Sunday, June 26, 2016

The grace of deviance

Galatians 5: 1, 13-25 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 26, 2016

Isn’t it a pity?
Isn’t it a shame?
How we break each other’s hearts
And cause each other pain?

How we take each other’s love
Without thinking any more
Forgetting to give back
Isn’t it a pity?

Some things take so long
But how do I explain
When not so many people
Can see we’re all the same?

And because of all their tears
Their eyes can hope to see
The beauty surrounds them
Isn’t it a pity?

This song, written by George Harrison, illustrates how we human beings can take love and make it unrecognizable to the point that we forget who we are and whose we are.

            But we’re not born that way.  A baby knows what communion is in being fed by her mother’s body and blood, a very real, life-giving, life-sustaining relationship.  A baby knows what baptism is in being suspended and then born in the waters of the womb.  A baby knows what love is before she is even born.

            The Hebrew word for compassion, whose singular form means ‘womb’, is often used of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.  ‘To be compassionate as God is compassionate’ is to be moved as a mother is moved in response to her children.  This is what is meant by Paul in his letter to the Galatians when the Greek word agape is used:  to love as in great and tender mercy, pity, to love in a social or moral sense—to have compassion.

            I’d like to have a car magnet that says “Love does not insist on its own way”.  That pretty much sums up what Paul is trying to say to the church in Galatia.  When we take on love, when we inhabit love and allow it to have life in us, to quote another song, “you can’t always get what you want.”  We become slaves but of a different kind.  Fools for Christ.  Suckers for Jesus.  Freedom does not mean that we get to behave any way we want, say anything we want, do anything we want. 

The resistance to and rejection of the phrase “politically correct” has been brewing since it was perceived to be an imposition of liberal orthodoxy.  President George H. W. Bush said in a commencement address in 1991:  “The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land. And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces old prejudices with new ones. It declares certain topics off-limits, certain expressions off-limits, even certain gestures off-limits.”  Yes, the ones that hurt others and deny their dignity and worth as a human being.

Many of us probably define political correctness a bit differently, depending on where we’re coming from.  As I was writing, as I often do, I asked David what he thought, and he said that to him, political correctness means awareness and respect for another person’s perspective:  their values, morals, ethics, their viewpoint and experience of the world.  Some people object to political correctness because they see it as an intrusion on their own values.  What’s the favorite comeback in the point in the conversation when someone objects to some political incorrectness?  “Hey, it’s a free country”.

But we’re not free to call people hateful, hurtful names.  We’re not free to make others targets of our anger and fear.  We’re not free to discriminate and establish laws against others because of who they love, the color of their skin, their gender or gender identity, their ethnic background, their religion, or because they’ve come to this country for a better life.  We’re not free so we can hate whoever we want.  Is that really the country, the world, the freedom we want to live in?   

If folks want to keep quoting Leviticus, let’s begin and end with chapter 19, verse 18:  “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”  As Eugene Peterson so wisely put it, if we bite and ravage each other, in no time at all we’ll be annihilating each other, and where will our precious freedom be then?  We’re free so we can love and care for everyone as we would want to be cared for and loved.

We’ve seen a viciousness unleashed in a way that divides people, even from themselves.  Earlier this week a man tweeted an invective at a well-known female author, but lovingly announced the birth of his daughter.  An ineffective congress offered its thoughts and prayers once again after a devastating shooting, engaged in a filibuster, and even had a sit-in, but is still getting nowhere when it comes to effective legislation to prevent gun violence.  A nation divides against itself in a vote that may wind up taking it out of a union but wonders the next morning what it did to not only itself but our broken global economy.  The Grand Canyon of anger, pain, and division is everywhere, and we’re choosing sides rather than trying to heal the rift.

Mary Luti, seminary educator and UCC pastor, wrote in a recent devotional, “The miracle is [Jesus] decides not to stand aloof from another person’s pain.  …We heal by the company we keep”.  This is why I believe faith communities and community of all sorts, especially the United Church of Christ, is so needed right now.  More than ever we cannot afford to stand aloof from another person’s pain but to stand with and in another person’s pain, especially if they are alone.  We live in a time when we can isolate ourselves and believe ourselves to be connected all at once.  We can lob insults and injury all the while staying hidden behind what appears to be a curtain of privacy.  

This is why the framers of our country devised not legalism but freedom yoked with responsibility, with self-control.  It’s why in the United Church of Christ we have autonomy, the freedom of a local church, held in covenant, in relationship with the wider church.  We’re going to be human, which means we will want our own way while still wanting to be in relationship, in community with others.  We will still be pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures who want to belong to each other.  So how do we live without causing each other suffering?  How do we walk with each other, travel together, and not destroy one another but behold one another as beloved, even in our pain?

Frederick Buechner wrote, “It is no wonder that from the very start of [Jesus’] ministry, the forces of Jewish morality and of Roman law were both out to get him because to him the only morality that mattered was the one that sprang from the forgiven heart, like fruit from the well-watered tree, and the only law he acknowledged as ultimate was the law of love.”

The only thing for fear and pain and hate is to be deviant, defiant by having the courage to love and to forgive.  This is what is meant by living God’s way, the way of Jesus, the way of Spirit, the way of the Buddha, the way of Krishna, the way of the human being that seeks the good of all life.  We can’t legislate it; we have to choose it.  When we choose this way, when we deviate from me-first to all-of-us-together, we create more kindness, we are able to restore justice, we become more resilient.  This way is a living way only when we live it.  Community gives us life only when we invest ourselves in it.  It is another great paradox:  We are set free when we become slaves to love.  That’s what it means to be Church.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

The eye of the storm

1 Kings 19: 1-15a
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 19, 2016


            First of all, let me say that yes, I am going to talk about Orlando, that violent storm amongst others that we are all living through right now. You may be wondering what in the world this story about the prophet Elijah has to do with that. So I invite you to journey with me through this text. But first let’s go back one chapter and then some to get the backstory.

            The story takes place in Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.  Under the kingships of David and Solomon, the twelve tribes of Jacob, whom God named Israel, were united.  But after the death of King Solomon, the ten northern tribes rebelled against the royal line of David and initiated their own kingdom and named it Israel.  The southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin continued the line of David and called their kingdom Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem.

            Our story picks up Israel’s history with King Ahab as king of Israel in the 9th century BCE.  Like many dynastic nations who want to add strength and stability, King Ahab marries a foreign queen, the infamous Jezebel.  She brings with her the god Ba’al; God’s people now must worship both Ba’al and Yahweh.  But not on Elijah’s watch.  Elijah challenges the prophets of Ba’al to a showdown—god against God.  You can guess how that turned out:  Ba’al’s power never showed up while Yahweh rained down fire and blew away the competition.  Elijah then had the prophets of Ba’al and the goddess Asherah—all 950 of them—killed.  Jezebel had already ordered the deaths of Israel’s prophets, so like an eye-for-an-eye, the whole world goes blind.  The episode ends with Elijah running strong in front of Ahab’s chariot as Ahab travels to his palace in Jezreel.

Elijah under the broom tree
            Now our hero is running for his life.  Jezebel swears by her gods that she will end him.  So Elijah assumes that this is it, he’s out, he’s quitting, he’s done all he can.  He goes out into the desert, lies down under a tree, and asks God to take his life.  And like a good Jewish mother, God thinks “When was the last time he ate?  Maybe he’s just hungry”, and sends an angel with some fresh bread baked on hot desert rocks and a jar of water to nourish Elijah not just once but twice.  The journey will be long and God wants Elijah to live.

            When Elijah reaches Mt. Horeb, God’s holy mountain, he’s still sticking to his story:  “God, I’ve been passionate about you and your word.  Everyone else has either abandoned you or has been killed.  I’m the only one who’s left, and now I’m about to be killed off as well.”  Elijah is not only afraid but grieved, pained that he is the only prophet left and about to die.  He's got survivor's guilt.  It’s as if he’s failed God.  God then tells Elijah that she is about to pass by.  Suddenly there is a violent wind, then an earthquake, and last a fire.  Yes, earth, wind, and fire.  Knowing the Israelite history well, Elijah expects God to show up in one of these.  But no; rather, God arrives in a mighty silence.

            Here God shows up in the eye of the storm, where it is clear and quiet.  The storm is still out there.  Jezebel is hungry for vengeance; Elijah’s life is still in danger.  God’s people are divided.  God still has work for Elijah to do.  And we witness this violent storm, this vengeance and rage every day, on the roads we drive, in social media and in politics and the public square, perhaps even in our extended families and friendships.  But before we start identifying ourselves with Elijah in our feelings of being overwhelmed, of despair and hopelessness in the face of what appears to be unending violence, hatred, and bloodshed, let us be mindful that many of us here are not objects of hate and prejudice because of who we are and who we love.

            It was not our sanctuary, our safe haven that was violated.  It was not our community that was told it couldn’t donate blood to help its own.  It was not our religion that was vilified once again.  It was not our gender or sexual orientation, it was not our queerness combined with the color of our skin and our Latin heritage that became a target for someone else’s brokenness and inability to deal with his own sexuality and pain.

            Of course we are frustrated and angry that once again, someone legally purchased a firearm and used it against innocent human beings.  We want desperately to do something, to stop this madness; that when we say enough is enough, we would never have to say it again.

            Vamping up the fight to prevent gun violence is indeed something we can do.  However, the root causes of violence are still present, and those are hate and fear.  And those are spiritual problems, community problems, human problems.  That is something that faith communities can not only speak to but act on as well.

            African-American novelist and poet, James Baldwin, who was also gay, wrote:  “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”  Pain can overwhelm all of us.  It can drive us to despair and hopelessness, as it did Elijah.  It can drive us to anger, hatred, fear of the other, and violence, as it did Jezebel and Omar Mateen.  But it can also drive us toward community, which is what the nightclub Pulse provided for its clientele and for the city of Orlando.  Pain can drive us to confront ourselves and our own fears.  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  Pain, in the midst of community, reminds us that there is still work to be done, there is healing still needed, there is still forgiveness to be had and given.

            If we as a faith community, as the Body of Christ, as church are going to do something not only about our own pain but to help heal the pain of others, then we need to be the eye in the storm, that place of peace and calm, that sanctuary, that safe haven that is open and welcome to all and visibly so.  In the almost 26 years that this church has been Open and Affirming, last Sunday was the first time this church displayed a rainbow flag on Main St.  

As Olivia and I taped it to the A-frame sign that afternoon, people stopped to thank us.  When I got a pole for it on Tuesday, a couple stopped to take a picture of it with the church sign.  A few folks honked from their cars.  A friend from Rainbow Chorale stopped by my office this week to tell me how much it means to see the flag here in Newark, not just in Rehoboth.

Declaring ourselves to be Open and Affirming on our website and on our Facebook page is good, very good, but not enough.  Having a rainbow flag displayed on Main St. says that we have come out.  It means that if we openly welcome LGBTQ folks, the message is that there is room for my quirks and your eccentricity and someone else’s weirdness.

Folks who still feel like they have to guard their every move shouldn’t have to make one extra step to find out if they are welcome in our church.  It should be plainly obvious.  For too long churches have put out “All are welcome” signs, only for LGBTQ folks to find out painfully that it didn’t mean them.  For too long churches have actively discriminated against and loudly proclaimed damnation against LGBTQ persons, using the Bible as a weapon and its words as bullets.  For too long LGBTQ people have had to fight for themselves, to find their own sanctuaries when Christians kicked them out of theirs.  For too long Church has sat on the fence.  For too long well-meaning people like us have been silent.

Church has done enough to hurt.  And we are sorry for all the hateful things that have been done in the name of the One who is Love.  Now it’s time we help with the healing.  And the speaking out and speaking up.  And taking Pride and having courage.  Now it’s time we stick our necks out for those whose necks have been on the line for too long. 

It’s time we were the eye in the storm for those who need peace, and that we head back out into the still-raging storm.  The hunger for vengeance is insidious.  Lives are on the line.  God’s people are divided.  Pain is everywhere.  God still has work for us to do.  God’s dream is that there be neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, gay nor straight, black nor white, but it’s not done yet.  Thanks be to God we have each other, that one day, love will indeed win.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Making disciples

Luke 9: 10-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 5, 2016

            Any number of days I can attest to the notion that “God is still speaking”, but also that she says some stuff that makes the Church want to stick its fingers in its ears and sing a loud chorus of “La La La”.  For a while now I’ve been feeling it and recently reading in several sources that attracting new members to church is not and no longer will be the mission of the Church.  In fact, it’s nothing short of a huge culture shift.  Church is about making disciples; you know, that thing Jesus did.  Maybe that sounds like semantics.  What’s the difference between attracting new members and making disciples?  Aren’t they the same thing?  Not by a long shot.

            Attracting new members is more about institutional survival; especially when we mention “young families”.  Making disciples is about changing the world, one person, one life at a time, no matter who it is.  Membership is about commitment and covenant, yes, but it’s also about who has organizational rights and privileges, like voting and chairing a committee.  Discipleship is about transformation, a changed and changing life; it’s about serving others, being justice-minded and compassionate, not always getting it right but not giving up either. 

It’s the difference between a consumer church, where we get our needs met, and a missional church, where we strive to meet the needs of others.  It’s the difference between “I go to church” and “I am the Church.”  Whether or not we’re a member of this church, I would say all of us are disciples.  What makes the difference, though, is do you think of yourself as a disciple.  And if not, why not?

            In this morning’s scripture lesson, Jesus is right in the middle of his disciple-making program.  The twelve of them had just gotten back from their first mission trip.  Jesus had sent them out in pairs, taking nothing with them—no staff or bag or bread or money, not even an extra tunic.  They were to be the stranger dependent upon the hospitality of others, the guest on a Sunday morning in church.

            When they return they tell Jesus everything that happened, like anyone who’s come back from a mission trip excited to tell their stories.  Jesus tries to give them and himself some time apart but the crowds find them and follow them.  So Jesus welcomes all these people that want to be healed, who want their lives to change, and he tells them about the kingdom of God.

            But it gets late and folks are hungry.  Where’s the potluck supper, where’s the community dinner?  The disciples seem to forget the mission trip they just came from and tell Jesus to send the people away to get their own food.  How do you get people to do what you want without guilt or fear?  You can't.  All you can do is make the invitation.  Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat.”  You be the Church.  You be the disciple.  You show them the kingdom of God. 

            The disciples say, “Hey we’ve only got so much, not enough to feed all of us, let alone this whole crowd.”  Then they say something rather interesting: “Unless we are to go and buy food for all these people”.  It sounds like a not-so-subtle hint, like maybe this is the miracle about to happen:  Jesus is going to conjure up enough money to pay for all these people to eat.  Or at least they are worried that Jesus is going to ask them to empty the common purse to feed their new 5000 friends.

            Instead Jesus has the crowd sit in groups of 50—the number of jubilee, the year of liberation and redemption, when lands are returned, slaves are set free, and debts are paid.  Then he took what they had—a simple meal of bread and fish—and he blessed it and broke it.  Everyone ate and they were filled, with leftovers to spare.

            To me the miracle of this story is diving in head first into what is needed with just what you have on you, that God doesn’t called the equipped—God equips those whom God calls.  Discipleship isn’t about waiting for our lives to change and then serving God when we’re ready; it’s about serving whenever God calls us and being transformed, our lives changed in the process.  Church, then, is about creating opportunities for people to be disciples.

            Do you think of yourself as a disciple?  And if not, why not?