Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The find

Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 30, 2017

Jesus Mafa, Hidden Treasure (Cameroon, 1973)

          About ten years ago, a man from Vancouver named Kyle MacDonald traded a red paper clip, hence the red paper clip on your bulletin. He wondered what would happen if he tried to trade it for something bigger and better. Bigger and Better is an icebreaker game in which teams of people are sent off into a public space with plenty of strangers, say like Main St. in Newark, and they try to trade something small, like a paper clip or a pen, for something bigger and better. And then to keep trading until the game is over, always for something bigger and better than the previous trade. So Kyle posted an ad on Craigslist and, lo and behold, two women responded that they would trade a pen shaped and painted like a fish for his red paper clip. It was a pretty cool pen.

          A year and fourteen trades later, Kyle had a house, free and clear, in Kipling, Saskatchewan. He’s written a book about his experiences and given a TedTalk. On his blog he says he’s really into projects, especially ones that have an obsessive quality to them. Like trading a red paper clip.

          Jesus was obsessive about his project, the kingdom of heaven. If Jesus had a red paper clip, he might have said, “The kingdom of heaven is like someone who traded a red paper clip with other things that seemed small and not worth all that much until, over the span of a year, they traded for a house.” But then you might say, “Yeah, in Saskatchewan. And it’s only worth about $50K Canadian. For a year’s effort? So what?”

          We can’t help ourselves but to assign worth, conduct a cost/benefit analysis.
How much is this thing worth, how much does it cost, what do I get out of it? How much is my time worth? How much trouble is another person worth? Five hundred years ago Martin Luther protested the selling of indulgences, of buying one’s way into heaven. Five hundred years later and we’ve monetized human beings—through human trafficking, debt slavery, systemic poverty, outsourcing jobs, the minimum wage debate, education costs, and of course, health care.

          Remember Master Card’s “Priceless” campaign? It was on the air and then online for a total of 17 years. Sure, there were some touching moments (mind you, this one was in 1997): two baseball tickets, $28; two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas, $18; one autographed baseball, $45; real conversation with an 11 year old son: priceless. And then the tag line: “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Master Card.” What’s it worth to you, this priceless experience? What’s your happy thought? How much can we buy you for?

Poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. 
Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

          What would you trade for peace of mind? What would you give in order to realize your joy? How much would you pay for a sense of belonging that nothing could disturb or destroy? What would you endure in order to truly come alive?

          How’s this for an ad campaign? Transgender transition-related care in the U.S military: $5.6 million annually. Prescriptions and care related to erectile dysfunction due to PTSD: $84 million annually. Pre-existing condition of rape culture in the military: too high at any price. Inclusion, acceptance, safety and care of all military personnel: not priceless but what they are owed for the sacrifices they have vowed to make on our behalf.

          How much is a human being worth? What are you worth? These parables about the kingdom of heaven aren’t about finding purpose or wisdom or esoteric treasure or our happy thought or even our joy.
Turned out trading the paper clip wasn’t really about the bigger and better. It was about the people and the friendships, the connections that were formed along the way. The kingdom of heaven is about us being found. Like that one who in their joy sells all they have so they can buy a field with hidden treasure, God’s joy, our joy comes from us being found. Like that old song about grace, we once were lost but now we are found; we were blind but now we see. Wake. Up. We are the treasure, the pearl of great price, fish of every kind, the agitating yeast that sparks a chain reaction, the weedy mustard seed that can become a home for the wild thing and the vulnerable.

          Having been found and accepted as we are,
knowing that there is nothing than can disturb or destroy our belonging, our connection to everything and everyone, we are then set free to find others, to help them realize their worth.  The kingdom of heaven, the kin-dom, is hiding in all of us, in our extraordinary ordinary lives, like a seed planted in the ground, seeds of heaven in all of us.

          Our last place we’d look for the kingdom of heaven is God’s first place to look. Like in our hard-seed heart that has trouble forgiving or accepting or loving sometimes.
Fish of every kind
Or in something as seemingly worthless like trading a red paper clip with a stranger. So I invite you to embark on an adventure. Try trading that red paper clip and see what happens. You could also clip it in a place where you can see it every day, to remind you that you are the treasure, the pearl, the find. But if you’re up for it, see who you can find, what chain reaction you might start. And when you’ve got a story to tell, share it during concerns and celebrations. Imagine a church obsessed with the kingdom of heaven. We just might find even more than our own worth.

          One red paper clip: about 6/10 of a cent. Every human being: worthy.  Period. 


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Change and second chances

(The message this past Sunday was the result of a pulpit swap between the New Ark UCC and the UUFN.  It was an interesting experience preaching from a source other than the Bible.)

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must—
God is Change—
People tend to give in
To fear and depression,
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow,
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
         That God has provided.
They are everywhere,
         In everything.
God is Change—
Seed to tree,
         Tree to forest;
Rain to river,
         River to sea;
Grubs to bees,
         Bees to swarm.
From one, many;
         From many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving—
         Forever Changing.
The universe is God’s self-portrait.

There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.

Kindness eases Change.


         These verses were written by 15 year old Lauren Olamina, the main character in Octavia Butler’s book, Parable of the Sower, published in 1993. One of a handful of female black science fiction authors, Octavia Butler also wrote speculative fiction—stories based on our society’s current trajectory and what could possibly happen in the not-too-distant future. Parable of the Sower begins in the year 2024 in a fictitious town 20 miles north of Los Angeles. There are three intersecting classes of people: the super wealthy who control electricity, water, and food; the poor middle class who live in walled neighborhoods, grow their own food if they can, homeschool their children because they have to, some with at least two families in one house, struggling to hold onto the way it used to be; and the homeless, most of whom are drug-addicted, illiterate, and violent, who scavenge whatever they can to survive.

         Lauren and her family, along with a dozen or so other families, live on a cul-de-sac in one of these walled neighborhoods. The wall is 20 feet high with lazor wire and glass fragments on top of it. The wall has a gate that is locked 24/7 and only residents have a key. Lauren and her Baptist minister father are black; he and his wife Cory, who is Hispanic, have four young boys. Most of the other families are also an ethnic melting pot. Everyone looks out for everyone else, including an armed nightwatch after several robberies. Everyone in the neighborhood owns firearms and is trained to use them. Police and firefighters are paid in cash by citizens who can afford their fees. Water costs more than gasoline, except no one drives anymore. A trip to the grocery store can cost a few thousand dollars if you have it. And it rains about every six or seven years.

         Lauren has rejected her father’s god. In the world she lives in, God as Love has failed. If there is any higher power in the universe, a power over which we have no control, it’s change.

Change has no feeling for us—God just is. Inexorable and indifferent, and yet God exists to be shaped. Lauren writes, why is the universe? To shape God. Why is God? To shape the universe. And it’s this philosophy, this belief system that helps her survive when her world inevitably falls apart—inevitably because God is change. When change occurs, we can resist it or we can submit to it, adapt to it; we can shape the effects of change on our lives.

         It’s not unlike the first four of the twelve steps. When all hell breaks loose, when the bottom falls out, when we can’t control events or people around us, or even ourselves, we admit that God is God and we are not. Two, we come to believe that there is a power that can and will restore us to sanity, because all our efforts have proved otherwise. Three, we submit ourselves and our lives to that power as we understand it. Four, we make a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves, because in our efforts to control people and events around us, we’ve wounded some folks along the way, including ourselves, and we need to participate in our own healing.

         Of course, the steps don’t stop there. All of the first four can happen in our own minds and hearts and remain there. Which is how we talk ourselves into and out of a great many things. So we take the change out into the world and make it public.
We admit the wrong turns and injuries to ourselves, to God, and to another human being. In church talk we call it a prayer of confession or a prayer of reconciliation. And with it comes forgiveness, a second chance, grace, the assurance that there is nothing we can do that makes us or anyone else unworthy.

         Our nation is going through some major changes, many of which we are resisting and we should. But all this resistance is having an effect on our hearts and souls. We’re all in danger of becoming less graceful, less forgiving and flexible, less adaptable. We think we have to be the mighty oak when we need to be more like the willow or the aspen with interconnected roots. Perhaps we cannot always shape the changes that happen, but we can shape ourselves to be the person we need to be, the community the world needs us to be. Which requires self-reflection, that fearless and searching moral inventory.

         This fellowship is going through some mighty changes of its own. One verse we heard this morning, “When apparent stability disintegrates, as it must—God is Change—people tend to give in to fear and depression, to need and greed.”
Our limbic brains can take over, convincing us that we must fight or flee. We our ability to be objective is hampered; we have difficulty looking at events and people and our own actions as if a stranger was looking in. Much of the change we experience is a consequence of our choices and actions. And so this morning I included a prayer of reconciliation in the service as well as a response to remind us of the sovereignty and transformative power of grace.

         Usually in such a time of transition between pastoral leaders, it is good to have an interim minister, what I like to call church therapy. I have served twice as an interim minister and know both the healing interim ministry can bring and how destructive it can be when it is forgone. Knowing that an interim pastor may not be possible in this situation, I have a pastoral prescription for you, which you can do with as you wish.

         First, you continue to have a prayer of reconciliation and an assurance of forgiveness in your worship every week while you are in this period of transition. Why every week? Because it would be too easy to talk yourselves out of it if you required it less often. Self-examination requires self-discipline, which is true for communities as much as it is for individuals.

         Second, to make those prayers meaningful and powerful, look at your history. The truth is, this change began long before it happened, before it became visible to everyone. It happened before *******, maybe even before his predecessor. The seeds of change are planted where we least expect them to fall. Now you have a second chance to change what happens next.

         And third, make “Kindness eases change” your personal and collective mantra. Remember that in Hebrew, kindness means mercy, grace, acts of lovingkindness, chesed: unlimited, undeserved, and unconditional.
The prophet Micah tells us all that is required of us is to make justice, love kindness, and walk humbly—do your part and let God be God. And it is from kindness that second chances can grow well, we can experience redemption even in tumultuous change, and it is through kindness we come to know that we are all worthy, no matter who we are or what we’ve done or not done.

         “A sower went out to sow some seed; and as they sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell upon rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit a hundredfold.” (Luke 8: 5-8)

         May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

With and without God

Romans 7: 15-25a (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 9, 2017


         This is Andrea when they were almost a year old with their first pair of shoes.
Andrea learned to walk in the summer and went barefoot everywhere. But now it was October and time for warmer clothes, socks, and shoes. But look at the magic shoes can do. Like Forrest Gump said, they can take you places. And so Andrea’s first walk with shoes was down the driveway, away from the house and Mom with the camera, to whatever adventure awaited them.

        This is the marvelous dance we do with those who love us and keep us safe: we walk away on our own, to whatever adventure awaits us, only to return once again. And each time we move away, we take another step, we exercise our muscles of independence, we make mistakes, sometimes we get hurt or we hurt others, we make awkward attempts to engage those twin spiritual disciplines called repentance and forgiveness. Growing up is messy, joyous, painful, fun, and rarely an orderly path forward. And hopefully it doesn’t ever end. We keep growing, evolving, mostly by making mistakes and learning from them.

         As we get older, though, the mistakes become more than just an oops. At some point we become acquainted with evil, that one thing we wish we could shelter those we love from, that one thing we wish we could escape. We live within a system that benefits most of us in this room, a small minority, at the expense of others who are not only punished by the system but are kept there permanently for the success of the small minority.

         If our education was effective in any way, it taught us how to question and self-reflect and think critically, just like Paul who studied the law, and so we know what is good and right and true and yet we do not do it.

Author James Baldwin sounds as though he was paraphrasing Paul’s letter to the Romans when he wrote, “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are, and we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we’re willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

         At some point we all bite into that fruit and our eyes are opened, and we see the wages of sin all around us and within us. Every day we put on our shoes and make more steps in our lives, most of them safe, some risky, some purposeful, but also a lot of wandering or staying in place or aimlessness or our path was decided for us long ago or we’re running and we can’t run fast enough.

         For Paul the answer to this problem, this human conundrum, for some, this trap, is Jesus. God’s commands are not enough. It’s easy enough to disobey a command, to not do what is required of us. After all, how many of us do as we are told? We resist, we rebel, we delight in our own way. But for Paul, it is the obedience, the faithfulness of Jesus to the law of love, even to death on a cross, that saves Paul from himself, releases him from sin’s prison to live a life of grace.

         I want you to ask yourself, when was the last time the thought of Jesus on the cross prevented you from cursing out a driver or influenced your purchases or finances or informed an important decision or changed the direction of your life? When was the last time you afforded yourself or someone else some mercy, especially when you or they didn’t deserve it?

I ask because there is a growing segment of our society who are doing just that: making decisions and choices without any reference to God or religion or even a law called love. With and without God we stumble, we create havoc, we cause pain, we make damn beautiful music out of it, but we also change very little. As James Baldwin said, we who are so fat, so sleek, so safe, so happy and so irresponsible are most of the time content to stay that way.

         For we who call ourselves Christians it is a life with God and specifically a life with Jesus that urges us toward discontent, makes us restless, and inspires us, in the words of a prayer, to be something more of who we mean to be and can be.

         Toward the end of his time on this earth, from a Nazi prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that with “science and human affairs in general, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”
Bonhoeffer wasn’t just depressed or anxious about his impending execution but rather he was facing his life as well as his death as he believed Jesus had. Not with a false, dependent, human view of God but as one come of age.

         He continued, “So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as [those] who manage our lives without [God]. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets [God’s self] be pushed out of the world on to the cross. [God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.”

         When I first read that quote about ten years ago, it haunted me until it rang true. Since then I’ve been in what you might call a theological closet, and it’s time to come out. I can no longer (and haven’t for some time) believe in a supernatural, interventionist god. Which makes me in the truest sense of the word an a-theist. We need to deconstruct our God language. God is not a being but a force, a mystery, a power, working in and through and with all living things, all matter, all that we can see and all that we cannot see or know or understand as yet.

If this power, this force is working for the good of all life everywhere, then that means I’m going to be on the losing end sometimes, many times, especially if I’ve got more than my share. In fact it would be better if I cooperated with this will toward the good of all, if I willingly gave up some of my fat, sleek, safe, and happy so someone else can have some too.

         But I don’t know how to do this without Jesus—who for me is the clearest picture of that force, that power in the flesh.  I don’t know how to love my neighbor, let alone my enemy without Jesus (because sometimes I get them confused). I don’t know how to forgive, how to be merciful, what grace is without Jesus. I don’t know how to have faith in humanity without Jesus.

         So the problem is, how do we grow up, how do we learn to do these things without being dependent on someone else, something to tell us to do them? At some point we made our way in the world without our parents. In fact, at some point we rebelled and rejected some or much of what our parents taught us, which is how we became adults, our own persons.
We lament the absence of adult children in this church but are they not intelligent, good, and kind people—what this world needs more of? We know the whole world will never be Christian but if human beings are going to survive this adolescence we’re in, then as a species we need to grow up. We need to find a way for people of faith, all faiths, and people of no faith to find common language and meaning and work together.

         Often it’s not what we believe that brings us together but how we live and how we want to live. We all do better when we take care of each other. Justice is love with its boots on. Many say the Church hasn’t walked the talk, and we know it. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Even the United Church of Christ stumbles now and again, because we’re human. But like that little one almost 20 years ago, like every one of us, we have to step out in faith: faith in ourselves and faith in each other, in everyone and everything, that a power is working in and through and with each one of us and in our life together.

         This is the next Great Awakening, and we have the capacity to recognize it as we’re living through it, to choose our path forward, and to shape it as compassionately as we can. The most Jesus-y thing we can do is to make room for everyone. And everyone means EVERYONE. All the children of the universe.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Every moment a welcome


Casa Hogar, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2008

         “Y cualquiera que dé a uno de estos pequeñitos un vaso de agua, de cierto os digo que no perderá su recompensa.” This was the Bible verse painted on the wall of the outer office of Casa Hogar, an orphanage in Oaxaca, Mexico—where David and I went on our first international mission trip. “[Whoever] gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Every day in that small outer office one of the staff of the orphanage would lead a Bible study, host a staff meeting, tend to a scraped knee or soccer ball request. Casa Hogar was a place was full of little ones: little ones who were blind or deaf, little ones in wheelchairs, with canes or walkers, little ones who stayed little because of early malnutrition or a problem at birth, little ones who were starved for love and thirsty for whatever we had to give.

         A cup of cold water is no small thing in a hot, dry climate. Especially if the water has to be boiled or bottled to be safe to drink. A cup of cold water is no small thing to a homeless person or someone overcome by heat exhaustion. A cup of cold water can be as powerful and meaningful a Communion as the bread and juice and wine on this table. A cup of cold water can be all it takes to offer an extravagant welcome.

         At midday in the scorching heat, Jesus came to a well and by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, he extended to her an extravagant welcome; he gave some radical hospitality. He made room for her in ways that no one would have dreamed of doing then.
Imagine a centuries-long family feud due to some ethnic racism and hard feelings, a hard-and-fast division of gender and gender roles, and the added shame of living in a small village where everyone knows you’ve had 5 husbands and the latest one isn’t what anyone would call a relationship.

         I’m not going to pretend to know who you’d be embarrassed to be caught talking to or who you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with, but imagine them offering you a cup of cold water to drink. Really. I want you to close your eyes and imagine it (but don’t fall asleep). You’re tired, you’ve had a long day and it was 90 degrees in the shade. Someone cut you off in traffic or jumped the line for coffee or at the store. You called customer service and spent three hours on the phone and whatever it is is still not working.

Plus you basically feel judged or lacking in some way every time you leave your house or apartment just because you’re you.  Like that Samaritan woman. Like some of the people who would be receiving the disciples on their mission trip. And then this person, who you wouldn’t be caught dead with, someone you think hasn’t a clue how to live the gospel, let alone knows what it’s about, someone you think can’t treat people right, they hand you a cup of water—a paper Dixie cup, like those little cups the dentist uses, so thin you can feel how cold the water is—what are you going to do?

         You drink the water. Of course you do. What else would mercy require of you?

And as the water floods your dry mouth and the cold hits the back of your throat and you feel it travel down through your chest, your body begins to release some of that tension and anger and grief you’ve been holding onto all day, all week, this past month, this long year. And then it’s like a waterfall, like doors opening, the twang of a spring stretching, and something like air can get to the back of your brain. A sigh escapes your lips. Maybe some hot tears well up.

         Suddenly much of it doesn’t really matter anymore.
A generous space appears where before there was only bedrock, where now something green can grow. The word used by the apostle Paul for hospitality means love of strangers, even if that stranger is us who needs welcome, mercy, and a cup of cold water.

         Every moment is a welcome, that moment when we open ourselves to mercy, kindness, and compassion in our lives, our bodies, our spirits. Every moment can be a welcome, when we extend that mercy and kindness and compassion to someone else. Even when that mercy is something as small as a cup of cold water from someone we least expect to give it.

         “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts the Creator, who sent me.
Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

One love

Matthew 10: 24 – 39 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 25, 2017


         After this week, I hardly know where to begin. The gospel doesn’t normally fare well in an empire, but this week the gospel took quite a beating. Everything from “love your neighbor as yourself”, “love your enemies and pray for them” to “whenever you ministered to the least of these, you did the same to me” was tested and somehow found wanting. We can’t say we follow Jesus and also support leaders and healthcare legislation that hurt the very people Jesus healed and hung out with. We either take care of each other, especially the most vulnerable among us, or we’re not following Jesus.

We can’t say we follow Jesus and argue that Philadelphia’s rainbow flag can’t have black and brown stripes on it because the rainbow flag isn’t about race. But discrimination against people of color within, as well as outside, the queer community is about race. And until black lives matter, no lives will matter, until as a nation, as a world we consciously and conscientiously decide we are all members of one another.

         I can’t follow Jesus and be quiet. I can’t follow Jesus and think that walking the fine line between preaching the gospel and offending someone is what I am called to do. 
And yet following Jesus was never intended to be a popularity contest or a way to win friends and influence people to your cause. In fact, following Jesus may be the quickest way to losing some friends, maybe even family, and becoming, like Jesus, public enemy no. 1. 

         But to look at American Christianity, you wouldn’t think so. Ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America's god is not the God that Christians worship.

We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America's god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful - even in America.”

         While there are Christians in this country who have hijacked Jesus’ message of peace, justice and unconditional love and made it over in their own image of violence, bigotry and hate, we progressive Christians have not raised our voices enough and all together that the truth of the gospel may be heard loud and clear. The truth that grace is for all people, including bigots and haters and people we don’t like, and that it doesn’t have to be earned nor is it deserved—God’s grace simply is for everyone.

The truth that when we care for each other, for everyone, we all do better. The truth that we can’t hang on to all that we have and follow Jesus. The truth that every person is valuable and worthy of care. The truth that we are called to lose our lives but in so doing, we will find our true, authentic lives—our lives will come alive. The truth that our faith is not only a private thing but a public way of life, because injustice and suffering demand it. The truth that none of this is easy nor can we give ourselves a pass.

         This past week I was invited to speak with Governor John Carney, along with Rep. Paul Baumbach, some folks from a support and advocacy group called Compassionate Choices, and two individuals suffering from a terminal illness, regarding the End of Life Options Act or HB 160. I spoke about a personal experience in which a 79 year old man with numerous cancers, for whom I was pastor, ended his life with a handgun because for him there was no other option except to refuse a feeding tube and slowly starve to death. Much more powerful were the two people in the room who knew their lives would end within a year: a man who had lived with AIDS for the last 20 years but because of a 6 month lapse in his health insurance and ensuing lack of medication was now dying from Kaposi’s sarcoma and a woman with breast cancer that has now metastasized to her liver and bone marrow.

         After we had all said what we had come to say, after the governor responded and thanked us, the woman looked directly at the governor and pressed him: “If this bill somehow miraculously passes both the House and the Senate and it comes to your desk, will you sign it?” The governor replied gently but firmly that at that moment he could not support it but he would keep his mind open and keep listening.

         It took all I had not to press the governor myself with this question: How can you look this woman in the eye, your constituent, your sister, who is asking you for mercy and not give it to her? Because I knew there was a bigger agenda at hand than this one woman’s fate.
Because speaking truth to power means not hitting them over the head with it. Because that sword that Jesus brought with him doesn’t mean we give up on each other, sever all ties, and slam the door. Because eventually we’re all going to be sitting at one table. Because love can be messy and complicated and hard when covenant is involved, and it’s always involved. Though we have a thousand little loves, and even though some of them are overwhelming, God has only one love and it cannot be divided or only for some.

         When the United Church of Christ initially came into being 60 years ago today, every local Evangelical & Reformed church, every Congregational church was given the option to join by congregational vote. Not every church joined in 1957. Many churches took their time, some not joining until 1960, ’61, ’62. The UCC is by no means a monolith.
Though the national denomination is Open and Affirming, of the approximately 5,000 congregations of the UCC, about 1,300 are ONA. And yet we are the Church together. It’s the precious, messy tension between autonomy and covenant, that squidgy place where we all live. Unity with diversity takes time. Evolution takes time. One love takes time.

         Today is also Eid al Fitr, the last day of the holy month of Ramadan. It began last night at sundown, and the feast of Eid al Fitr lasts until Tuesday at sundown. The fast is now over. Now it is time to give as much charity as possible and to show joy and happiness. Our neighbors will have gone early to the Masjid for prayers and, if possible, made their way there on foot. Hours before the sun rose, they had a small sweet breakfast, said a special prayer, showered, brushed their teeth, put on new clothing or their very best, and perfume or cologne.

At midnight, our friend Irfan Patel posted this greeting: “Eid Mubarak! Heartiest Eid greetings - from my family to yours!  Today we completed the month long fasting of Ramadan. As we enter into the festivity mode of Eid celebrations, one cannot help but ponder upon how things have turned out since the last Eid. Fate has played havoc on many lives, and circumstances have forced many to leave the comfort of their homes.
Some who celebrated Eid with much pomp and grandeur last year are looking for safe havens this year. Some have lost their loved ones. And some short on health.  So let's thank the Almighty for all His blessings, let's keep everyone in our prayers and let's try to keep up with the enormous challenge of fighting evil with good!”  He ended with the hashtags #PrayingforPeace, #OneHumanRace, #NotoHate, #IStandWithRefugees.  I wish everyone could know the power of the gospel through the friendship of a Muslim.  If you see a Muslim friend between today and Tuesday, wish them a hearty Eid Mubarak.

This past Friday a colleague of mine was ordering a Philly Pride flag for his church and offered to order one for the New Ark too.  When I asked how I could reimburse him, he replied, "No need."  
And yet I also have friends from seminary who argued vehemently against this flag on a  Facebook post.  I don't think Jesus is asking me to choose one against the other but to choose Jesus.  And Jesus chooses everybody.

Thank God he does.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A word about being okay

Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 23 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 18, 2017


Earlier this week, I watched a video in which a woman recalled a conversation with her husband, who had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He said to her, “It’s going to be okay”. And she replied, “Yes, we just don’t know what okay means yet.” Which is one of the best faith statements I’ve ever heard—what we church types call the hope of the resurrection. Yes, it’s going to be okay—we just don’t know what okay means yet.

And so I want to speak to you a word about being okay. Every week, here in this space, this time, I want to say to you that it’s going to be okay, but I don’t know what okay means yet or looks like or will look like down the road. Nor does anyone else really. I want to say that being okay looks like it always has, but that’s not true either. Our definition of being okay has changed because being okay sometimes meant accepting what was unacceptable:

· being okay meant you had to shrug off yet another sexual advance or catcall or harassment or sexist joke—because it just goes with the territory;
· being okay meant you felt the thousandth little cut of someone’s racism, unintentional or otherwise, and you swallowed some more sorrow, some more anger, some more rage;
· being okay meant you couldn’t talk about your same-gender partner or hold hands in public but everyone was cool with your roommate;
· being okay meant you had to use a particular bathroom rather than the one you’re comfortable using;
· being okay meant you had to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to prove your loyalty, your dedication, no matter how much your job ate your life and you wished you could stay home with your kids, have more time with your family;
· being okay meant that ONE person who saw YOU and not just the wheelchair, the scooter, the cane, the walker, or didn’t judge you for your inability.
· being okay meant at least your head is above water.

None of this is okay and yet people still have to live with a lot of these.

And so I want to speak to you a word about being okay.

I want to say that it’s going to be okay, but I don’t know and you don’t know what okay means yet, looks like, will look like. I want to say it’s going to be okay because every day I see, you see and have experiences that say to us, “I don’t know if it’s going to be okay”.

· when people drive impatiently, recklessly and cut us off; when we’re rude and unfeeling to each other;
· when we see people walking (and maybe it’s us some days), gazing down at a phone rather than looking at the world and the people around them;
· when we read the newspaper, turn on the TV, open our online news source, listen to NPR, and we hear about the latest shooting, bombing, accident or disaster;
· when people judge you because you’re young, because you’re not like everyone else, because your gender doesn’t fit in a neat box, because you’re attracted to more than one gender, because your gender doesn’t match your identity, and your rights and your existence are threatened, and it’s hard to imagine that any of this will okay someday;
· when we’re having to renew the same fight from 20, 40, 60 years ago;
· when the weather becomes violent and extreme, and the environment, the climate remind us that the earth doesn’t need us to survive.

I want to speak to you a word about being okay, because sometimes we confuse following Jesus with being okay—that everything is going to be okay if we can just find the right way to be Church. Like we do, Jesus looked around him and saw that all was not okay. Ever wider and deeper now than it was then, Jesus saw the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Like now, people were hurting, lonely, unwell, broken down by the world around them, disconnected, vulnerable. Living means more than just staying alive.

To care for these bruised and hurt lives, Jesus didn’t pick people who had it all together, who were ready and prepared for anything, who were the best at what they did. He gathered a band of misfits who needed him as much as the hurting did. He put together people who normally wouldn’t share the same space: a tax collector, a zealot, coarse-spoken fishermen, a man who would later betray him. Jesus saved people by giving them people to heal and to help.
The good news, the gospel comes down to these four words: You are not alone. Evangelism, to bring a message, thus means to live in such a way that the hurting and bruised lives around you know that you are there for them, that you will disrupt your life for them, that the journey is not a solitary one. Because at some point, someone did this for us.

We want to know if Church is going to be okay, and so I want to say a word about Church being okay, because the number of harvests hands on the whole is shrinking, but here’s where Jesus interrupts our worries and our self-focus and instead sends us out.

The lost sheep are found by becoming shepherds themselves. We help each other through. We uplift each other’s joy, embrace each other’s sadness. And I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it. We don’t have to travel far and try to convert people: no Westboro Baptist stunts. We don’t have to be dramatic and try to take on a public enemy. We go to the people right in our neighborhood, right here where the church is, right there where we live—in Delaware and Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Jersey but also places and people our compassion can reach with our resources. And we don’t need a lot of equipment—WE are the equipment. We become what we believe. Wherever we are, we are Church.

And so we can say it’s going to be okay, even though we have no idea what okay means just yet or what it will look like. Even when things don’t go as planned. Even when the unjust walk free and the wronged and the dead have no justice. Even when the powers of death threaten to overwhelm us. Even when we have no idea if any of this makes a difference. Even when the gospel looks like failure.
Because as long as we are Church—sent and on the move rather than staying put, living generously, looking outward more than we look inward; as Henri Nouwen would put it, “going where it hurts, entering into the places of pain, to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, powerless with the powerless”—joy and sadness and hurt and compassion all together, lived honestly and openly—as long as we strive to be Church in this way, we can hope in the resurrection, we can make this faith statement: it’s going to be okay.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The kids are alright

Acts 2: 1-21 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 4, 2017 – Pentecost


In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Protestant Church in Germany has presented a robotic priest named BlessU-2 to the town of Wittenberg. It was in Wittenberg that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the town’s Catholic church. The robotic reverend offers assorted blessings in eight different languages. The only thing that bugs me about it is its masculine-sounding voice.

What do visitors make of this techno-pastor? Rudolf Wenz, a volunteer with the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau, says that “those who are associated and set in their ways in church find it rather strange. But people who do not have any association with spirituality, or with the Protestant Church, they find it rather interesting, and in that way get to think about what Christianity has to offer. And in a way that is also what the Reformation was all about. …Luther also had at that time new medias; it was not the aural word that was taught to people, but it was the written word that came to give new thoughts.”

When the day of Pentecost arrived for those early disciples, when the Spirit came rushing through the room like a violent wind, like wildfire, it was said that they then began speaking in other languages: the languages of immigrants and foreign pilgrims in Jerusalem.
This past week UCC pastor Rev. Emily Heath wrote in her devotional piece that through the gift of the Spirit, the disciples could now speak in a way that was relevant to those around them. Technology has been and continues to be a language, a new media that allows us to speak, to be in relationship in ways that are relevant. When we are reluctant to learn and to engage in new technologies, new ways of communicating, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, of relinquishing what it means to have a prophetic voice.

In the passage from the book of Acts, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel. The role of a prophet is to declare to society at large who God is and what God is doing, especially in times of upheaval, change, disaster or tragedy. When there is no prophetic voice, we humans usually fill the vacuum with the worst our fears can generate: God is angry with us; they are to blame; faith in God doesn’t work, it’s a waste of time; God is absent; God is dead; we are alone. Eugene Peterson writes in his introduction to Joel that the prophet calls “his people to an immediate awareness that there wasn’t a day that went by that they weren’t dealing with God. We are always dealing with God.”

We are always dealing with the sacred—with what is good and true and beautiful and just (and most of the time it’s problematic)—and how to speak about the sacred in ways that are relevant.

Two millennia ago the disciples went from celebrating the law given on stone tablets 3000 years before, to the Word incarnate and then written upon their hearts; from an exclusive faith to one in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. 500 years after the Reformation and the invention of the printed word, we look more at screens than flip pages of a book or newspaper. In the last 100 years we’ve gone from a deeper understanding about what it means to be a man or a woman, to be heterosexual beings, to then LGBTQIA orientations, to now speaking of sexuality and gender as a continuum and fluid; from binary pronouns to non-binary pronouns and titles. In the last 60 years we’ve witnessed a church boom to a church exodus to the Church in decline.

Or is it the Spirit pouring out on all flesh, continually pouring out new insights, new directions? Is it the Spirit moving not just within the confines of church community but ALL community?
In every generation, we who are older have worried about those who come after us. There was a time when someone worried about our future and about who we would be as adults, as leaders. In every age, technology has moved faster than we have been prepared to engage it. When the baby boomer generation came of age in the 1960’s, in that Age of Aquarius, it was people like my grandparents who worried for the future of this nation and this world. As a member of Generation X, I often feel like I’ve got one foot on what was and the other on what will be. Sooner or later we all have to choose whether to stay where we are or to make the road by moving forward on it.

As it happened in our own time, our graduates and young adults are inheriting the accumulation of our choices and decisions and much of it is overwhelming: climate change, poverty, inequality, terrorism, the increasing potential for global conflict. And we’re not so different from those disciples living in the midst of empire; who, right up until that Holy Spirit moment, had no idea what was coming next for them.

And yet. And yet. Your young people shall see visions and your elders shall dream dreams. Mark Zuckerberg, in his commencement address at Harvard, said that it is time for his generation to define a new social contract: “We should have a society that measures progress, not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income, to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas. And we’re all going to make mistakes.”

We need to trust that indeed younger generations do have vision, the kids are alright, and we need to learn the languages, engage the new media forms of that vision; to embrace that Holy Spirit moment of wildfire and dare with it.
And we who are older need to remember to dream and to dream fearlessly. Both our fresh visions of justice and our long-held dreams of peace are the prophetic voice so desperately needed in these times of upheaval, change, disaster, and tragedy. Like those disciples of old, we are being given fresh opportunity to reorient our lives and our life together, to deal with God, with the sacred, every day in a new way, to journey in a direction we had not thought of.

Come Holy Spirit, scoundrel of grace, rascal of heaven and of earth, set our hearts on fire and disturb our complacency and our biases and our bank accounts and our desire for security. Bother us into God’s beloved community. Hassle us until there is heaven on earth, thy will be done. Amen.

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you
with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths,
and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.