Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Genesis 9: 8-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 18, 2018

Noah and the Rainbow, Marc Chagall, 1966


         It never ceases to amaze me—the timing of the lectionary with what is happening in our world. Just when I’m having one of those days when I think it’s crazed or quaint or parochial to look for wisdom in a collection of books written thousands of years ago, the Bible goes and upends my post-modern, scientific, supposedly-evolved point of view. Especially the Psalms. I love that the ancient songbook of God’s people includes rage and pettiness and hubris and joy and gratitude and deep love and fear; that all of those and much more are acceptable in worship and can be brought into the presence of God. We don’t have to clean up our act to be relationship with God; we can show up as we are.

         The Psalms show us how very human we are and how we haven’t changed all that much. The psalm for today includes this verse:

“Do not let those who wait for you 
be put to shame;
let them be ashamed 
    who are wantonly treacherous.” 

       (Psalm 25: 3, NRSV) 


         I’m angry and ashamed of a seemingly wantonly-treacherous Congress who, since the shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012, since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, has done mostly nothing to prevent gun violence in public and domestic spaces. I’m angry that it never seems to be the time to talk about and do something about reforming gun laws. I’m angry that the pleas of survivors and family members seem to fall on deaf ears and hard hearts. I’m angry that our schools do not have enough professional support of counselors, nurses, and social workers to help children deal with problems they shouldn’t have to deal with. I’m angry that responsible gun owners are vilified for owning guns. I’m angry because I feel powerless in the face of such violence, death, and suffering.


         I understand why wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. When we are powerless and angry and fearful and disconnected from each other, wrath can feel like all we have left to affect some kind of change, to do something, anything, and we are tempted to violence. Or we weaponize our words and our discourse. We lash out and hurt and wound. And I use “we” because this is a human problem, not an “us and them” problem. I use “we” because I believe in empathy to create change. I use “we” because a large part of the problem is how disconnected we are from people we disagree with, who experience life differently than we do. I use “we” because it makes it that much harder to demonize someone if we’re all in this together.


         In the Genesis story of the great flood, God had gotten to the point of wrath with human beings. God was powerless to change the wickedness of humanity, our wanton treachery, and was angry that we had become corrupt, perhaps even fearful of what we had become or what we could do. God and the creation were estranged from each other, disconnected; God’s image in humanity was obscured.

         Then God does the unthinkable. God becomes the ultimate weaponized bully, and destroys all life, save for Noah and his family, and two of every creature aboard a gigantic floating barn. It’s difficult to imagine why this story would be comforting to God’s people in exile, but for them this was a story of hope. Their homes were destroyed, their temple in ruins, friends and family members raped and killed or carried off as slaves. The destruction of a flood to lay waste to a corrupt humanity wasn’t much of a stretch. That God saved one family and started over again perhaps said to them that they had not been abandoned in exile; that one day God would start over again with them. To them, the story may have sounded like grace.

Photo by Ed Fisher
    To ensure that it did sound like grace, and hope, God made a promise to never again wield power to destroy life. God had the power but yielded it in favor of covenant and connection with God’s creation and with humankind. And God took God’s weapon, a bow, and hung it up for good in the heavens. Unlike the fearsome gods of empire, like the Assyrian god Ashur with his bow and arrow, the God of Israel would be disarmed, and not only that, there would be a covenant, a reminder of this promise of peace in the rainbow.

         And yet those who heard this story knew that there was another passenger aboard the ark: the seeds of violence and evil and all that distorts God’s image within us. It’s never been easy for us to disarm ourselves, to put down our weapons, to not act on our anger and fear and disconnection, to remember our unbreakable covenant—that we are human together, all of us born from this earth.

         Last week I lifted up words from Martin Luther King Jr., that the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence but nonviolence and nonexistence, and yet Dr. King had been known to carry a revolver. There are some who frame this debate as either/or: you’re either for guns or against guns.  So if you're black and you preach nonviolence but carry a gun, you must be a liar or a coward? Power to kill, to defend, or no power at all? I call BS. That’s not what the framers of our constitution wanted. Like the story of God and the rainbow, it’s about power but with limits, with checks and balances. And the answer to power out of whack is not to meet it with more power, to meet violence with more violence.

         It’s devastatingly ironic that this senseless tragedy occurred not only on Valentine’s Day but Ash Wednesday. The season of Lent is a time when we turn away from the paths of sin and suffering and turn toward God and the ways of peace, justice, and unconditional love, that our joy might be restored. A time to confront our mortality and the obstacles to a life fully inhabited. A time to examine our own use of weapons and power—whatever we use to strike out or withhold to injure and harm. A time that leads to a different interpretation of this story—complete disarmament on the cross and yet betrayal and desertion, death and suffering are not the last word.

         The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have formed their own covenant: we are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks…because this will be the last mass shooting in the United States.

“Do not let those who wait for you
be put to shame.
let them be ashamed 
who are wantonly treacherous.” 

         Not only our government but we all have been put on notice when it comes to gun reform. What if our Lenten fast became one action every day toward reducing gun violence and promoting connection and belonging in our nation? Call senators and representatives, write a letter to the editor, be heard at school board meetings; engage in honest conversation, give support to a teacher, reach out to someone struggling with anxiety and depression and self-acceptance, mend a broken relationship if you can; support out-of-state candidates who won’t take contributions from the NRA, speak truth to BS, and fight for what’s right— because our very lives and the lives of our children actually do depend on us taking another path. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Dark Enough to See the Stars

Mark 9: 2-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday


         Earlier this week, referencing one of the Super Bowl ads, a colleague quipped about one of the verses from this morning’s gospel lesson: “’And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.’ The Transfiguration: It’s really a Tide ad”.

         For many who watch the Super Bowl but who aren’t interested in football, the attraction is the advertisements. At $5 million a pop for 30 seconds, we expect to see something more than the usual ploys to get our attention. More often than not pop culture makes an appearance, like Volkswagen with a Star Wars theme or Visa with Marvel comic book heroes.

         But some ads shine a light on that same culture, whether it’s a PSA for domestic violence and abuse in 2015. Or Clint Eastwood giving us a halftime speech in 2012, after the recession: how we pull together when times are hard.

         And I thought that the light was shining when a commercial opened with words from Martin Luther King, Jr. from 50 years ago that day: “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s the new definition of greatness.” And then we saw images of servanthood: people hard at work, ranchers, teachers, neighbors of all colors and stripes, soldiers and medics, parents and children, first responders, and that all we need to serve is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And you bet I’m in, heart and soul.

         Then the clincher: Ram trucks, built to serve. And my jaw dropped. You see, Dr. King’s words came from a sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct”, in which he also said: “Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. … And you know, before you know it, you're just buying that stuff. That's the way the advertisers do it.” And he went on to say, “Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Same sermon. And for reasons beyond my understanding, those who are in charge of Dr. King’s estate gave permission for his words to be used to sell a car.

         Another clergy colleague in New York City—female, African-American, mother, immigrant rights activist—asked this question on Sunday night: “The things folks are willing to look past, in order to watch football, are insurmountable to me. Why aren’t they to you?” And I squirmed because she’s right. Even though players from both teams have taken a knee in protest during the national anthem, we didn’t see it Sunday night. We saw Brandin Cooks take that awful blindside hit to his head, and we kept watching. That man’s life will never be the same again, like many players in the NFL. And we knew what was going to happen on the streets of Philly as soon as the Eagles scored their final touchdown.

         And yet it’s complicated too. It’s not black and white. The city of Philadelphia needed that win. Some called it a David and Goliath game. The cathartic release of emotion was palpable for many. Football in and of itself is a great game, and yet it has a shadow side of racism, money, power, violence, and bodily damage that oftentimes we’re willing to look past. We cheer when the light reveals the shadowy places of others and yet it is oh so hard for us to look openly at something so beloved and culturally entrenched as football and the Super Bowl.

         50 years ago, Star Trek was in its third season and known for shining a light on some difficult and very present struggles, such as nationalism, fascism, the Vietnam War, and racism. In this episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, the crew of the Enterprise encounters two humanoids: one is black on the right side, the other is black on the left side. One is a freedom fighter, a fugitive who stole a shuttlecraft from a Federation starbase; the other, the enforcer who has been chasing his quarry for centuries. Both have an all-consuming hatred for the other.

         Faithful Jews that they were, Peter, James, and John thought they must have been witnessing the end of their oppression and the beginning of God’s saving reign on earth. Certainly God does take sides when it comes to injustice. But then I think God wants everyone to be free: the oppressed and the oppressor, the survivor and the abuser, those who have power and those who don’t. When that light shines on the mountaintop, we need to remember that the rest of the story takes place in the valley of the shadow of death and eventually leads to another hill, this time with a cross on it.

         We want the glory, the light of truth to shine and expose the shadows, especially those that harm and hurt the marginalized and criminalized, the dehumanized among us. But that light shines everywhere, and sooner or later it casts our shadow. Carl Jung said until we make the unconscious conscious, until we bring our shadow into the light and embrace it, it will dictate our lives and we will call it “it is what it is”.

         The night before Dr. King was assassinated, and he struggled with his own shadow, his own demons: he gave his famous “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” sermon and said these words, “[The] world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. …It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.” Fifty years later and that is where we are now but for how much longer?

         And yet it was that night he was happy, joyful even, that night before. That night he wasn’t worried about anything and he feared no one, because he had seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.

         That’s what God, what Love wants for all of us. But it won’t happen until the criminalized and marginalized and dehumanized among us receive it first and in full measure, until we own the shadows in each of us. It’s dark enough now to see the stars. Nonviolence or nonexistence. It’s up to us to shine the light. Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Healed from within

Mark 1: 29-39
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 4, 2018


         Have you ever been to a physician’s office, looked impatiently at the time while waiting in the examining room, only to have the doctor enter with these words: “Sorry you had to wait so long, busy day.” As it is, Jesus comes across like a doctor on the run in the gospel of Mark, moving along from the synagogue to the house of Simon and Andrew, teaching and healing as he goes, often preceded by the word “immediately”. Jesus tries to slow down a bit by going to a secluded place to pray and meditate. Even with all the technology we have to make the practice of medicine more accurate, efficient, and expedient, nothing can replace or duplicate the human element of compassion multiplied by the factor of time. When caregivers take time to listen and understand, we feel as though we have been seen, our concerns have been heard, and we know we are valued. We experience empathy.

J. Kirk Richards, 2011, Healing All Manner of Sickness

         I’m not sure if healing occurs without empathy—deep down-in-your-bones healing. Sympathy is suffering alongside. Empathy is entering into the suffering of another. One cannot be entirely removed from the healing of those in their care; we can’t heal at an emotional, spiritual distance from one another. Compassion, courage, and self-gift are communicated through presence, touch, kind words, companionable silence; the look in our eyes; how we listen and pay attention to things like body language; how we respond to the suffering of others.

         Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter an empath on a planet whose sun is about to go nova. They’ve beamed down to the surface to rescue two Federation researchers who have literally disappeared without a trace. The three are also taken in the same way and find themselves in a laboratory situation: two humanoid beings from a technologically advanced species are testing the empathic woman to see if her species deserves to be rescued from the destruction of the supernova. They torture Kirk and McCoy in order to provoke her ability to not only sense emotions but to heal others by absorbing their pain and injury into her own body. Up until now, she has allowed her instinct for self-preservation to outweigh any thought of self-sacrifice. But as she interacts with these three friends, she assimilates their qualities of courage, sacrifice, and deep compassion.


         When Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, she immediately begins to serve. She imitates Jesus through service, by offering herself. The healer needs healing too. Jesus finds a quiet corner to recharge, but the disciples are overwhelmed by the needs of the crowds and they search him out. Jesus too struggled with self-preservation and self-sacrifice and the courage, the energy it takes to enter into the suffering of others.


         To enter into the suffering of another, to have empathy, requires that we acknowledge and draw power from our own suffering, our own fears, our own wounds. We need to be an empath with our own story. To enter into the suffering of another is to enter the fullness of our shared humanity. This is why the idea of an incarnational God, a God who enters into our humanity, is so powerful. From the UCC Statement of Faith: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death, and reconciling the world to yourself.” Compassion and courage lead to empathy; empathy leads to forgiveness, redemption, justice, freedom, a transformed life.

         And it is this Table that demonstrates how pain can be turned into power; how the bread broken for us can become the hunger for justice; how the cup poured out for us can become the thirst for mercy and wholeness. With its betrayal and desertion, the Table reminds us how painful, messy, and risky love can be but also that healing happens much the same way. More than anything else, the Table calls us to service of others: to feed each other, support and care for each other, accept each other, and through that service we are transformed, from wounded to healed, from healed to healer. Thanks be to God.

How empathic are you?  
Find out by taking this empathy quotient inventory.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

By what authority

Mark 1: 21-28
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 28, 2018


           If it’s one thing most people know about Star Trek, even if you’ve never watched any of the 741 episodes or any of the thirteen movies, it’s the Prime Directive. The term prime directive has made its way into our culture to the point that it is in the Oxford dictionary. If you do an internet search for prime directive, one of the top five responses will take you to an article on the Forbes magazine website, asking whether the prime directive is truly ethical.

         In the episode entitled “Bread and Circuses” the prime directive is defined as: “no identification of self or mission; no interference with the social development of said planet; no references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.” Every Starfleet officer takes an oath to uphold the prime directive, even if it costs them their lives, their ship, their crew. The philosophy behind the prime directive is that every culture’s values, beliefs, and practices should be respected and that every civilization should determine their own path without interference; certainly the opposite of the colonial explorers from our history. Remember that Star Trek aired during the Vietnam War; the prime directive stood in direct opposition to the U.S. role in that war. Yet there have been allowable circumstances in which it would be unethical not to intervene.


         Of course, there would be no strange new worlds, new life, or new civilizations to seek out and explore if the prime directive wasn’t defied or at least stretched every now and then. This next episode is an illustration of the ethical conundrum that is often the prime directive.

         The Enterprise is transporting Ambassador Robert Fox to star cluster NGC321 to establish diplomatic relations. One of the planets in that cluster, Eminiar VII, sends a signal to the starship that it should not approach the planet, to stay away at all costs. The ambassador insists that a landing party be sent down to investigate. When they do, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and three other crew members are told that they have landed in the middle of an interplanetary war between Eminiar VI and Vendikar that has been raging for the last 500 years. The catch? It is fought entirely with computers, very much like our video games today. Targets are assessed, virtual weapons are launched, and casualties are counted. Citizens whose area has been identified as a target zone have 24 hours to report to a disintegration chamber so that their deaths may be recorded as valid. In this way, culture and civilization are preserved and life proceeds apace. But if either side refuses, even one citizen, the other planet may launch an attack with real weapons.

         The Enterprise became a target when it came into orbit, thus it becomes a casualty. The crew must beam down to the planet for disintegration. Of course, Captain Kirk has another idea.

         This episode strikes a chord in me with the problem of gun violence in our nation. We are 28 days into 2018 and already we have had 11 school shootings, the most recent in Benton, KY. Like any other war, we have all the horrors of gun violence—death, injury, trauma, grief—yet at the same time we preserve our gun culture and our civilization despite the violence—that is, if we are privileged enough to do so. I was reminded that there are both state and federal laws in place that should’ve prevented what happened in Kentucky. What more can be done, we ask, even as we’ve made little progress after the deaths of 20 first graders. As Bob Dylan wrote: How deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?

Paul Sika

         What if we employed the opposite tactic of that interplanetary war? What if, based on statistical analysis, we calculated the probability of the next school shooting, the next mass shooting in a mall or cinema or church or temple or mosque or gurdwara or nightclub or concert? What if we then enacted a law that said every person identified as a victim must report to be euthanized; every person identified as wounded would report for surgical alteration. But that would be insane, barbaric, wouldn’t it? It would be inhuman.

Paul Sika

         We don’t use words like ‘unclean spirit’ or ‘demon’ these days, except perhaps when undocumented immigrants or women who exercise their right to reproductive justice or those we disagree with are demonized. As for what is unclean, certainly that which prematurely, violently, intentionally separates us from life could be considered as such. The irony in the gospel story is that the unclean spirit is the only smart one in the room, the only one who knows who Jesus is and what he is about. And yet it does seem as though we are demon-possessed, that there is a kind of madness in our nation when it comes to gun violence, as if we were under a directive of non-interference.

Paul Sika

         Jesus wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if he’d followed non-interference. As it is, Jesus acted with authority, with the belief that he had power to speak and teach what he believed to be true, power to change lives. It wasn’t that Jesus knew he was right that changed lives; Jesus’ power, his authority was love—love that included wholeness and justice for the vulnerable and powerless; love that was also powerless against the cross; love that did not end with death; love that turns pain into power.

Paul Sika

         By what authority do we act when it comes to gun violence? At times we contradict ourselves in this nation: we appear to value life above all else, and yet we also treat human lives as replaceable commodities and allow some to benefit at the expense of great suffering of others. What is life without love, without justice, without compassion? Alice Walker wrote that the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. And we don’t typically think of love as power to do, power to change. Love too often feels powerless, makes us feel vulnerable. Love is not efficient. It can be messy and painful.

         Let me put it this way: empire thinks of itself as being the only authority, as efficient, invulnerable, powerful, orderly when it comes to details. It enslaves the weak and powerless, and it is numb to the pain it causes, including gun violence.

Paul Sika

         Jesus didn’t free people from bondage, he didn’t forgive them their sins, he didn’t challenge empire, the powers that be just because it was the right thing to do. The cross certainly didn’t look like the next right thing. He did it out of love. Not a love deserved, but a love that chooses freely. And Church is our spiritual workshop where we learn how to love like that, with people who sustain us in love, so we can love where and when it’s really tough to love, even to forgive those who really have no idea what they are doing.


         That’s our prime directive, that’s our authority, that’s our power. Amen.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A piece of the action

Mark 1: 14-20
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 21, 2017


         Human beings, like many other species, are mimetic, that is, we imitate, we mirror, we follow what we see, often subconsciously, and it is a powerful influence on how we live, learn, and model behavior. It’s how we pick up on social cues or develop another accent. It’s how we learn how to love and hate, use violence and be compassionate.

         In this next Star Trek episode, the Enterprise arrives at the planet Iotia to investigate cultural contamination by the starship Horizon that visited over a hundred years ago, before the prime directive of non-interference. The intelligent and highly imitative Iotians have patterned their industrial society based on one of the books the Horizon left with them entitled Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. The planet is divided up into a dozen or so territories, each with its own mob boss and underlings. Two of the bosses, Bela Oxmyx and Jojo Krako, are vying to take over as the only boss when Kirk and his boys beam down. Captain Kirk comes to an unorthodox solution: to peacefully unify the planet into a syndicate under one boss, with the Federation as a silent partner.

         There’s been a cultural contamination in Jesus’ time and it’s called empire. One after another—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and now Rome—have enslaved and exiled and divided and occupied and oppressed the people of Israel for centuries. Some have imitated their oppressors and become accustomed to the occupation and the power that has been meted out to them. But most of God’s people are tired of being trampled underfoot, of surviving in the face of injustice, and long for God to keep God’s promises of hope and deliverance.


         So when Jesus comes to Galilee, the Appalachia of Israel, and proclaims that the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, has come near, to repent, to turn toward God, and believe the good news, of course Simon and Andrew, James and John drop everything to follow him. Time’s up for empire and injustice. He doesn’t promise them more fish or job creation or a return to some imagined glory days. Only that they will learn to do what he does, by imitating him. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

         Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are incredulous when they learn that the Iotians created their society from only one book. And yet that was supposed to be our story too. Like our Jewish and Muslim friends and neighbors, we are People of the Book. God’s law, God’s word was supposed to be written on our hearts. We are made in God’s image, a mirror of God’s self. Since God’s people knew what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land, following God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves wasn’t supposed to be that much of a stretch.

         Even when there are those who read the Bible as the literal word of God or those who take a more progressive view, we still can’t manage to love our enemies or forgive seventy times seven. No matter our stripe of belief or tradition, none of us follow completely blind despite our accusations toward each other. We all think for ourselves to some degree but in accordance with what we’ve imitated from others, what we’ve been taught.

         Someone once asked how many different religions there are and someone else wisely responded, “About 7 billion.” We all have our own take on the truth; we all tell it slant, through our own lenses of experience and emotion, education and upbringing, tradition and values. And yet we all want to love and be loved, we all want our lives to have meaning, even the most wretched, the most obnoxious, the meanest among us. Sometimes I wonder if the whole purpose of this existence is to continually search for our own truth, to grow and learn while in community with others, to share the journey without killing or hurting anyone in the process.


         Like the Iotians we too are intelligent, highly imitative people. And yet there are days it would be a relief if there was one divinely-ordered way in which all human beings are to live, if we had one teacher, one book, and all we had to do was follow them, imitate them in order to have unity. But that’s not who we are. We’re Muslim and Hindu and Jewish and Buddhist and Atheist and Agnostic and Sikh and Unitarian and Christian and Shinto and Jain and Baha'i. We’re Latino and Hispanic and Native American and European and African American and Asian. We’re queer and straight and polyamorous and single and pansexual and asexual and cisgender and non-binary and trans. We’re conservative and liberal and progressive and moderate and fundamentalist and centrist. We are the mirror in 7 billion pieces. We’ve followed, we’ve been the leader, we’ve looked to others for truth, we’ve looked to ourselves. There is no one book for this. If anything, all of us together are the book.


         As it is, Jesus is looking for a freely-given, wholehearted ‘yes’ when it comes to following him. Perhaps those fishermen, as well as the women who followed him, didn’t have to think twice because they knew that not only their lives but the lives of their families, their people depended on the new thing that was happening in this man. But we know that a piece of the action that Jesus is offering is going to cost us something, require something from us. It’s one thing to search for the truth; it’s quite another to live it.

         Samir Selmanovic, a self-described Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, writes this about following Jesus: “Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him; it was woven into all he said and did. [To]…summarize his selling point: ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not. Follow me, and might be empowered—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not. If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life. Follow me nevertheless. Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’” (1)

         If we want a piece of that action, we’re in the right place with the right people: flawed, imperfect, beloved, forgiven, each of us trying to live out the truth we know the best we can, not just for our own but for justice’s sake. Why not love each other well while we’re at it? Amen.

1.  Selmanovic, Samir.  It's Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

To be beloved

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 14, 2017


         The underlying question in every Star Trek episode is “What does it mean to be human?” What does it mean to be human in the face of the unknown? Our next episode does this in very personal and intimate way, much like Psalm 139.

         The shuttlecraft Galileo is transferring ailing Assistant Federation Commissioner Nancy Hedford back to the Enterprise when it is forced off-course to land on planet with only two inhabitants: Zefram Cochrane, inventor of the space-warp drive, and a cloud-like creature known only as the Companion. When Cochrane was brought to this planet by the Companion he was 87 years old. The Companion reversed the aging process, keeps Cochrane young and provides for his every need—indeed hemming him in behind and before, knowing when he lies down and when he gets up, never out of sight. The Companion can discern Cochrane’s thoughts from far away; even before a word is on his tongue, the Companion knows it; they communicate telepathically. The Companion has brought those aboard the shuttlecraft to the planet as human companions to Cochrane, recognizing that he is lonely—the Companion will not let him leave the planet. Through a universal translator, it is learned that the Companion is female and her feelings for Cochrane are more than companionship.

         Like the Companion, God sounds like a helicopter parent in this psalm. This isn’t the free-range God of Genesis who seemed to wander off when Eve and Adam ate the fruit of the tree and then hid themselves among the trees, when God came walking in the garden with the evening breeze. Rather, God is a continual presence, encompassing every move, even from before birth.

You Have Known Me by Jan Richardson
The psalm is written by King David and thus it’s about their relationship, but this is also the prayer book of God’s people. Presumably David was writing about the human experience of a relationship with God from his own point of view. The relationship between God and David was special but not unique to him. God knows our coming and going; our lives are an open book to the Holy One and in it are already written all the days of our lives before we’ve even lived one of them. There is nowhere we can go where God’s love and power are not. If we wanted to sneak a smoke, God would know about it before we had a chance to light up.

         In our own time of individualism and independence we don’t always appreciate those who hover about, but I’ll bet that’s comforting in a world, in a time when one’s place in the world is precarious and unsure. Israel had a successful although imperfect king in David, but Israel was small and vulnerable compared to stronger, mightier empires around them. In the 90th psalm we read that we are lucky if we live to be 70; luckier still if we reach 80 years. Verses from Psalm 103 tell us:

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.

         But then when are we not vulnerable? Our lives can turn on a dime. We know that no amount of helicoptering over those we love will save them. Even God’s 24/7 love and power cannot protect us from the big bad.

         Earlier this week when our president made his remarks concerning certain countries from which immigrants may come to our country, he was referring to nations that though they possessed their own strength, over centuries they were surrounded by and ravaged by stronger and mightier empires; nations now where whole swaths of people can slip through not only cracks but chasms of poverty, natural disasters and famine brought about by climate change, violent conflict, and opportunistic threats such as disease and human trafficking. Though it is not yet pervasive, we have the same cracks in our own country. We have our own holes through which our people fall. What would we give for a loving, giving companion who would safeguard our every need, keep us safe, and preserve us from all evil? All this companion would ask for in return is our freedom.

God is holding your life
But that is not how this Star Trek episode ends. The Companion forsakes immortality and, with her consent, unites with the ailing Commissioner Hedford, saving her from death and lives out a normal human life with Zefram Cochrane. Now they are able to love each other as equals.

         This is what it is to be beloved. The story of Christmas tells us that the God who companions us, loves us so much that God gives up freedom and power to become human with us, to be as vulnerable and weak as we are, even to death on a cross.


         William Butler Yeats wrote: “But Love has pitched [its] mansion/in the place of excrement/For nothing can be sole or whole/that has not been rent.”  To live the truth we must be willing to live it whole: the good and the bad, health and sickness, plenty and want, joy and sadness. We are married to life, all of it, until death parts us from it. 

         And it is love—unconditional, unlimited, extravagant love—that makes that living worthwhile; that upholds us when life is bone-scraping hard; that knits us together into a web of caring; that calls us to make justice for those who live in the holes. The love that hems us in behind and before, that knows every one of our days, is for all of us. And none of us are whole until all of us live and love that way. That’s what it means to be beloved.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

To go boldly

Mark 1: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 7, 2018

         Star Trek is a television and movie phenomenon with second chances woven into its fabric from the very beginning and throughout its many incarnations. It was the first show in television history to have its pilot episode rejected and then a second pilot commissioned. Much of the original cast was replaced with other characters. Even the now beloved Mr. Spock was thought of as too inhuman, his character not very likable, and was almost dropped but for Gene Roddenberry insisting that Spock was the very likeness of what Star Trek is all about: exploration of the unknown.


         After the show had been on the air for only three months it was in danger of being cancelled. A group of science fiction writers, including Robert Bloch who wrote the book Psycho, Richard Matheson, and Harlan Ellison—each of whom would write an episode for Star Trek—wrote a joint letter to the mailing list for the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention, urging Star Trek fans to write letters and complain loudly to sponsors and television stations. NBC heard the noise and renewed Star Trek for another season. Fans saved the show again for a third season but that was as far as it could go, given the ratings. The original series aired from September 8, 1966 to June 3, 1969. But Star Trek would continue to have second chance after second chance, from continuing into syndication and an animated series to movies, to a succession of Enterprise crews, ships, and many other adventures.


         The episode “The Naked Time” occurs early in the first season. In the trailer we saw the effects of a virus communicated through water and sweat: revealing hidden fears, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and fantasies of the ship’s officers and crew. In his fear a junior officer asks a question that some still ask today: Why are we out here, anyway? We have no business out here. We bring pain and trouble with us. Going boldly into space and into this world means we take these very human parts of us with us, risking as we go. Going boldly means we can’t hold these hidden aspects of ourselves against each other if we’re going to survive and explore the unknown. Going boldly means second chance after second chance.

         For John the Baptist, going boldly meant making that way in the wilderness with his voice and his passion, “proclaiming a baptism of the heart’s transformation, for forgiveness of sins”.[1] With his clothing of camel’s hair and leather belt, eating wild locusts and honey, he would have fit right in on this Star Trek episode, except John’s wildness was caused not by a virus but by the Holy Spirit and the conviction of his beliefs, his prophetic voice overwhelming any need for propriety.

John and Jesus they were not.

         For Jesus, going boldly meant siding with those who were coming to the Jordan for John’s baptism: the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, those whom empire stepped on, who could not afford the ritual bath of purification in the temple. Going boldly meant there was no question who sent him, in his vision of the dove and a voice declaring him beloved. Going boldly meant heading immediately into the desert to be tested. Going boldly meant following John’s arrest with Jesus’ own proclamation of the good news, risking that the same might happen to him. Going boldly meant offering grace—second chance after second chance—to everyone.


         It’s up to each of us to figure out how our hearts need transformation; how it is we will go boldly. Going boldly can be getting out bed in the morning and living another day. Going boldly can be getting through the day without cutting or drinking or smoking or shooting up. Going boldly can be a loss of interest in judging others or oneself. Going boldly can be giving ourselves or someone else or a whole group of people a second chance. Going boldly can be approaching this table as we are—our weaknesses and fears, our gifts and hopes. Going boldly can be opening ourselves to whatever it is we need to be a whole human being. Amen.

[i] Mark 1: 4, Hart, David Bentley (2017). The New Testament: A Translation. New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.