Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Voice of reason/Enemy within

Proverbs 8: 1 – 21 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 22, 2016 – Trinity Sunday

            Earlier this week I posted two questions on Facebook: where do you find wisdom for the living of your life and how do you define wisdom? Of course the answers were wide and varied. As to where folks find wisdom, most folks named sources outside of themselves such as billboards, music and books, yoga, trusted friends, elders, and family. One person said their mom was their source of wisdom. Another person posted an image of Tarot cards while another cited Rocky Horror Picture Show. Another friend who was raised in the Methodist church said that in theory wisdom is the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, reason, tradition, and personal experience, but in practice his source of wisdom is his growing list of what doesn’t work. Some commented that though most of their sources of wisdom are external, listening to their gut or that still small voice is always part of the decision-making process.

            Interestingly enough, the question about defining wisdom got more answers.  Of course the wisest ones said that wisdom is realizing you don’t have it.  Indeed this is the first step toward wisdom.  And yet it’s like that quote from Life of Pi by Yann Martel:  “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”  It’s good and yes, very wise to understand that we cannot be wise in our own eyes, but it’s only a place to begin.  Sooner or later it’s good to figure out how you define wisdom so you can begin finding some and using it!

            One person defined wisdom as “The capacity of combining love and intelligence in order to discern what is fair and just in any particular circumstance.”  Another friend and a few others similar to this gave what I would consider a universal understanding of wisdom:  “Knowledge from living life and adapting accordingly.”   Here’s one we can all appreciate:  “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting one in a fruit salad.”  This one has a Zen quality to it: “Wisdom is the inaction that is not apathetic, stubborn, nor unaware.  Wisdom is the action that is not reactive.” 

            In all of the responses wisdom did not involve freaking out or losing one’s cool or binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  One friend said that wisdom involves being non-anxious and non-judgmental.  And yet in the reading from Proverbs, Lady Wisdom sounds like she just might be ready to blow a gasket.  She’s not the still small voice speaking from within but the frustrated traffic cop in the middle of the busiest city intersection yelling at us to slow down, keep our eyes on the road, and for God's sake, use our turn signals.

Do you hear Lady Wisdom calling?
    Can you hear Madame Insight raising her voice?
She’s taken her stand at First and Main,
    at the busiest intersection.
Right in the city square
    where the traffic is thickest, she shouts,
“You—I’m talking to all of you,
    everyone out here on the streets!
Listen, you idiots—learn good sense!
    You blockheads—shape up!
Don’t miss a word of this—I’m telling you how to live well,
    I’m telling you how to live at your best.”

            We’re knuckleheads and fools only when we don’t listen to Madame Insight.  She’s that voice of reason and sanity, but she’s also the spiritual 2 x 4 that shows us the folly of taking only our own advice.

            Today is Trinity Sunday, a day when the Church lifts up and celebrates the mystery of God in three persons: Creator, Child, and Spirit.  Lady Wisdom isn’t to be confused, though, with the Holy Spirit.  I would say she’s the glue that holds this trinity together.  Lady Wisdom was there in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.  She was the pause before Jesus spoke.  She was the meaning of the parables the disciples just couldn’t get sometimes.  And when those same disciples needed words of wisdom to preach the good news, Lady Wisdom was there with a lexicon that spoke to the human heart in ways that Jew and Gentile could understand.

            Even though the idea of a Trinitarian god is a human construct, wisdom tells us that we can’t just dismiss it out of hand.  Like Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and superego, aspects of the human psyche, we come to know ourselves in the three persons in a single divinity.  We are made in God’s image; we are a reflection of Creator, Child, and Spirit, and so much more. To deny ourselves of this gift would be like denying a part of ourselves.  Our creativity is an echo of the creative force of the universe.  When we deny Jesus his divinity, we deny our own divinity.  When we deny Jesus his human flaws, we create a cult of personality and we become devotees rather than mature disciples.  When we deny the Spirit and her insistent call to use our gifts, we relegate those gifts to what Jung called the shadow side.

            The wisdom of the Trinity is wholeness and authenticity:  humanity and divinity in all their fullness.  We need our whole sacred selves, our brokenness and our beauty, if we are to serve goodness, compassion, unconditional love, if we are to be able to truly forgive, be forgiven, and restore justice.

            Unbelievable as it may sound, there is an original Star Trek episode about this very thing.  When Anita and I were planning this service, we both thought of it at the same time.  Forget "The Godfather".  Star Trek is the I Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the book of wisdom for the ages.  The episode is entitled “The Enemy Within”.  Through a freak transporter accident, Captain Kirk is split into two persons.  One is kind and gentle, compassionate to a fault, but also unsure and somewhat fearful and hesitant.  The other is brutal, violent, and cunning but also aggressive and assertive.   

         Without each other, both will eventually die.  The violent Kirk is eventually sedated, while the kind Kirk must take command but cannot do so because he lacks the decisiveness of his other half.  Only when Kirk is restored to his whole self can he be the captain the Enterprise needs to survive its current crisis.

            In one of the books that didn’t make it into the canon, the gospel of Thomas, a book of wisdom sayings in its own right, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”  It’s the reason some of us won’t let anyone see our messy home, why we put on our best face, why we hide our tears and watch our language, why we keep people out of our weird little worlds.  If everyone saw us as we really are—flaws, brokenness and all—no one would want us, we wouldn’t belong.

            This is why we need the Church.  We need Church to be the people, that safe place where everyone can be all of who they are and still belong.  The truth, the wisdom is we’re all incomplete, a work in progress, in transition, none of us the same, and yet members of one another.  Indeed we can do plenty to separate ourselves and each other from love and belonging, and so we need a God whose love we cannot separate ourselves from, a Jesus who incarnates, who embodies that love and shows us how, and a Spirit who makes us one.

            Before us, before there was sun, moon, and stars, before there was all there is, Lady Wisdom was there, in the process, in the soup, in the mess. Out of that wisdom came you and me and everyone, everything else, even the Trinity. O God, grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A communion of diversity

Genesis 11: 1 – 9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 15, 2016 – Pentecost 

"Jesus Eraser" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
The Jesus Eraser - nakedpastor.com

            It’s passages like this one that make God out to be a big meanie face, religion the antithesis of technology and ingenuity, and the Bible laughable. The story of the tower of Babel takes place in between the stories of Noah and Abram, with some genealogy for connective tissue. It begins rather innocently, it seems. The people of the earth are one people and speak a common language. What’s so bad about that, we ask? They develop a new technology, the making of bricks and mortar, which leads to the construction of walls, a city, and a tremendous tower. Sounds like progress. Even though it is God who names us (Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel), they want to make a name for themselves, to settle down and live in one place rather than be scattered across the earth.

            But in this meta-narrative about human beings, these weren’t the first ones to build a city.  After Cain killed his brother Abel, he left the presence of God, that is, turned his back on God, went east of Eden, and built a city.  Because Cain had spilled his brother’s blood on the ground, the ground would no longer “yield its strength”, that is, grow food for Cain.  Cain was now separate from the life of the earth, no longer a farmer, so he built a city to fortify himself and his family.

         Like anything else, cities are not in and of themselves evil. After all, Jerusalem is the holy city of God and its name means “foundation of peace”. Yet in this time, a city was an emblem of empire, a means of standing against a perceived threat, a place of protection from an enemy or the ‘other’. Babel is the proto-Babylon, the empire that conquered the southern kingdom of Judah and held captive generations of Jews. 

The people who build the tower look as if they’re being proactive, constructing a city that will prevent them from being scattered.  Being scattered is something to be feared and avoided.  Being one people in one place with one language is seen as strength.  It’s humanity’s default position.  Not only that, but we believe it is solely human initiative and cunning that has the power to save.  God witnesses all of this, what appears to be unity and creativity and ambition, and brings it down like a game of Jenga.

            But wait a minute.  This is Pentecost.  Where’s the story about the disciples and crowds of others gathered for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, everyone understanding each other, hearing the disciples speak in their own language?  What about the rush of a violent wind that filled the whole house and the tongues of flame that danced above the heads of the disciples?

            The story of Pentecost is a counterpoint to the story of the tower of Babel.  Babel shows us how we confuse unity with uniformity.  Pentecost illustrates that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of imagination, that we can be diverse, be who we are and yet live as one.

            That’s the journey, isn’t it?  No matter who you are or where you are on your faith journey or your life journey, you are welcome here.  Even though it looks like we speak the same language, that we are one people, one church, we each experience the world in different ways.  We have different educational backgrounds, come from different states, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes, ages, genders, sexual orientations, work experiences.  We have different experiences of church, differing beliefs, different ideas of what it means to be church.  In fact, our diversity and our inclusivity are two of the core values of this church.

            For instance, if I asked you how you would define baptism to someone who had no idea what it was so they could understand it, what would you say?  It would probably take many of us to contribute what we know, what our experiences are, to arrive at some common understanding.  Even so, we also might disagree or be passionately wed to our own understanding because it’s human nature to own one’s experience of reality, sometimes to the exclusion of others.

            Once again there are people in this country who are ready to die on the hill of exclusivity in the name of a warped sense of unity.  Elect my candidate or I’m not voting at all.  Build more walls, decide who’s in and who’s out, white is right, arm every person, speak only English, police every bathroom and welfare recipient, and what it all amounts to is a really dangerous pissing contest.  Who has the most power, who gets to be in charge, all of us forced rather than covenanted under one banner, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”, and “under God” has become more of an exclusive statement.  We’ve forgotten that all means ALL and not just most or some.  When we say all and don’t really mean all, in our actions and laws and policies, some people are not only going to be hurt, but live a lifetime of hurt and injustice and then potentially pass it on to others.

            We’re creating Babel all over again.  In Genesis, in our beginning, God saw where it was going, where we were headed, and confused us, scattered us, because we were confusing ourselves with the One who made heaven and earth.  Once again we’re confusing unity with uniformity, consensus with unanimity, solidarity with falling in lockstep.  As I read in one online commentary we have a plethora of denominations that seek unity only by throwing others out or casting them as second-class citizens.

            Pentecost is often proclaimed as the birthday of the Church, but in truth it was the birth of a movement, of a Spirit-filled passion not limited to any nation or region but something that would transcend and also embrace diversity.  Not by our own merit but by the outpouring of the Spirit, the Mother of us all, the breath that gives us life.  A Spirit that has the power to be, instead of exclusive or inclusive, expansive.  The love of God and God’s grace would now be known from within the heart and in human relationships, how we care for one another.  And so it was said of this early community called the Way, “See how they love each other”.

            We keep trying to make a monolith, an institution of this movement of a called out people of God.  We try to stay in one place.  We don’t like being scattered.  It feels better when we’re all in agreement or when we’re all in one room or one building and there’s a sense of fullness.  

The disciples were all in one place when the Spirit came but it was only a prelude to being scattered once again.  Jesus had sent them out before in twos with only a walking stick and the clothes on their backs.  He knew that the only way to teach them about hospitality and extravagant welcome was to make the disciples into strangers at the mercy of their hosts. Now after this Pentecostal wind and fire they would be strangers again, taking the Gospel message on the road, each in their own way.  It would be a few hundred years later that once again, the love of power would overwhelm the power of love; uniformity would be imposed, orthodoxy and orthopraxis would take over, and heretics would be burned for centuries after.  Every incarnation of the Church has been guilty of this, even those who sought religious freedom.

            And yet there has always been a unity available to us, a singleness of heart, one language that we all understand and that we can all learn to speak, and yes it is the language of love:  acceptance and not just tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, restorative justice.   

         Henri Nouwen once wrote, “Community is that place where the person you least want to be with always is.”   

         But he also wrote, “Did I offer peace today?  Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?  Did I say words of healing?  Did I let go of my anger and resentment?  Did I forgive?  Did I love?  These are the real questions.”   

         If we are to be a communion of diversity, our unity begins with these questions of ourselves.  It’s this kind of unity that the world needs right now.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

They are us

Acts 16: 16-40
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 8, 2016

            I find this story from the book of Acts irresistible. It reads like scenes out of the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” and “Cool Hand Luke” (“I think what we have here is a failure to communicate!”). But the comedy, the absurdity only lasts for a few verses. It’s about how we trample on each other, treat human beings like commodities, brush people off like a mosquito, the prisons we use to control others and the ones we put ourselves in. It’s another resurrection story of how God wants all of us to be not only free but whole.

            Paul and Silas and whoever is narrating this story, maybe Timothy, go down to the proverbial river to pray, presumably the same place where they met Lydia and her friends.  As they are going, they meet a slave girl with the ability to see through people, tell fortunes, like the many signs on establishments we see throughout our area proclaiming “psychic”.  If Paul had wanted to fly under the radar, this slave girl makes it downright impossible. She’s broadcasting, putting up a billboard for all to see, that Paul and his friends are on a mission from the Most High God.  She does this over a number of days, most likely to squeeze some hush money from them.  “Hey guys, I know I’m right. Now pay up!”

            It’s reminiscent of a story from the gospel of Luke.  Jesus is in the synagogue when a man possessed of a demon proclaims in a loud voice, “Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  Jesus tells the demon to be silent and to come out of the man.

         But there are vast differences between the two stories.  The possessed man is not a slave, is not female, and is surrounded by community, before and after he is healed.  Jesus heals the man presumably because, one, the demon causes fear and disruption, and two, Jesus could get arrested for such a proclamation.  The slave girl faces a different fate: she loses her source of livelihood and we never hear from her again.  Paul heals her, not out of compassion, but annoyance, not thinking about the consequences of his actions.  Rather than seeing her as a fellow witness and potential convert, from my perspective he in essence demonizes her and sees her as a rival to his work.

            It doesn’t take long for her traffickers to get wind of losing their moneymaker.  Rather than seeking any restitution, they want their pound of flesh instead.  They have Paul and Silas publicly humiliated and tortured, using the mob mentality to grease the wheels of injustice.  Then as now, it doesn’t take much to criminalize someone’s behavior or actions or beliefs.  They appeal to the Roman sensibility, to empire’s purpose of reestablishing order and control.  These slave owners use the punitive culture to exact power over the minority.  Sound familiar?

            Many of us are aware of civil rights lawyer and law professor Michelle Alexander and her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  She observes that the most punitive nations are also the most diverse; that as human beings we are punitive toward the ‘other’.  The United States is one of the most diverse nations in the world, across ethnicity, class, race, and religion.  We tout diversity as one of our core values.  And yet among first world countries we also have the highest incarceration rate among minorities, the highest prison population, and the death penalty is still legal in 31 states, including Delaware and Pennsylvania.

            Never before has this nation been so factious.  Not only people of color but women, gays and lesbians, transgender, bisexual, queer, and non cis-gender persons, addicts, religious minorities, specifically Muslims, and the poor are being criminalized and marginalized not only by attitude but by legislation. Vincent Harding, an African-American civil rights leader, historian and scholar once said, “…when it comes to creating a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democratic society, we are still a developing nation.”  We witness this as #BlackLivesMatter banners are torn down, as #AllLivesMatter signs replace them, as violence accompanies angry rhetoric and invectives.

            In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Michelle Alexander said that we have become a nation of stone throwers, and it’s not enough that we drop our own stone.  She went on to say that we have to be willing to be awake, to acknowledge our participation in the systems that have created the new Jim Crow, to honor the criminality in each one of us.  Who among us is without sin?  Who among us has not injured or caused pain to another?  Who among us has never broken the law?  We just haven’t been caught.  And we increase the divide by saying that white collar crime isn’t as bad as blue collar crime, which isn’t as bad as street crime; that I make mistakes or errors in judgment or I tell a white lie once in a while, but I’d hardly call it sin, let alone crime.

            If there is to be transformation in our culture, in our society, if God’s kingdom is to come on earth, it must include all of us.  If there is to be resurrection, we’re all going to have to die to something—whatever it is we’re holding onto so tightly we’re fearful to let go.  All of us here benefit from privilege of some kind, whether it is our skin color or our gender identity or our sexuality or socioeconomic class or education or that we were raised in the church rather than coming to it as a stranger.  Picking up our cross means giving up that privilege to travel with, lift up those who have little or no privilege, no power, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the cost of discipleship.

            So when Paul and Silas are in the innermost cell, maximum security, singing their hearts out (“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus”), and the earth quakes and the foundation of the prison shakes so violently that the doors are torn off their hinges and everyone’s chains are broken, they don’t leave, they don’t walk out, because not everyone is free.  The jailer is still bound by his fear of retribution and the regime which holds his very life.

            The jailer asks them what he must do to be saved, that is, to live a whole life, one that is reconciled and forgiven.  He takes Paul and Silas into his own home and washes their wounds, much in the way that Jesus would have done.  Can we imagine a justice system that is restorative rather than punitive, that calls each of us to be reconciled to one another and forgiven?  Perhaps it was in this story that Paul received his inspiration for his letter to the church in Galatia, that there is neither Jew nor Greek (Paul and Lydia), slave or free (the slave girl and the prisoners), male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.  

            It sounds impossible, this kind of reconciliation, this radical forgiveness and oneness.  And yet it was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allowed both black and white South African citizens to forgive even the most heinous acts of apartheid so that their nation might heal and move forward.

            Last year the Central Atlantic Conference passed a resolution to dismantle the new Jim Crow, which then went on to pass at General Synod last summer.  Some folks in this congregation are part of the Delaware Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow.  Congregations across denominations are renewing their commitment to sacred conversations on race and starting prison ministries.  The early community of the Way in the book of Acts was on Rome’s top wanted list.  How far are we willing to go to be just as troublesome, to set all people free, including ourselves?  

            It’s more than loud songs that need to be sung.  John Newton the author of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace” continued to own and trade slaves years after his conversion to Christianity.  Kierkegaard wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.”

            We are criminals as much as anyone else we might demonize.  And yet we follow someone who says the story doesn’t end there, that there’s healing and hope for even the worst in us.  If we want change, it begins with us and our story.  If we want things to be different, it is our lives that must change first.  Amen.