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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Uncertain terms

Acts 17: 22-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 21, 2017

Questions to the Rescue by David Hayward

The term “both/and” can be difficult for us humans. Most of the time we much prefer “either/or”. “Both/and” is messy, incongruent, seemingly impossible. Take for example, the thought experiment or “what-if” proposition that we know as Schrödinger’s cat. Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist in the early part of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1933. Quantum mechanical theory was just getting off the ground. One aspect of quantum theory, called the Copenhagen interpretation (scientists have as much complicated lingo as theologians), states that a subatomic object exists in all its possible forms simultaneously until it is observed and then collapses into one form. For instance, light can be a particle or a wave, but which one and when?

Schrödinger thought this was nonsense and sought to prove this theory wrong. So he devised a thought experiment in which there was a cat, a Geiger counter, some radioactive material, a hammer, and a vial of cyanide, all sealed within a steel box. And presumably enough air for the cat to breathe. There would be enough radioactive material, just a few atoms, that within an hour there was a 50/50 chance some of it would decay. If that occurred, the Geiger counter would detect the decay, setting off the hammer to break the glass vial of poison and thus kill the cat. But there was only a 50/50 chance that any of this would happen. Theoretically, without being able to observe what was happening in the box, the cat would be both alive and dead. Both possibilities would exist until the box was opened.

Schrödinger said this was ridiculous, because how could a cat be both alive and dead at the same time? It’s either one or the other. We know now that there are different models and theories at the quantum level than there are at the biological level of reality. Both/and. A British statistician serendipitously named George Box once said, “All models are wrong but some are useful”. Both/and.

I think this capacity for ambiguity would have driven the apostle Paul nuts. Here in the book of Acts he’s been preaching in Thessalonica, then Berea, and now Athens. He hasn’t exactly had an enthusiastic following as yet; he stirred up such emotion and passion in the synagogues he visited that mobs threw him out of town. Yet in Athens he finds people to have a more open mind. They are keen to hear or tell of something new. He debates with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These Athenians seem to know little of the history of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people. The Jews were not known for their evangelism—Peter, Paul, and the rest of the apostles are the first. But people gather to listen nonetheless, to hear this new teaching.

The Areopagus as seen from the Parthenon
They bring Paul to the Areopagus, or Ares Rock, Mars Hill, which was also the name of the high court in Athens, so it’s not clear whether they’ve brought him to a large outcropping of rock or to a court of elders to be judged. Either way, Paul gives the sermon of a lifetime. He had noticed all the idols in the city and being the good Jew that he is, he was deeply distressed—the Ten Commandments forbid idols and the worship of them. And yet when he speaks to the people, he compliments them on how religious they are. The shrine dedicated to an unknown God gives Paul the perfect opening to talk about the God he knows, the One who made heaven and earth, who gives life and breath to all living things, who cannot be contained by gold or silver or stone or by anything made by human hands.

Instead it is all of creation where God lives and moves and in which we have our being. There is no longer a distinction between God’s people and “other” people. All people are God’s people. The Church has no walls. And yet we can know this unknowable God in the person of Jesus. Paul talks like a true missionary, using a preaching and conversion template that would be used again and again. Appreciate and honor the native religion and spirituality, then move from their specificity to your specificity about the divine, extolling the virtue and truth of your teaching, all the while affirming the grandness and expansiveness of God.

We wonder and dream and theorize whether there is something infinite in this universe, some power or force, an energy beyond what we can know and observe, and we can’t help ourselves but try to define it in finite terms as a way of understanding it. Joseph Campbell wrote, “We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what’s important.”

Back in 1988 when Campbell and Bill Moyers were discussing The Power of Myth, both of them were probably considered heretics. A heretic is someone who chooses to believe something other than the accepted norm. Every time we move forward in human history it is because of heretical thinking. In their conversation, Bill Moyers said that “there are Christians who believe that to find out who Jesus is, you have to go past the Christian faith, past the Christian doctrine, past the Christian church,” and that many would consider that heresy. Campbell agreed and replied that “you have to go past the image of Jesus. The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your God is your ultimate barrier.”

Now we have Christians who identify as Buddhist Christians or Hindu Christians, even Jewish Christians and Muslim Christians. The UCC isn’t nicknamed “Unitarians Considering Christ” for nothing. Those of us born and raised and still connected to the United Church of Christ are more than likely in the minority. Most of us do not think twice about our multi-Protestant journey or having been raised Catholic but then journeying through multiple expressions of Christianity and/or other religions. And yet sometimes we can be reluctant to identify ourselves as Christian, preferring instead to be a follower of Jesus, but we also acknowledge how flawed we are at that.

We need our tribe, a sense of belonging and trust in this brave, new, unfamiliar world we’re living in. And yet our tribe is expanding in ways we may not be aware of, that is, many who live a Jesus kind of life are not connected to a church; expanding to the point that we’re not sure where the boundaries are or if there are any. The big question of any major upheaval or transition is “By what authority shall we live?” No longer can we say with any real integrity that every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord. And yet we need that finitude, whether it is science or religion or both, to describe the infinite or else we feel as though we have nothing to stand on, nothing to hold onto.

I believe that the present challenge of the life of faith, and of no faith, is hold both infinity and its finite expressions in tension, in connection, in communion with one another; for us as Christians to live as Jesus lived in the company of those who believe differently than we do and those who acknowledge no god as such but are also trying to live like Jesus: compassionate, strong, merciful, loving, forgiving, justice-filled, unconditionally; to continually ask the big questions and be willing to praise the unknown while the answers come in their own good time.

We can certainly hold onto what has been, what has carried us this far, for as long as we can. But that’s not how living things grow. Evolution is about adaptation, and I believe what we are witnessing, experiencing is nothing less than an evolution of God. The next Great Awakening. It’s happened countless times before. Why wouldn’t it continue to happen, if our God is a living God, if the mystery, the power that guides us is a living mystery, a living power? Our beliefs change and thank goodness they do. What remains is how we are to live—that’s one thing that Jesus was very clear about; one thing we can be certain of.


Inclusive Language version of the text:

Then Paul stood up before the council of the Areopagus and delivered this address: "Citizens of Athens, I note that in every respect you are scrupulously religious. As I walked about looking at your shrines, I even discovered
an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' Now, what you are worshiping in ignorance I intend to make known to you.

'For the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesn't live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and isn't served by humans, as if in need of anything. No! God is the One who gives everything life, breath—everything. From one person God created all of humankind to inhabit the entire earth, and set the time for each nation to exist and the exact place where each nation should dwell. God did this so that human beings would seek, reach out for and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us - the One in whom we live and move and have our being. As one of your poets has put it, 'We too are God's children.'

If we are in fact children of God, then it's inexcusable to think that the Divine Nature is like an image of gold, silver or stone—an image formed by the art and thought of mortals. God, who overlooked such ignorance in the past, now commands all people everywhere to reform their lives. For a day has been set when the whole world will be judged with justice. And this judge, who is a human being, has already been appointed. God has given proof of all of this by raising this judge from the dead.'

(Acts 17:22-31)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mama Georgia's house

John 14: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 14, 2017

My grandmother's house.  Hattiesburg, MS

My grandmother, Mama Georgia, lived to be 99 years old. She had six children, the youngest of which is my mother, 21 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren, and 1 great-great-grandchild. Whenever there was a family reunion, the house was busting with people. One Thanksgiving we put a long row of newspapers on the floor and about 15 kids ate there. When my mother wanted to attend Boston University, my grandparents sold a parcel of their small residential property to fund my mother’s education. Mama Georgia was there for my mom when she was a young mother with two small children and an alcoholic husband. A few times we stayed with her in Mississippi or she would come all the way to Massachusetts. She converted part of her house into a small upstairs apartment for a young adult grandchild who needed help. I know she prayed for each of us every day. My grandmother would’ve done anything for any of us grandchildren.

In J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, he writes that it was his Mamaw who was the primary force behind his rising above his Rust Belt beginnings in Kentucky and Ohio and graduating from Yale Law School. He describes his grandparents as “old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, and hardworking.” Mamaw was fierce in her love for her family, defending her family sometimes to the point of violence and always with grit and colorful language. In J.D.’s last three years of high school, she was able to provide him with something he desperately needed to succeed: a stable and loving home. A challenging love, a love that pushed him to be better, a love that never wavered, unconditional and self-sacrificing, as well as a flawed and imperfect love.

The Hopi say that when the grandmothers speak, the earth will be healed. The Shawnee call upon Grandmother Spirit, who is also Cloud Woman, a source of wisdom and transformation. In the Navajo tradition she is Grandmother Spider who placed the stars in the sky by lacing her web with dew and threw it into the heavens. She inspires her people to weave dream catchers and she interprets the meaning of the dreams. In Earth-based spirituality she is Grandmother Moon to Grandfather Sun.

St. Anne and Mary

More than likely, Jesus would have known both of his grandmothers. Though nothing of Mary’s parents is written in the New Testament or in the Qur’an, St. Anne or Hannah in Arabic is revered as the mother of Mary in Catholic and Orthodox traditions and in Islam.

Hear the lectionary text again from the perspective of Jesus as a grandson:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Grandmother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

“And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Grandmother Spirit except through me. If you know me, you will know my Grandmother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us this Grandmother Spirit, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen my Grandma. How can you say, ‘Show us this Grandmother Spirit’? Do you not believe that I am here because of my Mamaw and my Mamaw is here inside me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but my Grammy, my Mimi, my Oma, my Nana who dwells in me does her works. Believe me that I am in this Grandmother Spirit and She is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Grandmother Spirit. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Grandmother may be glorified in her Grandchild. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Being created in the image and likeness of God, humanity is an extension of the Divine; we are God-bearers but only in part. Just as an arm is an extension of the body, a thought is an extension of the mind, a rainbow is an extension of water and light, an apple is an extension of an apple tree, a student is an extension of a teacher, an apprentice is an extension of a master craftsperson. Just as a grandchild is a precious extension of a grandparent; the younger learning is an extension of the elder wisdom.

We can come to know God as grandmother through the way, the life, and the truth of Jesus. And I say grandmother not only because it’s Mother’s Day but for too long we have denied ourselves the power of the divine feminine. It’s not a stretch to see in Jesus the image of a grandmother who believes in you every step of the way, who would do anything for you; who has your back, in whose house there are many rooms, who will take you in and make room for you; whose love for you is fierce and unconditional.

Images of God are powerful. They can empower us to grow beyond ourselves, and they can maintain the status quo. They can inspire big and small actions of great impact and courage, and they can shrink the human heart and imagination. They can instigate peace and justice, war and Armageddon. I sometimes wonder that in our effort in the UCC to be inclusive in our language about God, we sometimes do a disservice when we remove gender references.

In God’s house there are many rooms—room for a Father and a Mother, room for Grandmother and Grandfather, room for every name and no name, every gender, transgender, gender fluid and no gender. Perhaps most importantly there is room for not just Child but children, every child—that in the face of God each of us sees not only ourselves but every person, all the diversity of humankind, that we see ourselves and everyone just as we are and who we all could become.

For we who call Jesus brother, he is the way, the truth and the life, to come to know that we are accepted just as we are, and through that unconditional acceptance, are set free to become something more of who we are. Jesus is the clearest likeness of what it means to be a God-bearer, the thinnest veil between us and who or what God is. Which means the closer we come to following Jesus, the smaller the gap between our humanity and our divinity, the smaller the gap between anyone’s humanity and their divinity, between human love and God’s love, until there is no gap, no distance. Only love. And love is love is love is love.

Happy Mother’s Day. Amen.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Enough is enough

Acts 2: 42-47
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 7, 2017

Image result for st gregory of nyssa san francisco
The dancing saints of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church

We spend a lot of our energy—physical, mental, spiritual—managing and controlling our anxiety and fear. There’s nothing new in that statement. Psychological theorists like Freud, Jung, and Adler knew it. Philosophers like Camus and Sartre knew it. Plato, Socrates, Kant, and Kierkegaard too. Krishna, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, all the way back to Moses and Abraham and Sarah and beyond. 

Managing and controlling our fear and anxiety is where most sin comes from. I’m not talking about anxiety that requires diagnosis and medication. I’m not talking about the anxiety a transgender youth experiences nearly every day. I’m not talking about the fear of not having health care. I’m not talking about the fear of having one’s rights stripped away. Or being deported. Or the anxiety and fear of those who have no idea what it’s like to be someone like this.

   I’m talking about the anxiety, the fear that feeds on our needs, desires, wants, dreams we all have and whether or not they can be realized on any given day—from petty things like finding a parking space or getting through the line in the grocery store, all the way to, are we living the life we’re supposed to? Sometimes when we’re controlling and managing our fear and anxiety, we try to control and manage other people and the ways they manage and control their fear and anxiety. We can get stuck in our limbic brain or what some call the “lizard brain”. It’s our feeling brain, the primary force behind most of our behavior.

   Ironically, some of our miseries come from living a life of privilege, what we call “first world problems”. In her book The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist speaks to the myth of scarcity that we repeat to ourselves every day. When we wake up in the morning, what are the first thoughts we have? For many of us it goes something like this: “I didn’t get enough sleep. I don’t have enough energy or time to do everything that has to be done today.” She writes that the thought ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically, without little or no critical thought as to whether it’s true. We tell ourselves things like “I don’t get enough exercise, I don’t have enough work, my company is not making enough profits, I’m not organized enough, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time off”.

   Then it gets personal: “I’m not thin enough, pretty, handsome, successful, smart, educated, happy”—add your own to that ever-growing list. Before the day even begins we’re found wanting, unable to rise to whatever challenge that has been set before us. We’re always behind the 8-ball, like Sisyphus pushing that mighty boulder to nowhere.

   We do this at church as well: we’re not big enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough time to do everything. Hence we can’t be generous with the life of the church, the Body of Christ. We can’t follow our risky Jesus where he’s going because we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have enough to give, let alone have enough for ourselves.

   And we do this in our so-called civil society. We still hold to the myth that we don’t have enough to provide healthcare for everyone, to educate everyone who wants to go to college, to pay everyone equally for equal work, to pay a living wage, to feed and shelter every human being. When we try to manage and control this kind of anxiety and fear, we engage those lizard brains of ours and we wind up bullying ourselves and others. We use sexism and racism, homophobia and Islamophobia, and we warp religion, all of us self-righteous, and we judge and we blame to not only to control and manage our anxiety and fear but to bully others to quell our fear and anxiety of them, the “other”. We make life a living hell. Empire is based on fear and scarcity and death. God’s Beloved Community is about courage and love and abundant life.

   Author Anne Lamott asks the question, Where is God when people are bullied? On the cross, being crucified. Being crucified certainly didn’t end with Jesus. Many of those who loved Jesus met their end on the cross and in other horrid deaths. But these early Christians decided they’d had enough of worrying about whether there was enough. They’d had enough of crucifixion, enough of fear—it was time to live like resurrected people. 

   The great philosophical master Yoda said that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering, which can only mean that George Lucas had read Paul’s letter to the Romans. We’re either citizens of the Empire or servants of the Beloved Community. We either live like there’s enough or we don’t. We either live with glad and generous hearts or we don’t. We either live like resurrected people or we don’t. 

   Our fear and anxiety can cause us to forget who we really are. And so we come to church, to worship, to remember. Jesus said, “Remember me whenever you break bread and drink the cup.” This Table is not only a memorial of a death but a celebration of a life lived to set us free and a love that death cannot kill. When will we hit bottom and realize we’ve had enough of fear and anger and hate and suffering, enough of the cross, enough of making a living hell for ourselves and others? There is more than enough resurrection, more than enough grace and joy and love to go around. It begins with us—each of us and our life together. Are we dead or are we alive again?



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

People are funny

John 20: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 23, 2017 – Bright Sunday

            Earlier this week a friend posted a quote from his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: “Achieving genuine happiness may require bringing about a transformation in your outlook, your way of thinking, and this is not a simple matter.”  It never is simple, but these days, it ain’t easy either.  I don’t know about you, but lately my funny bone has been in the dog house about as much as not.  Don’t get me wrong—I still get a good chuckle from a funny movie or joke or a cartoon.  But unlike the crew at Saturday Night Live or satirists like John Oliver or Samantha Bee, I’m having difficulty responding to this world of ours with a sense of humor or lightheartedness.  Perhaps I have been considering all the facts a bit too much, taking them a bit too seriously, to the point I have allowed them to steal my joy.

            It’s not unlike our friend Thomas, who, year after year in the lectionary, misses the resurrection party and refuses to join in the Easter laugh.  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”  In other words, unless I have proof that Jesus lives, that Love wins, and death doesn’t have the last word, then I will not be happy, I will not laugh.  Until Jesus brings back all his toys, I am not going out to play.  Until Smashing Pumpkins get back together, I’m never listening to one of their albums again.  Well, maybe not that last one.

            I can understand Thomas and his grief.  It was bad enough, horrible in fact, to lose a friend and teacher to the most gruesome execution method ever devised, and to have that friend—a brother, really—betrayed by one of their own.  It was bad enough having to hide for fear of the same thing happening to him and the other disciples.  But to risk believing the impossible seemed like the worst joke of all.

            It’s hard enough hearing a cancer diagnosis or living with a chronic illness or losing a job or going through a divorce or a broken friendship or suffering the loss of a close relative or friend or feeling powerless in the face of addiction or loving someone through any of these.  It’s even harder when we hear news of a pod of sperm whales dying on a German beach, their bellies stuffed with plastics, and we don’t know what more we can do.  It’s even harder when we hear news of North Korean missiles and U.S. naval ships in the western Pacific, complicated by egos and high tension and miscommunications, and we are powerless to do anything.  It’s even harder when many folks are on edge and aren’t interested in listening to one another or having open dialogue or just being patient with one another.

            And yet this is the crucial intersection of faith and life, when we’re not sure what’s going to happen next, in fact, maybe it’s looking kinda scary some days, and we’re invited to be joyful anyway, even smart-allecky, engage in wise-acreage, practice tomfoolery.  Faith doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed a happy ending, as some would have us believe, but that we can be joyful despite the outlook, despite the all-too-frequent bleakness of life, despite our fears of what could happen.

            People are funny.  We are funny.  The Church is funny.  We have this amazing empowering story that literally changed the world, and yet there are days, weeks, months, years we don’t allow that same story to change our lives.  Or change the Church.  It’s a story about risking it all and coming out on the other side, yet the Church is often risk-averse.  It’s a story about being vulnerable and thus becoming wholehearted and resilient, and yet often the last thing we ourselves want or the Church wants is to be vulnerable.

            Author Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, wrote, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity.  It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.  If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

            Thomas had the courage to be vulnerable with his community, with the other disciples who were in a different place on their faith journey than he was.  The rest of the disciples declared “We have seen the Lord!”  What is implicit in Thomas’ response is, “Well, I haven’t, and I’m feeling left out.”

            We can have the courage to be vulnerable when we realize that we belong to the Church, to God, to the universe, and to each other.  No.  Matter.  What.  We belong, whether we believe or doubt or don’t believe at all.  We belong, even if we betray Jesus, even if we miss the resurrection party and refuse to join in the Easter laugh.  We belong even when we demand signs and evidence and guarantees, when we want to control all the variables, all the unknowns.  We belong not because of anything we’ve done but because of God’s grace.  And if God language is not your thing, let’s remember that we belong because of covenant—the covenant of being human together.

            To be happy, to be joyful, to laugh in the face of our fears, after having considered all the facts, is to be vulnerable, wholehearted, and resilient.  People are funny.  We are funny.  The Church is funny.  We are the original ship of fools.  Fools for Christ.  Suckers for Jesus.  Thanks be to God.