Sunday, November 27, 2016

Living in the light (or Repair Cafe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A revelation revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

"...God goes new."

Isaiah 65: 17-25
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 13, 2016

I started to write a sermon talking about change, about how hard it is, how it demands things of us, requires of us stuff we’d rather not do, sacrifices we’d rather not make.  About how change happens too slowly or too quickly or not at all and how community responds to that.  And it all felt so empty and meaningless in the face of all that’s happened this week.  The words became so much blah, blah, blah in my mind. 
So many different opinions and viewpoints and emotions to read and absorb and process.  So many news stories of violence and hate speech and shameful, hurtful behavior.  So much fear, anxiety, terror, anger, and grief.  So much finger-pointing and blaming and projecting.  Everyone talking and hardly anyone listening, really listening—especially to someone who has an opposing point of view.  The echo chamber strikes again.  The family feud of Us and Them is thriving.  What the heck could I say that would make any difference, that would add a word of hope rather than be just more words?

            Even talking about God right now can feel hollow.  Having faith in an external, benevolent, active force for good has done much to help the human race evolve and grow, yet we always come full circle to our deep flaws of fear, hatred, and judgment of others who are different from us, no matter who we voted for.  Restorative justice still eludes us.  Greed and self-interest outstrip our capacity for sacrifice, generosity, and the abundance that surrounds us.  We’re painfully dismayed that as a species we still can’t feed, medically care for, educate, and house every human being.  Hearing that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth, we begin to wonder just when is God going to get around to it.

It feels like we’re blundering in the dark, but history declares loudly that we’ve been here many times before.  There are some who say we don’t know what our president-elect is going to do, let’s wait and see before we rush into activism, resistance, and protest, but that’s our privilege talking.  The most vulnerable among us rightly fear the worst and need to feel and be safe, to know we are ready to fight for and with them.  And it’s easy to be overwhelmed by fear and anger, especially given the rhetoric from both major parties this long election season and following.

            Over and over again this week I’ve heard the words that Martin Luther King Jr. quoted, that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.  Yet time isn’t linear but rather more like a spiral.  Sometimes it feels like that bend is a curve and the curve is a circle, and we keep circling around the center, the point, the goal, the purpose of all of this.

            What keeps hope alive in me is that God’s dream of new heavens and a new earth, of the Beloved Community, is not over.  It’s still there.  It’s there as long as I don’t give up on it and you don’t give up on it.  Stephen Breck Reid at Baylor University calls God’s dream “God’s own project”.  In the Isaiah text, God’s people had come home from exile only to find the rubble of what was left of their home.  Think Aleppo, Syria.  The work ahead of them was unimaginable.  God’s project of wholeness was grossly overshadowed by the effects of displacement and persecution.  People continued to suffer from hunger, illness, economic injustice, and political chaos.  When the new temple in Jerusalem was completed, it was a pale imitation of the one built by King Solomon.  If we listen carefully we can hear the echoes of the Hebrews as they made their way from Egypt to the Promised Land:  O God, why did you bring out us out of Egypt only to kill us with hunger in the desert?  This project of yours is more painful, more tortuous than the slavery, the exile we knew.

            And so God continues relentlessly to put the dream, the project of the Beloved Community in front of God’s people.  Though the way is dark, and we can barely see one step ahead, God—this moral arc, this force for good, the Love that does not insist on its own way but rather beckons—keeps calling us forward to work for the dream, the project.

            Remember that this project began in the dark, in the nothing, the void.  God knows the darkness intimately.  Like any act of creation, whether it’s a seed in the dirt or an ova and a sperm in the uterus or atoms colliding in the cosmos, it all begins in the dark.  And so the first step in this project was to turn on the light.  Author Terry Pratchett once said, “No matter how fast the speed of light is, it always finds the darkness has arrived before it.”  But the light still shows up.

            Earlier this week I heard someone say, “I know we’re supposed to go high when they go low, but I’m really getting tired of always having to go high”.  Frankly, we’re all going low because it is really hard to go high right now.  Which is why when we go low, God doesn’t just go high: God goes new.  And just because we can’t see it, because of all that darkness, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  It’s hidden, just like God, that moral arc we can’t see the end of, the force for good inside all of us, the love that beckons instead of coerces.
         The word hallelujah literally means praise to the half-seen, half-hidden God:  Hallelu, meaning “praise” in plural form and “jah”, which is half of the holy name of God, Yahweh.  Faith is when we can praise God, even in the dark before the light comes.  On the first day of the week when it was still dark was when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.  Resurrection happens in the dark.  We have to be willing to stand, to work, to pray, even to praise in the dark.  When we work on God’s project, when we dream God’s dream, when we are Church, we put a crack in that darkness and the Beloved Community becomes more visible through us.  Our beloved friend Leonard Cohen said that’s how the light gets through.

I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I've seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well, really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

(Note: I had not seen the following video nor heard what was performed when I thought about the congregation singing "Hallelujah" at the end of the sermon.  The Spirit was mighty this week.)