to, to mirror the monster, the bully within each of us—to give us the choice: who will we be?



        Each day we are sent out into the world, sometimes with company, sometimes on our own, usually taking more than we need, including a lot of baggage. Who will we be for this world? If each of us gave what Mr. Rogers offered, which was the essence of what Jesus offered, the world would indeed be a safer, kinder, more just, more loving place for all of us.






Amen.


Benediction


It's such a good feeling
To know you're alive.
It's such a happy feeling;
You're growing inside.
And when you wake up ready to say:
I think I'll make a snappy new day.
It's such a good feeling,
A very good feeling.
The feeling you know, that I'll be back
When the day is new.
And I'll have more ideas for you.
And you'll have things you'll want to talk about.
I will too.



Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Woke up and made whole

Mark 5: 21-43
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 1, 2018


         


          The Bible is replete with nameless women and daughters. One interpretation for some of these stories is that these anonymous women and daughters represent not only all females but the whole of Israel itself. The text gives us a clue about this in the use of the number 12. The woman had been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years. Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old. The twelve tribes of Israel are God’s people joining together in wholeness, unity, and fullness.




         

         If we take all this symbolism as a metaphor, like the woman and the daughter, Jesus is speaking to a people who are exhausted, bleeding out, desperate and taken for dead. They are vulnerable, occupied once again by a foreign power, one that looks like it’s here to stay. The femaleness of these two characters also signifies Jesus’ mission to those who have the most to lose: the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized, the isolated, the stranger, the victim, the other who have been criminalized by those who have power.



         




         Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? We were asleep for too long, and now we’re woke up. We’re not only woke up, we’re rising up! We’re marching for the poor and protesting for families not our own. We’re posting videos of brutality against people of color and calling out those who are silent in the face of bigotry and those who normalize cruel, oppressive tactics. We’re writing letters and sending emails, texts, faxes, hounding those who represent us in the halls of power to fight for those whose voices, whose cries for justice are being ignored. We’re supporting candidates who will challenge the status quo.



         We’re outraged and scared and hopeful and overwhelmed and fed up and frustrated and tempted toward despair. We’re tired. We’re hurting. Some of us have endured much under many physicians, or our own ways of dealing with our pain, spending all we have, only to feel worse than when we started. We grab onto the hem of those whose garments we think have power. We listen to any voice we think can raise our spirits.



         

         We use whatever power we can in the face of our powerlessness. Our fight or flight response gets triggered daily, hourly, constantly for some of us, which can affect our health, our ability to make decisions, even the memory center of our brain. Some of us are fleeing into our safe lives and our privilege. Others who see no way out are fleeing by way of drugs and suicide. Some of us are fighting almost to the point of tooth and nail, hammer and tongs, because it feels like life or death, because we fear one day it could be life or death. We shut down the argument. We shame the behavior, the attitude, the bias. We shun those who refuse to see. We begin to build walls when once we decried them. Ever so slightly, step by step, we dehumanize the dehumanizer.



         
         I’m not talking about being civil. This is no time for civility, for polite talk when the children of asylum seekers are being warehoused, when reproductive justice might be set back 45 years, when LGBTQ persons are still not safe in public space, when black lives still do not matter. And yet…Friedrich Nietzsche warned that when we fight monsters, when we fight bullies, we take care that we do not ourselves become monsters, become bullies; that when we gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into us. Most of us in this fight are not the victim; we are nowhere near the least of these. We do our best to fight on behalf the marginalized and dehumanized and criminalized. And so when we fight, we need to keep the faces, the lives, the pain, the anguish, the stories of these very human people in front of those who refuse to see. It is not our face that needs to get in their face, but our hearts, our compassion, our willingness to sacrifice, our courage to be vulnerable.



         
         A colleague said to me earlier this week that he’s done with inclusivity, that somehow we can make room for everyone. Even in the United Church of Christ we haven’t really succeeded; some would say we’ve failed at that. We’re just as hemmed in by our progressive stance as those we stand against. He said that what we need is mutual vulnerability: to create safe space where everyone can allow their whole selves to be seen and be willing to see others just as they are.



         
         Of course that only works if you’re privileged, if you’re not already vulnerable, if your existence isn’t outlawed. But if things are going to go differently than they have before, one of these days, someday, hopefully, we won’t be just at the same restaurant; we’ll all be at the same table rather than the battlefield and the bunker. And the table is a place of mutual vulnerability, where we have to put down our armor and our weapons before we can eat and be fed. But who will go first? Who will put themselves on the line first to show the way? How can we ever be one human race if none or not enough of us are willing to do this?



         At the table of betrayal and desertion, Jesus went first and made himself vulnerable even unto death. It’s not a story that any of us likes to hear. It feels like losing, like failure, but that’s only because violence, rage, power, and fear are still how we solve most of our problems. Jesus said, “Do not fear; only believe” or as Eugene Peterson puts in The Message: “Don’t listen to them; just trust me”.

       


         This table isn’t about winning or losing but about rising up and living: living with compassion as much as passion, living with acceptance of our whole selves—the betrayer, the denier, the deserter and the beloved disciple; living without losing our humanity and yet believing in humanity. Even if we can’t believe in humanity just now, Jesus says to us, “Do not fear. Don’t listen to them. Just trust me. Get up. Rise. Live.”
      

         


         Blogger Hannah Adair Bonner writes, “All it takes is you. You, creating a ripple in your neighborhood, that joins with all the others making ripples in their own, that turns into ‘justice running down like a river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ That is what can push back this tide that feels like it will crush us all: you.”


         Amen.



            
This was the benediction:





By all that you hold dear on this good earth, 
I bid you STAND!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

What's in your garden?

Mark 4: 26-34
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 17, 2018



         
Holy Family by Kelly Latimore

         It’s been quite a spring for gardens and lawns. All that rain and cool weather, and now sun and warmth. I don’t know about you but at our house June is busting out all over. Everything is green and lush, including the weeds. I’ve heard weeds described as wildflowers with poor public relations. But a weed can be something, anything growing where you don’t want it to grow. We’ve got a bumper crop of tender young maple trees springing up hither and yon. Because of the local mushroom farms right up the road and strong winds, spores have taken root and sprouted in the lawn and in the spaces between the wooden walls surrounding raised beds. A couple of weeping cherry trees were overtaking some smaller growth. We’ve got blackberry bushes growing in with the strawberry plants. “Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”



         
         Truth be told, I find it overwhelming, and yet thank goodness David is the farmer and gardener because he takes it all in stride. After all, we cannot control where every seed gets planted. We cannot nor should we tame, try to control all the wildness, how Nature is constantly scattering her energy to and fro. Blackberry bushes mean there will be blackberries to be harvested at some point. Trees can be moved when they get too big for their space, and more trees are a good thing. And one of the so-called weeds growing in the front garden has a beautiful bright pink-purple flower, perhaps some wild phlox.



         Jesus described the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, the kin-dom of God like a mustard plant, like a weed that is allowed to grow until it becomes big enough for birds to nest in. Such hyperbole! Jesus’s listeners were probably horrified to hear that what would save them was something they would trample underfoot. But then they knew what that felt like from the Romans. Jesus uses the mustard plant as a contrast to the cedar tree, which was prized for its strength, as it was the backbone of many an empire’s economy. King Solomon built the First Temple from cedar.



         But instead of an empire built on an economy of might and control, bigger and better, Jesus describes God’s kingdom as seeds that are scattered and grow untamed, unfettered, unbounded. Jesus imagines God’s dwelling place, the saving grace of God’s people, the justice that will restore righteousness, right living, as a scrappy shrubbery that most of us would yank out of our gardens and put in our yard waste containers.



         


         Too often throughout human history dominant cultures, empires have dealt with whole peoples as though they were weeds to be uprooted and moved or destroyed. And every time it has ended in death and disaster. No matter what your stance may be on immigration or on undocumented immigrants, the United States is acting toward immigrant families and their children, toward those escaping violence, seeking asylum and a better life as though they are weeds to be controlled. As children are taken from their parents and placed in government detention or foster care facilities, we are sowing the seeds of trauma, mental illness, PTSD, learning disorders, and brain dysfunction. The United Nations has called for an end to these separations.



         Attorney Jeff Sessions, in an infamous attempt to defend this policy, cited a passage from the 13th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, which states that everyone is subject to the governing authorities, that there is no authority apart from God, and those authorities exist being instituted by God. This very same scripture was used to enshrine slavery, defend the Holocaust, and preserve apartheid in South Africa. If we had followed this scripture throughout our nation’s history, there would’ve been no American revolution (or any revolution for that matter), no women’s suffrage movement, no Civil Rights movement, no Stonewall riot, no Black Lives Matter.



         In fact, if he had read a few more verses into chapter 13 he would’ve found these words: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”



If you really want to get into it, Isaiah puts it this way:



“Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.” (Isaiah 10: 1-4a, NIV)



Or from the book of Exodus:



“You must not oppress foreigners. You know what it’s like to be a foreigner, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9) and “The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you” (Exodus 12:49)



Or the oft-abused Leviticus:



“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)







         I could prooftext ad nauseum like everybody else. But the Bible was never intended to be used, as it is today, as a bludgeon to silence an argument or to correct other people’s behavior or to control them or to establish one particular theology over all others. It was intended to scatter, to plant, to nurture the seeds of hope and compassion, seeds of grace and justice, seeds of unconditional, undeserved, and unlimited love.



         Perhaps we can learn from a Mexican proverb from the Zapatista revolution in 1994 against the NAFTA agreement: “Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas.” “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” Funny thing is, this proverb originated not in Mexico but in 1970’s Greece by gay poet Dinos Christianopoulos who was persecuted for being true to himself: “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.”



RefuJesus, David Hayward
Though the way ahead is unknown and uncertain, even in the midst of despair, there is nothing to stop us from scattering our own seeds of hope and compassion. We don’t need a church building or an institution or organized religion to embody what Jesus calls us to be and do. We’re not called to be the mighty established cedar but the scrappy, persistent shrubbery from a mustard seed. We’re called to not only scatter seeds but to be seeds, allow ourselves and our lives and our life together to crack open, release all that energy and potential, to grow we know not how sometimes, uninhibited, right where we are planted, and to bloom with unabashed grace.



For each of us, every single one of us—especially the least of us—and all of us together, we are intended to be God’s dwelling place, the saving grace for all people—you are mine, I am yours, we are ours—the justice that will restore right living.



What’s in your garden? Amen.





Benediction

"So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time if we do not give up." (NRSV Galatians 6:9)



Let us not grow weary in scattering seeds of hope and compassion.



Let us not grow weary of being that scrappy, persistent shrubbery of the Beloved Community of God.



Let us not grow weary of being Church but rather unleash it upon a weary world that aches for justice and yearns for peace.



Amen.


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

I know you

Psalm 139: 1-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 3, 2018 – Celebration Sunday with Communion






I know you.

You like to dance and twirl whenever you hear music.  Your smile is contagious and your laughter is like a song.  You think big thoughts.

I know you.

You love to draw and build things. You watch what’s going on around you, paying attention to people and what they’re saying and doing.

I know you.

Your eyes can get as big as saucers.  You love to explore, ask questions, show what you know, get your hands on everything.

I know you.

You know how to express yourself and make yourself heard.  You are so independent; no one can tell you who you are.




I know you.

You sometimes act like you’re not a part of things, but maybe that’s because you want to be the leader, go in a different direction, show just how smart you are.

I know you.

You’re kind and friendly and full of energy.  You take your time to think about stuff.

I know you.

You’re funny and strong and creative and smart.  You care deeply.

I know you.

You’re always thinking.  You ponder the big questions but you’re also in the moment yet sometimes in your own world and so wide open to the one around you.


I know you.

You want to find your tribe, those who will stand with you as fiercely as you will stand with them.

I know you.

You stand out in a crowd, even though sometimes you’re petrified to be in front of one.

I know you.

You’re earnest and smart, and you like to be helpful and make people laugh.

I know you.

You’re not sure where you belong sometimes, but you’re willing to give people a chance, which one day you will realize is a tremendous gift.




I know you.

You are as loyal as the day is long.  You would do anything for those you love and who love you.

I know you.

You’re playful and imaginative and yet you want to be taken seriously.  You know how to keep someone company by just sitting next to them or sharing a good laugh.

I know you.

You’re a good friend to everyone you know.  You’re silly and smart and kind.

I know you.


You’re anxious and scared and worried.  You’re sad and overwhelmed and tired and angry.  You’re disorganized, some days, a real mess.  You try to hide the mess.  You procrastinate.  Your to-do list runs your life.  You thrive on busy.  You long for a rest.  You can’t get out of bed some days.  You struggle with burnout.  Sometimes you lose your patience, lose your temper, lose your way.  You forget to cry, to laugh.  You think you know the answers.  You think you know nothing.  You hang onto a lot of stuff you don’t need.  You want to pull back, run away.  You want to belong.  You make mistakes.  You’re afraid you’ll disappoint others.  You wonder what’s the meaning of all this, why are you here, what will the future be like.  You want your life to mean something, to make a difference.

I know you.

You’re beautiful and generous and forgiving and kind. You’re brave. You never give up, and you’re working on when to let go.  You have healthy doubts.  You have faith in what’s good and holy and true.  You make sacrifices.  You ask questions.  You hunger and thirst for justice.  You love this world and you do what you can to love others.

I know you.

You are my masterpiece.  Just the way you are.  Love yourself.  Because I wouldn’t change a thing.

Love, 

God