Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Change and second chances

(The message this past Sunday was the result of a pulpit swap between the New Ark UCC and the UUFN.  It was an interesting experience preaching from a source other than the Bible.)

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

Is Change.

When apparent stability disintegrates,
As it must—
God is Change—
People tend to give in
To fear and depression,
To need and greed.
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.
They remember old hates and generate new ones,
They create chaos and nurture it.
They kill and kill and kill,
Until they are exhausted and destroyed,
Until they are conquered by outside forces,
Or until one of them becomes
A leader
Most will follow,
Or a tyrant
Most fear.

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
         That God has provided.
They are everywhere,
         In everything.
God is Change—
Seed to tree,
         Tree to forest;
Rain to river,
         River to sea;
Grubs to bees,
         Bees to swarm.
From one, many;
         From many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving—
         Forever Changing.
The universe is God’s self-portrait.

There is no end
To what a living world
Will demand of you.

Kindness eases Change.


         These verses were written by 15 year old Lauren Olamina, the main character in Octavia Butler’s book, Parable of the Sower, published in 1993. One of a handful of female black science fiction authors, Octavia Butler also wrote speculative fiction—stories based on our society’s current trajectory and what could possibly happen in the not-too-distant future. Parable of the Sower begins in the year 2024 in a fictitious town 20 miles north of Los Angeles. There are three intersecting classes of people: the super wealthy who control electricity, water, and food; the poor middle class who live in walled neighborhoods, grow their own food if they can, homeschool their children because they have to, some with at least two families in one house, struggling to hold onto the way it used to be; and the homeless, most of whom are drug-addicted, illiterate, and violent, who scavenge whatever they can to survive.

         Lauren and her family, along with a dozen or so other families, live on a cul-de-sac in one of these walled neighborhoods. The wall is 20 feet high with lazor wire and glass fragments on top of it. The wall has a gate that is locked 24/7 and only residents have a key. Lauren and her Baptist minister father are black; he and his wife Cory, who is Hispanic, have four young boys. Most of the other families are also an ethnic melting pot. Everyone looks out for everyone else, including an armed nightwatch after several robberies. Everyone in the neighborhood owns firearms and is trained to use them. Police and firefighters are paid in cash by citizens who can afford their fees. Water costs more than gasoline, except no one drives anymore. A trip to the grocery store can cost a few thousand dollars if you have it. And it rains about every six or seven years.

         Lauren has rejected her father’s god. In the world she lives in, God as Love has failed. If there is any higher power in the universe, a power over which we have no control, it’s change.

Change has no feeling for us—God just is. Inexorable and indifferent, and yet God exists to be shaped. Lauren writes, why is the universe? To shape God. Why is God? To shape the universe. And it’s this philosophy, this belief system that helps her survive when her world inevitably falls apart—inevitably because God is change. When change occurs, we can resist it or we can submit to it, adapt to it; we can shape the effects of change on our lives.

         It’s not unlike the first four of the twelve steps. When all hell breaks loose, when the bottom falls out, when we can’t control events or people around us, or even ourselves, we admit that God is God and we are not. Two, we come to believe that there is a power that can and will restore us to sanity, because all our efforts have proved otherwise. Three, we submit ourselves and our lives to that power as we understand it. Four, we make a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves, because in our efforts to control people and events around us, we’ve wounded some folks along the way, including ourselves, and we need to participate in our own healing.

         Of course, the steps don’t stop there. All of the first four can happen in our own minds and hearts and remain there. Which is how we talk ourselves into and out of a great many things. So we take the change out into the world and make it public.
We admit the wrong turns and injuries to ourselves, to God, and to another human being. In church talk we call it a prayer of confession or a prayer of reconciliation. And with it comes forgiveness, a second chance, grace, the assurance that there is nothing we can do that makes us or anyone else unworthy.

         Our nation is going through some major changes, many of which we are resisting and we should. But all this resistance is having an effect on our hearts and souls. We’re all in danger of becoming less graceful, less forgiving and flexible, less adaptable. We think we have to be the mighty oak when we need to be more like the willow or the aspen with interconnected roots. Perhaps we cannot always shape the changes that happen, but we can shape ourselves to be the person we need to be, the community the world needs us to be. Which requires self-reflection, that fearless and searching moral inventory.

         This fellowship is going through some mighty changes of its own. One verse we heard this morning, “When apparent stability disintegrates, as it must—God is Change—people tend to give in to fear and depression, to need and greed.”
Our limbic brains can take over, convincing us that we must fight or flee. We our ability to be objective is hampered; we have difficulty looking at events and people and our own actions as if a stranger was looking in. Much of the change we experience is a consequence of our choices and actions. And so this morning I included a prayer of reconciliation in the service as well as a response to remind us of the sovereignty and transformative power of grace.

         Usually in such a time of transition between pastoral leaders, it is good to have an interim minister, what I like to call church therapy. I have served twice as an interim minister and know both the healing interim ministry can bring and how destructive it can be when it is forgone. Knowing that an interim pastor may not be possible in this situation, I have a pastoral prescription for you, which you can do with as you wish.

         First, you continue to have a prayer of reconciliation and an assurance of forgiveness in your worship every week while you are in this period of transition. Why every week? Because it would be too easy to talk yourselves out of it if you required it less often. Self-examination requires self-discipline, which is true for communities as much as it is for individuals.

         Second, to make those prayers meaningful and powerful, look at your history. The truth is, this change began long before it happened, before it became visible to everyone. It happened before *******, maybe even before his predecessor. The seeds of change are planted where we least expect them to fall. Now you have a second chance to change what happens next.

         And third, make “Kindness eases change” your personal and collective mantra. Remember that in Hebrew, kindness means mercy, grace, acts of lovingkindness, chesed: unlimited, undeserved, and unconditional.
The prophet Micah tells us all that is required of us is to make justice, love kindness, and walk humbly—do your part and let God be God. And it is from kindness that second chances can grow well, we can experience redemption even in tumultuous change, and it is through kindness we come to know that we are all worthy, no matter who we are or what we’ve done or not done.

         “A sower went out to sow some seed; and as they sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell upon rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit a hundredfold.” (Luke 8: 5-8)

         May it be so. Amen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

With and without God

Romans 7: 15-25a (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
July 9, 2017


         This is Andrea when they were almost a year old with their first pair of shoes.
Andrea learned to walk in the summer and went barefoot everywhere. But now it was October and time for warmer clothes, socks, and shoes. But look at the magic shoes can do. Like Forrest Gump said, they can take you places. And so Andrea’s first walk with shoes was down the driveway, away from the house and Mom with the camera, to whatever adventure awaited them.

        This is the marvelous dance we do with those who love us and keep us safe: we walk away on our own, to whatever adventure awaits us, only to return once again. And each time we move away, we take another step, we exercise our muscles of independence, we make mistakes, sometimes we get hurt or we hurt others, we make awkward attempts to engage those twin spiritual disciplines called repentance and forgiveness. Growing up is messy, joyous, painful, fun, and rarely an orderly path forward. And hopefully it doesn’t ever end. We keep growing, evolving, mostly by making mistakes and learning from them.

         As we get older, though, the mistakes become more than just an oops. At some point we become acquainted with evil, that one thing we wish we could shelter those we love from, that one thing we wish we could escape. We live within a system that benefits most of us in this room, a small minority, at the expense of others who are not only punished by the system but are kept there permanently for the success of the small minority.

         If our education was effective in any way, it taught us how to question and self-reflect and think critically, just like Paul who studied the law, and so we know what is good and right and true and yet we do not do it.

Author James Baldwin sounds as though he was paraphrasing Paul’s letter to the Romans when he wrote, “We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are, and we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we’re willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

         At some point we all bite into that fruit and our eyes are opened, and we see the wages of sin all around us and within us. Every day we put on our shoes and make more steps in our lives, most of them safe, some risky, some purposeful, but also a lot of wandering or staying in place or aimlessness or our path was decided for us long ago or we’re running and we can’t run fast enough.

         For Paul the answer to this problem, this human conundrum, for some, this trap, is Jesus. God’s commands are not enough. It’s easy enough to disobey a command, to not do what is required of us. After all, how many of us do as we are told? We resist, we rebel, we delight in our own way. But for Paul, it is the obedience, the faithfulness of Jesus to the law of love, even to death on a cross, that saves Paul from himself, releases him from sin’s prison to live a life of grace.

         I want you to ask yourself, when was the last time the thought of Jesus on the cross prevented you from cursing out a driver or influenced your purchases or finances or informed an important decision or changed the direction of your life? When was the last time you afforded yourself or someone else some mercy, especially when you or they didn’t deserve it?

I ask because there is a growing segment of our society who are doing just that: making decisions and choices without any reference to God or religion or even a law called love. With and without God we stumble, we create havoc, we cause pain, we make damn beautiful music out of it, but we also change very little. As James Baldwin said, we who are so fat, so sleek, so safe, so happy and so irresponsible are most of the time content to stay that way.

         For we who call ourselves Christians it is a life with God and specifically a life with Jesus that urges us toward discontent, makes us restless, and inspires us, in the words of a prayer, to be something more of who we mean to be and can be.

         Toward the end of his time on this earth, from a Nazi prison Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that with “science and human affairs in general, ‘God’ is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground.”
Bonhoeffer wasn’t just depressed or anxious about his impending execution but rather he was facing his life as well as his death as he believed Jesus had. Not with a false, dependent, human view of God but as one come of age.

         He continued, “So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as [those] who manage our lives without [God]. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets [God’s self] be pushed out of the world on to the cross. [God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.”

         When I first read that quote about ten years ago, it haunted me until it rang true. Since then I’ve been in what you might call a theological closet, and it’s time to come out. I can no longer (and haven’t for some time) believe in a supernatural, interventionist god. Which makes me in the truest sense of the word an a-theist. We need to deconstruct our God language. God is not a being but a force, a mystery, a power, working in and through and with all living things, all matter, all that we can see and all that we cannot see or know or understand as yet.

If this power, this force is working for the good of all life everywhere, then that means I’m going to be on the losing end sometimes, many times, especially if I’ve got more than my share. In fact it would be better if I cooperated with this will toward the good of all, if I willingly gave up some of my fat, sleek, safe, and happy so someone else can have some too.

         But I don’t know how to do this without Jesus—who for me is the clearest picture of that force, that power in the flesh.  I don’t know how to love my neighbor, let alone my enemy without Jesus (because sometimes I get them confused). I don’t know how to forgive, how to be merciful, what grace is without Jesus. I don’t know how to have faith in humanity without Jesus.

         So the problem is, how do we grow up, how do we learn to do these things without being dependent on someone else, something to tell us to do them? At some point we made our way in the world without our parents. In fact, at some point we rebelled and rejected some or much of what our parents taught us, which is how we became adults, our own persons.
We lament the absence of adult children in this church but are they not intelligent, good, and kind people—what this world needs more of? We know the whole world will never be Christian but if human beings are going to survive this adolescence we’re in, then as a species we need to grow up. We need to find a way for people of faith, all faiths, and people of no faith to find common language and meaning and work together.

         Often it’s not what we believe that brings us together but how we live and how we want to live. We all do better when we take care of each other. Justice is love with its boots on. Many say the Church hasn’t walked the talk, and we know it. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Even the United Church of Christ stumbles now and again, because we’re human. But like that little one almost 20 years ago, like every one of us, we have to step out in faith: faith in ourselves and faith in each other, in everyone and everything, that a power is working in and through and with each one of us and in our life together.

         This is the next Great Awakening, and we have the capacity to recognize it as we’re living through it, to choose our path forward, and to shape it as compassionately as we can. The most Jesus-y thing we can do is to make room for everyone. And everyone means EVERYONE. All the children of the universe.


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Every moment a welcome


Casa Hogar, Oaxaca, Mexico, 2008

         “Y cualquiera que dé a uno de estos pequeñitos un vaso de agua, de cierto os digo que no perderá su recompensa.” This was the Bible verse painted on the wall of the outer office of Casa Hogar, an orphanage in Oaxaca, Mexico—where David and I went on our first international mission trip. “[Whoever] gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Every day in that small outer office one of the staff of the orphanage would lead a Bible study, host a staff meeting, tend to a scraped knee or soccer ball request. Casa Hogar was a place was full of little ones: little ones who were blind or deaf, little ones in wheelchairs, with canes or walkers, little ones who stayed little because of early malnutrition or a problem at birth, little ones who were starved for love and thirsty for whatever we had to give.

         A cup of cold water is no small thing in a hot, dry climate. Especially if the water has to be boiled or bottled to be safe to drink. A cup of cold water is no small thing to a homeless person or someone overcome by heat exhaustion. A cup of cold water can be as powerful and meaningful a Communion as the bread and juice and wine on this table. A cup of cold water can be all it takes to offer an extravagant welcome.

         At midday in the scorching heat, Jesus came to a well and by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, he extended to her an extravagant welcome; he gave some radical hospitality. He made room for her in ways that no one would have dreamed of doing then.
Imagine a centuries-long family feud due to some ethnic racism and hard feelings, a hard-and-fast division of gender and gender roles, and the added shame of living in a small village where everyone knows you’ve had 5 husbands and the latest one isn’t what anyone would call a relationship.

         I’m not going to pretend to know who you’d be embarrassed to be caught talking to or who you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with, but imagine them offering you a cup of cold water to drink. Really. I want you to close your eyes and imagine it (but don’t fall asleep). You’re tired, you’ve had a long day and it was 90 degrees in the shade. Someone cut you off in traffic or jumped the line for coffee or at the store. You called customer service and spent three hours on the phone and whatever it is is still not working.

Plus you basically feel judged or lacking in some way every time you leave your house or apartment just because you’re you.  Like that Samaritan woman. Like some of the people who would be receiving the disciples on their mission trip. And then this person, who you wouldn’t be caught dead with, someone you think hasn’t a clue how to live the gospel, let alone knows what it’s about, someone you think can’t treat people right, they hand you a cup of water—a paper Dixie cup, like those little cups the dentist uses, so thin you can feel how cold the water is—what are you going to do?

         You drink the water. Of course you do. What else would mercy require of you?

And as the water floods your dry mouth and the cold hits the back of your throat and you feel it travel down through your chest, your body begins to release some of that tension and anger and grief you’ve been holding onto all day, all week, this past month, this long year. And then it’s like a waterfall, like doors opening, the twang of a spring stretching, and something like air can get to the back of your brain. A sigh escapes your lips. Maybe some hot tears well up.

         Suddenly much of it doesn’t really matter anymore.
A generous space appears where before there was only bedrock, where now something green can grow. The word used by the apostle Paul for hospitality means love of strangers, even if that stranger is us who needs welcome, mercy, and a cup of cold water.

         Every moment is a welcome, that moment when we open ourselves to mercy, kindness, and compassion in our lives, our bodies, our spirits. Every moment can be a welcome, when we extend that mercy and kindness and compassion to someone else. Even when that mercy is something as small as a cup of cold water from someone we least expect to give it.

         “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts the Creator, who sent me.
Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”