Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What are we waiting for?

Isaiah 64: 1-9*
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 3, 2017


         Isaiah had me at “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down”. O God, if only you would tear open the heavens and come down into this hot mess of a tax bill. Isaiah had something to say about it in chapter 10: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people.” If only you would tear open the heavens and come down into workplaces and school yards and town halls and faith communities and all the marginal places, that every person no matter their gender or sexuality or religion or skin color or age or ability would be treated with respect and dignity. If only you would tear open the heavens and come down into one of the richest nations in the world so that 41 million of its people would be lifted out of poverty and the rich sent away empty. If only you would tear open our hearts and come down and knock some sense and compassion into not just our elected leaders but all of us who put them there.

         How would you finish it? If only you would tear open the heavens and come down… (Put your answer in the comments.)

         When it comes to power struggles, and we are in the midst of a knock-down-drag-out power struggle, Isaiah knows it full well. Israel had been sacked by the Babylonian empire and taken some of Israel’s people as spoils of war. In its weakened state, the rest of Israel was taken over by Persia. Now the exiles are returning home. Those who had been left behind had made their own way under Persian occupation. Can you see the conflict coming? It’s nothing short of the backstory of the prodigal son and his older brother, but each side thinks they are the righteous older brother. And so Isaiah calls on God: if only you would tear open the heavens and come down and settle this. Show your stuff like you used to. Let us know who’s the boss. Make the nations shake in their boots. If only.


         Like many peoples of the Iron Age, if things were going badly, it was believed to be punishment from the heavens for humanity’s wicked behavior. While we think we are so far from such thinking, we still believe in a “you get what you deserve, you made your bed—now lie in it” kind of karma-ordered universe. And even though our rational minds tell us that a supernatural, interventionist divine being makes no logical sense, those are exactly the kind of prayers we make when life is hitting the deep skids. “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” If only.

         And those are the telling words of this passage. If only. Isaiah knows that God is not going to tear open the heavens and come down. Nor is this about God tearing open the heavens with angels singing or Mary conceiving or Joseph dreaming. This is a passage about waiting and about hope. About waiting with hope. Hopeful that the mystery that created us is still shaping us—each and every one of us. Hopeful that no matter what we do to each other, we can’t hold onto each other’s wrongs forever. Hopeful that we are still one people, no matter what we’ve allowed to separate us from one another. Hopeful that when we acknowledge we are powerless against much in this universe, we are set free.

         The wonderful irony about hope is that it asks us to surrender: surrender our individual expectations and our fear of change, surrender our striving so hard to be good and righteous and enlightened and better than, surrender our notions about how and when the holy should break into the daily, surrender our dread, our desperation, our despair.

         Hope is what led to the civil rights movement, to marriage equality, to the end of apartheid, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hope was and is the main course at this Table: hope that death and violence and injustice do not have the last word. What are we waiting for? The hope that one day we will rise yet again. Amen.

*verse 6: "We have all become like the unclean;
    all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag."

was changed in the bulletin to read:
 "We have all become like the unclean;
    all our righteous deeds are like a discarded rag."

No need to carry on the patriarchal, misogynist 
view of menstruation to get the point across.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Members of the family

Matthew 25: 31-46
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 26, 2017 – Reign of Christ Sunday


         I should warn you before I begin: one of my weaknesses, character flaws, (and there are more) is that I can be self-righteous, ride a high horse. Even revealing that piece of information displays my so-called righteousness and no one else’s. And this passage from Matthew feeds right into it. This is one of the rare occasions when I’d like to look like a sheep when I know I can be a goat more often than I’d like to acknowledge. So. Here goes.


         On Black Friday, a day I try hard to avoid because of its commercialism (self-righteous once again), an acquaintance posted about being stuck having to go to work that day and asked if anyone else was in the same position. At first I could hardly believe what she said. Her apparent obliviousness to what day it was, let alone that there were people who had no choice but to work today and yesterday as well, was astonishing to me. Have we really gotten to the point that those who work in the retail and service industries are now invisible to us? Do we now just assume that their work makes our lives possible? It took all I could to still my self-righteous fingers from typing a response I would instantly regret. Instead, that sometimes irritating stillspeaking God, what some might call our better nature, got right to work on me.

         While I was still shaking my self-righteous head in disbelief, David returned from an early morning shopping trip, telling me of the long snaking line in Kohl’s, the pajamas that got left behind because of it, and the trips to JC Penney’s and Sears. In Penney’s David asked the cashier how they were doing. “I’m doing okay, I guess,” they replied. “You guess?” David asked. “What does that mean?” “Well, I had to be to be in at 8 this morning, and I was here until 10 last night.” This cashier, among hundreds of thousands across all kinds of stores, would probably be putting in a full day today as well. And J.C. Penney’s is probably headed in the same direction as Sears. Not this year, maybe not next year, but it’s not looking good.

         Later that morning I left for Calvary Baptist to have a Thanksgiving lunch with whoever showed up. Many were Hope Dining Room and Empowerment Center regulars. I got in line behind a dad and his two young children. Thinking about getting through a buffet with two kids, I said to him, “If you need some help, just let me know.” He said, “Oh you mean with the holidays? Yeah I could use some help alright.” Meh-eh-eh. (Goat sound) Boy did I put my foot in that one and how. I quickly backpedaled and stumbled over my attempt to make my offer of help sincere: “You bet, that too, and if the kids need any help with their plates.”


         After we got our food we sat at the same table, introduced ourselves, and started eating. At one point the dad asked me, “Do you live in Newark? Do they have any programs or any place where I could get winter coats for my kids?” And then I knew what I had to do. “Would it be alright if we went to a store and I bought coats for the kids?” The dad blurted, “Sure, fine, thank you, yes, I can’t believe this, thank you.” I told him how my church had saved Christmas for us the year my dad left, because my mom had to work two jobs, and we were on food stamps for a while. Because of the quality and the sales and my short memory, we went to Kohl’s, home of the now even longer snaking line for the cashiers.

         It didn’t take long to find what we needed. The little boy ended up choosing the first coat he tried on after he tried two more and the young girl was happy with the first one. Then we got in line. And stood in line. For half an hour. The kids were great. They kept themselves amused for the most part. We talked about what sports they like to play. Dad talked about his oldest child who is 11 going on 20, about wanting to marry the mother of these two younger ones, who is an LPA and was working that day, about his hopes not for his own life but for his children.


         When we finally reached the Promised Land of cashiers, about 20 of them, we wondered how we would know when it was our turn. We were about to rely on a screen that would tell us which one was open, when the cashier directly to our left said to us, “Over here! I’m the best cashier there is!” And she promptly handed candy canes to the children. “I don’t have these every day but because I am the best cashier there is, I have them today.” As she rung up the coats, she asked, “Do you have any coupons?” “No, I don’t, but that’s okay”, I replied. “Well, because I am the best cashier I’m going to use these coupons I have here”, and saved me about another $15. And I thought of the other cashier at Penney’s who was doing okay, they guessed, and hoped their day improved, wondering if maybe that’s the store we should’ve gone to.


         When Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, he’s talking about judging the nations. But what are nations but interconnected people, individual lives connected to hundreds, even thousands of other lives. It is those who are treated as least, who are judged as less-than-human, who are pushed to the margins of human experience and acceptance who are members of Jesus’ family. You’d think we would’ve made that list shorter by now but it just keeps getting longer and more complicated.

         Immigrants, especially if their skin color is other than white, are criminalized and victimized for seeking a better life; transgender folk and anyone who isn’t defined by a particular gender are criminalized and victimized for their right to safely exist in public space; hourly wage workers, the backbone of retail and service industries, have become invisible to us even though they make so many other lives possible; a whole chunk of forgotten Americans marginalized even more by the word ‘deplorables’ who want the same things we all do; folks with invisible disabilities as well as the visible ones; people who struggle with anxiety and depression and other mental, emotional, and spiritual issues; all of us setting ourselves apart, marginalizing, pushing away, judging anyone who opposes us or thinks or behaves differently from us, as if we can afford to write each other off, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey.

        When Jesus said when you serve these members of my family, you serve me, what I think he was getting at is empathy, which is something this nation could desperately, sorely improve on. Empathy builds connection, joins us to members of Jesus’ family, keeps our hearts soft. Empathy is hard because it means we have to acknowledge our fear and pain and wounds and the bad choices we’ve made that we’d rather not feel let alone expose. Empathy means we have to be vulnerable. Empathy means we have to leave our self-righteousness behind. When we encounter someone who has been victimized, marginalized, pushed away, or is just having to work the day after a holiday, empathy says, “Yes, those feelings are real, and I know what that’s like.” And “I know how scary it is and how much it hurts to be disconnected from others.” 

         Empathy isn’t something we can demand or even expect from others. It’s a gift we give to someone else. It’s something we’ll probably do poorly before we get better at it, because empathy requires practice. Hard places are hard and ironically, loving and listening to the one who is in the hard place is also a hard place. Sometimes it can feel like a competition for empathy—who deserves it more, who’s suffering the most. And so empathy needs to hold hands with gentleness and forgiveness.


         When we love those who are hardest to love, and let’s face it, Jesus isn’t easy to love some days, we become connected to that infinite chain of love that enables love because someone first loved us. And it is love indeed that makes a family. Every single last one of us. Amen.

Watch this poignant video about connection. Well worth the 16:37 minutes.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Called out

Matthew 25: 14-30
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 19, 2017 – Pledge Sunday

Matthew-25-14-30 by Ben Brennan

         When we read scripture, we read from our own experience, through our individual lives, from what we know—including study and knowledge. Which, when you think about it, is a very limited way of reading scripture. We have so many blind spots. Skin color, gender, sexuality, and privilege are chief among them. Most of the time when I read scripture, I don’t think, “I’m reading this as a white, graduate-degree, middle-class, middle-aged, English-speaking, able-bodied, heterosexual, married, cisgender female.” And yet I should.  This is part of my privilege, and my arrogance: that I can read the Bible and assume that how this passage is speaking to me or to us as a faith community is the message that we need to hear.


         But it really isn’t. Most of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are stories about the ones who don’t have a voice, who are on the bottom of society, who have no power. And the word “ability”—as in “each according to their ability”—is the Greek word dynamis, which means power, might, strength. Each was given according to their ability, their power. The servant who received the one talent was given according to their power. If I was a servant or slave with a master as harsh and unethical as this one is, with very little power of my own, I would probably do the same thing. And the response of this harsh master sounds like a payday lender or a loan shark who didn’t get to collect any interest on their money.

         But these realities are not part of my reality, and so I wouldn’t usually read it this way, and yet I feel compelled to put aside my privilege, my identity, my power because then I hear a very different stillspeaking voice than the one I am so used to. And if I am used to it, is it really the stillspeaking God or is it my ego? After all, this is another parable about the kingdom of heaven, or kin-dom—the Beloved Community—where all are gathered. And all includes a huge swath of humanity whose experience I am well-insulated from.

         I was going to write another sermon until I watched this video again on Thursday. When I heard Traci’s words once again, I was struck by another interpretation; that the servant, the slave with the one talent, given according to their power, buried it in protest, like laying down on a city street, blocking traffic and yelling “Black lives matter!”  And the powers that be, the master, the boss with all the money, all the power, with the privilege to come and go, came down hard and harsh.

         I was going to write another sermon until I heard the voices of millions of women, women powerless in the face of sexual harassment and assault now taking and owning their power, in the voice of the slave, the servant with the one talent, with the least amount of power. And what we buried was our voice, our memory, our pain.

         I was going to write another sermon until I went to a potluck supper on Thursday evening at Calvary Baptist Church to honor Code Purple volunteers, to celebrate 10 years of the Newark Empowerment Center, and all the people who make that place possible. And I thought of the homeless and marginalized people in our city in the voice of the third servant. I thought of those hearty souls who try to find the cracks in the walls that stand in the way of people living a whole life. And what gets buried: a backpack—the sum total of one’s possessions, what’s left of dignity, the one thing that keeps a human life putting one foot in front of the other.

         I was going to write another sermon until I heard my own impoverished response to the gospel in the voice of that third slave. The times I have not been willing to risk not only my privilege but my power, when I allow fear to rule my heart and my head. My own resistance to change and the fetters that I have grown accustomed to and keep me comfortable where I am. I give and I think I am generous, but I lose not one inch of my power.

         Sometimes Jesus is comforting when he talks to his disciples about what it will be like when he is gone and other times like this he can be as cold as hell. We don’t like it when he warns us about our wickedness, our slavishness. And the threat of punishment has never really inspired us to change our ways, but hopefully it does get us to think. And to feel. That outer darkness looms like the Nothing in The Never-Ending Story, like the storm clouds of dementors and Death-Eaters in Harry Potter, like the increasing frequency of a category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean, like our renewed nightmare fears of nuclear disaster. That outer darkness looms like our fear of losing our safety and security, our privilege and our power. That outer darkness that many people in our world live in day after excruciating day, night after night.

         Jesus isn’t telling the disciples to just endure the bad times until he gets back. In a 2008 issue of The Christian Century, Rev. Andrew Warner of the Plymouth Church in Milwaukee wrote, “…preservation is not the same as preparation, and endurance is not simply ending up where you started.” Preserving what we have, or trying to get back what we’ve had, is a form of idolatry. The answer to the question, by what authority shall we live, is shifting once again.


         Friday night at the Central Atlantic Conference annual meeting, I listened as our General Minister and President, John Dorhauer, explained how the Holy Spirit works. She is always leading us to a new horizon. So we pull up our tent stakes, load up all that we have and follow her. But then we get to the new horizon and guess what? There’s another new horizon. But we settle down. We build churches and cathedrals; we dig down deep and make roots where we are. And the Spirit keeps moving to that new horizon. Martin Luther was part of the Spirit’s moving when he nailed those 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. And then Europe was at war for about 150 years after that, trying to preserve what they had, resisting the movement of the Spirit to the degree that people killed and people died.

         Human beings are explorers and risk takers. When we’ve settled for too long, become stuck in our ways, we go through something of a midlife crisis to regain the passion, the energy, the vitality we had when we were young and every day was a new horizon. And so we take a risk. We go back to work after being home with kids. We get another degree to fulfill a dream. We take that trip. We learn a new skill. We live into our future. We move to Delaware and say yes to that weird church and begin a journey together to another unknown horizon. Risk is vital to a life fully lived. Risk is what makes us scrappy. Risk is vital to how we are stewards of what we have been given. Risk is how this church began.


         What would we risk for this church? When Jesus uses the word “church” in the gospels, he’s not talking about what we experience as church. The Greek word translated as “church” is ekklesia, which means “called out”. But in today’s parlance, to be “called out” means to be asked an embarrassing question in front of a large group of people, including family and friends; to be owned, taken down in front of your peers. And in this parable Jesus is definitely calling out the called out, the Church. What have we done and what will we do with what has been given us?


         The prophetic power of the white, progressive Church has been on the wane for quite a while, ironically because we are afraid of losing our power, our safety, our security. So maybe the better question is, what would we risk for the gospel? What is the essence of the good news we need to embody so others can hear and know and live? And what does our giving say about that?

         Jesus is asking.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Future forward Church

Matthew 25: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 12, 2017 – Stewardship Sunday


         I gotta say it. I don’t like these bridesmaids, the foolish or the wise. This story has always gotten on my nerves. It flies in the face of “if you’ve got two coats, give one away”, “to those whom much is given, more will be required”, and “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also”. It smacks of entitlement and the fear of enabling, of selfish care rather than self-care: “Hey I earned this, I bought what was necessary and you didn’t; don’t expect me to carry you, be responsible for once, will you?” This is supposed to be about the kingdom of heaven, where someone finds treasure buried in a field and sells all they have so they can buy the field, or a merchant who sells all they have for that pearl of great price. And that ending is harsh: “I don’t know you”? What about the One who sent Jesus, who said, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name; you are mine”?

         This is a passage more about being ready, being prepared, and it’s difficult to inspire people to readiness without some sort of fear. You’ve probably heard this aphorism before; Olivia learned it from Newark High’s former band director, Mr. Wittman: To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is not to be. To be ready is to wait for this bridegroom, to wait is to have plenty of lamp oil, and to have only what is in your lamp is not enough.

         I know what it is to wait for a bridegroom. I waited for David to come into my life. I waited, we both waited, you waited with us for three years, while he searched for work closer to Delaware. None of us would’ve made it far if we didn’t have oil to spare for that lamp of light that burns within us.


         But what is it we the Church are supposed to be prepared for? The warning comes through loud and clear, so loud that it almost drowns out the hope that is in this passage: hope for the future. The bridegroom is delayed, for about 2,000 years now. Three years is kid’s stuff. Back when this story was written, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, everything was in flux, and so Matthew has the disciples asking Jesus just days before he dies, what is going to happen next, give us some clues, something we can pin our hopes on so we can be ready when it happens. The disciples are looking for some reassurance, and frankly, so are we.

         This section of Matthew is called “The Little Apocalypse”, which, when you think about it, is kind of like saying “a little pregnant”. Those who follow Jesus are living through an upheaval, the changes are unstoppable, and there won’t be any rescue coming for them. There are no guarantees as to when Jesus will return, when the bridegroom will arrive. They need to be ready for whatever the future might be. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning—the time is drawing nigh.

         In our own tumultuous times it’s all too easy to be cynical, to take the short view, play it safe, keep things as close to the status quo as we can, to not bet too much on the unknown future, buy low, sell high. But Jesus would say that would make us foolish bridesmaids, to take only the oil that is in our lamps and nothing more for the delayed, hoped-for party.


         However, science says there are reasons to be hopeful. We have very real problems—like climate change, racism, and war—but there are also brilliant hearts and minds who are going to work on these problems. We’re generating more renewable energy than ever before. Solar energy usage is at an all-time high and its costs are going down. We’re learning how to use the advantages of and diminish the downside of screen time in our lives. We’re realizing how listening, dialogue, and the inclusion of all stakeholders can lead to strategies that not only solve but prevent conflict. Though we can take a pretty dim view of social media, there are some web users who work to make the internet and the world a better place, like Brandon Stanton and his “Humans of New York” photos and videos. 

         Where science and religion or imagination or hope run close together is in science fiction, which has given us incredible leaps forward. Thanks to genres like Star Trek, we have the flip phone, the laptop computer, the smart phone, the tablet, 3D printers, holograms, and natural language queries like Siri and Alexa. Good science fiction helps us imagine a hopeful future that is as yet unseen.

On my Star Trek calendar yesterday, I read this quote from an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Picard informs a citizen from the 21st century, “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things’. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.” Rather than fear, it is dreams like this that can inspire us and give us hope for the future.


         But science and science fiction can take us only so far. Gus Speth, an environmental lawyer and advocate, wrote, “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought with thirty years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

         This is where the Church, and other faith traditions as well as humanism, help us dream God’s dream and keep hope alive. The opposite of selfishness is selflessness. The opposite of greed is generosity. The opposite of apathy is empathy. And despite the dim view that many take of religion, selflessness, generosity, and empathy are core values of most world religions.


         We do not know what form church or community or faith will take in the future. We do not know when the bridegroom will arrive. Both Church and society have changed since Martin Luther’s reformation and both are changing again. Something new is emerging out of our current upheaval, the diaspora of the spiritual but not religious. Religion editor and author Phyllis Tickle, nicknamed the Evangelist of the Future, notes that this something new is “post-modern, post-Christian, post-Protestant, post-denominational. What do all these posts mean? That we know where we have been but that we have no idea where we are going!” Church does not exist to preserve itself, its familiar forms but rather its core values and mission: a spiritual and cultural transformation that moves us toward more selflessness, more generosity of spirit, more empathetic hearts and minds.

         This is the oil in our lamps of which we must be good stewards. This is the future toward which we give: a future forward Church, one that is not only ready but eager for the new thing being done in our midst.

         As we read in our call to worship, words taken from the back cover of the bulletin:

If the Gospel is about nothing else, it is about hope.

Hope in a better world.

Hope in the compassion of human beings.

Hope is a gift from us to the future.

What do we need to do,

What do we need to give

So the future will receive its gift from us?

Who will benefit from the gift or pledge we will make?

It’s not what we give up,

It’s what we give to.

What will this church mean to the future?

What do we imagine that future to be?

The future is asking. 


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

We are the door

Matthew 23: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 5, 2017

95 Theses door, Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany

         500 years ago in Wittenberg, Germany there was an earthquake with a magnitude not seen since the fall of the Roman Empire or the great schism between Eastern and Western Christianity. Foundations of not only the Church but also society and culture shifted and wobbled like tectonic plates. The authority of the Church and its priests fell off their pedestal and landed with a resounding thud. And after a time power was there to pick up the pieces and consolidate once more.

         Retired Anglican bishop Mark Dyer, in his observations of church history, says that every 500 years or so, Christianity conducts an “ecclesiastical yard sale”, deciding what to keep and what to leave on the table. But of course nothing happens in a bubble, and so these rummage sales have wide-ranging effects on society, culture, economics, education, politics, and so on. Christianity is not the only religion in which this has happened; Judaism and Islam have been through their own semi-millennial upheavals. More than anything else it’s a human phenomenon, with a piercing question that must be answered every time: by what authority shall we live?


What if we called it "Emergent Humanity"?

         Tools or technology have aided these rummage sales in positive and negative ways. Martin Luther had the printing press that allowed him to spread his message more effectively. In the reading from Matthew the phylacteries—small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts bound to the forehead and left arm—and robe fringes of the Pharisees were a few of the tools they used to communicate their faithfulness to the law of Moses. But over time they became more like fashion statements, status symbols, the bling by which they could be noticed. For Jesus, they became symbolic of the burdens of obedience the Pharisees heaped on those around them and would not lift a finger to help ease those burdens.


         The Pharisees did well in teaching the law but did not practice what they taught. God demands justice but also mercy; neither is more important than the other--they are to be held side by side. Long ago the prophet Hosea reminded God’s people that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Here Jesus is reminding these Pharisees of the larger view of what it means to teach the law. God’s law is a gift that makes it possible to live in right relationship with God and in community with others. The best instructor God’s people have to learn God’s law is the Messiah—a charismatic leader who knows the law well and will inspire others to follow. Notice that Jesus does not point to himself as that person. If he did it would disqualify him as Messiah. Instead he reminds us that we are all students and servants, himself included, and that our authority, our author if you will, is God.


         In the rummage sale that Jesus led, the law of God was not to be abandoned on the table but dearly kept and carried within us. Indeed it was mercy, the heart of the law, that Jesus desired we follow. What needed to go were all the trappings and titles, the puffing and the propping up of ego, the heavy burdens placed on others, not all that different from the Reformation. Right now we are living through another of these tumultuous ecclesiastical yard sales, another age of questioning authority, what to keep, what to let go of, not knowing which end is up sometimes, and our technology is the internet. But in this time each of us and our life together are the door on which, through which this reformation, this revolution can be seen. We are a door that can also be a table and a bridge: the rummage table and the bridge from what was to what will be.


         Each time we come to this rummage table, mercy is on the table. For those who will lose some of their power and authority, it is tempting to leave mercy there and take justice into their own hands. The thing of it is, mercy is not only on the table, it is the Table, this Table. From mercy comes all the rest: forgiveness, inclusion, compassion, healing, wholeheartedness, resilience, generosity, gratitude, love, even justice. Mercy is what keeps justice from being punitive and instead makes it restorative. As we continue to consider the question by what authority, what author will we live by, what are our non-negotiables, our core values, realizing that they will be different amongst us?

         Mercy is the means by which God, the universe, life itself comes knocking on our door and affixes to it that which we still need to learn. Mercy is what keeps us from normalizing hate and vengeance and softens the self-righteousness that fuels them. Mercy is a form of resistance, a revolution in and of itself. Mercy is what allows for our welcome to be “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey”. 

          Mercy is what makes us students and humble servants. And we are its door. Alleluia. Amen.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Alleluia anyway

Exodus 33: 12-23
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 22, 2017

Moses in the cleft of the rock

         I’ve had a few weddings recently, and the theme of one of them was “Ride or Die”. Neither the bride nor the groom is a biker but they both love hip hop music: “I’m a movement by myself, but we’re a force when we’re together”. “Baby, you are my ride or die”. And when they thought of their commitment to each other, the first thing they thought of was ride or die: that they would stick together no matter what, ‘til death do they part.

         During the ceremony I said to all those gathered that we have a word in the Church for ride or die: alleluia. I’ve talked about this before, so let me talk about it again, because alleluia bears repeating, over and over. In Hebrew, the word alleluia is two words. The first, halal, hallu, or hallel, means to praise, but not just to praise but to boast, to act insanely with praise, to go mad with praise, to make a fool of oneself with praise. Kind of like that feeling you have when you fall in love and you want to tell everyone how wonderful it is. The second word is Yah, the first half of the unspeakable name of God, Yahweh: it’s like breathing—yah, weh, yah, weh. The first half of God’s name because we cannot see all of God, we cannot see all of what God is doing.

         And so alleluia means “praise with abandon the half-seen, half-hidden God”. Give praise, even when you can’t see all of who or what God is. Give praise, even when you can’t see all of what God is doing. Give praise, even when you can’t see the outcome. Alleluia. Ride or die.

         Moses is God’s ride or die man. They have such a connection to each other, God even confesses to Moses just how much God would rather not travel with the Israelites because God is way too tempted to do away with them, they are so stiff-necked. And it is because of Moses’ relationship with God that God decides to stick with these stubborn people.

         Because they are so close, Moses then has the audacity to ask God to see God’s glory, all of it. And wouldn’t we all? This half-seen, half-hidden nonsense seems like it can only take us so far. Some days I just want a sign, a divine plan, and I don’t believe in signs or that God’s got a hidden plan for me. We want to pull back the veil, just to get a hint, a clue, some direction, some idea of how this is all going to play out. There are days when ride or die, when alleluia is damn hard.

         Where are the places in our lives where we want to see God but we only get God’s backside? Where are the places, the people in whom we want to see God but can’t? Who are the people whose backside is the only thing we wish we could see of them? It’s not easy to feel the love these days. God wasn’t always feeling it for the Israelites and they were pretty terrified of him. The only time the Israelites were ready to give an alleluia and party with God was when they could hold the holy in their hot little hands. If it weren’t for Moses and his persistence, the story wouldn’t have gone much further.


         That’s true for any story, including ours. How is it that we persist with God, with what is good and holy and true? How do we persist in love? Human connections, connection to animals, connection to the earth, to music and art and play are what give us the ability to have empathy and compassion, to forgive and to offer unconditional love, to accept ourselves and others as we all are. They give us the strength to be vulnerable, to be resilient, to persist, that the persisting itself is a holy thing worthy of praise.

         If we’re feeling disconnected, more than likely we’re feeling like we don’t have the strength to persist in love, to praise anyway. So what about that cleft of rock in which God puts Moses, hemming him in, almost like a tomb? It might’ve looked something like the Hebrew letter beit:

         Beit or bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Every letter has a meaning and bet means “house” as in “house of God”: beth-el. It looks like a three-sided house, with the front door always open. It’s also the first letter of Genesis, of the Hebrew scriptures: “In the beginning of, God created…”. We are God’s house, God’s dwelling place, you, me, the whole of creation. There is nowhere we can go where God is not. There is no one, nothing we can encounter in which God is not. God is half-hidden, half-seen because God is in every imperfect one of us. Yes, every.


         This isn’t about necessary justice, about who’s right and who’s wrong or accepting unacceptable behavior. It’s about staying connected to what is good and holy and true so we don’t succumb to our fear or our anger or our lust for vengeance. It’s about being in that cleft of rock and praising what we can see rather than cursing what we can’t. And so where we can, whenever we can, an unearned, undeserved, unconditional alleluia is more likely to bring forth the holy within than any expectation or requirement we might have.

            Another word for it is mercy. Ride or die. Alleluia anyway.

         If you're having trouble saying or singing alleluia, take a page from these silent monks:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Living in-between

Exodus 32: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 15, 2017

            These days it’s not so easy to “woke this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus”. People are getting tired, bone-tired and weary of the news and what’s in it. The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, says that people are tired but “it’s a Fannie Lou Hamer kind of ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. …They are tired of the attacks on voting rights, tired of the attacks on healthcare and the poor and living wages; tired of the policies and practices of white supremacy and tired of the hypocrisy of politicians who claim they are offended by Trump’s style, but [when it comes to] substance and policy, [despite the] extremism and racism they vote with him and have the same agenda.”

            Like many before her and around her, Fannie Lou Hamer was a Moses of her time, trying to bring people to freedom. She was the 20th child born to sharecropper parents in the Mississippi delta. She started picking cotton at the age of six. In her 40’s she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, given what was known then as the Mississippi appendectomy. Because she participated in an effort to register to vote and refused to withdraw her application, she was kicked off the plantation. Hamer told the landowner that she didn’t go down there to register for him but for herself, something she would repeat often in her speeches for civil rights. Through the watchful eye of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she was tapped to be a community organizer, working for desegregation and voting rights.

         Knowing what it was like to grow up with almost nothing, she helped deliver food and clothing to the poorest residents in the delta. But she also knew that things would not change if those in power were not voted out, so sometimes she would withhold the food or clothing until the recipient agreed to register to vote.

         Hamer was beaten in jail after having been arrested for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter.  Her injuries were so severe they affected her for the rest of her life.  As one of the founding members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party she ran for Congress, challenging the Democratic incumbent.  The MFDP was part of the Freedom Summer in 1964 that brought hundreds of college students, most of them white, to work for civil rights.  When members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee objected, Hamer said, “If we’re trying to break down this barrier of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.” 


         Hamer testified before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Party to allow members of the MFDP to sit at the convention as Mississippi representatives. Pressured by Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, the credentials committee withdrew their support but offered two at-large seats. Humphrey made it clear that Hamer was not to take one of those seats. The offer was rejected with Hamer stating, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats!” She spent the rest of her life organizing for voting rights and school desegregation, initiating Head Start programs and farming co-ops to improve the lives of Delta residents. In 1977 she died of cancer at the age of 60.

         Fannie Lou Hamer lived her whole life in-between: in-between slavery and civil rights, in between civil rights and the first black president, in between voting rights for blacks and for women and where we are now. Like Moses, she never got to see the Promised Land, only from afar. Though she could have, she never gave up. Though she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, it was that conviction that propelled her forward.

         In that desert, God’s people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They were living in-between. They had been freed from captivity and slavery only to now be wandering out the desert: food insecure, no sign of water, with a God who terrified them, who they could not see. And they were dependent on this God, on Yahweh, for everything they needed but only one day at a time. More than once God’s people cried out, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness?”

         Then Moses has to go and spend a little too much time with God on the mountain. The people get even more anxious without their leader who stands between them and God. They feel abandoned, exposed, and vulnerable. Aaron, Moses’ little brother, who’s been left in charge and working under great stress, gives in to the people’s demands and creates what is essentially a transitional object: a pacifier to soothe the soul of the people. Then they get up early for church, cut loose and have a worship party, because their anxiety has been relieved.

         Of course, God is having none of it. Knowing how human we are, God expected the people would break the covenant at some point, but the dust had barely settled on those stone tablets; the words of promise still hung in the air. Conveniently, God left a loophole in that promise never to destroy human flesh; saying never again would waters flood the earth. But hot wrath that consumes? Wide open.

            Enter Moses, the in-between man, the people’s chief negotiator. He talks God down from destructive anger and plays to the divine ego: “You don’t want your enemies to call you names and speak ill of you. Don’t you want to be remembered by your faithfulness to your promises, for your kindness and mercy?” And not for the first time, God’s mind changes.

         It’s where we all live, in-between. Between what was and what will be, between perfect health and illness, between chaos and peace; for some us it’s between jobs, between relationships, between hope and fear, between faithfulness and faithlessness. Between good and evil, life and death, between Good Friday and Easter morning: it’s where it all takes place. Our whole lives are one big transition, from birth to death, with a multitude of transitions in between. For some of us this latest transition we find ourselves in seems worse than any other before it. We are Fannie Lou Hamer tired. And so there are days and sometimes even longer nights we are caught between consuming anger that lashes out and gripping anxiety that grabs for the nearest thing that can soothe us.
Jesus In-Between by David Hayward
But it is in that in-between space where honest-to-goodness worship can happen, where compassion can speak words of wisdom and clarity. It is that space, that calm, that eye in the storm that the Church is called to be. We are standard bearers of justice and forgiveness, unconditional love and acceptance but we stand in that breach between the anger and the anxiety. We are worn from the storm but are we not also ready to invite those who will stand us into that breach, that in-between space where love prevails? Are we not also ready to create the Beloved Community in that space? To not just soothe our souls but to save the soul of our country? The question then becomes, what’s stopping us?

            Martin Luther wrote that “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn”. What if we laughed and sang our way through these days? Like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah and John Oliver and Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee and the folks at SNL who get us to laugh through our tears. Like the firefighters from American Samoa who sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in their native language as they came down the mountain near Junction City, CA. Like Fannie Lou Hamer who was famous for her voice at rallies, known for singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. What if we got together once a week, right out in the parking lot, to tell jokes and sing freedom songs and invited others to join us? What if we became the non-anxious Moses we all need right now?

            We may get angry, and sometimes we need to get angry, but that’s a cover for our fear, and a fearful people can be controlled, manipulated, coerced. We may be anxious but whatever we reach for is just a temporary fix. We long to put our faith and trust in something greater than ourselves. What if we put our faith and trust in humanity, in the divine goodness within each of us? What if instead of giving over to despair we gave ourselves to laughter and to singing? What if this is the hard transition before the birth of new life? Our singing may not change the world, but it might change us.


         We may not get to see the Promised Land ourselves. The arc of history may bend toward justice but it’s a long arc. Nonetheless.

I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
Till I die
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
Till I die