Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Disturbing the peace

Isaiah 11: 1-10
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 4, 2016

         Maybe this has already occurred to you before, but that shoot that grows out from the stump of Jesse means that there used to be a tree there. In fact, there was a whole forest. God did a bit of clear cutting in the previous chapter of Isaiah: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low. [God] will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”

            Things look as though they are at their worst.  We’ve seen photos, maybe we’ve even flown over an area that’s been clear-cut and it’s ugly, barren; how can anything good come from such devastation?  And yet from the stump of the family tree of Jesse, the father of King David, there shall come forth a shoot, a tiny twig.  And from this twig, from this small sign of hope will grow the peaceful kingdom, God’s Beloved Community.

            Through the prophet Isaiah, God’s people are reassured that what they are seeing is only part of what is happening.  God’s people are a remnant of what they used to be.  They are descendants of exiles and captives and slaves—survivors.  The Assyrians have laid waste to their home Israel and thus stolen their joy at their return.  Imagine coming home to Aleppo or Mosul, Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  All they can see is desolate wasteland.  And yet God says to this remnant that from this weak, vulnerable people will come a leader unlike any other.  And with this leader will come peace—the peace that was envisioned in the garden of Eden is still intended for God’s people. 

            But it won’t be easy, this peace.  Predator will lie down with prey.  Which means the predator will have to give up its privilege of power.  And the prey will have to give up its self-preserving fear.  Guess which one has to move first?  Which camp do you suppose we’re in?

            To a certain extent, most of us have a foot in both.  We benefit from a system that rewards the powerful and keeps the weak in their place.  And yet with one lost job combined with a healthcare crisis or loss of savings, we can become prey to that system.  Most of us have white privilege, straight privilege, class privilege, able-bodied privilege, education privilege, even religious privilege, and with those privileges comes the ability to navigate that system with more ease than most.  Those who don’t have those privileges call them human rights: the right to marry who you love, the right to healthcare, the right to a decent education, the right to move about our society without barriers, the right to a living wage, the right to worship freely, to be treated like any other human being no matter who you are.  

It­’s hard for those of us with privilege to imagine what it must be like to have an identity shaped by what others deem as less than, outside, or even antithetical to the norm.  How many of us would trade places with a transgender person?  Or a Muslim lesbian?  Or a person of color?  Or an illegal immigrant?  Or someone in a wheelchair or an invisible disability?  God’s reassurance that this weak, vulnerable reality isn’t all there is, is easier for a person of privilege to hear than for someone who needs to see a safety pin to know they can trust someone.  We who can navigate the system can transcend our perception of it.  How does someone who, over generations, continues to be trapped, wounded, scarred, often killed by that system change their perception of it?

God has been telling us for millennia that if liberation from this system called empire is going to happen, we’re going to have to disarm, disestablish, disempower ourselves, as well as give up our self-preserving fear.  If we’re going to have peace, the peace of the privileged will be not only disturbed but disrupted.  The peace of the privileged looks like security, safety, insurance, a wall, lines drawn, a pipeline, a heavy defense, a well-constructed bubble.  We have made peace with what does not bring true peace.  There can be no peace without justice.  And so we have Mary who sings of bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty; John the Baptist proclaiming that every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

This recent election has served to reinforce those who are another kind of predator and expose those who are their prey to further insult, injury and worse.  The adder’s den is still no place for a child.  Many of us feel as though we have been brought low, we’re walking away empty, and those mountains and hills are still there.  We’re having trouble seeing the way forward.  Haven’t we waited long enough for peace and justice?  “In God’s time” sounds like a hollow promise.

And yet, as the Jesuits say, if God is also another word for everything, that the whole creation is where God is found, that God is in compassionate union with all that is, then peace and justice will come when we’re ready to no longer be hostile toward anyone or anything and to let go of our self-preserving fear.  All flesh begins with us.

Jesus shows us the aching, painful, but companioned way forward.  This is my flesh broken for you.  This is my blood shed for you.  Jesus allowed himself to be judged as a criminal and gave his life as a love gift.  The tender truth of Christmas is this: the way to peace is to allow, invite, to seek out openings for one’s own peace to be disturbed and disrupted—as a gift, given without strings.

Here’s a gift God would love:

Holy One, you have blessed me with abundance.  Please use me to bring kindness, even justice, to someone who needs it this day.  Help me to know when and how and who and what is needed.  Subvert my day for your purpose.  I trust in your goodness.  Thank you, God, for making me an instrument of your peace.  Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Living in the light (or Repair Cafe)

Isaiah 2: 1-5 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 27, 2016

            Earlier this week a colleague of mine who pastors a church in New England posted on Facebook a plea for folks to call the Department of Justice to audit the presidential vote for voter suppression, Russian collusion, and FBI interference. And without really thinking about it, my naïve, desperate, hopeful little heart picked up the phone, followed the instructions in the post, and left a message. After all, this was a trusted friend, a United Church of Christ pastor, whose wisdom I thought was at least, if not more, level-headed than my own. If she posted it, it must be not only a good idea but a legitimate one as well.

            But then another friend posted this comment:  “To paraphrase my friend who is a former NYC prosecutor. It does not work that way, nor should it. Prosecution should NEVER be a popularity contest. It should be evidence driven, only.  Believe me, I'd love to see the Department of Justice investigate. Do you really want a government that will open investigations just because of phone calls? Turn the tables. How would that be?”  And then my mind went to people calling the DOJ to investigate their Muslim neighbors, to set up a registry, and I felt like I had had a cup of cold water thrown in my face.  Yup, I needed that.

            Then one of you hit the nail on the head:  “Are you in the bargaining stage of grief?” and I realized that was exactly where I was, where I still am:  in grief.  The five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—are not exactly constant or linear; they are the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff of living and loving and loss.  Denial is no longer an option, anger is not sustainable, depression is not a place to stay, bargaining won’t get me anywhere, and I don’t  want to get anywhere near acceptance just yet.  Yet it seemed I had forgotten I am grieving, and thus, I need to be aware of my emotions and the effect they can have.

            I now realize that the dominant emotion I have been feeling—sadness—is reminiscent of the emotions I experienced when my parents divorced.  Here were two of the most important people in my life and they couldn’t stand to be in the same room anymore, let alone share a life together.  Often they would abuse the other verbally to me, and I wouldn’t say anything out of deference.

            The Qur’an says that when someone thinks they are more important than someone else, everything that follows goes bad.  It comes from verses that tell the story of God’s creation of Satan as one of the angels, and when God commanded all the angels, including Satan, to bow to Adam, God’s newest creation, Satan would not do it.  Satan was made from fire and Adam from clay.  Satan thought himself superior to Adam, because fire can destroy clay.  And so from then on, Satan held a grudge against God and Adam and all humankind, demanding to be made immortal in order to spend eternity avenging his pride against God and humanity.

            It’s just about every relationship story in the Bible:  Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers, King Saul and David, the prodigal son and his older brother.  When someone thinks they are more important than someone else, everything that follows goes bad.  When Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, said to Jacob, “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from the other”, it wasn’t a blessing.  Laban said it because he didn’t trust Jacob with his daughters.  When Jesus said, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, it wasn’t a blessing of small gatherings.  Jesus said it because when there’s more than one person, there’s bound to be trouble sooner or later, and we’ll need Jesus to keep us honest.

            All argument, all conflict, all war is civil war.  We may be different nationalities, different ethnic backgrounds, but we’re all of the same race, the human race, made of the same stuff.  How is it that we can be so diametrically opposed to one another, if not that at least one of us thinks our point of view or our experience of reality is more right, truer, more important than another.  Thomas Hobbes said that war is the natural state of human beings, and there are days we can be convinced that’s true.  Stephen Covey wrote in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand.  They listen with the intent to reply.” 

Put another way, now it seems like it’s better to be right than kind.  We see this everywhere in our current social and political climate.  Which is why I grieve so, and why it feels like a divorce.  Mom and Dad have been fighting about who’s the head of the house.  Some of the kids wanted to live with Dad, some wanted to live with Mom, but Dad ended up getting full custody of everyone.  Both sides calling names, with sometimes unreasonable, inflammatory accusations, abusing one another, some of us caught in the middle, no one listening or checking all the facts (guilty as charged), and I’d hardly call it replying.  It’s been a cold war for a long time now, and none of us have gotten what we really think is fair with many getting not even that.

And so Isaiah reminds us of God’s big picture.  We think we’re seeing the big picture, but God always has an even bigger one.  While we’re rattling our sabers over who’s going to take the next hill, God wants to know if we’ve got what it takes to climb God’s holy mountain.  All nations will river toward it, people from all over will set out for it, like water protectors and militarized police and indigenous people from around the world and white residents from Bismarck and Mandan, clergy of different faith traditions, and people of all stripes on social media, and the Army Corps of Engineers.  Trump supporters, Bernie busters, Pantsuit Nation, Libertarian, Green, Independent, conservative and liberal, and everything in between and beyond.  We’re all invited.  Because none of us is more important than the other in the eyes of God.

God will settle things fairly between the nations.  Have you ever seen the graphic illustrating equality and justice?  Three people, of differing heights, are trying to watch a baseball game over a fence.  Equality has all of them standing on boxes the same size.  The shortest person, a child, still can’t see over the fence.  Justice has each person standing on a different sized box that allows each of them to see over the wall.  Even so, God would say it doesn’t go far enough.  The fence is still there.  What God is after is restoration, liberation, the Beloved Community—for everyone.

They’ll build their walls into houses and their fences shall give way to green pastures and shared spaces and the kinship of all people.  No more shall they request increased funding for border control or build pipelines that they wouldn’t want in their own backyard, near their own watershed.  Neither shall they insulate themselves from each other because the divide is too vast, the wounds too deep, and more than hearts broken.

What pulled me out of my grief and restored my hope when my parents divorced, what keeps pulling me forward now in this national divorce is a dream I had when I was a teenager; the dream that called me into ministry, that I’ve shared with you before.  A dream about a civil war and a table of reconciliation.  A dream in which Jesus promises to suffer with and heal wounds.  And then I remembered the pivot of the dream:  I had to recognize how Jesus was already working in my life, to look for the better angels within me and around me, and now more than ever.

Gandhi said that the only devils in this world are the ones running around in our own hearts and that is where all our battles should be fought.  And yet battle lines are being drawn—even at the extended family holiday table, some areas of our nation more tense than others, retrenching into our enclaves, breaking off relationships in our disposable society.

What if the Church and other faith communities were like repair cafés, a safe place where you could bring what was broken and keep bringing it back until it was repaired?  Like courage and hope, our hearts and our spirits, our will toward the good, maybe even a relationship or two?  To live in the light of God is to shine that light on ourselves and to hold others in that same light.  To not only celebrate God’s Advent light but to be Advent light.

          I’ve got a sixth stage of grief, friends.  It’s called defiant, rebellious, hopeful joy.  And that’s what I’m striving for.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A revelation revolution

Luke 23: 33-43
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 20, 2016

The Christian church has a problem; more specifically, the progressive Christian church has a problem.  Within the last 50 or so years we’ve talked ourselves out of a faith in Christ.  We say we follow Jesus rather than “Christ”, the Greek word for messiah or “anointed one”.  We’ve allowed the name “Christian” to be defined and used almost exclusively by the religious right and pejoratively by the media.    The Church doesn’t have the cultural or social justice capital it used to have.   

Wearing a cross has rarely meant that we Christians are safe people outside of our own small circle.  We’ve taken the two central events in the Christian faith, the crucifixion and the resurrection, and turned them into memorial experiences—to remind us how we became Church rather than why we are Church. 

Anglican bishop and author N.T. Wright wrote, “[It] is very difficult for us…to get the balance right between cross and resurrection.  I think the only way you can really do it is by making sure that whenever you talk about the cross you remind yourself that we’re talking about the cross of the one who was subsequently raised from the dead…”[i]

            But if we have no room in our post-modern minds for the resurrection, if Jesus being raised from the dead is a stumbling block for us, why then would we ever pick up the cross?  Why would we ever make sacrifices, take bold risks, go out on a limb for those on the margins, for justice, for what others deem as hopeless?  Why would we ever need to be Church, if not for the transformation of human lives, even our own?

            A transformed life, a saved life is one in which there is no room for hate or fear; a life that is lived in service of others for the sake of joy; a life in which the cross is carried not because of evidence or certainty of resurrection but rather because of the hope and promise of resurrection.  Before the end of his life Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a German prison, “What do we really believe?  I mean, believe in such a way that our lives depend on it?"  What does it really mean to be a Christian?  Is it what we believe or rather how we live?  Do the cross and the empty tomb take precedence in the way we live?  What else is on the altar of our hearts and minds?

            As our society becomes more secure and less violent, as we have unobstructed access to food, clean water, education, jobs, housing, healthcare, as we are reassured by our privilege, it has generally been observed that society becomes more secular and our commitment to organized religion weakens.  This is a broad stroke that can’t be taken universally, but there is still truth in it.  In our secularization we can forget that at the heart of the world religions is not only the common good but the welfare of the most vulnerable among us, those whom Jesus called “the least of these”.

            I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say our nation and the world have never needed Church—people who live the cross and the resurrection—more than they do now.  Maybe we’re still reeling from shock, but we can’t afford to when a white supremacist has been named the president-elect’s chief strategist; when the internment of Japanese-Americans is given as precedent for registering American Muslims; when hate crimes and violent protests are our current modes of public discourse; when a climate change denier is placed in charge of the transition for the EPA; when “draining the swamp” really means swapping the deck chairs for life jackets on the Titanic.

            It has been said that this election has revealed an ugly underbelly in our national psyche, a capacity for invective and vitriol accompanied by harassment and violence that resides in all of us.  It’s always been there but now it seems all bets are off, leaving many of us more than anxious as to what the not-too-distant future will bring.  For this we need not only a teacher, a guru, a master, or even a brother and friend.  We need a savior.

            But some savior he is.  Some messiah he turned out to be.  He can’t even save himself from dying on the cross.  The cross is the inevitable, the non-negotiable of life.  None of us are getting out of this alive.  Not even Canada can save us from this.  The cross looks like the losing side, like failure, humiliation, and if we follow, we play the fools.  The cross is too much risk.  The cross asks too much of us.

            For many in this world and for some of us the cross doesn’t ask—it’s not a free choice.  It is life and life’s circumstances thrust and heaped upon us.  It’s the choice of the powerful over the choice of the powerless.  It’s prejudice and oppression and sex trafficking and generational poverty and drug addiction and mass incarceration and stigma and shame—all for the sake of profit.

            All of this has the makings of a revolution, as the divide between the powerful and the powerless increases.  And that’s where the cross is, is in that divide, and that’s where the Church is called to stand, and not only stand, but forgive, and not only forgive but reconcile, and not only reconcile but heal, and not only heal, but restore justice, and not only restore justice but bring wholeness, resurrection.  It is for such as time as this that the Church needs to reveal who it truly is, that Christians names themselves not only friends of Jesus, but as those whose lives have been transformed and continue to be engaged by the cross and by the resurrection.

            Pastor and blogger John Pavlovitz wrote a piece in October about the kind of Christian he refuses to be.  Instead he wants to be a Christian that is humble and forgiving.  A Christian that has a heart to serve and to bring healing.  A Christian that is compassionate and merciful and generous.  A Christian that turns the other cheek, loves one’s enemies, takes the lower place, loves one’s neighbor as oneself.  A Christian who goes where the poor and the marginalized and the hurting and the forgotten are.   A Christian who makes a gracious space for those who worship differently.  A Christian who lives by expectation-defying grace and counterintuitive love[ii]—all of which and more made Jesus a criminal, an enemy of the state and led him to the cross, and yet it did not take away his fervent hope of the resurrection.

            And it is this kind of revolution, this revelation that is worth our investment.  In the Church we say time, talent, and treasure.  We say it that way because what Jesus is asking for is even more than that.  Are we willing to invest our lives for the sake of the Beloved Community?  Are we the Church willing to reveal what it really means to be a Christian, to follow Christ where Christ leads?

            For the past three years, David and I have pledged separately, in that each of us decided what we would give and then paid our own pledge.  This year we are pledging together.  We discussed what we would give and then I asked David if it was okay with him if I shared with all of you what our pledge will be.  I do this because first, I’m your pastor and one of our leaders.  Second, I believe in transparency.  And third, I do this not to boast but to inspire you, not to embarrass or shame you.  I know we all have our own struggles about money and church and have differing abilities when it comes to giving.  I respect that.  And yet I believe the Church is facing yet another challenge to its mission of the cross and the resurrection.  It’s time to reveal who we really are as Christians.

            For 2017 David and I will be pledging $12,000.  We can do this only because you are faithful in compensating your pastor.  We can do this only because David is employed at the level he is.  We can do this only because of certain choices we make.  We do this because giving is a spiritual discipline, like worship and prayer and study and mission; because we believe the Church is one of the best hopes we have for standing in that breach between the powerful and the powerless; because we have witnessed the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection in places like Oaxaca, Mexico and the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and Pipestem, WV, and in churches that are Open and Affirming like this one, and in interfaith relationships, and at Hope Dining Room and Code Purple and Habitat for Humanity, and in the wider United Church ofChrist.

            The Church more often than not resembles the losing team.  The world judges the cross as failure and resurrection looks like a pipe dream.   And yet: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”, and it is precisely in this way that Jesus Christ is savior and Lord.  And it is this kind of love that the world needs most right now, in you and in me.  Jackson Browne says it this way:

And though the earth may tremble and cast our works aside
And though our efforts resemble the fluctuating tide
We rise and fall with the trust and belief
That love redeems us each
And bend our backs and hearts together standing in the breach

You don't know why it's such a far cry
From the world this world could be
You don't know why but you still try
For the world you wish to see
You don't know how it will happen now
After all that's come undone
But you know the change the world needs now
Is there, in everyone