Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Uncertain terms

Acts 17: 22-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 21, 2017

Questions to the Rescue by David Hayward

The term “both/and” can be difficult for us humans. Most of the time we much prefer “either/or”. “Both/and” is messy, incongruent, seemingly impossible. Take for example, the thought experiment or “what-if” proposition that we know as Schrödinger’s cat. Erwin Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist in the early part of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1933. Quantum mechanical theory was just getting off the ground. One aspect of quantum theory, called the Copenhagen interpretation (scientists have as much complicated lingo as theologians), states that a subatomic object exists in all its possible forms simultaneously until it is observed and then collapses into one form. For instance, light can be a particle or a wave, but which one and when?

Schrödinger thought this was nonsense and sought to prove this theory wrong. So he devised a thought experiment in which there was a cat, a Geiger counter, some radioactive material, a hammer, and a vial of cyanide, all sealed within a steel box. And presumably enough air for the cat to breathe. There would be enough radioactive material, just a few atoms, that within an hour there was a 50/50 chance some of it would decay. If that occurred, the Geiger counter would detect the decay, setting off the hammer to break the glass vial of poison and thus kill the cat. But there was only a 50/50 chance that any of this would happen. Theoretically, without being able to observe what was happening in the box, the cat would be both alive and dead. Both possibilities would exist until the box was opened.

Schrödinger said this was ridiculous, because how could a cat be both alive and dead at the same time? It’s either one or the other. We know now that there are different models and theories at the quantum level than there are at the biological level of reality. Both/and. A British statistician serendipitously named George Box once said, “All models are wrong but some are useful”. Both/and.

I think this capacity for ambiguity would have driven the apostle Paul nuts. Here in the book of Acts he’s been preaching in Thessalonica, then Berea, and now Athens. He hasn’t exactly had an enthusiastic following as yet; he stirred up such emotion and passion in the synagogues he visited that mobs threw him out of town. Yet in Athens he finds people to have a more open mind. They are keen to hear or tell of something new. He debates with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. These Athenians seem to know little of the history of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people. The Jews were not known for their evangelism—Peter, Paul, and the rest of the apostles are the first. But people gather to listen nonetheless, to hear this new teaching.

The Areopagus as seen from the Parthenon
They bring Paul to the Areopagus, or Ares Rock, Mars Hill, which was also the name of the high court in Athens, so it’s not clear whether they’ve brought him to a large outcropping of rock or to a court of elders to be judged. Either way, Paul gives the sermon of a lifetime. He had noticed all the idols in the city and being the good Jew that he is, he was deeply distressed—the Ten Commandments forbid idols and the worship of them. And yet when he speaks to the people, he compliments them on how religious they are. The shrine dedicated to an unknown God gives Paul the perfect opening to talk about the God he knows, the One who made heaven and earth, who gives life and breath to all living things, who cannot be contained by gold or silver or stone or by anything made by human hands.

Instead it is all of creation where God lives and moves and in which we have our being. There is no longer a distinction between God’s people and “other” people. All people are God’s people. The Church has no walls. And yet we can know this unknowable God in the person of Jesus. Paul talks like a true missionary, using a preaching and conversion template that would be used again and again. Appreciate and honor the native religion and spirituality, then move from their specificity to your specificity about the divine, extolling the virtue and truth of your teaching, all the while affirming the grandness and expansiveness of God.

We wonder and dream and theorize whether there is something infinite in this universe, some power or force, an energy beyond what we can know and observe, and we can’t help ourselves but try to define it in finite terms as a way of understanding it. Joseph Campbell wrote, “We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what’s important.”

Back in 1988 when Campbell and Bill Moyers were discussing The Power of Myth, both of them were probably considered heretics. A heretic is someone who chooses to believe something other than the accepted norm. Every time we move forward in human history it is because of heretical thinking. In their conversation, Bill Moyers said that “there are Christians who believe that to find out who Jesus is, you have to go past the Christian faith, past the Christian doctrine, past the Christian church,” and that many would consider that heresy. Campbell agreed and replied that “you have to go past the image of Jesus. The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your God is your ultimate barrier.”

Now we have Christians who identify as Buddhist Christians or Hindu Christians, even Jewish Christians and Muslim Christians. The UCC isn’t nicknamed “Unitarians Considering Christ” for nothing. Those of us born and raised and still connected to the United Church of Christ are more than likely in the minority. Most of us do not think twice about our multi-Protestant journey or having been raised Catholic but then journeying through multiple expressions of Christianity and/or other religions. And yet sometimes we can be reluctant to identify ourselves as Christian, preferring instead to be a follower of Jesus, but we also acknowledge how flawed we are at that.

We need our tribe, a sense of belonging and trust in this brave, new, unfamiliar world we’re living in. And yet our tribe is expanding in ways we may not be aware of, that is, many who live a Jesus kind of life are not connected to a church; expanding to the point that we’re not sure where the boundaries are or if there are any. The big question of any major upheaval or transition is “By what authority shall we live?” No longer can we say with any real integrity that every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord. And yet we need that finitude, whether it is science or religion or both, to describe the infinite or else we feel as though we have nothing to stand on, nothing to hold onto.

I believe that the present challenge of the life of faith, and of no faith, is hold both infinity and its finite expressions in tension, in connection, in communion with one another; for us as Christians to live as Jesus lived in the company of those who believe differently than we do and those who acknowledge no god as such but are also trying to live like Jesus: compassionate, strong, merciful, loving, forgiving, justice-filled, unconditionally; to continually ask the big questions and be willing to praise the unknown while the answers come in their own good time.

We can certainly hold onto what has been, what has carried us this far, for as long as we can. But that’s not how living things grow. Evolution is about adaptation, and I believe what we are witnessing, experiencing is nothing less than an evolution of God. The next Great Awakening. It’s happened countless times before. Why wouldn’t it continue to happen, if our God is a living God, if the mystery, the power that guides us is a living mystery, a living power? Our beliefs change and thank goodness they do. What remains is how we are to live—that’s one thing that Jesus was very clear about; one thing we can be certain of.


Inclusive Language version of the text:

Then Paul stood up before the council of the Areopagus and delivered this address: "Citizens of Athens, I note that in every respect you are scrupulously religious. As I walked about looking at your shrines, I even discovered
an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' Now, what you are worshiping in ignorance I intend to make known to you.

'For the God who made the world and all that is in it, the Sovereign of heaven and earth, doesn't live in sanctuaries made by human hands, and isn't served by humans, as if in need of anything. No! God is the One who gives everything life, breath—everything. From one person God created all of humankind to inhabit the entire earth, and set the time for each nation to exist and the exact place where each nation should dwell. God did this so that human beings would seek, reach out for and perhaps find the One who is not really far from any of us - the One in whom we live and move and have our being. As one of your poets has put it, 'We too are God's children.'

If we are in fact children of God, then it's inexcusable to think that the Divine Nature is like an image of gold, silver or stone—an image formed by the art and thought of mortals. God, who overlooked such ignorance in the past, now commands all people everywhere to reform their lives. For a day has been set when the whole world will be judged with justice. And this judge, who is a human being, has already been appointed. God has given proof of all of this by raising this judge from the dead.'

(Acts 17:22-31)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Mama Georgia's house

John 14: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 14, 2017

My grandmother's house.  Hattiesburg, MS

My grandmother, Mama Georgia, lived to be 99 years old. She had six children, the youngest of which is my mother, 21 grandchildren, 31 great-grandchildren, and 1 great-great-grandchild. Whenever there was a family reunion, the house was busting with people. One Thanksgiving we put a long row of newspapers on the floor and about 15 kids ate there. When my mother wanted to attend Boston University, my grandparents sold a parcel of their small residential property to fund my mother’s education. Mama Georgia was there for my mom when she was a young mother with two small children and an alcoholic husband. A few times we stayed with her in Mississippi or she would come all the way to Massachusetts. She converted part of her house into a small upstairs apartment for a young adult grandchild who needed help. I know she prayed for each of us every day. My grandmother would’ve done anything for any of us grandchildren.

In J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, he writes that it was his Mamaw who was the primary force behind his rising above his Rust Belt beginnings in Kentucky and Ohio and graduating from Yale Law School. He describes his grandparents as “old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, and hardworking.” Mamaw was fierce in her love for her family, defending her family sometimes to the point of violence and always with grit and colorful language. In J.D.’s last three years of high school, she was able to provide him with something he desperately needed to succeed: a stable and loving home. A challenging love, a love that pushed him to be better, a love that never wavered, unconditional and self-sacrificing, as well as a flawed and imperfect love.

The Hopi say that when the grandmothers speak, the earth will be healed. The Shawnee call upon Grandmother Spirit, who is also Cloud Woman, a source of wisdom and transformation. In the Navajo tradition she is Grandmother Spider who placed the stars in the sky by lacing her web with dew and threw it into the heavens. She inspires her people to weave dream catchers and she interprets the meaning of the dreams. In Earth-based spirituality she is Grandmother Moon to Grandfather Sun.

St. Anne and Mary

More than likely, Jesus would have known both of his grandmothers. Though nothing of Mary’s parents is written in the New Testament or in the Qur’an, St. Anne or Hannah in Arabic is revered as the mother of Mary in Catholic and Orthodox traditions and in Islam.

Hear the lectionary text again from the perspective of Jesus as a grandson:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Grandmother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

“And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Grandmother Spirit except through me. If you know me, you will know my Grandmother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us this Grandmother Spirit, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen my Grandma. How can you say, ‘Show us this Grandmother Spirit’? Do you not believe that I am here because of my Mamaw and my Mamaw is here inside me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but my Grammy, my Mimi, my Oma, my Nana who dwells in me does her works. Believe me that I am in this Grandmother Spirit and She is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Grandmother Spirit. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Grandmother may be glorified in her Grandchild. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Being created in the image and likeness of God, humanity is an extension of the Divine; we are God-bearers but only in part. Just as an arm is an extension of the body, a thought is an extension of the mind, a rainbow is an extension of water and light, an apple is an extension of an apple tree, a student is an extension of a teacher, an apprentice is an extension of a master craftsperson. Just as a grandchild is a precious extension of a grandparent; the younger learning is an extension of the elder wisdom.

We can come to know God as grandmother through the way, the life, and the truth of Jesus. And I say grandmother not only because it’s Mother’s Day but for too long we have denied ourselves the power of the divine feminine. It’s not a stretch to see in Jesus the image of a grandmother who believes in you every step of the way, who would do anything for you; who has your back, in whose house there are many rooms, who will take you in and make room for you; whose love for you is fierce and unconditional.

Images of God are powerful. They can empower us to grow beyond ourselves, and they can maintain the status quo. They can inspire big and small actions of great impact and courage, and they can shrink the human heart and imagination. They can instigate peace and justice, war and Armageddon. I sometimes wonder that in our effort in the UCC to be inclusive in our language about God, we sometimes do a disservice when we remove gender references.

In God’s house there are many rooms—room for a Father and a Mother, room for Grandmother and Grandfather, room for every name and no name, every gender, transgender, gender fluid and no gender. Perhaps most importantly there is room for not just Child but children, every child—that in the face of God each of us sees not only ourselves but every person, all the diversity of humankind, that we see ourselves and everyone just as we are and who we all could become.

For we who call Jesus brother, he is the way, the truth and the life, to come to know that we are accepted just as we are, and through that unconditional acceptance, are set free to become something more of who we are. Jesus is the clearest likeness of what it means to be a God-bearer, the thinnest veil between us and who or what God is. Which means the closer we come to following Jesus, the smaller the gap between our humanity and our divinity, the smaller the gap between anyone’s humanity and their divinity, between human love and God’s love, until there is no gap, no distance. Only love. And love is love is love is love.

Happy Mother’s Day. Amen.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Enough is enough

Acts 2: 42-47
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 7, 2017

Image result for st gregory of nyssa san francisco
The dancing saints of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church

We spend a lot of our energy—physical, mental, spiritual—managing and controlling our anxiety and fear. There’s nothing new in that statement. Psychological theorists like Freud, Jung, and Adler knew it. Philosophers like Camus and Sartre knew it. Plato, Socrates, Kant, and Kierkegaard too. Krishna, Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, all the way back to Moses and Abraham and Sarah and beyond. 

Managing and controlling our fear and anxiety is where most sin comes from. I’m not talking about anxiety that requires diagnosis and medication. I’m not talking about the anxiety a transgender youth experiences nearly every day. I’m not talking about the fear of not having health care. I’m not talking about the fear of having one’s rights stripped away. Or being deported. Or the anxiety and fear of those who have no idea what it’s like to be someone like this.

   I’m talking about the anxiety, the fear that feeds on our needs, desires, wants, dreams we all have and whether or not they can be realized on any given day—from petty things like finding a parking space or getting through the line in the grocery store, all the way to, are we living the life we’re supposed to? Sometimes when we’re controlling and managing our fear and anxiety, we try to control and manage other people and the ways they manage and control their fear and anxiety. We can get stuck in our limbic brain or what some call the “lizard brain”. It’s our feeling brain, the primary force behind most of our behavior.

   Ironically, some of our miseries come from living a life of privilege, what we call “first world problems”. In her book The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist speaks to the myth of scarcity that we repeat to ourselves every day. When we wake up in the morning, what are the first thoughts we have? For many of us it goes something like this: “I didn’t get enough sleep. I don’t have enough energy or time to do everything that has to be done today.” She writes that the thought ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically, without little or no critical thought as to whether it’s true. We tell ourselves things like “I don’t get enough exercise, I don’t have enough work, my company is not making enough profits, I’m not organized enough, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time off”.

   Then it gets personal: “I’m not thin enough, pretty, handsome, successful, smart, educated, happy”—add your own to that ever-growing list. Before the day even begins we’re found wanting, unable to rise to whatever challenge that has been set before us. We’re always behind the 8-ball, like Sisyphus pushing that mighty boulder to nowhere.

   We do this at church as well: we’re not big enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough time to do everything. Hence we can’t be generous with the life of the church, the Body of Christ. We can’t follow our risky Jesus where he’s going because we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have enough to give, let alone have enough for ourselves.

   And we do this in our so-called civil society. We still hold to the myth that we don’t have enough to provide healthcare for everyone, to educate everyone who wants to go to college, to pay everyone equally for equal work, to pay a living wage, to feed and shelter every human being. When we try to manage and control this kind of anxiety and fear, we engage those lizard brains of ours and we wind up bullying ourselves and others. We use sexism and racism, homophobia and Islamophobia, and we warp religion, all of us self-righteous, and we judge and we blame to not only to control and manage our anxiety and fear but to bully others to quell our fear and anxiety of them, the “other”. We make life a living hell. Empire is based on fear and scarcity and death. God’s Beloved Community is about courage and love and abundant life.

   Author Anne Lamott asks the question, Where is God when people are bullied? On the cross, being crucified. Being crucified certainly didn’t end with Jesus. Many of those who loved Jesus met their end on the cross and in other horrid deaths. But these early Christians decided they’d had enough of worrying about whether there was enough. They’d had enough of crucifixion, enough of fear—it was time to live like resurrected people. 

   The great philosophical master Yoda said that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering, which can only mean that George Lucas had read Paul’s letter to the Romans. We’re either citizens of the Empire or servants of the Beloved Community. We either live like there’s enough or we don’t. We either live with glad and generous hearts or we don’t. We either live like resurrected people or we don’t. 

   Our fear and anxiety can cause us to forget who we really are. And so we come to church, to worship, to remember. Jesus said, “Remember me whenever you break bread and drink the cup.” This Table is not only a memorial of a death but a celebration of a life lived to set us free and a love that death cannot kill. When will we hit bottom and realize we’ve had enough of fear and anger and hate and suffering, enough of the cross, enough of making a living hell for ourselves and others? There is more than enough resurrection, more than enough grace and joy and love to go around. It begins with us—each of us and our life together. Are we dead or are we alive again?