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


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blessed by guilt

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21: 33-46
Heritage United Church of Christ, Baltimore, MD
October 8, 2017

(This is the second year that the Rev. Julius Jefferson, senior pastor at Heritage UCC, and I preach at each other's church, taking turns so we can worship with our congregations.)

         From the very beginning, the people of God, who is the great “I AM”, were intended to be different from their neighbors. The Babylonian creation story is one of violence and bloodshed. In the Hebrew scriptures God speaks and brings order in the midst of chaos, with light and darkness, land and seas and heavens, creatures of all kinds, and human beings in a garden. Rather than the ways of empire, God established the people to be God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place.

         But the story is more complicated than that. Despite God’s hope, God’s dream, violence and bloodshed run through the story of God’s people like every other civilization. Brother kills brother, God’s people become corrupt and violent; God floods the earth; generations are born into captivity and slavery, whole peoples are conquered in the name of establishing a promised land; rape, lust, and murder become the weapons of patriarchy.

         So God lays down the law, a law of love: God’s laws are a sign of God’s love for us just as parents set rules and boundaries for their children. God also knows that we will break these laws, and so they are also a way to return to God. When we leave something undone, when we do something wrong, when we sin, our feelings of guilt and remorse become the pathway to wholeness. But more often than not, we hide from our wrongdoing, we refuse to acknowledge it, we justify ourselves, we blame others, we sin under the radar, in backrooms, in the shadows, by ourselves. We find loopholes and good enough reasons and convincing lies. We tell ourselves we’re not as bad as that person over there and so what does it matter.

         It matters because our moral compass as a human race is on a rapidly falling decline. Our ability to live up to what we value and believe has always been in question but it seems now more than ever, the abyss is inescapable. Each day it seems the question is shifting from “If…” to “When…”. Author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie defined sin as “nothing more and nothing less than a failure to be continually perfect. Because it is impossible for us to be continually perfect, we are all sinners.” Evil is a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge our failure, our inability to tolerate the fact that we are indeed sinful.

         We can see this evasiveness, this unwillingness in the scripture readings for today. After Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, terrified of God’s power in the thunder and lightning, in the sound of the trumpet or shofar, and the smoke that covered the mountain, God’s people tell Moses that they’d rather hear from him what God wants instead of God speaking directly to them. Like Adam and Eve before them, they want to hide from God.

         Jesus tells a parable of how God sent one prophet after another to God’s people, how the people stoned God’s prophets, beat them, and would not listen. Then God sent God’s son, and still not able to bear God’s law of love, the people killed the son. No guilt, no remorse. And yet when the Pharisees hear this story, they fear it is about them. To use a word not often heard in mainline churches, the Pharisees are convicted.

         Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit in which we are able to see ourselves as God sees us, with our guilt and our inability to save ourselves. This is not unlike the first four steps of the twelve: Admitted that we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable; came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God; made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

         But it’s that first step that hangs us up. We have to admit, confess, face ourselves. One of the oldest calls to confession begins with verses from the first letter of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just. God will forgive us our sins and cleanse from all unrighteousness.”

         We don’t like to admit we’re wrong or that we’ve done wrong, that we are powerless or that we’re part of the insanity. A Facebook friend of mine wrote earlier this week that we got the president we deserve. He said, “We want dedication, thoughtfulness, and human decency in our elected officials, but we are largely unwilling to demand it of ourselves, our society, our own political parties. Trump represents all of us a lot more than we care to admit. To change who we get as leaders, we must first change ourselves.” A friend of his replied with these words: “We shame and blame and are surprised when our politicians do it. We bully the people around us and are surprised when our leaders do it. We export our problems, and we act surprised when our government does it. We pollute our own backyards and are surprised when our corporations do it. All we have to do is look at ourselves to see Trump.”

         If we aren’t feeling guilty about the current administration, if we aren’t convicted as to how we conduct political debate and public discourse, if we see ourselves as somehow apart from the horrible mess and abject pain of Charlottesville and San Juan and Las Vegas, evil has taken root within us. This evil within hides where we cannot see it, but it cannot hide from God. The inability of whites to face our sinful selves promotes white privilege and bolsters white fragility. It is the reason why we as a nation still have not faced the genocide through which this nation was born and our imperial economy that was built on the backs of and with the blood of slaves. It is why human trafficking, child labor, and the slavery of poverty are still with us today.

         Tomorrow is Columbus Day. Some cities have changed it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but in truth it should become our national day of atonement, our first step of the twelve, the beginning of true compassion and empathy as a nation. Talk about ‘Make America Great Again’. But this would require sacrifice, humility, courage, fearlessness and a good deal of pain—nothing less than the love that was nailed to a cross. 

         If I may nerd out for a moment, our national soul is beginning to look like what was left of Lord Voldemort after his confrontation with Harry Potter: small, shriveled, weak and bloody. The only thing that would save Voldemort at this point was remorse—guilt. But it would be extremely painful and he would have to love something, someone, anyone, more than himself. But in order to do that, he would have to know what that kind of love was like. But no one had ever loved Tom Riddle, not really, except perhaps Dumbledore, who tried more than anyone to save Tom from himself.

         The question for our nation and for ourselves is this: what do we love more than our country, more than the flag, more than ourselves, more than our freedoms, our laws, more than guns or war or money or power or security, more than our very lives? All these are idolatry, false gods. When we can answer that question, for everyone on this earth and not just our own, we just might find the peace and restored justice we are seeking.


*Sermon title borrowed from People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, pg. 71, paperback edition, 2nd edition, 1998.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Taking a knee

Philippians 2: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 1, 2017 – World Communion Sunday

Stand by Sitting by Androo

         You’d think with all the media attention, Colin Kaepernick is the first black athlete to protest during the national anthem. Not so. On the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, track medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists during the Star Spangled Banner. They were suspended and sent home.
Four years later at the Munich games, two other track medalists Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews unceremoniously stood on the podium with their backs to the flag. They were barred from Olympic competition by the US Olympic Committee because “they insulted the American flag.” Twenty years later in an interview, Collett said this about it: “I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.”

         America’s relationship to black athletes has been one of love/hate from the very beginning. The first African-American to play major league baseball, Jackie Robinson received death threats.

In 1969 Curt Flood did not accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, stating that he was not a piece of property to be bought and sold, and lost his suit against Major League Baseball. Eventually it led to the union to bargain for binding arbitration for grievances. This allowed baseball players to be free agents, but it cost Flood his career and his health.

         Female black athletes have also used their sport as a protest platform but for the most part receive less attention than their male counterparts. Olympic sprint champion Wilma Rudolph insisted that her hometown parade be integrated. Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, who catch hell for being strong black women, have fought for equal pay at Wimbledon.

         Perhaps one of the first black athlete activists was Octavius Catto. Just after the Civil War, he founded and was captain of the Pythians, an all-black team in Philadelphia.

An educator, writer, orator, activist and athlete, Catto was something of a Renaissance man. Along with his fiancĂ©e Caroline Le Count, Catto worked to get black voters to the polls and successfully integrated Philly’s trolley cars. But tensions were high between the city’s Irish and black populations. On Election Day in 1871, at the age of 32, Catto was shot by Frank Kelly, an Irish political operative. Kelly was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

         Earlier this week on public radio a caller responded to Kaepernick’s protest with these words: Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s right to do it.

Not unlike Paul’s teaching moment to the church in Corinth when he says, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” But he follows that up with something that sounds a lot like his letter to the Philippians: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

         Paul appeals to the church in Philippi that they live in unity with each other, having the same love, sharing the same mind as Christ.

This requires not just regarding each other as equals but regarding others as better, as Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Unity requires humility, servanthood. If we are to live together in unity we cannot claim for ourselves that which we would not claim for everyone else.

         We cannot claim affordable healthcare for ourselves and not for others and call this community.  We cannot claim outstanding education for ourselves
and not for others and call this community.  We cannot claim a living wage for ourselves and not for others and call this community. We cannot declare our right to exist and to be safe in public space and not guarantee the same for everyone and call this community. We human beings can be selfish and selfless but only the imbalance of one more than the other leads to unity. The other imbalance leads to supremacy, privilege, and empire.

         Protest is not selfish; it’s costly and dangerous.  Protest is the imbalance necessary when one group asserts their own advantage at the cost of others’ rights,
when they regard themselves as better or more important or more worthy than others, when people exploit their privilege at the expense of others. A Facebook friend and theologian, Lee Wyatt, posted this: “Protest over race cannot divide us. That has already happened. Protest keeps us from ignoring that division.” But we have been ignoring that division for more than two centuries because we don’t like the protest, because we don’t want to regard others as better, because we are afraid.

         It is time we all took a knee and humbled our pride, our nationalism, and our sense of entitlement and the need to be right.  And this Table requires our humility if it is to have any
power in our lives and in our life together. In more liturgical churches, the Eucharist or the Communion elements are received while kneeling. On this World Communion Sunday how will we approach this Table in humility? Where in our lives do we regard ourselves as better than others? How are we being called to empty ourselves, to reject the exploitation of any life, to look to the interests of others, especially the most vulnerable? How can we claim this Table as exclusively Christian when the unlimited, unconditional grace it affords is for everyone?

         Paul advised the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, that is, how we live out our salvation, the saving unlimited, unconditional grace of God, here and now in the world. There is a selfless power at work in this world and we are its hands and feet, its heart and its agent.

         And we are its knees. Amen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Superman wears John Evans pajamas

Philippians 1: 21-30
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 24, 2017


         Time for another Main Street story. Last Sunday, as Andrea and I were walking on our way to the UD green for Community Day, we saw the marquis sign for the restaurant Grain. It read “Superman wears John Evans pajamas”. As soon as I read it, I said to Andrea, “I can make a sermon out of that.” The Holy Spirit said, “Challenge accepted!”

         I asked Brian Ford, one of the bartenders, what the sign was all about. First of all, who is John Evans? He’s a Delaware State Police major who just retired. He and his wife are regulars at Grain. Most Sundays, after attending Mass at St. John’s, they attend brunch at Grain. Brian likes to create a sign for John on Saturday night, so he will see it Sunday morning on his way to church. Of course, everyone else who attends church with John Evans sees it as well. But John is also a kind of hero to Brian. So, in Brian’s eyes, when Superman takes off his cape, he puts on pajamas with John Evans on them. Or maybe that super suit is John Evans’ pajamas.

         We all have our heroes, super suits and pajamas notwithstanding. Whether

they’re real or fictional, think of your heroes and the space they occupy in your heart, your mind, your imagination.  In big and a lot of small ways they fight against injustice and inequality, stand up for the powerless, speak up for the voiceless. They sacrifice and upend their privilege on behalf of others. Some of them are creative and strange and eccentric and just plain weird. Some are reluctant while others engage head-on. 

         Our heroes have good days and bad days—really good days and very bad days, sometimes weeks and months of them. Even years. Most of them never get a sign or much notice.  They have weaknesses and character flaws and 

limitations and amazing strength and wisdom and heart. Some have a solitary path; some have families and a wide circle of friends. Some have support and resources; some have little to none and almost nothing. Some are seen as valuable members of society; some are treated like trash. They are highly susceptible to joy and gladness and extremely pervious to pain. Our heroes come in all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, colors, gender expressions, all walks of life, you name it. And they love—baby, do they love.

         The apostle Paul is a hero to many of the churches he started. He wrote his letter to the Philippians from house arrest in Rome, and in places it reads like an affectionate love letter to a soulmate. We know the church in Philippi holds a special place in Paul’s heart when we read “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” Often it is the thought of these church communities that keeps Paul in better spirits. But he also sounds rather depressed and some might even say suicidal when he writes that dying is gain; that he’d rather depart and be with Christ.

         C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This desire can spur on the hero, inspire them, and it can devour them. Because it is the making of this other world—this world of justice and peace, of radical acceptance and compassion—that is the work of heroes.

         Hero work is hard and often thankless. Physical, spiritual, and mental health are key to hero work but not everyone gets the care they need.

Every hero needs an accountable, unconditionally loving tribe that has their back—the Justice League, the Avengers, family, friends, church—but many are denied this still and yet try to carry on without it. Usually a hero will have a hero of their own. Paul had Christ for his hero and these young churches had become his tribe. And it is for their sake and the sake of the gospel that he remains in the flesh. Maybe because he realizes they share the same struggle.

         Which leads me back to that whole who wears whose pajamas thing—Paul wrote to the Galatians about putting on Christ, the risen Jesus, and yes, the struggle is real to put on those pajamas: to live a life worthy of the gospel, to get up and be a hero whether we feel like it or not.

Sometimes, though, I think we get confused as to what that means—living a life worthy of the gospel. It’s a public life of faith rather than just a private one. Most of us do not suffer for the gospel but there are some who suffer mightily. I don’t believe in a God who condones suffering, but I do think we are called to suffer with those who do suffer for the gospel, who bear a cross we have no idea what it is like to carry.

         It can be too easy some days to not put on Christ at all, to just fold up those pajamas and stash them in a drawer. Let somebody else be the hero. 
The irony is—Christ wants to wear our pajamas, to suit up as each and every one of us, our lives and our loves, our pain and our joy, our wounds and flaws and heart covering every inch of those pajamas. Christ wants to wear it all—because each of us is the hero of our own story. Not perfect, not fixed—who we are, exactly as we are. When we realize that we are loved and accepted just as we are, we can then offer that same gift to others who think they need to be fixed in order to be a hero, in order to be loved.

         Nope. This is Church. Hero school and tribe and gospel living. Misfits and outlaws and all the rest are welcome. And love is our superpower. A life worthy of the gospel. 


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Loving poorly

Matthew 18: 21-35 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 17, 2017


         It took a long time for me to forgive my father. Mostly because I had many things for which to forgive him: moving out of the house and leaving when I was 12; moving from Massachusetts to North Carolina when I was 15; for the innumerable ways his alcoholism affected our family; for dying of a heart attack when I was 19; for dying on my brother’s 18th birthday.

         What took the longest to forgive was my father’s inability to give up smoking. You see, it could’ve been anything. He could’ve still been drinking. He could’ve still been overworking his body, counseling alcoholics and drug addicts by day and driving them to the emergency room in the middle of the night. His addict brain would’ve found a way to stay addicted. Turns out the cigarettes were the hardest one to break.

         By the time I was 16 I had been well-schooled by my dad about the lies addicts tell, how they will tell you exactly what you want to hear, or at least what they want to hear—so much so that your BS meter has to be tuned extremely high.  
I had even accompanied him on an intervention with a family friend who tried to fly every last reason he needed to drink. 

So when my dad told me that he couldn’t stop smoking, even after he’d had pneumonia, even after he had a harrowing episode of fluid in his lungs, because to give up smoking would be shock to his system, I had every right and more to my adolescent eyeroll.

         During one visit with my father he did something seemingly harmless but to me it was one of the most mindless, heartless things he’d ever done. We were watching TV with my stepmother—Magnum P.I. and Nero Wolfe, our favorites. Dad was sitting in a recliner with his feet up, to help keep fluid out of his feet since the pneumonia. That’s what congestive heart failure will do to you. During a commercial he turned to me and did the mindless, heartless thing: he oh-so-casually asked me to get him a pack of cigarettes out of the kitchen.

         I huffed, then gave him one of my looks, the one I give when I don’t know what to say, my eyes looking down over my glasses. When I came back in the room, I threw the pack of cigarettes at him, thudded back onto the couch, arms crossed, my leg over my knee. Now I knew what to say to him. “Next time you want a pack of cigarettes, get them yourself.” He looked at me, then at my stepmother as if this was some kind of revelation, which infuriated me all the more.

         It reminded me of when I was about six or seven years old and I was mad at my father for something, some restriction, something he wouldn’t let me do. He held up his hands like a sparring coach and told me I could hit them as hard as I wanted. I hit and hit his open palms; even when it stung as my little fist struck his wedding band, I kept hitting.

         It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, after a poetry writing workshop, that I was able to finally let go of the last shreds of resentment. This is the conclusion of the poem I wrote to my father:

If I thought it would save
what life was left
I would have thrown
dozens of them at you,
my love sealed up
in plastic-wrapped paper,
smokes that would
never hasten your grave,
inscribed with that warning
not nearly fierce enough
but just as helpless.

         In the end, I had to acknowledge that we were both powerless, that our love for each other couldn’t prevent his death, and yet I don’t have to allow death to have power over love. 
From this side of the grave I thought I knew better. 
In a way, I thought I was better—smarter, wiser than my dad, and if he would just listen to me, things would change; he would change. The thing about those BS meters—we rarely tune them in on ourselves. Which is what keeps us from forgiving others—why forgiveness doesn’t happen just once but needs to happen over and over again. How can we forgive wholeheartedly when our whole heart isn’t in it? How can we give unconditional forgiveness when we have expectations of the outcome?

         Most sin is a result of one person or group, one nation thinking it is better than another. Or at least not as bad. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the king had pity on the slave; he was touched by his plea. In that moment they were not king and slave or servant but two human beings who had a care for the most important things in this life like family and children and relationships. The old system of one life being more valuable than another because of wealth, privilege, and power is as permanent as we choose it to be. In granting this jubilee, this forgiving of a debt, the king established mercy as the standard not just for this one slave but for anyone who owed him a debt.

         But the slave could not do the same. Even though the slave had been released from his debt (imagine his relief, his joy!), he could not find it in himself to erase the debt of a fellow slave who makes the very same plea for forgiveness. Instead, the first slave now sees himself in a position of privilege and power over another and wields it mercilessly. By refusing to forgive, he renders the king’s mercy null and void. The king can no longer afford to be merciful, because his mercy has been wasted.

         Then Jesus ends the story with a warning, that God will do the same to us if we do not forgive each other unconditionally.

Jesus is giving us a choice: do we want unconditional forgiveness or merciless judgment? Perhaps what Jesus wants to know is, is God’s mercy wasted through his life? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t enjoy God’s forgiveness and yet withhold it from one another.

         Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly.” Including church people. Just as much as love and bread, we need forgiveness daily, to admit up front we’re all going to get it wrong and often. We confess that, like author Anne Lamott, we are a recovering higher power: we’re not God when it comes to forgiveness or anything else. But also that when it comes to loving like Jesus we’re willing to try. Yes, try. We’re not Jedi knights. We’re human beings.

         Love travels the same conduit as forgiveness, the one that leads to and from our hearts.

The more we love, the more we are able to forgive. The more we forgive, the more we are able to love. And most of the time we have faith that one of these days we will be generous and merciful and kind and compassionate and think of each other as no better and no worse than ourselves but all as worthy. And the old system will be no more.

         Most of the time. Which is why we must forgive not only seven times but seventy-seven times, even seventy times seven. Even though forgiveness is for loving poorly, we are rich in second chances.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An uncommon common life

Matthew 18: 15-20 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 10, 2017

            How many of us have left a church because of hurt feelings? Rally Sunday or Homecoming Sunday may seem like the wrong day to be asking this question, but the gospel often compels us to look at things from a different point of view. How many of us have left a church because the church or a group of church folk or someone in the church sinned against us? How many of us stayed, despite our hurt? How many of us have allowed our hurts, our wounds to fester rather than heal?

         Eugene Peterson uses the word ‘hurt’, but the more traditional phrase ‘sinned against’ means “missed the mark”, “crossed a line or a boundary”, “to wander off the path of righteousness”. Every week we say the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus isn’t talking about egregious actions like abuse or assault or oppression or institutional racism or sexism or homophobia. In this instance sin is the missteps, the unseeing ways, the ways we allow fear and ego to take control when we live in community.

         Often these missteps can hurt, as though someone didn’t see us, acted like we weren’t there. We feel like our community, our tribe let us down.
We feel vulnerable as a result, and so to protect ourselves, we can throw up a wall of anger and resentment, often resulting in conflict. But we can’t sustain that wall indefinitely and so we leave community, we leave church, we leave the group, we unfriend, or just disappear without a word.

         We know all this, but it’s hard to remember when we’re in the midst of it. The hardest thing of all to remember is to not take any of it personally. Even when someone’s missing the mark or crossing a line is about us as a person. What others say and do is a projection of their own inner life, their experiences, their wounds, their fears. Ironically, people project that stuff because they’re feeling vulnerable, unsure, awkward, which ramps up anxiety and a need for control. The limbic brain takes over, and once that starts it can be hard to stop.

         Which is why it’s important for us to not take things personally. When we do, our limbic brain gets involved—the center of our primitive emotions—and it all goes downhill from there.
Not taking it personally, going high when they go low, engaging in the spiritual discipline of forbearance is the grinding, tough work of following Jesus; you know, the one famous for saying, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” while being executed by the state. If the thought of Jesus on the cross stops us from anything, it ought to at least halt our self-pity in its tracks.

         That dang Jesus. He’s weird. Anne Lamott in her book entitled Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith says “Why couldn’t Jesus command us to obsess about everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey’s Kisses in bed? Maybe in some translations he did.”

         Not taking things personally is what makes it possible for us to go to someone who hurt us and to try to work it out. Jesus isn’t trying to get us to humiliate or abase ourselves. Jesus is trying to get all the lost sheep home. All of them.
~ Frederick Buechner
And the one who hurt us is often the most lost of all. Someone who won’t listen to you when you’re trying to work it out has lost their way in the relationship, in themselves, in community, in our nation, our world. Every day it can feel like our moorings are being snapped, one by one. Those identities like gender and sexuality and belief we thought of as rock-solid now feel like shifting sand. All kinds of climate are becoming more volatile and unpredictable. We’re all feeling a bit lost these days.

         About ten years ago when I was between ministry gigs and staying home with children, I volunteered to be a deacon in my home church. During our first meeting, we introduced ourselves and said a few words about why our church was important to us.
One longtime member said the reason church was important to him was that in such a changing world, church was the one thing that didn’t change. I inwardly cringed because the reason church is important to me is precisely because church is about transformation—about changing in such a way that we are saved from ourselves, from our missteps and our unseeing ways, from our fear and our egos. And in turn the church changes, because our lives change. It goes on from there out into our homes and our relationships and the places we go to school and work and volunteer. A changed life can change the world, because our little corner of it is no longer enough. Jesus is trying to get all the lost sheep home. All of us.

         So when someone is on our last nerve, when they’re being obnoxious or just rubbing us the wrong way, when they forget to do something we’ve asked more than once, when we want to use the word ‘lazy’, when we feel like we’re being picked on, instead of making assumptions about someone or taking any of it personally, we need to scrounge up some courage to ask questions.
“Are you okay?” “Is there something you’re worried about?” “When was the last time you ate?” “What kind of day are you having?” “Can I help?” And then listen to what they say. And if all you get back is more flack, Jesus says to treat that one as a Gentile or a tax collector. And we all know how Jesus treats outsiders. He forgives them, heals them, and turns them into disciples.

         All of this may seem like small potatoes but conflict is conflict, and this is how it gets started. And if it’s one thing the world needs, it’s less conflict. A whole lot less.
People are fond of using the phrase “slippery slope” but not in reference to our own behavior. When we think less of someone, we don’t allow them to be human, like us. In the truest sense of the word, we dehumanize them. We demonize them. Which means we get to treat them any way we want to with impunity. They become lost to us, and we become lost to ourselves.

         We’d like to think this evil is elsewhere, but it resides in all of us
And as it gets potentially harder to live in this world—wildfires, earthquakes, devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, and how those affect our economy, our food supply, and energy production—we can’t afford to treat each other as anything less than who we are. We’re human. We are flawed, fearful, angry, suspicious, anxious, but we are also courageous, generous, kind, compassionate, forgiving. We can choose, every day. We have the capacity to evolve beyond our knee-jerk reactions and assumptions about others. Jesus thought so.

         So if we are to say ‘yes’ to anything, if we are to take anything personally and take it with us into eternity, let it be love and all that comes from it. Anything less than that requires a resounding ‘no’. And if there’s going to be more than one of us on the journey, let’s take Jesus with us. We’re going to need him something fierce.