Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Breaking the system

Luke 14: 1, 7-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 28, 2016

Hospitable God, you invite us to a life filled with good things,
in which the last may be first,
and the humble and the mighty trade places.
Let us share your abundance with no fear of scarcity;
let us greet strangers as angels you have sent!
Send your Spirit now
so that we may find a place at your table
and welcome others with radical hospitality.
In the name of Jesus, Guest at all our tables, we pray.  Amen.

            Homer Hickam was an ordinary high school student in a small coal town in West Virginia. The news about Sputnik making its orbit around the Earth hardly made a dent in his world of school, football, and coal mining. But when he saw the satellite moving overhead in a dark sky of stars, he was hooked. However, the social acceptability of geeking out was still decades away.

            He wasn’t one of the popular kids, but he had some street cred.  His father was the supervisor of the coal mine and his older brother was on the football team.  But Homer didn’t fit in either of those worlds.  He was beginning to wonder where he fit in when he came up with the harebrained idea of building a rocket.  Trouble was he didn’t have the first idea of how to go about building a rocket that would actually launch.  The only person who might know was the class misfit but also the smartest kid in the whole school, and no one ever ate lunch with him.

            If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Homer and Quentin, along with their friends Roy Lee and Odell, eventually did build rockets that launched high into the sky. They entered the school science fair, won first prize for the state of West Virginia and went on to win first place at the National Science Fair. All four of them, the rocket boys, were awarded full scholarships to college. None of which would have happened if Homer hadn’t taken a seat at Quentin’s lunch table.

            Social status and reputation were very much a part of the world that Jesus lived in.  People knew their rank and station in society, accepted it and used it to their advantage if they could.  You could tell if someone worked with their hands for a living given the coarseness of their language and accent and the village they lived in.  People knew Jesus was a carpenter’s son from Nazareth for this very reason. Those who had a lower position due to their profession, level of income, or quality of education, could apply to someone with a higher status to be their patron.  

The direction was always up.  No one ever wanted to go lower, and the lowest stayed put.  If you were a slave, you accepted your lot in life.  If you were a tax collector, you were considered a thief.  If you were an orphan, a widow, or a foreigner, people were supposed to take care of you.  If you had leprosy or a demon or any physical impairment, it was your sins or the sins of your parents that caused it and no one went near you.

            Jesus was always going against the tide, hanging out with the misfits and outcasts, and yet eating at the popular kids’ table as well.  1st century Palestine had its own untouchables and golden children, and Jesus was always trying to get them to sit at the same table.

            It’s a very old idea, this virtue called humility.  Jesus was probably thinking of a couple of verses in Proverbs 25 when he thought of his parable:  “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”  Of course, like many proverbs, the message is not only about human relationships but also about our relationship with God.  It’s all one: how we treat each other, what we think is sacred, where we place ourselves and everyone else in the order and chaos of the universe.  Love God, love neighbor, love self, in that order.

            If the author of Luke was to tell this story now, it might sound something like this:

         On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the populist political party for a fundraising dinner on a Saturday night, everyone kept an eye on him to see what trouble he might stir up.

         When Jesus noticed how the guests chose seats near the power brokers and celebrities, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a dinner party, do not sit in the spotlight, right up front as the guest of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, be willing to trade places with those who always have the lowest place, so that when your host comes, they may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who try to make themselves great set themselves up for a fall and those who show true lowliness will be lifted up.”

Image result for olympics runner lifting up

         He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a power lunch or a dinner, remember God’s table fellowship. Do not invite your friends or your colleagues or your relatives or rich neighbors or people just like you to the table, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite welfare moms and absentee dads, the homeless, addicts and alcoholics, refugees and immigrants and those whose first language is not English, every color under the sun, disabled veterans, people who work with their hands for a living, those who are shunned because they live with a mental illness. Make your home ADA accessible, provide gender-neutral bathrooms, let people bring their service dogs wherever they want. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid when you really come alive in this world.”

            I read a recent opinion essay that stated that the United States is bifurcated into two groups of people:  the elites and everyone else—oversimplified but true nonetheless.  Over the last 40 years or so the divide between these groups has grown ever wider—socially, economically, culturally, and geographically.  To a certain extent, our Civil War became a cold war of its own.  Those who have a costlier higher education and more of it tend to congregate in certain areas of the country, and for the most part, control most of the decision-making, wealth, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. 

In this church’s profile it stated that 37% of the congregation had a bachelor’s degree but 47% had a master’s degree or higher.  We have the places of honor, we have put ourselves there, and we make decisions and choices that keep us there.  The desirable direction is always up.  No one really wants to go lower.  No one really wants to stay there either.  Everyone wants to be lifted up, to be told, “Friend, move up higher”, to the place of honor or at least to the place where we are accepted as we are, receive the same quality education and have access to adequate healthcare, live in a place that is warm, safe and dry, be a part of a community, earn a wage that one can live on, and work safely and freely.

            But it doesn’t happen just from the bottom up.  We know that trickle-down economics doesn’t work but neither does trickle-down education.  And that’s why the American dream is a lie for so many Americans, why many Americans are so angry and frustrated.  People have worked hard, believed every promise, thought they would move higher, but crashed hard in 2008, and for many the bailout didn’t make much of a difference in their lives.  It only reached so far and allowed too many to slip through the cracks.  Rapacious subprime mortgages were devastating.  I lost some retirement savings.  Other than that, it didn’t really didn’t touch me or most of my neighbors and friends.

            Those who are lower want to break this lousy system that never really lets them or others move higher.  Many wanted to do that by voting for Bernie Sanders.  Others are voting for Donald Trump for the same reason, to break the system.  When those who are lower and not valued are not heard by those who have power, the elites, revolution usually follows.  And as has happened repeatedly through history, even when the new system is better than the old, eventually power corrupts something even as good as democracy.

            Jesus knew that if there was to be a revolution, it would be the high places made low: “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  After all it was Jesus who could have claimed greatness for himself but instead became a slave and was servant of all.

            It’s not only the cracks in the glass ceiling that bring the desperately needed change but also the cracks in the glass floor and walls.  The revolution begins with us: the social capital we’re willing or not willing to risk, to find ways to trade places with those who always have the lowest place, to take our chances looking like fools, even failing, in order to do the next right thing.  Take up your cross and follow me.  Suckers for Jesus.  Fools for Christ.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Giving it a rest

Luke 13: 10-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 21, 2016

Lord Jesus,
There are times
we can see only our feet
because the world has us bent
to its pain, its burdens, its rules.
There are times we see
over the backs of others
and we only admire the view.
But you see
each one of us,
an image of God.
Raise us up
so we can stand
look you
and each other
in the eye.

            A nameless woman.  The Bible is replete with them.  They’re somebody’s wife, mother, mother-in-law, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister.  Or they’re unattached, a widow, childless, and poor, or worse, a sinful woman, harlot, whore.

            In the gospels one interpretation is the nameless woman is a symbol for Israel.  And not only Israel but the most vulnerable of God’s people:  widows, orphans, the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and those who need healing, and how they are treated by those who have power and responsibility for them.  Jesus is calling into question not only the rules around the Sabbath but also how the least of God’s children need Sabbath the most.

The division that Jesus said he would bring in last week’s reading from Luke is present in this story.  Jesus is in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath; he is at the center of the practice of his faith.  To practice the Sabbath is to practice the way of God, to participate in God’s rhythms.  A woman with, in the Greek translation, a ‘spirit of weakness’ enters, presumably to worship God.  She is unable to stand upright, only able to focus on the small square of floor her circumscribed vision will allow.  She does not call out to Jesus, she probably could not lift her head to see him, let alone know he was there.  Jesus is the one who calls out to her.  Without asking permission of anyone, without changing any laws, without organizing a committee to talk about it first, he heals her and creates a crisis for the leader of the synagogue and his colleagues but an occasion of praise for the crowd.

This healing on the Sabbath is intended to carry us back to the last time Jesus healed on the Sabbath in chapter 6 and even further to the first time we read of him teaching in the synagogue in chapter 4.  When he healed the man with the withered hand Jesus asked the scribes and the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”  When he teaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, he reads from Isaiah and we hear echoes of the lesson from this morning:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Sabbath had become a system of rules rather than the gift of God it was meant to be.  Jews were instructed to abstain from 39 types of labor, not to ‘legalize’ the Sabbath but so that the people of God would alter their hearts and minds from their agenda to God’s agenda.  Human beings have an apparent difficulty with an imposed communal day of rest; it does not seem to come naturally to us, especially now in our technological, individualistic age.  So laws, both religious and secular, have long been enacted to steer us toward a time of not just rest but also toward moral behavior.

In the U.S. they were called blue laws, those that govern activity on Sundays.  The former Blue Laws of Delaware, “offences against religion, morality, and decency”, prohibited more than just “worldly employment, labor, or business” on Sunday.  Laws passed in 1852 and still on the books in the mid-20th century stated it was illegal to drive or travel on Sundays, as well as sell any kind of liquor within two miles of a camp meeting for worship.  One could not hunt fowl or game, go fishing, or engage in horse racing or cock-fighting on the Sabbath.  There was also to be no dancing, playing, or organizing of games of any kind; in essence, a joyless day dedicated to the Lord.

In 1911, Delaware’s blue laws made headlines when several of Arden’s residents, along with Sinclair Lewis, were arrested for playing tennis and baseball on Sunday.  In 1941 the state attorney general, James Morford, took the blue laws to task, pointing out that it was ridiculous for someone to be a law-abiding citizen six days of the week but guilty of breaking the law on the seventh.  It also made room for graft and corruption in public office by the widespread disrespect for what most people thought of as soft laws.  He enforced the blue laws as they had never been before.  On March 2, 1941, throughout the state of Delaware, taxi and bus drivers, restaurant workers, newspaper vendors, gas station attendants, even the general manager of WDEL, were arrested; more than 500 arrests in one day.  “But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”

Wait a minute.  That sounds like Jesus is comparing this woman who was bent for 18 years to a beast of burden, a work animal.  Well, yes, he is but not as an insult to her.  What Jesus is saying is that these faithful people, good people, well-meaning people who want to obey God, do the right thing—they treat their work animals better than they do the least of God’s people.

Even with all our rules, even with blue laws, even when we think we’re kind enough, moral enough, we can’t legislate kindness; we can’t make people be moral.  We all suffer from a spirit of weakness of some sort that makes it difficult to be upright, that bends us to a will not our own, that puts our agenda first, that prevents us from seeing the whole picture, that constricts our ability to offer praise, to really be alive and who we really are.  Rather than sending the woman away to come back at a time when it was convenient to uphold the law, Jesus inconveniences himself, he touches her, and he bends the law that the woman might be set free, come alive, and claim her birthright as a daughter of Abraham, not to mention Sarah.

Earlier this week I asked Facebook friends what helps them feel rested, and also what restores them.  What I found most interesting is that many gave answers that involve solitude.  Which says to me that the way we are in community most of the time not only saps us of energy but that we aren’t really free to be really alive and who we really are.

            The Sabbath is not only about rest, which our competitive, look-busy-lest-you-be-judged, bucket-list, you-only-live-once culture sorely needs.  The Sabbath is about community and restoration: restoring not only our spirits, but restoring those to community who have little to none.
What of the bent backs of the Immokalee workers who pick tomatoes under Florida’s hot sun and Wendy’s 10 year refusal to participate in the Fair Food program?  What of those bent by poverty and a wage that doesn’t allow for a day off?  What of those lives bent by grief and loss, mental illness, addiction, homelessness?  Whenever we bend for one such as these, when we alter our hearts and minds from our agenda to God’s agenda, when we stretch beyond our traditions of what it means to be church, we are engaging in Sabbath, and making it the center of our practice of faith.

            We need Sabbath rest so we can do Sabbath justice, and neither is optional, but they also don’t have to take place just on Sunday.  The more we engage in Sabbath living, holy, holistic, justice-filled living, we begin to see that every day is sacred, and that life-affirming community can be created and found anywhere.  And that, my friends, is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.  Amen.


Is not this the fast, the Sabbath that we choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share our bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into our house;
when we see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide ourselves from our own kin?

Then our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the One who upholds us shall go before us, the glory of the Lord shall have our backs. Then we shall call, and the Lord will answer; we shall cry for help, and the Holy One will say, Here I am.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A dangerous faith

Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2; Luke 12: 49-56
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 14, 2016

We bring swords
that you turn into plowshares.
We bring expectations of peace
and you meet us with swords.
help us.

      Once upon a time, Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister and author, flew to Hawaii to speak at a conference. He checked into his hotel and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock woke him at 3:00 a.m. The night was dark, the streets were silent, the world was asleep, but Tony was wide awake and his stomach was growling.

         He got up and prowled the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything was closed except for a grungy dive in an alley. He went in and sat down at the counter. The guy behind the counter came over and asked, "What d'ya want?"

         Well, Tony wasn't so hungry anymore, so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he said, "I'll have a donut and black coffee."

         As he sat there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30 in the morning, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plopped down at the counter and Tony found himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulped his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway. Then the woman next to him said to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39." To which her friend nastily replied, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?"

         The first woman said, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

         Well, when Tony Campolo heard that, he said he made a decision. He sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

         "Yeah," he answered.

         "The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

         "Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

         "Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

         A cute kind of smile crept over the man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he said, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turned to the kitchen and shouted to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

         His wife came out. "That's terrific," she said. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

         So they made their plans. Tony said he'd be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turned out to be Harry, said he'd make a cake.

         At 2:30 the next morning, Tony was back. He had crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that said, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorated the place from one end to the other and got it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

         At 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in walked Agnes and her friend. Tony had everybody ready. They all shouted and screamed "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" Agnes was absolutely flabbergasted. She was stunned, her mouth fell open, her knees started to buckle, and she almost fell over.

         And when the birthday cake with all the candles was carried out, that's when she totally lost it. Then she was sobbing and crying. Harry, who wasn’t used to seeing anyone cry in his establishment, gruffly mumbled, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."

         So she pulled herself together and blew them out. Everyone cheered and yelled, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

         But Agnes looked down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly said, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

         Harry didn’t know what to say so he shrugged and said, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

         "Oh, could I?" she asked. Looking at Tony she said, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

         She got off her stool, picked up the cake, and carried it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail. Everybody watched in stunned silence and when the door closed behind her, nobody seemed to know what to do. They looked at each other. They looked at Tony.

         So Tony got up on a chair and said, "What do you say that we pray together?"

         And there they were in a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon in Honolulu, a crowd of prostitutes at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prayed for Agnes, for her life, her health, and her life with God. Tony recalled, "I prayed that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her."

         When he was finished, Harry leaned over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he said, "Hey, you never told me you was a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

         In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answered him quietly, "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

         Harry thought for a moment and said, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."

         That’s the kind of church Jesus calls us to be, the same one that lists Rahab the prostitute as a hero of the faith right after Moses and before those of Gideon, Samson, David, and Samuel in the reading from the book of Hebrews. Jesus said, “Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before the righteous will.” Jesus was a dangerous man. He broke the religious laws of his time to show forth God’s radical love, compassion, and forgiveness. People thought he was a drunkard and a glutton because he ate and drank with those who behaved that way. 

         He healed on the Sabbath, he spoke with women and included them in his inner circle. He said the last would be first and the first, last. Grace would be given to all, the just and the unjust. If we were rich, we would be sent away empty; we were to sell all we had and give it to the poor. We were to love our enemies and pray for them. We were to deny ourselves and take up our own cross. And as unbelievable as it may sound, this was the sword that Jesus wielded, that divided family members one from another.

         A friend once said in a sermon, “It isn’t the unbelievable, fantastic stories in the Bible that make me feel uncomfortable. What really makes me squirm is precisely that which I do understand, what I can fathom, what I am certain is true. The stories and the words of Jesus cut like a knife in order to purify and heal, to bother us into eternity. God is the great Botherer, to save us from drowning in the Red Sea, from burning to a crisp in warfare with our brothers and sisters or with our own selves. If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered for the right reasons.”

         The prophetic voice, if it has any power, must bother us. It irritates us and arouses our passion. The prophetic voice comforts the afflicted, but it afflicts the comfortable. It’s the lectionary reading we’d rather not use in worship. Indeed it does make us squirm, like when we’ve been sitting too long. It rips the covers off our comfort zone and wakes us up. It’s the sword that cuts through our illusions. 

         The prophetic voice comes from obscure corners and unexpected people. Prophets are edgy and rarely well-behaved. They’re part of the disestablishment; they’ve been exiled from the popular kids’ table. When we say “God is still speaking,” these are the folks God taps.

         Who are the great and small Botherers of our time? Right now, today? 

         Malala Yousafzai


         Traci Blackmon

         Martin Luther King Jr.

         And yes, Donald Trump (keep reading)

         We who are white, heterosexual, cisgendered, middle- to upper-middle class have had more than ample opportunity to have our say, and it has been dominant. But what have we done with our privilege but to ensure our place at the table? We hunger for the progressive voice and nod our heads vigorously in assent when hear it, but what about the hoarse radical crying out from the margins or agitating from within our own ranks? I’m thinking of Wally McCurdy who was a much-loved yet persistent thorn in the side of this congregation.

         In the 59 years of the United Church of Christ we have a long tradition of lifting up our prophets, our truth tellers. But in the years since the popularity of social media, we often convert these edgy folks into rock stars, inadvertently domesticating their message and their voice into something like pop music or siren song. 

        It’s time for we who have privilege to get quiet and finally listen, really listen, to the pain of others whose lives are so very different from ours. This pain can sound like anger, fear, grief, depression, desperation, resentment, powerlessness. It expresses itself in violence, in riots, in massacres, self-destruction, political rallies and protests, and hair-triggers. There is truth being told in this pain, the pain of living in an empire, but as we have witnessed it can also be easily manipulated and channeled when it has not been heard by those who have the power to change the way things are but instead ensure their place at the table.

         The Church needs to remember its roots in disestablishment, that it was born in the pain of empire, and broadcast that truth-telling voice loud and clear. We need to own our role of John the Baptist, that voice who cried out from the margins of his own time, who pointed to one who was even more of an outsider, who was crucified as a criminal. 

         When the Church is not loud enough, it can lead to comfortable, so-so faith that neither attracts newcomers nor energizes a congregation. Our faith is meant to be fuel for the engine that drives the kingdom of God. Discomfort, passion, and being bothered by Jesus and the pain of others can fire up a sense of mission and purpose in the Church.

         As a church, what is our comfort zone? How are we being challenged to step out in faith? What makes this church dangerous to the status quo? What is it about Jesus’ message that disturbs us, bothers us, and afflicts our personal and collective conscience? What is it about Jesus that presents a crisis, a moment or occasion of truth and decision, in our lives and in our life together? We need to think about what has been bothering us recently as a church, and as person of faith, and ask ourselves, “Is this worth spending our energy, my energy on or is there something more important? Is this about me and my will be done or is this about Jesus and God’s will be done?” As my friend said, “If we must be bothered, and we must, let us be bothered by the right reasons.”

         God wants all of us at the table: at the tables of power and decision and policy; at this Table where we are reminded of the cost and joy of discipleship; at that universal table where all people gather in peace. But most of all God wants us at the tables we are reluctant to set and sit at. Let us dare to follow that One, our Savior who came with a sword to cut us loose from our chains of comfort, our bondage to the ways things are, our “peace at any price”, that we might be set free, that we might have power to imagine something more wonderful and life-giving—even a church that gives birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning. Yep, I’d join a church like that. How about you? 


We are Church.
We are that sword that can cut through the darkness.
We are that table where all can have a place.
We are that grungy dive that hosts birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.
We are not the prophetic voice but we have been called to hear it, listen to it, and make it loud enough for all to hear, to bother the world into eternity.
Let us go forth to be the Church in our communities and in our lives. Amen.