Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Waiting for God

Habakkuk 1: 1-4; 2: 1-4; Psalm 37: 1-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 6, 2019 – World Communion Sunday

Waiting is one of the hardest things we human beings do. Even saying that feels like an understatement, especially when it comes to waiting for justice. We don’t want to wait. Sometimes we can hardly contain ourselves. We don’t want to sit on our hands. We want to act and to act decisively, for an outcome that will satisfy, that will give us catharsis and redemption. And we want it NOW. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now! That’s what we say when we protest but that’s not the catharsis we’re looking for.

Oftentimes what we want for justice is for the perpetrator, the oppressor to feel the pain that they have inflicted. In our powerlessness, we reach for violence and power over those who cause such pain and devastation. And we also use power and violence to control those we see as less than, as other. That’s what pitchforks and torches were for, and scapegoats and witch hunts and separating children from their families and rape and lynching are for.

One of the other texts for this Sunday is Psalm 137, infamous for its strong voice of grief and lament and violent desire for revenge. Even though it is part of the prayer book of the Bible, even though we can say anything in prayer, close to never do we read it in worship because it connects us with a side of ourselves we’d rather not acknowledge. We may sometimes dismiss the Bible as an ancient set of books with no understanding of science or use of modern reason but it is timeless when it comes to human nature. The reading from the prophet Habakkuk sounds like a voice from today’s news.

When we cry “Help! Murder! Police!” we expect justice. We expect the one who committed the crime to be brought to trial and to be found guilty. We expect the punishment to be just but not harsh and we leave forgiveness for later. So when Amber Guyger was found guilty we said, “Finally there will be justice for black and brown lives”. When the sentence of 10 years in prison was given, Botham Jean’s family was shocked. It is justice but it is hamstrung by white privilege and racism, by a system designed by white people for white people. And when Botham Jean’s younger brother Brandt hugged Guyger and forgave her, not everyone felt a sense of catharsis or experienced redemption.

Rev. Cornell William Brooks had this to say on NPR: “This country and police departments in particular should be asking the question, why are black people being called upon to forgive serially? In other words, we commend black people for being moral heroes while we decline to treat them as human beings. And so police departments will commend the victim while continuing to victimize and refusing to apologize, repent, demonstrate accountability, or change the way we police.”

Poet Hana Malik describes forgiveness as “taking the knife out your own back and not using it to hurt anyone else no matter how they hurt you”. This is a really helpful image when one is ready to heal and move on. And yet if you are repeatedly, systemically stabbed in the back with the same weapon because of who you are, and you are expected to forgive, forgiveness can feel more like yet another burden to carry rather than a source of catharsis and redemption. The expectation of forgiveness becomes another means of control and oppression.

Which is why waiting for God to act feels like a cop-out. We want justice, we want accountability, we want change, and we want it now, because now is late. Much as we’d like it, there is no supernatural justice-maker on its way to avenge victims and survivors. Even though Deuteronomy tells us that vengeance belongs to God, that God will repay, it’s human beings that engage in that behavior time and again, convinced that we are in the right; that the wrongs committed against us justify our actions.

So what does it mean to wait for God?

Waiting for God means not acting out of rage or fear or grief.

Waiting for God means expressing those emotions but not against the object of those emotions.

Waiting for God means remembering than even our enemies are human beings with people who love them.

Waiting for God means not isolating ourselves, asking for help, finding our tribe.

Waiting for God means taking a deep breath, in and out, and repeating as necessary.

Waiting for God means gifting ourselves with serenity; it means recognizing the courage and wisdom within us and around us.

Waiting for God means not that we are okay with the way things are but rather we are worthy of serenity, no matter how we were hurt.

Waiting for God means holding accountable those who oppress and victimize and criminalize, who benefit from that system.

Waiting for God means trusting that there are others working for justice, for change, for wholeness, and that this work is an evolution in progress.

Waiting for God means acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers.

Waiting for God means doing what we can, to the best of our ability, and letting go of the rest.

my god by rupi kaur

Waiting for God is hard work. Jesus knew that, especially that last night with his disciples, especially the next day when it all went bad. It is at this Table that we can lay down our rage and fear and grief for a time and have a taste of that much-needed catharsis and redemption. It is at this Table that we remember Jesus in the lives of those who still wait for justice and how all our lives and our liberation are bound together. It is at this Table that we wait expectantly, eagerly for God and trust that what is needed will be revealed.

May it be so.

Benediction – enfleshed.com

As you go, may the gifts of God be revealed within you.

May they be nourished.

May they be protected.

And may they be shared generously for the sake of the common good.

Remember that God is alive in you,

and in all your neighbors too.

Whatever troubles may come our way,

God goes with us.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Crossing chasms

Luke 16: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Sept. 29, 2019

James Janknegt: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Have you ever participated in a privilege walk? It’s an exercise in which participants are asked to step forward or backward in response to questions about societal privilege.

It would be too cumbersome to conduct a privilege walk in this space with all these chairs. Also, it can make us feel exposed and reveal things about our lives that we might want to keep private. But I think we can still benefit from reflecting on some of the questions and imagine where we might end up in the room by the end of the exercise. The original has 44 questions. I’m going to ask you a little over half that.

So imagine that we are all lined up across the middle point of the worship space. As you reflect on each question, move your imaginary self forward or backward as per what your response would be.

  • If your ancestors were forced to come to the USA not by choice, take one step back.
  • If your primary ethnic identity is "American," take one step forward.
  • If you were ever called names because of your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you are the gender you were assigned at birth, take one step forward.
  • If you are not the gender you were assigned at birth, take one step back.
  • If one or both of your parents were "white collar" professionals: doctors, lawyers, etc. take one step forward.
  • If you studied the culture of your ancestors in elementary school, take one step forward.
  • If you went to school speaking a language other than English, take one step back.
  • If there were more than 50 books in your house when you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you ever had to skip a meal or were hungry because there was not enough money to buy food when you were growing up, take one step back.
  • If you were taken to art galleries or plays by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If one of your parents was unemployed or laid off, not by choice, take one step back.
  • If you have health insurance take one step forward.
  • If you were ever discouraged from academics or jobs because of race, class, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were encouraged to attend college by your parents, take one step forward.
  • If you have a disability, take one step backward.
  • If you were raised in a single parent household, take one step back.
  • If your family owned the house where you grew up, take one step forward.
  • If you saw members of your race, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation portrayed on television in degrading roles, take one step back.
  • If you were ever offered a good job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
  • If you were denied employment, paid less, treated less fairly because of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you ever inherited money or property, take one step forward.
  • If you were ever stopped or questioned by the police because of your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.
  • If you were ever the victim of violence related to your race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, take one step back.
  • If your parents attended college take one step forward.
  • If your parents told you that you could be anything you wanted to be, take one step forward.
  • If you are able to take a step forward or backward take two steps forward.

Where did you end up? Are you forward of where you started? Are you back of where you started? About the same? Wherever we ended up it is certainly not together. There is now distance between us.


Much of what moved us forward or backward was beyond our control and yet there are systems in place to ensure who moves forward and who does not, to not only create chasms between us but to safeguard them as well. Those of us who are where we started or forward of where we began have privilege that gives us choices.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable had choices in his lifetime while the poor man Lazarus did not. The rich man could choose his fine clothing, could choose to dine sumptuously every day, the kind of feasting one would do on a festival or holy day. He chose to have a gate to his house which means there was a barrier of some kind around it to safeguard his way of life. Even the choice of translating the phrase “and at his gate lay a poor man” – the word “lay” sounds like Lazarus put himself there when a better translation would be “was laid”, as in someone or a group of someones left Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, probably expecting that the rich man would help Lazarus because that’s what Moses and the prophets taught those with wealth should do.

For quite some time there has been an ever-widening chasm between the richest and poorest households in the U.S. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, it’s the widest it’s ever been in the past 50 years. You may hear folks tell you that the GDP has been growing steadily for the last 10 years; that the median income hit a new record high last year; that unemployment is low—all of which is true. But that doesn’t mean that everyone is doing better because of this booming economy. If anything, it has only increased inequality because our economy was designed by those with wealth to safeguard the chasms between us.

It’s not as simple as what a person is paid to work; it’s how they are valued by society as a whole. We’ve monetized what it means to be white, straight, cisgender male. In God’s economy the values are reversed. The rich man is nameless; the poor man has a name which means “God helps”. In God’s economy God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. The first becomes last and the last, first. God lifts up transgender folx, gender queer and non-binary gentle beings and brings down cisgender folks. God lifts up indigenous and brown and black lives and brings down white lives. God lifts up people with disabilities and brings down the abled. God lifts up the earth and brings down human greed. God lifts up what capitalism does not value. God lifts up what we have brought low.

We’ve known since we’ve had the ability to observe and reflect that when the most vulnerable among us are thriving, we all thrive. When all of our children, and not just some or even most, are doing well, humanity is thriving. When everyone has access to health care and education and housing and a living wage we all will do well. When every body can exist safely in the same space, we all will live well. When the earth and all life live in balance—well, that one’s pretty obvious.

There is nothing supernatural that can save us, no power from above to spare the so-called righteous from upheaval, punish the wicked, and give justice to the oppressed. It has always been in our hands, our will whether there will be heaven or hell on this only earth we have. We know how the powerful are willfully, arrogantly neglecting their part, how they keep God or what God values at a distance, and we must work hard to call them out. But do we experience the distance between human beings, do we experience inequality, the disrespect, the dehumanization of others, as painful to us, as painful as it is to them?

Do we take seriously that when one rejoices, all rejoice together;

when one suffers, all suffer together?

That when we misgender someone, it hurts us as much as it hurts them?

That when we walk past a plea for help, it hurts us as much as it hurts them?

That when we disbelieve someone else’s truth about themselves, it hurts us as much as it hurts them?

We value our own experience and do all that we can to keep what we have, to preserve how we live. Are we willing to do the same for those who are not able to do this for themselves? Are we willing to step backward so that they may move forward? Not yet apparently. So what will move us in that direction, if not Jesus and his love and all the other teachers and prophets throughout the ages? As the leading banner read at the first-ever National Trans Visibility March in D.C. yesterday, “How many of us have to die for you to get involved?” 


The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'

May we, as Church and as people, have the strength and the courage to keep changing with them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Be the vulnerable

Amos 8: 4-7; Psalm 113: 7-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 22, 2019

Rich and Poor, or War and Peace, 17th c., unidentified Flemish painter


We worship the rich. Our American culture worships, gives worth to, rich people: how they live, their homes, what they eat and drink, what they wear, what car they drive, where they travel, their education, their influence, their technology. Actually it’s more of a love/hate relationship. We love the rich in movies and television like Downton Abbey and Crazy Rich Asians and in places like Longwood Gardens and Winterthur and tech like the latest iPhone. We hate the rich in their influence on politics and public policy, like the Koch brothers; in their escape from paying taxes and their treatment of workers like Jeff Bezos and Amazon and Whole Foods, and the Walton family and Walmart.

And yet we like discounted books and goods and two day delivery at our fingertips. We like the availability of a wide variety of organic food and the bargain of inexpensive clothing and household items and groceries, but we also value independent local businesses and artisans, community supported agriculture, using up what we have and donating what we no longer need. (See newsletter about the upcoming tag sale on October 26.)

Our relationship to money and wealth and possessions is a complicated one. We abhor the prosperity gospel in which wealth and health are viewed as God’s will for those who have faith, those who engage in positive speaking and thinking, and who donate to religious causes. Most of us have probably felt the pressure and heard shame messages about giving in church. Even though there are more than 2000 scriptures on poverty and justice, money is often a taboo subject in most churches. At the least it’s an awkward and clumsy conversation. At the worst we are self-serving and complicit in the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable.

Meanwhile God not only worships, gives worth, but preference to the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger. Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, the author of A Theology of Liberation, asserts that when the poor and vulnerable are free, we all will be free. Throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as the Qur’an, God instructs us and commands the physical and spiritual well-being of the poor, which is the well-being of everyone. From the Qur’an: “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakat or offerings.”

We are to give wealth in spite of our love for it. God’s prophets have a way of seeing through our generosity to our fear of scarcity, our desire to keep what we have, our need for security, our belief in individual responsibility over communal care.

I recently came across a very insightful tweet by singer and actor Tay Zonday. He said something pretty prophetic about what it means to be poor and vulnerable in this country: “Being poor now leads to being poor later. Can’t pay to clean your teeth? Next year pay for a root canal. Can’t pay for a new mattress? Next year pay for back surgery. Can’t pay to get that lump checked out? Next year pay for stage three cancer. Poverty charges interest.”

We know this is true when we talk about climate change. Changes in the environment will affect everyone but more so those who are already struggling to survive as it is. This past week I attended a constituent coffee with state senator David Sokola. One of our guests was Dr. Willett Kempton from the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware. Dr. Kempton spoke of how wind turbine technology makes even more sense now that the cost has come down. Important decisions and policies that affect everyone are based on how they affect those who have money rather than those who do not have such privilege. We tend to think of money and wealth as something we earn rather than a privilege but more often than not, wealth is a direct result of privilege, affording us even more privilege because we have wealth.

We need prophetic voices to not only keep us honest but to challenge the way we think about poverty and justice. Writer and activist Bree Newsome put it this way: “The wealthy and powerful are engaging in widescale crimes from human sex trafficking to rigging college admissions to fleecing tax payers while most of the court system’s focus is on policing and jailing people for the crime of being poor.” Our job as people of privilege is to disrupt that, to call it out, vote it out, not for ourselves but for those who suffer the most, who are the most vulnerable to economic abuses, climate change, exploitation and greed.

Pastor and author Carlos Rodriguez tweeted: “Here’s what Jesus did NOT say: Welcome the stranger, if he has money. Feed the hungry, who earned the food. Love your neighbor, when it’s good for the economy. Give water to the thirsty, once they pay their dues. Rule. Be first. Take and keep taking.” From our finances to the local church to the association to the conference to the denomination, our budget is not only a moral document, it is how we make visible the discomforting gospel of Jesus, how we make visible justice for the poor, how we make visible the vulnerable in our communities. Bishop Desmond Tutu said “Every church should be able to get a letter of recommendation from the poor in their community.

Whenever we make a decision, a choice, a donation that will affect lives, we must do it as though the most vulnerable people are in the room with us. And not only people but the earth and all life on this planet.

They are in the voting booth.

They are in the grocery aisle.

They are in our energy sources.

They are in the car with us.

They are in every piece of single-use plastic and polystyrene.

They are on the tags of our clothing.

They are in the circuit boards of our cell phones.

They are wrapped around our credit card.

They are in our investment portfolio and our retirement savings and our bank account.

They are in the language of our worship and the words of our songs and prayers.

They are the first casualties of war and the last to know peace.

The most vulnerable do not have a choice; the choice is forced upon them.

And yet in the gospel made visible in human lives,
those who choose to be brave are just as frightened as we are.

Those who choose to give to others the very thing they need themselves are just as unsure as we are.

Those who love without question are just as human as we are.

Those who raise their voices that justice might be done have just as much to lose as we do.

Those who turned from the way things have always been and went another way had no idea what might happen any more than we do.

Those who choose risk and vulnerability over power and security have to choose it every day just like we do.

To be the Church means to be the vulnerable, to make the gospel visible in our lives. Amen.


Because the world is poor and starving,
Go with bread.

Because the world is filled with fear,
Go with courage.

Because the world is in despair,
Go with hope.

Because the world is living lies,
Go with truth.

Because the world is sick with sorrow,
Go with joy.

Because the world is weary of wars,
Go with peace.

Because the world is seldom fair,
Go with justice.

Because the world is under judgment,
Go with mercy.

Because the world will die without it,
Go with love.”

by Harold Warheim

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The ones

Luke 15: 1-10
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 15, 2019

The Lost Sheep by Daniel Bonnell

One of the most beautiful illustrations of this morning’s gospel lesson is a Chinese movie made in 1999 entitled “Not One Less”. The story takes place in a rural one-room primary school in China. The longtime teacher must leave town for a month to care for his mother who is ill. Before he leaves he tells the substitute teacher, a 13 year old girl with no experience, she is to use only one piece of chalk per day and when he returns there is to be not one less student. Many of his students had left school to work in the city. If all the students are there when he returns, she will receive a small bonus.

After some friction between the young teacher and her students, like so many others, one troublesome boy leaves school to go work in the city because his family needs the money. The teacher and her students end up bonding over figuring out a way for her to travel to the city to find him. She leaves the rest of the class to go in search of the one. Through much pain and loneliness and struggle, the teacher and the student finally find each other with the help of a local news show highlighting the education of rural students. After a tearful reunion, the teacher and student return to the school with donations of school supplies, including many boxes of colored chalk. What was lost is found, what was missing is restored. A happy ending not unlike the gospel lesson.

These parables that Jesus tells about a lost sheep or a lost coin or the next one about the prodigal child—even though they have a happy ending, they aren’t as simple as they sound. Where relationships are difficult or strained or broken, wholeness does not come easy. Luke uses the words sinners and repent, which challenge and confront us and can sound shaming and damning to those who are already marginalized and lost to community. We may have sympathy for the tax collectors and sinners because we feel they are unfairly judged until we remember that they weren’t really interested in living by the rules, but when we call them purity laws we may have other feelings about those. We want Jesus to take a side but we want mercy no matter what side we’re on, whether we’re screwed up or righteous, the prodigal sibling or the one who always did what was expected of them.

The Lost Coin by James Tissot

Of course there really are no sides to community or family or tribe, much as we try. In stories like these we are to hold up each of the characters like a mirror and see them in ourselves. Where are we lost and gone astray and in need of turning around in our own lives? Who are the ones who are lost to us that need seeking after? When is it that we grumble and complain and chafe at rule-breakers? Who are the ones that disrupt our image of ourselves?

This mirror is not just ourselves but also how we see who we are as Church. How have we lost our way as Church and in need of turning? Who are the ones who need us to clean house until they are found, to search until they are rescued? Who have we as Church distanced ourselves from? Who do we still harbor as ‘them’? Who is it that would bring our reputation as Church into question?

With the exception of Jesus, no one around that table had a moral ground to stand on. Everyone would’ve been squirming to fit themselves into that grace Jesus was offering. The tax collectors were ripping off people who were living in economic slavery but they were also just trying to survive themselves. Jesus would’ve certainly had a few words to say about that. The Pharisees and scribes weren’t bad people, in fact, they were the ones you could count on, but they couldn’t see how to reach beyond the law to repair and restore relationships. Jesus was willing to enter into conflict, lose respect, risk whatever it took to get to the place of rejoicing. The work isn’t done, the grace isn’t truly amazing, until all the sheep are together again, until all the coins are found.

That’s the last mirror to hold up. What does the place of rejoicing look like for ourselves, our own lives? What is the transformation we long for? What does the place of rejoicing look like for our church, where the lost are found and friends and neighbors join in the celebration?

What does the place of rejoicing look like for the ones who are the most vulnerable, who have the most to lose? The ones who live daily under the slavery of binary gender. The ones who live daily under the slavery of poverty and inequality. The ones who live daily under the cruelty of racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism. The ones who come to our borders. The ones who live on the streets. The ones who are denied access to adequate health care and mental health care. The ones who live under the tyranny of violence and fear and hatred; even the ones who have lost themselves to empire and domination and capitalism. None of us are truly found until all are found.

The place of rejoicing is wholeness, restoration, the Beloved Community, and all the moments of rejoicing along the way as people and things lost are found. To find the place of rejoicing we do as Jesus did. To restore the ones who are marginalized we go to the margins, to the barriers that divide and we cross them. We humanize the dehumanized. We decriminalize the criminalized. We use the pronouns. We hold ourselves accountable in our whiteness, in whatever privilege we have. We repair the harm we have caused to others, to community, and to the earth. We hold up the mirror and look at ourselves as compassionately and firmly as we can. We search for what is good and holy and true in everyone and everything and we hold on. We lift it onto our shoulders and we bring it home.


Benediction – enfleshed.com (adapted)

Though we may leave from here, Love goes with us.
To the edges of the earth and to the depths of the sea,
Love would follow us.
Always searching for connection,
always seeking to mend and restore,
what is good and holy and true goes before us,
is within us,
and follows after us.
Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

You can do it

From a tweet earlier today by a Lutheran pastor:

"God looks at you with so much love and compassion.  God sees how hard you're trying, the ways you trip up and why, your stunning gifts and strengths.  God is rooting for you today, to be the best, strongest, most loving version of yourself."

"And, at the end of today, however you've failed and however you've succeeded, God will take you into loving arms and hold you while you rest."

Beautiful and loving and compassionate.  And yet what if you took the God language out and instead it was full of your agency, your power, your ability to be what you need?

"Look at yourself with love and compassion, and not just some but LOTS of it, as much as you need.  See how hard you're trying, observe the ways you trip up and why, take inventory of and appreciate your stunning gifts and strengths.  Even if no one else does, you root for YOU today, to be the best, strongest, most loving version of yourself."

"And, at the end of today, however you've failed and however you've succeeded, take yourself into your loving arms and hold your precious self and rest, trusting that sleep will come and a new day will dawn."

Why is the latter harder than the former, when it doesn't have to be?  We can believe in a loving and compassionate God but we have difficulty giving ourselves the gift that can only truly come from within.  We can love and accept ourselves with such power that it can change our lives and the lives of those around us.

One day at a time, I'm working on it.

Peace to you.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Our place at the Table

September 1, 2019 

The Last Supper by Jacopo Bassano
I chose this depiction of the last supper because
it's chaotic and messy.  Jesus looks like he's having second thoughts.
And there's a dog.  But once again it's also a bunch of white guys.
The next one illustrates the gospel text.

Jesus Mafa: The Poor Invited to the Feast

Earlier this week during my morning quiet time I read a meditation on worthiness. “The two phrases ‘I deserve…’ and ‘I am deserving of…’ have very different connotations. The former indicates something I feel owed because I have earned it with hard work or suffering. …The latter, ‘I am deserving of…’, rather than being a justification or complaint or demand, describes something about me that is reflected in an aspect of life either currently present or about to be created simply because I am worthy of it.”[i]  

In this morning’s gospel lesson, in his parable, Jesus is asking his listeners, his host and these guests at a dinner, what they think they deserve versus what are they deserving of. What is it that makes them worthy? Because of their authority or education or social position or wealth or what they have worked hard for, they think they deserve the seats of honor, assuming that there is no one invited who is more distinguished than they are. Jesus points out that we cannot exalt ourselves; we can only humble ourselves. When we know our own worth, and that it does not depend on our hard work or what we have earned, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “if you’re content to simply be yourself, you will become more than yourself.” When we exalt, when we lift up, when we honor the humbled, the humiliated, the dehumanized, the destitute, the debased, those who cannot repay us, we not only receive a blessing, together we become the blessing. We become part of the restoration of God’s people that will be completed at the resurrection of God’s people. 

I asked folks on Facebook to complete the statement, “I deserve ______.” A few folks admitted that they deserve nothing, that what they have has come to them by grace or by privilege or both. Some were in the mood for just desserts: pie, ice cream, cookies without calories. Many people replied with things like respect, dignity, justice, love, peace, acceptance, inclusion, safety, kindness, to feel compassion and to receive it. One person replied with “my constitutional rights”. Others registered the unfairness of life: they deserve to breathe freely, to have relief from chronic pain, to not be judged, to earn a living wage. One person responded that she deserves to have her husband by her side instead of being twice-widowed before the age of 50. Yes, indeed she does.

I think that sometimes, especially when we are confronted with unfairness, loss, suffering, injustice, bigotry, hardheartedness, we must claim what is rightful, what has been lost, what is needed for human thriving. Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth, yet at this point it will be what’s left of it. What does the earth deserve, one person asked? And yet what we claim for ourselves we must also claim for everyone and every living thing.

Which is what the second statement, “I am deserving of _______”, is all about. I am deserving of, I am worthy of, simply because I draw breath. And so folks answered with words like mercy, forgiveness, love, respect, rest, the chance to work for a just world, to be recognized, to be seen, valued, and heard; deserving of taking risks, being safe, grace, understanding, truth, peace, change, joy, abundance, life. There is nothing we need to do, no merit we must earn. We are worthy simply because we draw breath. Hear this invitation to the Table adapted from a paraphrase of Isaiah 55 by Leslie Brandt: “The love of a righteous God is not something to be bought. It is a gift to be received. There is nothing to bring, no sacrifice to be offered, no merits to be earned. All this has been done on your behalf.  You need only to come, to partake, and to live forever in the light and joy of God’s favor.”

Unconditional love, what we churchy types call grace, is undeserved, unmerited, and unlimited. If love is not unconditional, then it is something else, less than what is offered to us at this Table. Love is not like pie. More for me does not mean less for you. More for you does not mean less for me. Psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May wrote, “Love is the power that births and grieves, the laughter that fills the heavens, the tears that water the earth. Love is the energy that fuels, fills, and embraces everything everywhere. And there is no end to it, ever.” Unconditional love is so radical you don’t even have to believe in God in order to live in it. Because if you did have to believe, it wouldn’t be unconditional, it wouldn’t be radical, it wouldn’t be as amazing as the old song says.

But as it is in another old hymn, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all—another way of saying unconditional. Which can sound pretty scary and exhausting these days—my soul, my life, my all. No matter what, Jesus would have us love as he loved. Fear shrinks but love expands. Fear punishes but love restores. Fear restricts but love encourages, inspires, reassures, emboldens, and raises spirits. And it is within this love that cannot be repaid that we grow and come to new life—the resurrection of God’s people.


Benediction – You Deserve by Susan Herrick

You deserve the blue skies.

You deserve the rainbow.

You deserve the paradise that you dare to ask for.

You deserve to always know everybody loves you so

and if you ever forget you just ask.

Let us live and love this way, not only for ourselves but for especially for those who cannot return the favor. Following in Jesus’ way, Amen.

[i] The Dance: Moving to the Deep Rhythms of Your Life, Oriah Mountain Dreamer. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001. Pg.78.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Making life livable

Isaiah 58: 9b-12; Luke 13: 10-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 25, 2019

(This sermon contains pieces of a message I gave in Pleasant Hill, TN on March 24 entitled "To Everything, Turn".)

The Bible is replete with nameless women. From Noah’s wife to Lot’s wife and daughters, from the rape and murder of a nameless sex slave in Judges to the widow of Zarephath, the proverbial capable wife, the woman with a chronic hemorrhage, the woman about to be stoned, the woman who had a spirit of weakness and was bent over for 18 years—one biblical interpretation is that often these nameless women were synonymous or symbolic of Israel. Israel could be virtuous or victim, sinful or wrongly accused depending on the story.

It’s a pretty misogynistic view of both women and Israel. In a story, women who are nameless have no agency, no voice, no will of their own. Earlier in the gospel of Luke in another synagogue Jesus declared that he had come to bring release to the captive. Often, when Jesus encounters a woman whose name we do not know, he seeks to liberate her from her usually limiting circumstances. So this woman who had a spirit of weakness and was bent over for 18 years is also Israel under the boot of the Roman Empire, occupied by a foreign power, the people in need of healing, burdened by the rules that said “Come back tomorrow”.

And yet we can all relate to this story. Earlier this week I saw a cartoon in which someone is bent over. A friend asks, “What happened?” “I hurt my back.” “Oh dear. Don’t be too glum. Try to lift up your heart.” *Silence.* “How did you do it?” “I was trying to lift my heart but it was too heavy.” Every week many of us come into this space with our own burdens, our hearts heavy with the daily news, an illness or injury or chronic pain, cancer, a family member or friend who is hurting, a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one, too many bills to pay, the feeling of being disconnected. We come for Sabbath, for healing and comfort, relief and release. We come to know we’re not alone.

Another word for the Jewish concept of the Satān is adversary. We all have our adversaries that can bind us and keep our heads down, limiting our world view, our hearts downcast. And yet most of us are not burdened, are not limited because of our identity, who we are, because of how the world sees us and relates to us. For the most part, the rules were written for the privileged and entitled and against everyone else.

The rules, written and unwritten, were designed to favor those who own property over those who don’t.

  • To favor the wealthy over the poor.

  • To favor men over women.

  • To favor white people over people of color and indigenous people.

  • To favor straight people over queer people.

  • To favor cisgender people over transgender and non-binary people.

  • To favor the able-bodied over the disabled.

  • To favor neurotypical people over neurodivergent people.

  • To favor citizens over refugees and immigrants.

  • To favor the employed over the unemployed and underemployed.

  • To favor salaried people over hourly people.

  • To favor college-educated over tradesfolk.

  • To favor strength and might over the weak and vulnerable.

  • To favor power and control over trust and partnership.

  • To favor loopholes over honesty and responsibility.

  • To favor entitlement over human rights.

  • To favor short-term gain over natural resources.

  • To favor punishment over restoration.

And when folks try to change the rules, to bend the other way, to bend the arc toward justice right down into people’s lives, those who have been waiting all their lives to simply live are told to come back tomorrow, wait a little longer.

  • You can’t seek asylum here. You’ll take our jobs.

  • I can’t get used to your pronouns. I can’t adjust my language.

  • What’s a microaggression? There’s no way I’m a racist.

  • It was just a joke.

  • Not in my backyard.

  • What can one person do?

Pastor Stan Mitchell, from Henderson, TN, said, “If you claim to be an ally of a group of people, if you’re not getting hit by the stones that are thrown at them, you’re not standing close enough.” To be an ally also means that sometimes those stones may come from the very people we’re trying to help, because sometimes we’re part of the problem.

We who are white have been made aware of our white privilege and white fragility but when was the last time we attended a Black Lives Matter protest and listened? We’ve been made aware of the pervasiveness of rape culture and domestic violence and sexual assault but when was the last time we called out someone’s misogyny or sexist joke? We’ve had the Americans with Disabilities Act since 1990 but how do we still assume an ableist attitude in public spaces? We know now that there are more than two genders but how ready are we to break the binary and use someone’s affirming pronouns, regardless of our inner grammar nazi? We may understand the connection between systemic racism, poverty, and the effects of climate change, but do we understand how entrenched our culture is, the commitment of those in power to the enforcement of these systems, and how we benefit from them? 

When we who are privileged feel hopeless and powerless, when we give hope and power to others, ours is restored. It takes a village to save a village; a nation to save a nation; the whole world to save the world.

It’s all connected. We’re all connected. We lift up girls; we must also lift up gay and trans kids. We lift up trans kids, we lift up non-binary and gender queer kids. We lift up all those kids, all the kids; we also lift up those who live in poverty, especially the poverty of trans adults, the violence against trans adults, especially people of color. We lift up all these; we lift up all people of color, especially the immigrant, the refugee. We lift up the immigrant, the refugee; we must lift a living wage. We lift up a living wage, we lift up the incarcerated, the working poor. We lift up the incarcerated, the working poor, we lift up voting rights, affordable housing, mental health, food security. We lift up basic human needs, we lift up education. We lift up education; we lift up the earth and climate change and technology and finding non-violent solutions to our problems. We lift up science; we must also lift up art and music and beauty and poetry and athleticism and mysticism—all those qualities that feed our spirits and make us come alive. 

We lift justice, respect, courage, peace. We restore ruins. We repair the breach. We make life livable for everyone.