Sunday, November 22, 2015


Matthew 6: 25-33
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 22, 2015 – Pledge Sunday

            How many of us have said, mostly in jest, that if a particular candidate gets elected, we’re moving to Canada? Who wishes we had a healthcare system like that of Canada? How many of us keep a close eye on our cholesterol or blood pressure? How many of us get tense when we’re stuck in traffic? Who among us rants when someone makes a turn or changes lanes without using their turn signal? Who’s willing to admit they don’t always use a turn signal?

            These and many more are what some folks would call first world problems or struggles.  These are the frustrations that privileged individuals face from living in a wealthy, industrialized country.  These are the things that would make people from third world countries roll their eyes.  You can actually go on Facebook and Twitter, search for the hashtag “firstworldproblems” and see all those miniscule irritations that, in the words of Anne Lamott, would “make Jesus drink gin straight out of the cat dish”.

            What are some of your first world struggles?

            My own personal favorite is the odor in the air in my neighborhood after the mushroom farms lay down whatever earthy matter they use to make those fungi grow.  Or all the problems we have with our various forms of technology.  Then there was all the noise made about the red holiday cups at Starbucks.


         Consider the effects of first world problems on our bodies.  Our bodies don’t know the difference between a first world worry and a third world worry.  At the first hint of worry or frustration, any number of the over 50 sphincters in the human body goes *zip*.  Our blood pressure goes up, we don’t get enough oxygen because our breathing gets out of whack, then we yawn; we think we’re tired, so we drink a whole bunch of caffeine. 

Out of red holiday Starbucks cups.

            Of course no one puts more of a sting in first world problems than comedians.  Earlier this week Stephen Colbert jibed Donald Trump who doubted Syrian refugees would want to relocate to chilly Minnesota:  “Do I want to stay in a war zone where my family faces almost certain death or do I want to go somewhere where I have to put on a jacket to go to the mall?”

            Being fearful of Syrian refugees is a first world struggle in and of itself, replacing our recently whipped-up fear of Mexican immigrants.  In truth, first world problems are more like white privilege.  Black Friday, rushing and mobbing to get the sales, with people having to work for not enough the day after Thanksgiving, is a real first world problem.  We, who have much, worry that there is not enough, that we can’t ensure our safety, that we can’t tell the good guy from the bad guy.  Or as some would have it, Christian from Muslim.  We begin to indulge in the same extremist thinking.  I wonder.  If the first world would get over its first world problems, it seems the whole world would be a lot better off.

In the Mishnah, the legal commentary on the oral Torah, it is said that there are four kinds of people.  There are people who say, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours.”  These are the most holy, the most righteous among us, who live in a world of abundance.  There are those who say, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”  These are the wicked that we read about in the psalms and in the daily news.  There are those who say, “What’s mine is yours and what’s your is mine.”  We all share, we all give.  The early Church started off this way, and not always perfectly.  The Mishnah says that we can’t count on this kind of equal giving; it’s just not in human nature.  It’s pie-in-the-sky idealism.

The fourth kind of person says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s your is yours.”  This sounds pretty reasonable to most people.  It’s our entitlement society, our meritocracy.  I earned what I have, you earned what you have.  I don’t help anyone with this attitude, but I don’t hurt them either.  This is the priest and the Levite who left a man for dead on the Jericho road.  They didn’t rob him or beat him, but neither did they help him.  What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.  No handouts, no mercy, no pity, no charity.  And so not God.

Jesus tells the crowd that they don’t have to strive for food; they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or what they will wear.  God is not only generous but extravagant.  God gives every creature, the whole earth what it needs.  Seek after what God is giving rather than all the worry spent on getting.  First world problems indeed.

But hold on.  Jesus isn’t preaching to a first world crowd but to the poor, the outcasts, the peasantry.  Why wouldn’t the poor worry about their next meal?  Why wouldn’t anyone hanging by a thread strive for a piece of clothing to keep them warm?  Telling the poor not to worry and to trust God for everything sounds like an insult.  Why would Jesus say such a thing?

I think what Jesus is really saying is, don’t be like those who have more, who worry about what they have, and don’t share it.  Don’t be like those who say what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.  Seek after the One, creator of the heavens and the earth, who says to us what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours. 

Worry is a thief we invite in.  It robs us of our joy, our serenity, our generosity, our compassion.  First world problems distract us from the world’s real problems and sap our energy and our imagination to solve them.  Earlier this week I read a Facebook comment written by Doug Ivison that said “Fear can be a messenger, but it is not a great teacher.  Love is the teacher.”

What are the first world problems of this church?  What are the sphincters in this body of Christ that go *zip* at the first sign of worry or struggle or frustration?  In what circumstances do we forget to breathe, to include the Holy Spirit?  How do we allow struggles and frustrations, fear and worry to distract us from the mission and the ministry to which this church has been called?  If worry wasn’t a factor, if frustrations weren’t a blip on our radar, how would we be spending our time?  What would we be giving?

What is God’s is ours and what is ours is ours.  Who will we choose to be?


The Sin of Sodom is Not What You Think

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hello, it's me

1 Samuel 1: 4-20
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 15, 2015 – Stewardship Sunday

          It’s the one prayer you’ve said a thousand times. It’s the “please, please, please” when the lab calls with the biopsy result or the lines appear on a pregnancy test or you open the envelope from a college or, after the job interview or the big test or the audition. It’s the anguished cry in the middle of the night. It’s the “I can’t do this anymore” of the addict. It’s the “I’m sorry” in an empty room. It’s the “Where are you, God?” of the angry and wounded, grieving and frightened, and yet hopeful in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad and Syria.

            It’s deep heartfelt prayer. It’s the prayer of Hannah. She bypasses the priest and the ritual. No intermediary for her. She grabs the Almighty by the collar, drags God into the holy place, puts the One who made heaven and earth front and center and finds her voice.

Hello, it's me
I was wondering if after all these years you'd like to meet
To go over everything
They say that time's supposed to heal you,
but I ain't done much healing

            Hannah is raw with intention.  She knows what she wants.  She’s had it with her husband’s lukewarm attempt at comfort (“Am I not more to you than ten sons?”) and her sister wife’s lording it over her with all her sons and daughters.  She knows her request is not impossible.  God promised a nation to Abraham and Sarah in the autumn years of their lives.  God heard the prayers of Rachel, also a much-beloved first wife, and she gave birth to Joseph, who saved his family and that nation, and Benjamin, a gift in his father Jacob’s old age.  God had come through before.  God had better come through now.

            If you were Hannah, if you were going to go straight to the Holy One, to the universe with your heart wide open, what would you say? Does it seem like God or the stars are near to you or far away? Does it really matter?

There's such a difference between us
And a million miles

Hello from the other side
I must've called a thousand times
To tell you I'm sorry for everything that I've done
But when I call you never seem to be home

            Hannah has such clarity in her longing, she is so full of intent that she doubles down.  “Give me exactly what I desire, fulfill my purpose, and I’ll fulfill yours, God.  You give me a son and I’ll give him back to you.”  I’ll give you the one who will anoint David.  Give me grace and I’ll give it back.

            What would it look like to receive the full measure of God’s grace and then give that grace back in full measure?  What would that look like in your life, God’s full measure of grace?  What would it look like to give it back? 

What would the full measure of God’s grace look like in our life together?  What would it look like for us to give back that grace in our life together as a church?

Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, once wrote that church “intensifies what we bring into it.”  When we do church, like mission or worship, the experience intensifies what we bring into that encounter.  Do we expect God to be there ahead of us?  Or do we also bring God to church with us when we come to worship or when we serve at Hope Dining Room or stay for Code Purple or set up coffee or teach Sunday School or come to a meeting or work on the building?  What are our intentions when we gather as church?  Do we intend to receive grace and then share it?

Today is Stewardship Sunday, when we consider what our commitment will be for the coming year:  commitment of money, time, energy, what makes us come alive, what we’re good at.  And all of these and more add up to how we intend to be church in the coming year.  Each of these commitments requires conscious, mindful intention.  Being church requires conscious, mindful intention.  So in truth, we also need to be good stewards of our intentions. 

What do we really want for this church?  Who do we really want to be?  What would we say to the Holy One, as a church, with the heart of our church wide open?  Are we ready to hear what the Stillspeaking God will say to us, ask of us?

We have a thousand prayers, but God only has one.[i]  


[i] From Anne Sexton’s poem “Not so. Not so.” Sewell, Marilyn (ed.). Cries of the Spirit, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1991.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

And the soul felt its worth

Mark 12: 38-44
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 8, 2015

            The following story is one that Jesus could have told alongside the story from Mark’s gospel of the robber baron scribes and the widow’s offering of all she had.  It comes from Calcutta, India, from the Missionaries of Charity and their former superior, Mother Teresa.

Unfortunately it was nothing unusual for her, just an entire family in one of the slums of Calcutta that was suffering from malnourishment, nearly on the brink of starvation.  Mother Teresa put some rice into a sack, a few handfuls—all that she could spare—and delivered it to this desperately hungry family.  The woman who received this gift was so thankful and joyous, she instantly took the bag of rice into their small cooking and living space.  In a few moments she came out with half of the rice in a container and rushed down a small alley.  Puzzled, Mother Teresa called after her, “Where are you going with that rice?”  The poor woman replied, “I know another family who has nothing to eat, who also needs rice.”

            We can see how these two stories could be intended for a Stewardship Sunday.  There are two interpretations of the reading from Mark.  The traditional understanding is that Jesus is praising the widow’s religious devotion, for giving all she had to live on, in contrast to the offerings of the rich, who are giving what will not be missed.  The other explanation is that Jesus is lamenting that this poor woman is being taken advantage of by the religious authorities, paying for the expenses of the temple out of an already impoverished pocket.  Both of these interpretations are entirely valid.

            I would like to propose a third approach to reading this passage.  The widow, having no one else, sees herself as connected to a larger, wider family, that of her faith.  Like the poor woman in Calcutta, in her giving the widow helps to create community; she does not wait for community to trickle down to her. She realizes that she too can give, like those around her.  The widow knows her worth as a child of God and gives accordingly.  What Jesus praises is that she knows her own worth, that she has not devalued herself because she is a poor widow.

            When Jesus observes the scribes in their long flowing robes, sitting in the best seats, requiring acknowledgment and respect from others, and saying long prayers just for show, I doubt these scribes saw themselves as connected to the poor, the outcast, to the orphaned and the widowed.  Most people who strut have not only an inflated sense of self but, more often than not, are also fearful and insecure.  They are more likely to be disconnected, lonely, and isolated.  When Jesus says that they will receive the greater condemnation, it can also mean that not only will they suffer the consequences of their actions and attitudes, but they will do so alone—separated and apart from others.

            The great gift of the incarnation, of God with us, is the realization that we are all connected, one to another, and to the earth, to the creation itself.

Long lay the world, in sin and error pining,

‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Jesus could also be lamenting the rich scribes because they don’t yet realize that their worth is not dependent on money or influence or power or education or achievement but simply that they draw breath.  In the first creation story, when God made human beings and breathed life into them, God declared them good before they had done anything.  When as yet Jesus had not yet begun his ministry but had simply risen out of the waters of baptism, God affirmed that he was a beloved child.

But we human beings tend to size up others based on appearances and actions rather than seeing the deeper kinship we share.  Too often we put ourselves in the place of God, forgetting that it is God who judges “people and nations by [God’s] righteous will, declared through prophets and apostles.”[1]  It takes a lot of hard work to see all people the way God sees people—as beloved children.  And that is because we don’t yet recognize our own worth.  We don’t yet see ourselves as rare and precious.  We don’t yet fully realize the hope that God has placed in each and every one of us.

The Son of God lay thus in lowly manger

In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need; our weakness is no stranger,

Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!

Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

We would hardly classify ourselves as behaving like the scribes.  And yet, more often that we wish, we come face to face with someone else’s inability of behaving or giving what we think is reasonable to expect.  “I said what I meant.  Why didn’t they hear me?”  “I can’t believe that person’s attitude!”  “I only asked for a simple favor.”  “Why can’t they just accept the situation?”  “Why are you resisting me?”  “Don’t they realize I need their support?”

One of the hardest lessons is to accept that on any given day, people may not be capable, may never be capable of giving what we need from them, for whatever reason.  Usually it has nothing to do with us.  They give what they can, out of the poverty of their spirit.  We all do this, and some days are better than others.  We are better on some days than others.  The measure of grace we extend to others is the measure of grace we extend to ourselves.  If our treasury of grace is running low, how often do we put ourselves in the mercy seat and receive the outpouring of God’s overflowing love for us?  Or have we made a habit of getting by on what we’re willing to receive rather than living abundantly on what God is willing to give?

All she had to live on.  And the soul felt its worth.

We don’t come to know our worth just on our own.  In Africa it is said that we become a person through other people.  It is through our connections, our relationships, through a sense of belonging and nurturing those bonds that we know our own worth.  The more connected we are, the more engaged we are with others, accepting of what they and we have to offer on any given day, we begin to see ourselves and others the way God sees us: as something so much more than an impoverished spirit or our resume or our ego, what we’re capable or incapable of giving; as something more precious than one of the many labels that have been placed on us or that we own with pride; as something greater than one individual who feels one person can’t make much of a difference.

Do we, New Ark United Church of Christ, know our own worth as a body of Christ?  Do we realize how rare and precious we are in the eyes of God?  How do we experience and share the hope that God has placed in us?  How do we value what we give and the community we create with it? 

When we know the truth about ourselves and embrace who we are, we give not out of our abundance what we won’t miss but put in everything we have, all that we have to live on, to the fulfillment of God’s kin-dom.  We give so that others may know that we are kin to them and they are kin to all of creation.  And the soul felt its worth.  All she had to live on.  Love is its name.

Truly He taught us to love one another;

His law is love and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;

And in His name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,

His power and glory evermore proclaim.

His power and glory evermore proclaim.


[1] United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, 1981.