Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hello darkness

Ephesians 5: 8-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 26, 2017

In the spring of 1967, in suburban northern California, a high school history teacher by the name of Ron Jones conducted a weeklong experiment with his sophomore Contemporary World History class.  The current subject was Nazi Germany and fascist regimes.  Most of Jones’ students could not believe the claims that the majority of the German population was unaware of the concentration camps; neither could they comprehend such a thing could ever happen again, that humanity was now more enlightened.  To prove his point, Ron Jones organized his class with rigid discipline, rules about behavior, armbands and membership cards, even a hand salute, and a name for their movement—the Third Wave.

            Now that his class was organized around an authoritarian structure, he found his students more alert, more responsive to questions and eager to participate, and more accepting of those around them.  Many students outside the class asked if they could join.  In three days more than 200 students became members of the Third Wave and began enforcing members to comply with the rules of the movement or suffer consequences.  One student even went so far as to volunteer as Mr. Jones’ bodyguard.

            By Thursday Jones was exhausted and wanted to conclude the experiment.  Things were getting out of hand.  The Third Wave was becoming the center of students’ lives.  Jones found himself slipping into his authoritarian role even when it was not necessary.  He couldn’t let the experiment continue but neither could he just end it abruptly.  Students who normally were bullied were now enjoying an equality that gave meaning and purpose to their lives.  All of the participants were vulnerable to the potential for extreme self-doubt and humiliation.  Something had to be done.

            Jones assembled his class, which had now swelled to 80—students were cutting other classes to join his.  He told them that the Third Wave was not just singular to their school but a national movement to discover young people who would be willing to work for political change, a national youth movement.  He announced that there would be a rally the next day, on Friday, for Third Wave members only.  A national candidate for president of the Third Wave would be making an announcement about the formation of a national Third Wave youth program.  1000 other youth groups would be receiving the same message and would be asked for their support.

            At noon on Friday, over 200 students assembled in the school auditorium.  On the stage was a television set to air the supposed national press conference.  Jones gave the hand salute and led the members through their recitation of the Third Wave motto:  Strength through discipline.  Strength through community.  Strength through action.  Strength through pride.  Jones then turned on the TV set and everyone waited with expectation.  After a few minutes, nothing appeared on the screen but static.  Students began to wonder if there really was a leader, if there really was going to be a national movement.

            Jones said to them, “You thought that you were the elect. That you were better than those outside this room.  You bargained your freedom for the comfort of discipline and superiority.  …You think to yourself that you were just going along for the fun.  That you could extricate yourself at any moment.  But where were you heading? How far would you have gone? Let me show you your future.”

            Jones then turned on a rear projector and scenes from one of the massive Nuremberg rallies played on a large screen behind the TV set, illustrating just how far the students might have gone had the Third Wave continued and gained momentum.  The presentation ended with these words on the screen:  “Everyone must accept the blame.  No one can claim that they didn't in some way take part.”  

Jones apologized for his manipulation, and to an extent, for abandoning his role as teacher.  After a protracted and stunned silence, students began asking questions and breaking down into tears.  Among his comments to his students were these words:  “[We] know in a small way what it feels like to find a hero.  To grab a quick solution.  To feel strong and in control of destiny.  We know the fear of being left out.  The pleasure of doing something right and being rewarded.  To be number one.   To be right.  Taken to an extreme we have seen and perhaps felt what these actions will lead to. 

 "…We have seen that fascism is not just something those other people did. No, it's right here, in this room.  It’s in our own personal habits and way of life. Scratch the surface and it appears.  It’s something in all of us.  We carry it like a disease: the belief that human beings are basically evil and therefore unable to act well toward each other; a belief that demands a strong leader and discipline to preserve social order.”

            This has been the belief, the myth about the role of religion for millennia: that human beings are basically evil and therefore unable to act well toward each other, thus we must have discipline and a strong leader to preserve social order.  We can’t trust each other to do what is good and right and true; therefore we must be coerced with the threat of damnation, the promise of eternity, and a proscribed way of life.  So if the Church is for sinners as much as it is for saints, it means we never really get well.  We never really experience transformation.

            In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul writes of this transformation as moving from living in darkness to living in the light.  But it’s not as simple as that.  It’s not like changing your address or your clothes.  We all have dark and light within us; it comes with being human.  Embracing both is what makes us a whole person.  Neither is one bad and the other good.  A room with the lights turned off is still the same room.  Ron Jones’ experiment was not conducted in darkness or in secrecy but out in the open, for all to see. 

            It’s tempting to believe that we could never behave in ways that lead to evil, which is why Paul exhorts his readers to expose what he calls unfruitful works.  Or in 12 step programs what’s called a fearless and searching moral inventory.  Yet there are times our ego yearns to be the hero, to expose others in their barren pursuits as Eugene Peterson puts it.  In the United Church of Christ statement of faith we read: You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil.  

There are times we are keen to do battle to resist those powers, but more often than not, it is not an external battle but an internal one that needs waging.  As Ron Jones said to his students, “[We] know in a small way what it feels like to find a hero.  To grab a quick solution.  To feel strong and in control of destiny.  We know the fear of being left out, but also the pleasure of doing something right and being rewarded.  To be number one.   To be right.” 

            Our pride can goad any of us, all of us—liberal, conservative, moderate, right, left, centrist, Republican, Democrat, Independent—into wanting to be on the right side of history, into believing we’re on the right side.  There are times we downright enjoy our exaggerated distinction between good and evil, right and wrong.  Yet God doesn’t take sides.  In God’s eyes we’re all late to church, and yet God calls all of us children.  God names all of us beloved.  We’re all made out of the same stuff of this universe.  The liberation of one is bound to the liberation of all.

            And yet we use words like “nuclear option” but accuse others of triggering Armageddon.  Republican lawmakers did not succeed in their attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act but the opposition spent much of Friday night gloating.  When we see ourselves as right and others as wrong, when we expose others’ flaws and ignore our own, none of us really gets well.  None of us ever really experiences transformation.

            Indeed we are to resist the powers of evil but it begins with us and our own participation in and benefit from a system that inflicts evil upon the most vulnerable of our society, including this earth in which we live and move and have our being.  It begins not only with how we treat others but how we think about them as well.  It begins with waking from our own sleep, viewing our lives through God’s eyes, climbing out of our own coffins (thank you, Eugene Peterson)—the places where our lives are dead—and rising to something new.

            The something new?  A clean heart.  A new and right spirit. A restoration of joy.  And a justice that includes forgiveness, the willingness to shoulder not only the burdens of others but also their wrongs, patience—oh how we need patience—and a love never gives up, keeps the faith, is always hopeful and endures through everything.  

          We resist the powers of evil by persisting in love.  Love for everyone.  That’s how love wins.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

To live as pilgrims

Genesis 12: 1-4a
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 12, 2017

            Let me take you on the pilgrim journey that is often the writing of a sermon. I was going to write about our troubles with moving and going, stopping and staying. I was going to talk about how God is always calling not only us as people but as the church to move forward into the unknown. I was going to turn it into some fun, use Dr. Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go”, and make our pilgrimage as Christians through Lent sound lighthearted, not so difficult.

            Then Saturday morning I looked at the news headline on my phone and read that near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, which houses Shia mausoleums, pilgrims arriving by bus were bombed in Damascus, killing 40 Iraqis and wounding 120 others.  Once again God was dragging me out of my plans, out of my safe, protected privilege, off my predictable path, making me an unwilling pilgrim, a reluctant traveler.

            Which is only right and not nearly enough.  More than 300,000 people have been killed and 11 million others displaced since the uprising against President Assad began 6 years ago this month.  If God wants to displace my heart, it’s the least, the least I can do and certainly not the last.

            Then in my Facebook news feed I read an opinion article by Kevin Baker posted in The New Republic calling for a “Bluexit”—for Blue America to pick up its proverbial soccer ball and go home.  On paper we’d still be the good ole’ US of A, but in essence it would be a divorce because purple is just too messy and common ground is just too damn hard.  Stay put but leave.  Leave Red America behind, even more than it already is.

            When God called Abram and Sarai to go, God wasn’t telling them to go so much as to leave.  Leave behind all their family; leave behind the inheritance of his father’s land for a land that God would show them, a unfamiliar place, a land in which they would be strangers, migrants, refugees.  Leave civilization and power and safety.  Go where life is primitive, vulnerable, and dangerous, and it is from there, on the margins, where God will bless all the families of the earth.

Camino de Santiago - Michael George

            When God says go, when God says leave, it’s not to isolate or divide or conquer or punish, but to leave what is comfortable, what is familiar, what is safe, and take on the servant journey toward God and her ways of compassion, forgiveness, restorative justice, and unconditional love.  

Pilgrims in Mecca
It’s to displace our rooted hearts, upturn our complacency, our satisfaction, that we would be a migrant, a refugee, a hadji for God.

            You see, as those created in God’s image—us and God—we’d gotten off to a rough start.  We were created for paradise, our nakedness a symbol of our innocence—at least, we thought that if God created humankind, that’s what any parent would want for their children: untouched, pure innocence.  But that’s not how human beings grow.  It’s not how we learn to make meaningful choices.  And so it was in our disobedience, in our rejection of a helicopter parent God, that we began one of the messiest, often violent relationships in the history of humankind.

            We seem to bring out the worst in each other—us and God.  No sooner had we been kicked out of the garden, and then one brother kills the other.  And so God decides to start over again with Noah and his family and sends a great flood for everybody else.  When human beings thrive again, this time speaking and acting as one, building a great tower to defy you-know-who, God confuses our language and scatters us across the earth.  Action and reaction; a cosmic power struggle if ever there was one.


            And so God tells Abram and Sarai to leave; to go to place where they will learn to depend on each other, on the hospitality of strangers, and on God’s promises.  There’s a lot of waiting involved, painful mistakes are made along the way; egos get the better of everyone.  People get hurt, their strength and trust are tested. Sometimes it feels as though God abandons God’s people, usually when it gets really bad—war, famine, slavery, exile, captivity, death—but then God calls her people home once more and makes promises again and again, even though we continue to reject God and God’s ways of life and love.

            Lent is the season when God reminds us that we are a pilgrim people and that through our pilgrim life, God desires that we would be a powerful blessing. A blessing that can change the world.  Living with God means a life of going and leaving.  God is always getting us ready for the next journey, the next displacement.  God calls us into the church so we can go, so we can leave.  Just like real life, the church, real church, is out there, where sometimes it gets primitive, always vulnerable, and even dangerous at times.  It means going where we would not choose to go.  It means stopping what we’re doing and listening to what God is doing.  Being a pilgrim means persisting and being faithful, even when all evidence points in what looks like the wrong direction.

            I did all that thinking, all that processing, wept tears of grief for the Iraqis that died, that were wounded, for their families; for those in our country who would rather divorce the rest of the nation rather than persist in living in covenant.  

Israeli students dressed for Purim in Jerusalem
 And then I remembered that last night was the beginning of Purim, the Jewish festival that reenacts the story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai and how they saved their people from the evil Haman and his plot to destroy all Jews in a single day.  I remembered that Jews all over the world would’ve gathered after sunset, dressed in costume, eaten sweet pastries called hamantaschen, and retold the story of Esther with jokes and puns, using current politics and popular culture.

            One of the most persecuted pilgrim people on the planet, over 100 bomb threats since January, and they laugh, they make jokes about that time that someone tried to thwart God’s people, God’s promises, God’s ways of life and love.  So why not?  Why not some Dr. Seuss, a rather flawed person himself, to show us how to be a pilgrim people, servants of God:

“God’s Spirit is upon us!
Today is our day.
We’re off to Great Places!
We’re off and away!

We have brains in our heads.
We have feet in our shoes.
We can steer ourselves any direction we choose.
But we’re not on our own. And we know what we know. But are we the only ones who’ll decide where to go?

We’ll look up and down streets. Look’em over with care. About some we will say, “We don’t choose to go there.” With our heads full of brains and our shoes full of feet, we’ve got too much heart to think any street is a not-so-good street.

And who knows?  God may not go down any street we’ll want to go down. In that case, of course, God will probably call us to head right out of town. It’s opener there in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy and gutsy as us.  Toodle-oo!

And when things start to happen, let’s not worry. Let’s not stew. Let’s just go right along. We’ll start happening too.

Oh! The Places We’ll Go!
We’ll be on our way up!
We’ll be seeing great sights!
We’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights.

We won’t lag behind, because we’ll have the speed. We’ll pass the whole gang and we’ll soon take the lead. Wherever we fly, we’ll be best of the best. Wherever we go, we will top all the rest.

Except when we don’t.
Because, sometimes, we won’t.

I’m sorry to say so but, sadly, it’s true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to us—boo hoo!

We can get all hung up in a prickle-ly perch. And the holy church gang will fly on. We’ll be left in a church lurch.

We’ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that we’ll be in a Slump.

And when we’re in a Slump, we’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping ourselves is not easily done.

We will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they’re darked. A place we could sprain both our elbows and chins! Do we dare to stay out? Do we dare to go in? How much can we lose? How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

And if we go in, should we turn left or right…or right-and-three-quarters? Or, maybe, not quite? Or go around back and sneak in from behind? Simple it’s not, I’m afraid we will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up their mind.

We can get so confused that we’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across a weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.

The Waiting Place…for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for the membership or budget to grow. Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for a committee-free night or waiting, perhaps, for enough money or a pot to boil, or a few more members or for wisdom—you know those pearls, or another chance for taking a stance. Everyone is just waiting.

No! That’s not for us!

Somehow we’ll move beyond all that waiting and staying. We’ll find the bright places where UConn and UD Women’s Basketball are playing! With banner flip-flapping, once more we’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky. Ready because we were made to fly!

Oh, the places we’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are people to be empowered. There are races to be run. And the marvelous things we can do with God’s call will make us the church-iest church of all. Glory to God! We’ll be as amazing as grace can be, with the whole wide world watching us sing!  Glory be!

Except when they don’t. 
Because, sometimes, they won’t.

I’m afraid that sometimes we’ll have lonely times too.  Things we can’t do ‘cause we’ll work against us—oh pooh!

All Alone!

Whether we like it or not, Alone will be something we’ll resist quite a lot.

And when we’re alone, there’s a very good chance we’ll meet things that scare us right out of our pants. There are some things, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare us so much we won’t want to go on.

But on we will go, though the weather be foul. On we will go, though the powers that be growl. On we will go, though our sinking hearts howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though our arms may get sore and our sneakers may leak. On and on we will hike. And I know we’ll hike far and face up to our problems with God as our North Star.

We’ll get mixed up, of course, as we already know. We’ll get mixed up with some mighty strange birds as we go. So let’s be sure to speak up when we speak. Let’s speak with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And when we dance, let’s always forgive when someone mixes up our right foot with their left.

And will we succeed?
Yes! But that’s not the point when God says “Proceed”!
(One hundred six and ¾ percent no money back guaranteed!)

Folks, with each other and with God’s help we’ll move mountains!

So…be your name Kitty or Chris or Cathy or Clay or Kim, Debbie, David, Dennis, Frank, olĂ©!  

We’re off to Great Places!
Every day is our day!
Our mountain is waiting.
So…let’s get on our way!