Monday, October 31, 2016

The sinner's table

Luke 19: 1-10
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 30, 2016

Image result for luke 19: 1-10

            When I was a kid in the 1970’s, I hardly ever invited friends over to my house, that is, inside my house. A few times friends came over to play in the backyard, but not in the house. Perhaps it was because our house was small—I’m guessing around 700 square feet. Maybe it was because our house was pretty messy—lots of books, our furniture stuffed into this small house—we had an old, used grand piano in the living room that my parents bought, the family legend says, for $70.

            The real reason was one I would not realize until I was a teenager, until after we moved out of that house, until after my parents divorced.  The real reason I hardly ever invited friends over to my house, that is, inside my house, is because my father was an alcoholic.  I had no idea at the time that my father had a drinking problem.  I only knew that from time to time, weird and strange things would happen.  When I was six years old there was the night I found my father passed out face down on the floor next to his side of the bed and thought he was dead.  Or the time my younger brother and I came home from school, our father was home, but the back door was locked.  My brother banged so hard on one of the small window panes in the door that he broke the glass and had to get stitches.  Or when my father bragged he was driving without a license because it had been taken away from him.  Or when he went ice skating with my mom and stumbled getting onto the rink, banged his head on the ice, and needed 11 stitches.

            It wasn’t only this weird, strange house that I did not want friends coming into—it was my life, a secret life that I was only half aware of.  It made for a lot of loneliness, sadness, and pain.  That is, until high school when I found really good church: a new church start that was as old as I was.  Don’t get me wrong; the sadness and pain didn’t exactly go away.  Rather, I found a community of honest, loving people I could share it with.  And in return, they showed me who Jesus is.

            Every week in worship a lay person would take a turn doing the Prayers of the People.  What that meant was someone would share their own individual prayer, from their own vulnerable spiritual journey, in front of the whole congregation.  And in that first-person prayer I heard myself in their struggles and weaknesses, in their worries and fears, in their strengths and blessings, and in their joy.  I got to know these grown-ups in their unashamed love for church and for God.  I connected.

            It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I began to come to grips with the fact that growing up with an alcoholic affected me in negative ways.  And so it was in Al-Anon that I found another community of honest, loving people with whom I did not have to hide, with whom there was no shame.  We all knew why we were there and that we needed each other.  I invited these women into my childhood home again and again until I could see my parents as human beings who were doing the best that they could with what they had.

            Jesus hung out with sinners not only because they needed him but because there was nothing to hide, and with him there was no shame—only compassion and forgiveness.  In this story about Zacchaeus, the so-called righteous ones grumble and complain that Jesus wants to be the guest of a sinner, and yet this supposed sinner is happy to welcome Jesus.  Whose house would you go to?  “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/‘cause sinners are much more fun/Only the good die young”, the song goes.

            Jesus said he came to save the lost, but they weren’t lost to God—they were lost to everyone else and sometimes to themselves.  They were lost to community and belonging.  They didn’t know how to find wholeness and forgiveness on their own.  None of us really do.  How do we learn to forgive except by the necessity of it?  How do we find wholeness if there is no one to help us pick up the broken pieces?  Everyone assumed Zacchaeus was crooked because he was the chief tax collector and he was rich.  For those reasons alone he was lost to his community, no longer a son of Abraham, the covenant broken.  But Jesus seeks out Zacchaeus and finds one who is extravagantly generous and open-hearted.  Jesus says that today salvation has come to this house—restoration, reconciliation, what is broken is now whole again.

            Today is Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday in the Protestant church.  For 499 years Catholics and Protestants have not been fully welcome at each other’s tables, each other’s houses, our covenant broken, all of us Christians, not entirely lost to each other but not exactly found either.  We have been at war with each other, we've persecuted each other, we’ve been suspicious of one another, but we’ve also endeavored to work together, talk to each other, listen to each other. 

            A year ago this month, Pope Francis spoke to a national conference of the Italian church, to the theme “A new humanism in Jesus Christ”, and said these words, “Christine doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives—but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened.  It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.”

            He went on to say, “If we do not lower ourselves, we will not see his face.   …You, therefore, go forth to the streets and go to the crossroads: all who you find, call out to them, no one is excluded.  Wherever you are, never build walls or borders, but meeting squares and field hospitals.”  Pope Francis wants a church “that is unsettled, always closer to the abandoned, the forgotten, the imperfect…a happy church with a face of a mother who understands, accompanies, caresses.”  

Isn’t that what we all long for?  Community that understands, accompanies, caresses.  Community that seeks out the lost because we know what it means to be lost.  Community for sinners because we know why we’re here and that we need each other.  Community that realizes that it’s doing the best that it can with what it has.  Community that offers grace above all.

At the table of the righteous we can’t always sure if we belong.  We may have to justify our place, stretch the truth a bit, compare ourselves to someone else.  But at the sinner’s table everyone is welcome.  Catholics and all stripes of Protestants and Orthodox Christians may not agree on the theology of the Eucharist, but when we gather at the table and Jesus is both guest and host, we’re all there for the same reason.  We need help and we need each other.  We’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all done something, sometime of which we are ashamed, we all need reconciliation and forgiveness: we want to be restored.

The sinner’s table is the table of reconciliation, and God wants everyone to come to dinner.  Authors Philip Gulley and James Mulholland in their book If Grace Is True describe what is to be found at this great banquet.  Enemies will be seated next to each other.  Those who hurt us washing our feet with their tears.  They write, “You may complain that I do not understand what they did to you.  How cruel and petty and evil they were.  How they showed no remorse.  You may stomp your foot and refuse to be seated next to them.  You may say you can never forgive them.  …But then someone will tap you on the shoulder and you’ll turn to look into the eyes of someone you hurt.  Someone to whom you were cruel and petty and evil.  Someone to whom you never apologized.  Someone who has every right to refuse to sit with you.  But who will instead say, ‘I forgive you’.”

Like the father in the story of the prodigal son, God is willing to wait as long as it takes until we are all at the table.  Jesus is ready to come to our house today.  What in the world are we waiting for?


Thursday, October 27, 2016

Power lines

Luke 18: 9-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 23, 2016

         Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of the Lutheran church House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO, tells the story of when the so-called bad element started showing up at her church. She titled the chapter in her book, “The Wrong Kind of Different”. The mission church was still in its modest beginnings, with 45 being the highest number in attendance on any given Sunday evening. But growth in numbers was sluggish. Then she preached at Red Rocks amphitheater and the Denver Post did a cover story. Nadia thought, great—this will really get the word out about us.

            The church doubled in size the week after the news article.  Nadia knew some folks would show up just out of curiosity to see what this church was all about.  What she didn’t expect was these curious people would not only stick around, but they also wouldn’t look like everyone else at church.

            You see, this church was started for the disenfranchised, for those who had been hurt by church, edgy folks, tattooed, gay, transgendered, artsy, quirky, people on the margins who really didn’t fit in anywhere but at this church.  The folks who came to worship the Sunday after the news article were people who read an actual newspaper rather than on the internet or listen to NPR.  They looked like so much middle class and lived in the suburbs and wore slacks and loafers.  It was like they were church tourists coming to check out the hip church because they couldn’t be cool and real in their own space.  Ugh!  Who were these people and why were they at our church, Nadia groused.  She resolved to set up a meeting with the church to talk about the “sudden demographic changes”.  She thought if they could just communicate to these new people what the church was really all about, they would go away on their own—wake up to the reality that this wasn’t the church for them.  

            Of course, the Holy Spirit being who She is, wasn’t content to just leave it that way.  A few days before the meeting, Nadia called a colleague who pastors a church in St. Paul, with a similar background and beginnings, but with about a 10 year head start on the House for All Sinners and Saints.  Nadia asked her friend if they had ever felt co-opted, homogenized, and described in detail the bloodless coup of soccer moms and bankers.

            Her colleague came right back at her:  “Yeah, that sucks.  You guys are really good at ‘welcoming the stranger’ when it’s a young transgender person.  But sometimes ‘the stranger’ looks like your mom and dad.”

            And so at that church meeting, one by one, these middle class church tourists spoke up about how they felt like they could be themselves at this church, even when they felt broken; that something real happened in the liturgy, in the prayers, in the Eucharist.  Then came the transcendent moment that we church types live for:  the young transgendered kid who had been welcomed with open arms said that they were glad there were now people at church that looked like their mom and dad, because they can have a relationship with these folks that they can’t have with their own mom and dad.

            “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

            How many of us have been hurt by church?  Many of us have.  But what about when church has the same lines of division that have hurt us outside the church?  The church is called to be the place where the lines dissolve and disappear.  Not the healthy boundaries, not the ways of self-care, but the lines that divide us, separate us from one another, that say “I am not like you; if you would only be like me”, the lines that hurt and wound.

            “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

            Let’s do an exercise together.  Take the skin that is between your thumb and forefinger, that web of flesh.  Squeeze it between the fingernails of your thumb and forefinger of your other hand, and pinch it hard for three seconds.  One, two, three.  Now release.  Is the pain still there?  Count how long it takes for the pain to ebb away.

            Let’s do the same exercise again, but this time I want you to gently massage the sore spot as soon as you release.  One, two, three.  Now release and caress that sore spot.  How quickly did the pain ease?  Almost instantly for some of us.

            To the brain and the body and the soul, pain is pain, whether it is physical or emotional or spiritual.  When we experience pain in the church, when we feel separate from others, when lines are drawn between us and others, when those lines are like trip wires, many of us probably left that church that caused us pain.  Yet we can still carry that pain, that trauma with us even as we find, even as we form a new church, one that will not be painful but healing; not conflicted but joy-filled community.

            In truth, we’ve all experienced trauma of one sort or another.  We all know the pain of feeling separate from others, sometimes from our own actions, sometimes from the actions and behavior of others or most likely a combination of both.  The pain we carry inside us finds its way into our decisions, our behavior, how we interact with others, how we feel about ourselves.  On any given day there are those among us who can convince ourselves that no one would love us if they knew the truth about us.  How many of us feel like it’s a skimmed-down version of us that’s loved and not the whole package?  How many of us feel that way at church?

            “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

            And yet the church is supposed to be the place, the people where we can be our whole selves—our flaws, our uniqueness, our quirks, our need for control, our propensity to procrastinate, our beauty and our pain, who we were, who we are now, who we might become.  The things we’ve done wrong, the things we’ve done well, the things we haven’t even attempted.  Our fears and our hopes, our desires and our needs, and those of everyone else, and Jesus calls us to somehow make community out of that.  How?  With that gentle caress called kindness, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, acceptance, healing, love.

            The Church can be fond of saying that we need to see Jesus in the eyes of everyone we meet, which isn’t easy most days.  You know what’s harder?  Seeing ourselves in someone else’s eyes.  It’s not hard when we’re falling in love or making a new friend.  But what about that poor sinner over there or that person who’s really getting under our skin or that relative or friend who’s voting for someone we would never vote for or the actual candidate or the street alcoholic or drug addict or the one who’s disappointed us one too many times?  Henri Nouwen said that community is that place where the person you least want to be with always is, but did we ever consider that someone else could be thinking that saying refers to us?  Give me Jesus any day.

            “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

            The only lines we really need to be concerned about are the ones that connect us to each other, like heartstrings, lifelines, a web, a safety net.  Not just lines of communication but lines of care, lines of forgiveness, lines elastic enough to make room for others, lines powerful enough to not only heal ourselves but those around us. 

            You know how we get better?  It’s not by choosing or deciding to be better or by being told we need to get better.  Not really.  We get better when we know we are surrounded by unconditional love, by that web of kindness, by knowing we can trust our community, that we can face ourselves, confess who we are, and receive forgiveness.  We get better when we are needed and challenged to do the same for others, to be their soft place to land.  We get better when we know we’re all in the same boat, this New Ark.

            “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pray working

Luke 18: 1-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 16, 2016

            “Actors are storytellers. And storytelling is the essential human art. It’s how we understand who we are. I don’t mean to make it sound high-flown. It’s not. It’s discipline and repetition and failure and perseverance and dumb luck and blind faith and devotion. It’s showing up when you don’t feel like it, when you’re exhausted and you think you can’t go on. Transcendent moments come when you’ve laid the groundwork and you’re open to the moment. They happen when you do the work. In the end, it’s about the work.”

            I heard actor Bryan Cranston read those words from his autobiography A Life in Parts in an interview on NPR’s “Marketplace” Wednesday morning.  Everyone has a filter, and my filter is church.  When I heard those words, I thought, church people, faith people, all people are storytellers.  It’s how we all understand who we are.  As church we tell our own story in the context of the faith story, the meta-narrative, the human narrative, the story of human evolution.  We tell our story in the context of the Church’s story and the story of this church.  I don’t think we’ve sung this hymn since I’ve been pastor of this church, but there’s the old hymn:

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story
because I know it’s true
It satisfies my longings,
as nothing else would do.

I love to tell the story;
‘twill be my theme in glory:
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.

            When we pray, we’re telling a piece of our story.  We’re working it out, this story of ours; this story that interweaves with other people’s stories; this story that we’re not sure how it’s going to work out; this story that requires our discipline and our discipleship, our repeated telling of it, our failures, our perseverance, our sometimes dumb luck, sometimes blind faith as in a leap of faith, and always our devotion.  Prayer is when we lay the groundwork and we’re open to the moment, and sometimes something transcendent happens.  Prayer is when we do the work of faith.

            I love this image of the persistent widow as an image of prayer life:  the lowest person on the totem pole, someone on the bottom of society, who never lets up until they get what they’re asking for.  This kind of persistence reminds me of Sheldon in the TV show “The Big Bang Theory”:  whenever Sheldon needs something from his friends Leonard and Penny, he knocks on the door and says their names over and over until they answer just to stop him from knocking.

            Author Anne Lamott might say that kind of persistence isn’t exactly keeping one’s sticky fingers off the control pad.  For more than 20 years Anne has had this prayer practice of the God Box.  She writes her prayers on little pieces of paper, puts them in the God Box, promising to keep her sticky fingers off the controls until she hears God’s wisdom.  Sometimes it comes in a phone call or a piece of mail, but she says it always comes in a quantity enough to get her through the moment or problem or situation with grace, humor, resilience, and forgiveness.

            Persistence in prayer can be a problem for those of us who like to have control, who obsess about our difficulties, let alone serious injustices like that of the widow.  So it helps us to remember that whatever it is we’re nagging the Almighty for, we’re not the lowest person on the totem pole.  In point of fact, we are compelled to nag on behalf of those who are on the bottom of society, to repeatedly tell their story:  the poor and the poor in spirit, those experiencing loss of any kind, Syrian refugees, victims of floods and earthquakes, Native Americans trying to protect clean water, the very earth itself.  We are compelled to agitate the One who made heaven and earth to bend the moral arc of the universe.

So often we wonder what do our prayers accomplish?  If God is still speaking, is God also still listening?  United Church of Canada pastor Gretta Vosper, in her book on prayer entitled Amen, writes this striking thought:  “Because people live and thrive with prayer, it may have something very worthwhile to offer.  Because people live and thrive without prayer, it cannot be necessary.”  Do we pray because we’re supposed to?  Do we pray because we’ve witnessed its outcomes?  Do we pray because we can’t help ourselves, because it comes pouring out of us?  Do we not pray because we don’t feel like we need to, because there are no outcomes, because we help ourselves?  All of which is valid.

But it really isn’t as black and white as that, is it?  Prayer isn’t the end but the beginning.  Author Frederick Buechner wrote, “Whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at least talking to yourself, and that’s in itself not always a bad idea.  Talk to yourself about your own life, about what you’ve done and what you’ve failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don’t love too.  Talk to yourself about what matters most to you because if you don’t you may forget what matters most to you.”

In seminary I wrote a paper for my Christian Ethics class on prayer.  I said that prayer was the first step, the beginning of ethical behavior and action.  My professor, the Rev. Dr. Max Stackhouse, in whose presence I felt the equivalent of a 90 lb. weakling, did not entirely agree with me.  He was very exacting, as he should have been when it came to Christian ethics.  So often we progressive Christians are labeled “wishy-washy” because we are so situational.  The favorite joke about the UCC is that we are “Utterly Confused Christians” or “Unitarians Considering Christ”.  When we pray, what is it exactly that we’re not only praying for, but praying to?  What is the faithful use of prayer?  Why be persistent in it anyway?


Octavia Butler in her book The Parable of the Sower writes this about prayer:

Pray working.
Pray learning,
Pray creating,
Pray working.
Pray to focus your thoughts,
still your fears,
strengthen your purpose
Pray working.

Prayer focuses our thoughts, calms our emotions.  Through prayer we align our purpose with God’s purpose, with what I call authentic living:  unconditional love, restorative justice, compassion, confession, forgiveness, wholeness, joy, and not only for ourselves but for everyone.  Through prayer we acknowledge a power greater than ourselves; we don’t do any of this alone; we live in a mystery we don’t fully understand, and in that mystery we live and move and have our being, all of us interconnected and interdependent.  Relationships, if they are to be life-giving, demand our persistence, our perseverance.  Poet Ellen Bass says it well:

Pray to whomever you kneel down to:
Jesus nailed to his wooden or plastic cross,
his suffering face bent to kiss you,
Buddha still under the bo tree in scorching heat,
Adonai, Allah. Raise your arms to Mary
that she may lay her palm on our brows,
to Shekhina, Queen of Heaven and Earth,
to Inanna in her stripped descent.

Then pray to the bus driver who takes you to work.
On the bus, pray for everyone riding that bus,
for everyone riding buses all over the world.
Drop some silver and pray.

Waiting in line for the movies, for the ATM,
for your latte and croissant, offer your plea.
Make your eating and drinking a supplication.
Make your slicing of carrots a holy act,
each translucent layer of the onion, a deeper prayer.

To Hawk or Wolf, or the Great Whale, pray.
Bow down to terriers and shepherds and Siamese cats.
Fields of artichokes and elegant strawberries.

Make the brushing of your hair
a prayer, every strand its own voice,
singing in the choir on your head.
As you wash your face, the water slipping
through your fingers, a prayer: Water,
softest thing on earth, gentleness
that wears away rock.

Making love, of course, is already prayer.
Skin, and open mouths worshipping that skin,
the fragile cases we are poured into.

If you’re hungry, pray. If you’re tired.
Pray to Gandhi and Dorothy Day.
Shakespeare. Sappho. Sojourner Truth.

When you walk to your car, to the mailbox,
to the video store, let each step
be a prayer that we all keep our legs,
that we do not blow off anyone else’s legs.
Or crush their skulls.
And if you are riding on a bicycle
or a skateboard, in a wheelchair, each revolution
of the wheels a prayer as the earth revolves:
less harm, less harm, less harm.

And as you work, typing with a new manicure,
a tiny palm tree painted on one pearlescent nail
or delivering soda or drawing good blood
into rubber-capped vials, writing on a blackboard
with yellow chalk, twirling pizzas–

With each breath in, take in the faith of those
who have believed when belief seemed foolish,
who persevered. With each breath out, cherish.

Pull weeds for peace, turn over in your sleep for peace,
feed the birds, each shiny seed
that spills onto the earth, another second of peace.
Wash your dishes, call your mother, drink wine.

Shovel leaves or snow or trash from your sidewalk.
Make a path. Fold a photo of a dead child
around your VISA card. Scoop your holy water
from the gutter. Gnaw your crust.
Mumble along like a crazy person, stumbling
your prayer through the streets.