Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Transparent


Matthew 17: 1-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 26, 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday




            I have always been fascinated by how a human being can become someone else, whether by changing one’s appearance, acquiring knowledge, learning a skill, getting rid of a habit, or by acting either in a movie or on a stage. Just changing one’s posture can give the impression of someone much older (hunch shoulders forward) or younger (stand with squared shoulders). We can modulate our voice to be inviting or irritating or intimidating. We are complex beings with an uncanny ability to mimic and to tell a story through our bodies.



            We also enjoy a performance, to witness this transformation of one person into another.  Sometimes while watching a movie or a play, we become more than our everyday selves.  We get caught up in the drama or the comedy, and if it’s done well, we are drawn into the story to the point that we feel like we’re a part of it.



            But when actors break with their character and accidentally slip back into themselves, however briefly, we witness something most human.  While we would never want to reveal our flaws in front of an audience, it seems almost magical when it happens on live television or on the stage or in movie outtakes.  We see both the remnants of a character and the vulnerable human being who plays them. 



Back in 2011 I had the opportunity to play Florence Unger in the female version of The Odd Couple.  Before every performance I had to sit backstage for the first twenty minutes of the play in character, ready to go on:  my hair in a curly, poofy ‘80’s style, uptight posture, pitiful pouty face, and an emotional, hypochondriacal, neurotic attitude—I had to become an entirely different person.  During one of the last performances, Bettie, who played Olive Madison, and I lost our stuff for a few seconds after a funny line.  I thought it was one of the best moments in the whole play. 




It was as if a light came on, we pulled our masks off, and everyone got the real joke—two middle-aged women playing two middle-aged women.



Six days before Jesus climbed that mountain with Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked his disciples who did people think he was.  They hemmed and they hawed, dancing around the truth.  “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others say Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” Jesus then got to the point and asked them who they thought he was.  Peter went for broke and said the whole truth: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”  It was as if a light came on, the masks of pretension and denial and role-playing came off, and every one of the disciples got the real story.  Every promise God ever made to God’s people was standing right in front of them.


Transfiguration, Macha Chmakoff

Except Jesus said he would be telling a different story with his body than the one hoped for, and that any who would follow him would do the same.  With our bodies, with our lives we tell the story of the cross, the story of transformation:  how we become not another person, but who we really are, our divine humanity, our flaws and goodness, our pain and love in one glorious whole.  Jesus says that we will lose the life we know that we may find our real lives, our true selves, our wholeness.



And so six days later on that mountain Jesus makes it clear exactly who he is.  Why six days?  The sixth day of creation is when God created humankind in the image and likeness of God.  Six days after foretelling his death and resurrection, Jesus is transfigured into glory.  Where Jesus goes, we are also headed.  God is not done with us yet.  We, too, shall suffer.  We, too, shall be resurrected into life.  We, too, shall be transfigured into glory.  We, too, have been called to be what Jesus is:  a child of God, a human/divine presence of love.



We celebrate Jesus as the light of the world, and Jesus says that we too are the light of the world and to let our light shine.  Yet when God said let there be light, God said the light was good and separated the light from the dark.  When Jesus is transfigured his face shines like the sun and his clothes become a dazzling white.  Two weeks ago, in our discussion about white privilege, we talked about whiteness as norm, as something we who are white take for granted.  If we all are intended for transformation, the values we attach to light and darkness, black and white also need to be transformed.  Jesus took a few of his male disciples up the mountain, which was consistent with tradition then, yet a new narrative is needed to liberate all God’s people.  All the masks need to come off.


What if Jesus’ face shone like moonlight, or like a raisin in the sun?  What if his clothes became dark like the night sky and a dark cloud overshadowed them and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?



What if his face shone because, along with prophets like Elijah and Moses, he was joined by his cousin Mohammed?



What if his face shone like undocumented immigrants harvesting strawberries or mowing lawns or lifting a hospital patient from their bed or graduating from college and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?




What if his face shone like a transgender woman or man or child who could use the bathroom they feel most comfortable using and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?




What if his face shone because he was holding hands with his beloved and kissed him in front of God and everyone, with nothing to fear?



What if his face shone because he knew he could afford his healthcare?



What if his face shone like a refugee family who sees nothing but green lights at customs and immigration and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?



What if his face shone like a reporter from CNN or Breitbart, from the Washington Times or Fox News, from BuzzFeed or the BBC, all on the same mountain, each freely telling what they see and hear, and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?




What if her face shone because she received equal pay for equal work, because she could move freely and fearlessly in the world, because her body is her own, and we still heard the word ‘beloved’?



What if the shining face was yours and mine and everyone’s, everywhere, because we no longer judged ourselves or anyone else as not enough or unworthy, as anything less than a child of God, because our divinity and our humanity had become transparent, obvious, and glorious and every moment we heard the word ‘beloved’?



            Amen.






Benediction ~ written by Roddy Hamilton



Not all is as it seems:
there is a glory hidden in everything
waiting to be revealed
to those who are willing to look
beyond what seems inevitable
who do not want to live in the status quo
but in the promises of God.

Hold onto the vision
as we turn towards Lent
and walk the more difficult path;
there is yet a greater glory
still to be revealed.

Go in peace,
Go in hope,
Go in love.


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

As if


Matthew 5: 38 – 48 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 19, 2017


           
             

         If someone had told Christian Picciolini when he was a young man that he should love the very people he hated, he might’ve said derisively, “As if”. He’s the son of Italian immigrants, born and raised in Blue Island, Illinois, just south of Chicago. As a skinhead he found what we’re all looking for: community and purpose. He was the leader of a white supremacist punk band called White American Youth or WAY and then a hate rock band called Final Solution. When he was 20, he opened a record store called Chaos Records that sold mostly white power music. But at the age of 22 he gave it all up. Here’s his story:


 



            When Jesus preached to those world-weary, oppressed Jewish peasants to turn the other cheek when a Roman soldier struck them, they might’ve sneered, “As if”.



            When Jesus instructed that same crowd, who were probably wearing the only clothes they had, to not only give up their cloak when it was demanded but their tunic as a free gift, which would leave them practically naked, they might’ve lifted a fist and said “As if”.



            When Jesus sounded harsher than a taskmaster forcing one mile by telling his listeners to go two miles instead, they might’ve stomped off, hurling an angry “As if” over their shoulders as they went.



            Then came the last straw for those who stayed for the final denouement:  Love your enemies.  Not only that, but pray for them.  When you think about it, it’s amazing that the difficult-to-hear Sermon on the Mount survived in the form we have, on the part of the author of Matthew and the scribes who copied and translated it.  The early church that would have read and heard these words were living in a new exile, after the Romans had destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Love those who destroyed your home and who now seek your life.  As if.


When faced with such utter upheaval and destruction, retribution seems like the inevitable response.  When confronted with injustice, we want the satisfaction of swift justice.  That long moral arc of the universe bends so slowly we wonder if we will ever see that promised land, the Beloved Community.  Jesus’ words may be galling, but they come from deep within the Jewish tradition.  He may have been remembering some verses from the book of Proverbs (25: 21-22):  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 




Burning coals signify a ritual for purification; when Isaiah answered God’s call to be a prophet, one of God’s servants touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal that he could then speak God’s truth with clean lips.  When we offer our enemies the love we think they don’t deserve, we offer another kind of alternative facts; instead of supposed fake news, we offer good news:  the searing love of God that can remove the barriers between our enemies and God’s grace and by doing so, between us and God’s grace.  To love our enemies is to desire right relationship between them and God, to hold them in the same light we stand in, for that is how we will have right relationship with God.



Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Strength to Love called it a “double victory”.  In his quest for equal rights for black Americans he was not satisfied with pressuring white Americans into giving in; he wanted more than mere retribution.  He wrote,



“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.  Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you.  But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”



“Wear you down by our capacity to suffer.”  Isn’t it the other way around?  Our capacity for suffering wears us down, let alone anyone else.  But it’s not a martyrdom of suffering that’s called for.  It isn’t “woe is me, notice me, and how you’re hurting me”, hoping they’ll quit whatever hurtful thing they’re doing.  Nor is it tolerating meanness, abuse or torture, injustice or oppressive systems.



Our capacity to love is linked to our capacity to suffer.  It all comes from the same heart.  Who hasn’t suffered for someone we love?  Sometimes, for our own survival and sanity, we let go of a hurtful relationship.  But we can still love that person or family or group from a distance.  Love in the sense that we want healing for them, for their life to be made whole.  Love that helps us let go of hate and pain, allows us to forgive, and sets all of us free.



We can be fond of saying “Love wins”, but only after there has been a win—when we can see it, when it is finished, when the victory comes.  But what if we lived and loved as if love has already won?  Is not that the power of the resurrection?  This is what it means to practice resurrection.  If we can’t imagine loving our enemies, what if we behaved as if we loved them?  Love that desires their freedom, their wholeness as much as we desire our freedom, our wholeness.



During the worst, most violent days of apartheid, the South African government tried to shut down the opposition by canceling a political rally. In response, Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared that he would hold a church service instead.  They gathered at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, filling the entire church. Outside the cathedral hundreds of police assembled as a show of force to intimidate the worshippers.  As Tutu was preaching, the police, armed to the teeth, entered the Cathedral and lined the walls. They took out notebooks and wrote down the bishop’s words. 



But Tutu would not be intimidated. He preached against the evils of apartheid, declaring it could not endure. At one point he turned and addressed the police directly:  “You are powerful. You are very powerful, but you are not gods and I serve a God who cannot be mocked.  So, since you’ve already lost, since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”  With that the congregation erupted in dance and song.  The police didn’t know what to do.  A few actually put down their weapons and joined in the dancing and singing!  Their attempts at intimidation had failed, overcome by the archbishop’s confidence that God and goodness would triumph over evil.  It was but a matter of time, when love would win.




Love cannot win if we do not love our enemies, for then our enemies have won.



This is what complete love is—love for one’s enemies as much as for those who love us.  And it is this complete love that casts out fear.



Love your enemies and pray for them.

As if.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Going deep


Matthew 5: 21-37
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 12, 2017





            It drives me nuts when Jesus does this.  For the past two weeks we’ve heard his gentleness, his compassion, his pastoral side.  I guess he was softening up the crowd, turning over the hard soil of their hearts, killing them softly with his words, with his beatitudes song.  Then Jesus added some salt and light to the mix, building up the people with a sense of purpose and mission, preparing them for these hard seeds necessary for the Beloved Community.



            But before he directs them down the difficult discipleship road ahead, Jesus assures his listeners that the law of God is not going anywhere; that though he has come to give the people God’s good news, it does not change God’s expectations of us.  In fact, it seems that God’s people were just skimming the surface of what God wanted from them, obeying the letter of the law without going to the heart of it.  Even though they were living in the land of their ancestors, they had made their home in exile.  They had become estranged from God and from each other.  They had treated God’s law as though it were a to-do list, their salvation as check marks.



            Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message tells it like this:  “Trivialize even the smallest item in God's Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won't know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”  When it comes to Jesus and God’s law, discipleship is all about right living, right relationships.  If we aren’t right with God or with each other, how can we do and be what God needs for the Beloved Community, what Jesus calls the kingdom of God?



            We’d like to think that when we’re angry or frustrated, when we’re in conflict, or having any trouble, that it’s the other person, the clique, the other team, the competition, the government, other nations that are the problem.  And sometimes they really are the problem.  But we can’t solve them, what makes them the problem, for them.  Gandhi once said—Gandhi who brought the British Empire to its knees—he said that the only devils running around are the ones in our own hearts and that is where all our battles ought to be fought.  Which sounds difficult to believe these days.  But it also sounds like something Jesus would have said, what I think he is saying as he delves beneath the surface of the law and goes deep into it.



            Many of us, when we were kids, used to say “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” as a way of warding off the sting of whatever insult was being hurled our way.  The truth is, words do hurt.  Jesus is saying that words said in anger have the power to kill.  We know this when we witnessed the media attention given to bullying and from young people who end their lives.  Remember Tyler Clementi and Leelah Alcorn?  For many years now we have been able to find a vast number of resources about how to deal with bullies in our schools, work places, and even in our worship communities.



            Truly, Jesus is making perfect sense when he follows his ‘salt and light’ message with this one.  Often when we shine brightly, when we give our unique flavor to the world, it is then that we can become an object of bullying.  But bullies aren’t born that way.  A bully is someone who suffered some sort of abuse; who couldn’t defend themselves nor did they heal from their wounds.   The thing of it is, we all have our wounds; thus, we all have within us the possibility reacting out of that wounded place, by bullying, by lashing out.  There are times we wish we knew how to be brave and authentic despite our pain and the scars life can give.




            In all these difficult sayings and interpretations of God’s law, Jesus is telling the crowd and us that we can’t treat people as objects:  we can’t act as though it doesn’t matter what goes on in the hamster cage of our minds; we can’t behave as though it doesn’t matter what we say or don’t say.  And we all know at least one person who behaves like this.  Remember though that Jesus was speaking to a crowd of Jewish peasants, who were living under occupation by the Romans, some of the biggest bullies of their time, and yet Jesus is turning the focus back on his listeners.



            We all know from personal experience, from being on the receiving end of a bully, that it does matter.  It does hurt to be treated as if we were made from sticks and stones, not the flesh and blood person we are.



            So what is Jesus’ solution to this problem?  Plucking out our eyes and cutting off our limbs?  Making peace with the person who has something against us?  At first glance it sounds pretty extreme—and focused solely on the victim rather than on the bully.  Jesus didn’t divide the crowd into victims and bullies, telling the victims that they were excluded from this part of the sermon.  Bullies were once victims themselves.  We’re all capable and culpable.  We’ve all had our 15 minutes of bullying.  If we’ve scoffed at or discarded someone else’s opinion, tried to close down a discussion, maneuvered to get our own way, judged someone else’s efforts without offering to help, or taken 10 minutes to say what could be said in two (no wonder it’s called the bully pulpit), then we’ve been a bully.




            It all begins with us:  whether or not we’ll put up with bullying, whether or not we will engage in it.  Ironically, most bullies are met with more bullying, with angry words through clenched teeth, sneering looks behind one’s back, cold shoulders, or by staying away completely.  We tend to interpret Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek as being too kind in the face of injury and injustice, so either we flee or we fight back.



            Actually, when Jesus says to turn the other cheek, in today’s language it means that we need to set boundaries, to clearly communicate what are acceptable behaviors and those that are not.  To turn the other cheek is to say that hitting the first time was unacceptable; the second blow reveals the hardness of heart of the bully and the willingness of the victim to show not only strength of character but compassion.





            The ability to be compassionate and loving toward others is directly related to our ability to accept and love ourselves as we are.  If we’re having problems being compassionate toward those who have hurt us, even from a distance, we’re also having problems loving ourselves.  The poet W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “The Age of Anxiety”:



“We would rather be ruined than changed.

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the present

And let our illusions die.”



            Through his radical—radical meaning “grass roots”—interpretation of God’s law, Jesus is reaching out to save us from ourselves and offering us an opportunity to change.  Trouble is, we have to know we’re in need of saving; that indeed, there is no greater enemy than ourselves.  14th century mystic Julian of Norwich believed that sin is necessary in the life of faith because it leads us to self-knowledge, which leads to the acceptance of God’s role in our lives.  Here we have the first three of the twelve steps:  admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable; came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.




            If we think these steps are only for addicts, we’re right on target.  How easy is it for us to step out of our view of things and consider seeing something through someone else’s eyes?  How open is our mind, our heart—really?   It’s all too easy to be addicted to our own way, and we all have that demon running around inside us.  None of us are immune.  If we think to ourselves ‘that’s not me’, the only person we’re fooling is ourselves.



            How deep are we willing to go with Jesus, both as a person of faith and as a Body of Christ?  Have we ever been hurt by being a part of a church and what part of that hurt are we still holding onto?  To whom do we need to go and come to terms with our accuser before offering our gift at the altar of God?  What opportunities do we give ourselves to make peace by saying we’re sorry and asking for forgiveness?  In what areas of our lives and our life together are we insisting on our own way?  What makes it difficult for us to let go of the outcome and trust God?




            A few years ago, when I was doing some serious forgiveness work, a friend shared a brief, blunt prayer with me that cut like a knife through my ego and it’s this:  “Forgive them.  Change me.”  It takes persistent courage, humility, and serenity to offer this prayer.  It’s the first step toward the healing of this world.



Amen.