Tuesday, June 27, 2017

One love

Matthew 10: 24 – 39 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 25, 2017


         After this week, I hardly know where to begin. The gospel doesn’t normally fare well in an empire, but this week the gospel took quite a beating. Everything from “love your neighbor as yourself”, “love your enemies and pray for them” to “whenever you ministered to the least of these, you did the same to me” was tested and somehow found wanting. We can’t say we follow Jesus and also support leaders and healthcare legislation that hurt the very people Jesus healed and hung out with. We either take care of each other, especially the most vulnerable among us, or we’re not following Jesus.

We can’t say we follow Jesus and argue that Philadelphia’s rainbow flag can’t have black and brown stripes on it because the rainbow flag isn’t about race. But discrimination against people of color within, as well as outside, the queer community is about race. And until black lives matter, no lives will matter, until as a nation, as a world we consciously and conscientiously decide we are all members of one another.

         I can’t follow Jesus and be quiet. I can’t follow Jesus and think that walking the fine line between preaching the gospel and offending someone is what I am called to do. 
And yet following Jesus was never intended to be a popularity contest or a way to win friends and influence people to your cause. In fact, following Jesus may be the quickest way to losing some friends, maybe even family, and becoming, like Jesus, public enemy no. 1. 

         But to look at American Christianity, you wouldn’t think so. Ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “It is impossible to avoid the fact that American Christianity is far less than it should have been just to the extent that the church has failed to make clear that America's god is not the God that Christians worship.

We are now facing the end of Protestantism. America's god is dying. Hopefully, that will leave the church in America in a position where it has nothing to lose. And when you have nothing to lose, all you have left is the truth. So I am hopeful that God may yet make the church faithful - even in America.”

         While there are Christians in this country who have hijacked Jesus’ message of peace, justice and unconditional love and made it over in their own image of violence, bigotry and hate, we progressive Christians have not raised our voices enough and all together that the truth of the gospel may be heard loud and clear. The truth that grace is for all people, including bigots and haters and people we don’t like, and that it doesn’t have to be earned nor is it deserved—God’s grace simply is for everyone.

The truth that when we care for each other, for everyone, we all do better. The truth that we can’t hang on to all that we have and follow Jesus. The truth that every person is valuable and worthy of care. The truth that we are called to lose our lives but in so doing, we will find our true, authentic lives—our lives will come alive. The truth that our faith is not only a private thing but a public way of life, because injustice and suffering demand it. The truth that none of this is easy nor can we give ourselves a pass.

         This past week I was invited to speak with Governor John Carney, along with Rep. Paul Baumbach, some folks from a support and advocacy group called Compassionate Choices, and two individuals suffering from a terminal illness, regarding the End of Life Options Act or HB 160. I spoke about a personal experience in which a 79 year old man with numerous cancers, for whom I was pastor, ended his life with a handgun because for him there was no other option except to refuse a feeding tube and slowly starve to death. Much more powerful were the two people in the room who knew their lives would end within a year: a man who had lived with AIDS for the last 20 years but because of a 6 month lapse in his health insurance and ensuing lack of medication was now dying from Kaposi’s sarcoma and a woman with breast cancer that has now metastasized to her liver and bone marrow.

         After we had all said what we had come to say, after the governor responded and thanked us, the woman looked directly at the governor and pressed him: “If this bill somehow miraculously passes both the House and the Senate and it comes to your desk, will you sign it?” The governor replied gently but firmly that at that moment he could not support it but he would keep his mind open and keep listening.

         It took all I had not to press the governor myself with this question: How can you look this woman in the eye, your constituent, your sister, who is asking you for mercy and not give it to her? Because I knew there was a bigger agenda at hand than this one woman’s fate.
Because speaking truth to power means not hitting them over the head with it. Because that sword that Jesus brought with him doesn’t mean we give up on each other, sever all ties, and slam the door. Because eventually we’re all going to be sitting at one table. Because love can be messy and complicated and hard when covenant is involved, and it’s always involved. Though we have a thousand little loves, and even though some of them are overwhelming, God has only one love and it cannot be divided or only for some.

         When the United Church of Christ initially came into being 60 years ago today, every local Evangelical & Reformed church, every Congregational church was given the option to join by congregational vote. Not every church joined in 1957. Many churches took their time, some not joining until 1960, ’61, ’62. The UCC is by no means a monolith.
Though the national denomination is Open and Affirming, of the approximately 5,000 congregations of the UCC, about 1,300 are ONA. And yet we are the Church together. It’s the precious, messy tension between autonomy and covenant, that squidgy place where we all live. Unity with diversity takes time. Evolution takes time. One love takes time.

         Today is also Eid al Fitr, the last day of the holy month of Ramadan. It began last night at sundown, and the feast of Eid al Fitr lasts until Tuesday at sundown. The fast is now over. Now it is time to give as much charity as possible and to show joy and happiness. Our neighbors will have gone early to the Masjid for prayers and, if possible, made their way there on foot. Hours before the sun rose, they had a small sweet breakfast, said a special prayer, showered, brushed their teeth, put on new clothing or their very best, and perfume or cologne.

At midnight, our friend Irfan Patel posted this greeting: “Eid Mubarak! Heartiest Eid greetings - from my family to yours!  Today we completed the month long fasting of Ramadan. As we enter into the festivity mode of Eid celebrations, one cannot help but ponder upon how things have turned out since the last Eid. Fate has played havoc on many lives, and circumstances have forced many to leave the comfort of their homes.
Some who celebrated Eid with much pomp and grandeur last year are looking for safe havens this year. Some have lost their loved ones. And some short on health.  So let's thank the Almighty for all His blessings, let's keep everyone in our prayers and let's try to keep up with the enormous challenge of fighting evil with good!”  He ended with the hashtags #PrayingforPeace, #OneHumanRace, #NotoHate, #IStandWithRefugees.  I wish everyone could know the power of the gospel through the friendship of a Muslim.  If you see a Muslim friend between today and Tuesday, wish them a hearty Eid Mubarak.

This past Friday a colleague of mine was ordering a Philly Pride flag for his church and offered to order one for the New Ark too.  When I asked how I could reimburse him, he replied, "No need."  
And yet I also have friends from seminary who argued vehemently against this flag on a  Facebook post.  I don't think Jesus is asking me to choose one against the other but to choose Jesus.  And Jesus chooses everybody.

Thank God he does.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A word about being okay

Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 23 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 18, 2017


Earlier this week, I watched a video in which a woman recalled a conversation with her husband, who had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He said to her, “It’s going to be okay”. And she replied, “Yes, we just don’t know what okay means yet.” Which is one of the best faith statements I’ve ever heard—what we church types call the hope of the resurrection. Yes, it’s going to be okay—we just don’t know what okay means yet.

And so I want to speak to you a word about being okay. Every week, here in this space, this time, I want to say to you that it’s going to be okay, but I don’t know what okay means yet or looks like or will look like down the road. Nor does anyone else really. I want to say that being okay looks like it always has, but that’s not true either. Our definition of being okay has changed because being okay sometimes meant accepting what was unacceptable:

· being okay meant you had to shrug off yet another sexual advance or catcall or harassment or sexist joke—because it just goes with the territory;
· being okay meant you felt the thousandth little cut of someone’s racism, unintentional or otherwise, and you swallowed some more sorrow, some more anger, some more rage;
· being okay meant you couldn’t talk about your same-gender partner or hold hands in public but everyone was cool with your roommate;
· being okay meant you had to use a particular bathroom rather than the one you’re comfortable using;
· being okay meant you had to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week to prove your loyalty, your dedication, no matter how much your job ate your life and you wished you could stay home with your kids, have more time with your family;
· being okay meant that ONE person who saw YOU and not just the wheelchair, the scooter, the cane, the walker, or didn’t judge you for your inability.
· being okay meant at least your head is above water.

None of this is okay and yet people still have to live with a lot of these.

And so I want to speak to you a word about being okay.

I want to say that it’s going to be okay, but I don’t know and you don’t know what okay means yet, looks like, will look like. I want to say it’s going to be okay because every day I see, you see and have experiences that say to us, “I don’t know if it’s going to be okay”.

· when people drive impatiently, recklessly and cut us off; when we’re rude and unfeeling to each other;
· when we see people walking (and maybe it’s us some days), gazing down at a phone rather than looking at the world and the people around them;
· when we read the newspaper, turn on the TV, open our online news source, listen to NPR, and we hear about the latest shooting, bombing, accident or disaster;
· when people judge you because you’re young, because you’re not like everyone else, because your gender doesn’t fit in a neat box, because you’re attracted to more than one gender, because your gender doesn’t match your identity, and your rights and your existence are threatened, and it’s hard to imagine that any of this will okay someday;
· when we’re having to renew the same fight from 20, 40, 60 years ago;
· when the weather becomes violent and extreme, and the environment, the climate remind us that the earth doesn’t need us to survive.

I want to speak to you a word about being okay, because sometimes we confuse following Jesus with being okay—that everything is going to be okay if we can just find the right way to be Church. Like we do, Jesus looked around him and saw that all was not okay. Ever wider and deeper now than it was then, Jesus saw the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Like now, people were hurting, lonely, unwell, broken down by the world around them, disconnected, vulnerable. Living means more than just staying alive.

To care for these bruised and hurt lives, Jesus didn’t pick people who had it all together, who were ready and prepared for anything, who were the best at what they did. He gathered a band of misfits who needed him as much as the hurting did. He put together people who normally wouldn’t share the same space: a tax collector, a zealot, coarse-spoken fishermen, a man who would later betray him. Jesus saved people by giving them people to heal and to help.
The good news, the gospel comes down to these four words: You are not alone. Evangelism, to bring a message, thus means to live in such a way that the hurting and bruised lives around you know that you are there for them, that you will disrupt your life for them, that the journey is not a solitary one. Because at some point, someone did this for us.

We want to know if Church is going to be okay, and so I want to say a word about Church being okay, because the number of harvests hands on the whole is shrinking, but here’s where Jesus interrupts our worries and our self-focus and instead sends us out.

The lost sheep are found by becoming shepherds themselves. We help each other through. We uplift each other’s joy, embrace each other’s sadness. And I love the way Eugene Peterson puts it. We don’t have to travel far and try to convert people: no Westboro Baptist stunts. We don’t have to be dramatic and try to take on a public enemy. We go to the people right in our neighborhood, right here where the church is, right there where we live—in Delaware and Maryland and Pennsylvania and New Jersey but also places and people our compassion can reach with our resources. And we don’t need a lot of equipment—WE are the equipment. We become what we believe. Wherever we are, we are Church.

And so we can say it’s going to be okay, even though we have no idea what okay means just yet or what it will look like. Even when things don’t go as planned. Even when the unjust walk free and the wronged and the dead have no justice. Even when the powers of death threaten to overwhelm us. Even when we have no idea if any of this makes a difference. Even when the gospel looks like failure.
Because as long as we are Church—sent and on the move rather than staying put, living generously, looking outward more than we look inward; as Henri Nouwen would put it, “going where it hurts, entering into the places of pain, to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, powerless with the powerless”—joy and sadness and hurt and compassion all together, lived honestly and openly—as long as we strive to be Church in this way, we can hope in the resurrection, we can make this faith statement: it’s going to be okay.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The kids are alright

Acts 2: 1-21 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 4, 2017 – Pentecost


In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Protestant Church in Germany has presented a robotic priest named BlessU-2 to the town of Wittenberg. It was in Wittenberg that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the town’s Catholic church. The robotic reverend offers assorted blessings in eight different languages. The only thing that bugs me about it is its masculine-sounding voice.

What do visitors make of this techno-pastor? Rudolf Wenz, a volunteer with the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau, says that “those who are associated and set in their ways in church find it rather strange. But people who do not have any association with spirituality, or with the Protestant Church, they find it rather interesting, and in that way get to think about what Christianity has to offer. And in a way that is also what the Reformation was all about. …Luther also had at that time new medias; it was not the aural word that was taught to people, but it was the written word that came to give new thoughts.”

When the day of Pentecost arrived for those early disciples, when the Spirit came rushing through the room like a violent wind, like wildfire, it was said that they then began speaking in other languages: the languages of immigrants and foreign pilgrims in Jerusalem.
This past week UCC pastor Rev. Emily Heath wrote in her devotional piece that through the gift of the Spirit, the disciples could now speak in a way that was relevant to those around them. Technology has been and continues to be a language, a new media that allows us to speak, to be in relationship in ways that are relevant. When we are reluctant to learn and to engage in new technologies, new ways of communicating, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant, of relinquishing what it means to have a prophetic voice.

In the passage from the book of Acts, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel. The role of a prophet is to declare to society at large who God is and what God is doing, especially in times of upheaval, change, disaster or tragedy. When there is no prophetic voice, we humans usually fill the vacuum with the worst our fears can generate: God is angry with us; they are to blame; faith in God doesn’t work, it’s a waste of time; God is absent; God is dead; we are alone. Eugene Peterson writes in his introduction to Joel that the prophet calls “his people to an immediate awareness that there wasn’t a day that went by that they weren’t dealing with God. We are always dealing with God.”

We are always dealing with the sacred—with what is good and true and beautiful and just (and most of the time it’s problematic)—and how to speak about the sacred in ways that are relevant.

Two millennia ago the disciples went from celebrating the law given on stone tablets 3000 years before, to the Word incarnate and then written upon their hearts; from an exclusive faith to one in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. 500 years after the Reformation and the invention of the printed word, we look more at screens than flip pages of a book or newspaper. In the last 100 years we’ve gone from a deeper understanding about what it means to be a man or a woman, to be heterosexual beings, to then LGBTQIA orientations, to now speaking of sexuality and gender as a continuum and fluid; from binary pronouns to non-binary pronouns and titles. In the last 60 years we’ve witnessed a church boom to a church exodus to the Church in decline.

Or is it the Spirit pouring out on all flesh, continually pouring out new insights, new directions? Is it the Spirit moving not just within the confines of church community but ALL community?
In every generation, we who are older have worried about those who come after us. There was a time when someone worried about our future and about who we would be as adults, as leaders. In every age, technology has moved faster than we have been prepared to engage it. When the baby boomer generation came of age in the 1960’s, in that Age of Aquarius, it was people like my grandparents who worried for the future of this nation and this world. As a member of Generation X, I often feel like I’ve got one foot on what was and the other on what will be. Sooner or later we all have to choose whether to stay where we are or to make the road by moving forward on it.

As it happened in our own time, our graduates and young adults are inheriting the accumulation of our choices and decisions and much of it is overwhelming: climate change, poverty, inequality, terrorism, the increasing potential for global conflict. And we’re not so different from those disciples living in the midst of empire; who, right up until that Holy Spirit moment, had no idea what was coming next for them.

And yet. And yet. Your young people shall see visions and your elders shall dream dreams. Mark Zuckerberg, in his commencement address at Harvard, said that it is time for his generation to define a new social contract: “We should have a society that measures progress, not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income, to make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas. And we’re all going to make mistakes.”

We need to trust that indeed younger generations do have vision, the kids are alright, and we need to learn the languages, engage the new media forms of that vision; to embrace that Holy Spirit moment of wildfire and dare with it.
And we who are older need to remember to dream and to dream fearlessly. Both our fresh visions of justice and our long-held dreams of peace are the prophetic voice so desperately needed in these times of upheaval, change, disaster, and tragedy. Like those disciples of old, we are being given fresh opportunity to reorient our lives and our life together, to deal with God, with the sacred, every day in a new way, to journey in a direction we had not thought of.

Come Holy Spirit, scoundrel of grace, rascal of heaven and of earth, set our hearts on fire and disturb our complacency and our biases and our bank accounts and our desire for security. Bother us into God’s beloved community. Hassle us until there is heaven on earth, thy will be done. Amen.

A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you
with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths,
and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
and turn their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.