Wednesday, April 26, 2017

People are funny

John 20: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 23, 2017 – Bright Sunday

            Earlier this week a friend posted a quote from his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: “Achieving genuine happiness may require bringing about a transformation in your outlook, your way of thinking, and this is not a simple matter.”  It never is simple, but these days, it ain’t easy either.  I don’t know about you, but lately my funny bone has been in the dog house about as much as not.  Don’t get me wrong—I still get a good chuckle from a funny movie or joke or a cartoon.  But unlike the crew at Saturday Night Live or satirists like John Oliver or Samantha Bee, I’m having difficulty responding to this world of ours with a sense of humor or lightheartedness.  Perhaps I have been considering all the facts a bit too much, taking them a bit too seriously, to the point I have allowed them to steal my joy.

            It’s not unlike our friend Thomas, who, year after year in the lectionary, misses the resurrection party and refuses to join in the Easter laugh.  “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”  In other words, unless I have proof that Jesus lives, that Love wins, and death doesn’t have the last word, then I will not be happy, I will not laugh.  Until Jesus brings back all his toys, I am not going out to play.  Until Smashing Pumpkins get back together, I’m never listening to one of their albums again.  Well, maybe not that last one.

            I can understand Thomas and his grief.  It was bad enough, horrible in fact, to lose a friend and teacher to the most gruesome execution method ever devised, and to have that friend—a brother, really—betrayed by one of their own.  It was bad enough having to hide for fear of the same thing happening to him and the other disciples.  But to risk believing the impossible seemed like the worst joke of all.

            It’s hard enough hearing a cancer diagnosis or living with a chronic illness or losing a job or going through a divorce or a broken friendship or suffering the loss of a close relative or friend or feeling powerless in the face of addiction or loving someone through any of these.  It’s even harder when we hear news of a pod of sperm whales dying on a German beach, their bellies stuffed with plastics, and we don’t know what more we can do.  It’s even harder when we hear news of North Korean missiles and U.S. naval ships in the western Pacific, complicated by egos and high tension and miscommunications, and we are powerless to do anything.  It’s even harder when many folks are on edge and aren’t interested in listening to one another or having open dialogue or just being patient with one another.

            And yet this is the crucial intersection of faith and life, when we’re not sure what’s going to happen next, in fact, maybe it’s looking kinda scary some days, and we’re invited to be joyful anyway, even smart-allecky, engage in wise-acreage, practice tomfoolery.  Faith doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed a happy ending, as some would have us believe, but that we can be joyful despite the outlook, despite the all-too-frequent bleakness of life, despite our fears of what could happen.

            People are funny.  We are funny.  The Church is funny.  We have this amazing empowering story that literally changed the world, and yet there are days, weeks, months, years we don’t allow that same story to change our lives.  Or change the Church.  It’s a story about risking it all and coming out on the other side, yet the Church is often risk-averse.  It’s a story about being vulnerable and thus becoming wholehearted and resilient, and yet often the last thing we ourselves want or the Church wants is to be vulnerable.

            Author BrenĂ© Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, wrote, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity.  It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.  If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

            Thomas had the courage to be vulnerable with his community, with the other disciples who were in a different place on their faith journey than he was.  The rest of the disciples declared “We have seen the Lord!”  What is implicit in Thomas’ response is, “Well, I haven’t, and I’m feeling left out.”

            We can have the courage to be vulnerable when we realize that we belong to the Church, to God, to the universe, and to each other.  No.  Matter.  What.  We belong, whether we believe or doubt or don’t believe at all.  We belong, even if we betray Jesus, even if we miss the resurrection party and refuse to join in the Easter laugh.  We belong even when we demand signs and evidence and guarantees, when we want to control all the variables, all the unknowns.  We belong not because of anything we’ve done but because of God’s grace.  And if God language is not your thing, let’s remember that we belong because of covenant—the covenant of being human together.

            To be happy, to be joyful, to laugh in the face of our fears, after having considered all the facts, is to be vulnerable, wholehearted, and resilient.  People are funny.  We are funny.  The Church is funny.  We are the original ship of fools.  Fools for Christ.  Suckers for Jesus.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Easter: a reality distortion field

Matthew 28: 1-10
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 16, 2017 

Henry Ossawa Tanner: The Three Marys (1910)
Fisk University Galleries
            Steve Jobs was the grand master of the reality distortion field. It’s a large part of what made Apple the most successful computer company on the planet. It’s what helped propel what began in a garage in 1976 into a worldwide brand worth about $154 billion dollars. It ensured that wildly creative ideas became as yet unimagined products with impossible deadlines. It’s what created millions of people to hunger and thirst for what was going to come next.

            The term “reality distortion field” comes from the original Star Trek universe.  (Yes, Star Trek finally made its way into an Easter sermon.)  In a two-part episode entitled “The Menagerie”, telepathic beings were able to create convincing, alternate realities within the minds of other species.  This distorted reality could be pleasurable or painful, fantastical or torture, whatever these beings wanted it to be.

            Steve Jobs was able to do this not with telepathy but by sheer force of will, along with a charismatic personality, an inspirational style, and an unshakable belief in himself and his methods.  Reality was soft and supple clay ready to be shaped however he wished.  He could reframe a situation or problem, bring everyone to the table, and have them reach the same conclusion—his.  

As with most creative companies, Jobs encouraged and solicited ideas from staff and employees, and it was in this context that he manipulated reality with a flagrant disregard for those same people.  If Jobs heard an idea that he liked, he would immediately discourage it, refusing to acknowledge that it could be possible.  At the next meeting, he would then present the very same idea as his own, thus ensuring that it would indeed become realized.  The impossible would become possible, but only if he took ownership of it.

Since Steve Jobs left Apple and since his passing, the reality distortion field dissolved with him and also it seems Apple’s ability to come up with the next innovative technology, the one more thing, the must have.  Last spring Steve Wozniak said that Apple was no longer the company it was originally or even the one that really changed the world.  That’s the power of a reality distortion field—it can change the world.

Of course, we all operate within a reality distortion field, and it is unique to each of us.  What we perceive as reality can become our actual reality, what self-help gurus call a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We all have our biases, assumptions, opinions, underlying commitments, life experiences, and self-reinforcing beliefs that comprise our worldview.  And we think we’re right.  Maybe we’re not manipulating other people or stealing their ideas, but most of the time we’re wed to what we think, see, feel, and know.

And yet Easter is one of those days when we’re asked to put all that aside and use our imaginations—to distort reality in a way that doesn’t serve just ourselves but the whole of creation.  Some people call this reality distortion thing a ‘mind hack’—a way of reprogramming the mind.  What Jesus was after was more of a heart hack—a convincing alternate reality in which there is abundance rather than scarcity; forgiveness instead of vengeance or resentment; justice instead of punishment; compassion instead of selfishness; generosity instead of competition; love instead of fear; life worth living instead of mindlessness; the Beloved Community instead of empire, and an end to violence.

            This heart hack was so anxiety-producing and conflict-creating for some that the state decided the only way to distort this Jesus-reality was to put him to death.  Death is the ultimate reality distortion field, the final solution, the harshest punishment, the end of the argument, the one thing we haven’t figured out how to manipulate.

            Even so, two thousand years later we still proclaim “Jesus lives!”  Jesus’ reality distortion field is still here.  Despite his death, we experience him as living still.  Even though he no longer walks among us, we know Jesus in one another and in our life together.  When we serve meals at Hope Dining Room or volunteer at the Empowerment Center or Friendship House, Jesus lives.  When we love someone, forgive someone who does not deserve it, who has not earned it, Jesus lives.  When someone loves us, forgives us, and we certainly have not earned it or deserved it, Jesus lives.  When we work for justice on behalf of the incarcerated, the marginalized, the underpaid, the undocumented; when we raise our voices for any who are excluded from the rights and privileges we enjoy simply because they are different, Jesus lives.  When we know the right thing to do, what is kind and compassionate, when we’re not sure if we should or if we can, but we do it anyway, Jesus lives.

            It was not Jesus’ death, Jesus’ crucifixion that altered the reality of the disciples and the world around them that we are then here today.  People died, people were put to death every day.  It was Jesus’ resurrection that propelled a motley band of followers into a movement that changed the world.  Because Jesus lives, the disciples were prepared to live out that heart hack of his even to the point of their own death.  Because Jesus lives…Jesus is Lord, which means the powers of this world are not.  Death, destruction, violence, greed, domination do not have the last word, only the second to last word. 

Just as we professed in the call to worship, it won’t happen without us.  We have to be willing to submit our distortion field to the one Jesus would have us not only live in but establish for others.  We have to be willing to subvert the dominating distortion field that says there is not enough, that death is a deterrent to crime, that those addicted to drugs should be treated like criminals, that we should be afraid of those who are different from us, and that controlling others through violence is the only way to manage our fear.

            In truth the ultimate reality distortion field is not death or resurrection or even love but hope.  It was hope that brought the women to the tomb that morning as much as it was grief.  It was hope that empowered a scattered people to become the body of Christ.  It’s hope that has the power to lift us from despair.  It’s hope that keeps us loving, even when it seems like love has ended.  It’s hope that can lead us to defiant, rebellious joy.  Words like “we can’t”, “it’s not possible”, “it won’t work” do not have the last word in a hopeful reality distortion field.  It’s hope that can transform our fears into action, our prayers into deeds, our anxiety about change into a hunger and thirst for what’s possible, even what may seem impossible. 

Resurrection Panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece, Matthias Grunewald, 1515.

            Every morning is Easter morning.  Every day is resurrection day.  What are we willing to imagine for this church, for our lives, for our world?  How far are we willing to go?  Does Jesus really live?  Is Jesus really Lord?  It doesn’t happen without us.   


We Call Ourselves to Worship

Easter is the day the revolution began.

Jesus lives!
But it will not happen without us.
Jesus is Lord.
Easter is a shockwave, 
creating unimagined possibilities.
Jesus lives!
But it will not happen without us.
Jesus is Lord.
Easter means the liberation of women, 
the vulnerable, the marginalized, the oppressed, 
is the liberation of us all.
Jesus lives!
But it will not happen without us.
Jesus is Lord.
Easter is the day our old life dies 
and our new life begins.
Jesus lives!
But it will not happen without us.
Jesus is Lord.
Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Love overwhelmed

Matthew 21: 1-54
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 9, 2017 – Palm Sunday

          I started writing this sermon after Syria attacked its own citizens with chemical weapons, after the Syrian missile attack and before embarking on the 30 hour food secure famine with the youth from our church and Calvary Baptist.  But even before then, I had read an online post from November 2015 by John Pavlovitz, a pastor in North Carolina, about those times it is not well with our souls.  He writes, “This jacked-up mess we’re living in doesn’t seem to be love overcoming. It seems like love overwhelmed. And so we too feel overwhelmed.”

            “This jacked-up mess we’re living in” has been going on for some time, long before this last election cycle, long before the Senate waged its little war against itself.  The people who greeted Jesus entering Jerusalem by laying cut branches as well as their cloaks on the road probably felt the same way about their situation.  God’s love wasn’t anywhere near overcoming the Romans.  Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in starting a holy war, even though tensions were high between temple authorities, the crowds, Herod Antipas, and the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.  This big entrance into Jerusalem seemed like the people’s last shot at seeing just what Jesus would do when push came to shove.

Related image

            And indeed Jesus does some pushing and shoving.  After entering Jerusalem, Matthew’s gospel reads that Jesus goes to the temple—the first place any devout Jew would go upon entering the holy city—and turns over the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves.  Perhaps he’d had enough, he knew what needed to be changed, and he took charge.  Perhaps he was tired of everyone turning a blind eye to this convenience.  Of course this was legitimate business, necessary for the running of the temple, but it was being conducted in the gallery intended for Gentiles, that they might have their own space for prayer and worship.  If God’s house is to be place of prayer, it is for prayer for everyone, even those outside of the covenant of Israel.

            We have our own sacred places in which the space set aside for outsiders is growing smaller:  our legislative halls and courts of justice.  But then we still divide ourselves between insiders and outsiders, with borders between us, rather than as sisters and brothers of a single human race.  When we hear or read the news of a Senate filibuster and the ‘nuclear option’, of bills that will lift clean air and clean water protections, or repeal nutrition standards in our schools, in our feelings of love overwhelmed we are tempted to overturn a few tables, unseat a few Senators, declaring that this house is a house of law and justice and yet it has been turned into a den of thieves.  And yet even as Jesus did this, I’m not sure it changed anything that day, except anger his opponents, ruin a few small businessmen, and cause a commotion.

            All that commotion does nothing to stop those in need of healing in approaching Jesus, calling out to him to save them.  All the commotion and turmoil and violence and conflict these days seem to get in the way of us approaching Jesus for healing, calling out to him to save us.  How can a prophet long since gone, heal us and save us, when that’s exactly what we need—healing and saving?  Our post-modern minds don’t take those miracles stories literally, and the word ‘saved’ leaves a bad taste in our mouths because it’s been co-opted by other Christians as a means of gatekeeping.  And yet, there are days it is not well with our souls.  Our love is indeed overwhelmed.

            During the season of Lent, I invited us all to read Elaine Heath’s book, God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church.  She writes about how churches—but really any group of people—can become anxious whenever there is a systems change, a transition, and often we experience this as upheaval, as chaos, and we create conflict as a means of expressing and controlling our anxiety.  Jesus, in his life’s work to get to the heart of the Jewish faith, to usher in God’s beloved community and preach against power and empire in favor of the vulnerable, created a systems change and a dramatic one at that.

            It was such an anxiety-producing, conflict-creating systems change that the state resolved the only solution was to execute the instigator.  And we still kill the messengers, the prophets, the instigators of systems change among us.  Or we marginalize them, demean them, silence them, imprison them.  We even have more socially acceptable ways, like ignoring them or thinking of reasons why we can’t, rather than deal with our own anxiety, our own fears of large-scale change.

            Instigators of change can often be a flash in the pan if there isn’t something more grounding them than just their opinion that they’re doing the right thing.  Jesus lasted as long as he did because he was a contemplative person, and this is how he can heal us and save us in our love overwhelmed.  


         First, being a contemplative person means that we show up in all our relationships.  We actively participate with our family, our friends, our co-workers, our teachers and those who learn from us, our communities; with the earth, with church, with God, and ourselves. 

            Second, being contemplative means that we pay attention: to our emotions, our bodies, our spirit, our desires, our needs.  We pay attention to others; we listen more and talk less.  We notice, observe, intuit, absorb, analyze what is happening within our systems—family, church, work, school, community—and what is happening beyond them.  We pay attention to what God is doing in the world.

            Third, we strive to cooperate, collaborate with God, with the universe as it unfolds, as we receive invitation, instruction, correction, encouragement, otherwise known as “going with the flow”, “remaining flexible”.  It’s what makes the Church nimble and responsive; like any human body we need to stretch.  We seek to be aware of our own resistance to change so we can work through it, thus be able to recognize resistance in the system and speak to it with compassion and understanding.

            Finally, to be a contemplative person means after all that showing up and paying attention and cooperation and allowing ourselves to be guided—after all that work, we do the work of faith and we let go of the outcome.  We allow events to unfold.  We acknowledge that God is God and we are not.  As Anne Lamott puts it, we take our sticky fingers off the control panel.  Earlier this week I posted on Facebook a haiku poem: 

God made our hands for

more than hanging on tightly.

It’s time we let go.

            Ironically, for some of us, what it takes to be a contemplative person can cause anxiety in us.  All that letting go.  Contemplative people themselves can cause some of us to feel anxious because the person is not anxious like we are.  It can seem like they don’t care because they aren’t worried like we are.  And yet we know Jesus was a compassionate person who cared deeply, who lived passionately, who relieved the anxieties of the vulnerable, the poor, and the forgotten. 

            Being a contemplative person or even just engaging in the contemplative practices does not guarantee that we will not be overwhelmed by the demands love brings.  In fact, showing up and paying attention brings us face to face with all that love demands.  The greatest act of showing up Jesus did was showing up to his own execution.  However, in our contemplative way of being, we are shown how to be courageous in the face of our fears, how to be resilient when our love is overwhelmed.  For we learn the greatest lesson Jesus has to teach us: we learn how to love well.  Which is the biggest change we could ever instigate.