Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Superman wears John Evans pajamas

Philippians 1: 21-30
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 24, 2017


         Time for another Main Street story. Last Sunday, as Andrea and I were walking on our way to the UD green for Community Day, we saw the marquis sign for the restaurant Grain. It read “Superman wears John Evans pajamas”. As soon as I read it, I said to Andrea, “I can make a sermon out of that.” The Holy Spirit said, “Challenge accepted!”

         I asked Brian Ford, one of the bartenders, what the sign was all about. First of all, who is John Evans? He’s a Delaware State Police major who just retired. He and his wife are regulars at Grain. Most Sundays, after attending Mass at St. John’s, they attend brunch at Grain. Brian likes to create a sign for John on Saturday night, so he will see it Sunday morning on his way to church. Of course, everyone else who attends church with John Evans sees it as well. But John is also a kind of hero to Brian. So, in Brian’s eyes, when Superman takes off his cape, he puts on pajamas with John Evans on them. Or maybe that super suit is John Evans’ pajamas.

         We all have our heroes, super suits and pajamas notwithstanding. Whether

they’re real or fictional, think of your heroes and the space they occupy in your heart, your mind, your imagination.  In big and a lot of small ways they fight against injustice and inequality, stand up for the powerless, speak up for the voiceless. They sacrifice and upend their privilege on behalf of others. Some of them are creative and strange and eccentric and just plain weird. Some are reluctant while others engage head-on. 

         Our heroes have good days and bad days—really good days and very bad days, sometimes weeks and months of them. Even years. Most of them never get a sign or much notice.  They have weaknesses and character flaws and 

limitations and amazing strength and wisdom and heart. Some have a solitary path; some have families and a wide circle of friends. Some have support and resources; some have little to none and almost nothing. Some are seen as valuable members of society; some are treated like trash. They are highly susceptible to joy and gladness and extremely pervious to pain. Our heroes come in all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, colors, gender expressions, all walks of life, you name it. And they love—baby, do they love.

         The apostle Paul is a hero to many of the churches he started. He wrote his letter to the Philippians from house arrest in Rome, and in places it reads like an affectionate love letter to a soulmate. We know the church in Philippi holds a special place in Paul’s heart when we read “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” Often it is the thought of these church communities that keeps Paul in better spirits. But he also sounds rather depressed and some might even say suicidal when he writes that dying is gain; that he’d rather depart and be with Christ.

         C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” This desire can spur on the hero, inspire them, and it can devour them. Because it is the making of this other world—this world of justice and peace, of radical acceptance and compassion—that is the work of heroes.

         Hero work is hard and often thankless. Physical, spiritual, and mental health are key to hero work but not everyone gets the care they need.

Every hero needs an accountable, unconditionally loving tribe that has their back—the Justice League, the Avengers, family, friends, church—but many are denied this still and yet try to carry on without it. Usually a hero will have a hero of their own. Paul had Christ for his hero and these young churches had become his tribe. And it is for their sake and the sake of the gospel that he remains in the flesh. Maybe because he realizes they share the same struggle.

         Which leads me back to that whole who wears whose pajamas thing—Paul wrote to the Galatians about putting on Christ, the risen Jesus, and yes, the struggle is real to put on those pajamas: to live a life worthy of the gospel, to get up and be a hero whether we feel like it or not.

Sometimes, though, I think we get confused as to what that means—living a life worthy of the gospel. It’s a public life of faith rather than just a private one. Most of us do not suffer for the gospel but there are some who suffer mightily. I don’t believe in a God who condones suffering, but I do think we are called to suffer with those who do suffer for the gospel, who bear a cross we have no idea what it is like to carry.

         It can be too easy some days to not put on Christ at all, to just fold up those pajamas and stash them in a drawer. Let somebody else be the hero. 
The irony is—Christ wants to wear our pajamas, to suit up as each and every one of us, our lives and our loves, our pain and our joy, our wounds and flaws and heart covering every inch of those pajamas. Christ wants to wear it all—because each of us is the hero of our own story. Not perfect, not fixed—who we are, exactly as we are. When we realize that we are loved and accepted just as we are, we can then offer that same gift to others who think they need to be fixed in order to be a hero, in order to be loved.

         Nope. This is Church. Hero school and tribe and gospel living. Misfits and outlaws and all the rest are welcome. And love is our superpower. A life worthy of the gospel. 


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Loving poorly

Matthew 18: 21-35 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 17, 2017


         It took a long time for me to forgive my father. Mostly because I had many things for which to forgive him: moving out of the house and leaving when I was 12; moving from Massachusetts to North Carolina when I was 15; for the innumerable ways his alcoholism affected our family; for dying of a heart attack when I was 19; for dying on my brother’s 18th birthday.

         What took the longest to forgive was my father’s inability to give up smoking. You see, it could’ve been anything. He could’ve still been drinking. He could’ve still been overworking his body, counseling alcoholics and drug addicts by day and driving them to the emergency room in the middle of the night. His addict brain would’ve found a way to stay addicted. Turns out the cigarettes were the hardest one to break.

         By the time I was 16 I had been well-schooled by my dad about the lies addicts tell, how they will tell you exactly what you want to hear, or at least what they want to hear—so much so that your BS meter has to be tuned extremely high.  
I had even accompanied him on an intervention with a family friend who tried to fly every last reason he needed to drink. 

So when my dad told me that he couldn’t stop smoking, even after he’d had pneumonia, even after he had a harrowing episode of fluid in his lungs, because to give up smoking would be shock to his system, I had every right and more to my adolescent eyeroll.

         During one visit with my father he did something seemingly harmless but to me it was one of the most mindless, heartless things he’d ever done. We were watching TV with my stepmother—Magnum P.I. and Nero Wolfe, our favorites. Dad was sitting in a recliner with his feet up, to help keep fluid out of his feet since the pneumonia. That’s what congestive heart failure will do to you. During a commercial he turned to me and did the mindless, heartless thing: he oh-so-casually asked me to get him a pack of cigarettes out of the kitchen.

         I huffed, then gave him one of my looks, the one I give when I don’t know what to say, my eyes looking down over my glasses. When I came back in the room, I threw the pack of cigarettes at him, thudded back onto the couch, arms crossed, my leg over my knee. Now I knew what to say to him. “Next time you want a pack of cigarettes, get them yourself.” He looked at me, then at my stepmother as if this was some kind of revelation, which infuriated me all the more.

         It reminded me of when I was about six or seven years old and I was mad at my father for something, some restriction, something he wouldn’t let me do. He held up his hands like a sparring coach and told me I could hit them as hard as I wanted. I hit and hit his open palms; even when it stung as my little fist struck his wedding band, I kept hitting.

         It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, after a poetry writing workshop, that I was able to finally let go of the last shreds of resentment. This is the conclusion of the poem I wrote to my father:

If I thought it would save
what life was left
I would have thrown
dozens of them at you,
my love sealed up
in plastic-wrapped paper,
smokes that would
never hasten your grave,
inscribed with that warning
not nearly fierce enough
but just as helpless.

         In the end, I had to acknowledge that we were both powerless, that our love for each other couldn’t prevent his death, and yet I don’t have to allow death to have power over love. 
From this side of the grave I thought I knew better. 
In a way, I thought I was better—smarter, wiser than my dad, and if he would just listen to me, things would change; he would change. The thing about those BS meters—we rarely tune them in on ourselves. Which is what keeps us from forgiving others—why forgiveness doesn’t happen just once but needs to happen over and over again. How can we forgive wholeheartedly when our whole heart isn’t in it? How can we give unconditional forgiveness when we have expectations of the outcome?

         Most sin is a result of one person or group, one nation thinking it is better than another. Or at least not as bad. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, the king had pity on the slave; he was touched by his plea. In that moment they were not king and slave or servant but two human beings who had a care for the most important things in this life like family and children and relationships. The old system of one life being more valuable than another because of wealth, privilege, and power is as permanent as we choose it to be. In granting this jubilee, this forgiving of a debt, the king established mercy as the standard not just for this one slave but for anyone who owed him a debt.

         But the slave could not do the same. Even though the slave had been released from his debt (imagine his relief, his joy!), he could not find it in himself to erase the debt of a fellow slave who makes the very same plea for forgiveness. Instead, the first slave now sees himself in a position of privilege and power over another and wields it mercilessly. By refusing to forgive, he renders the king’s mercy null and void. The king can no longer afford to be merciful, because his mercy has been wasted.

         Then Jesus ends the story with a warning, that God will do the same to us if we do not forgive each other unconditionally.

Jesus is giving us a choice: do we want unconditional forgiveness or merciless judgment? Perhaps what Jesus wants to know is, is God’s mercy wasted through his life? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t enjoy God’s forgiveness and yet withhold it from one another.

         Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly.” Including church people. Just as much as love and bread, we need forgiveness daily, to admit up front we’re all going to get it wrong and often. We confess that, like author Anne Lamott, we are a recovering higher power: we’re not God when it comes to forgiveness or anything else. But also that when it comes to loving like Jesus we’re willing to try. Yes, try. We’re not Jedi knights. We’re human beings.

         Love travels the same conduit as forgiveness, the one that leads to and from our hearts.

The more we love, the more we are able to forgive. The more we forgive, the more we are able to love. And most of the time we have faith that one of these days we will be generous and merciful and kind and compassionate and think of each other as no better and no worse than ourselves but all as worthy. And the old system will be no more.

         Most of the time. Which is why we must forgive not only seven times but seventy-seven times, even seventy times seven. Even though forgiveness is for loving poorly, we are rich in second chances.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An uncommon common life

Matthew 18: 15-20 (The Message)
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 10, 2017

            How many of us have left a church because of hurt feelings? Rally Sunday or Homecoming Sunday may seem like the wrong day to be asking this question, but the gospel often compels us to look at things from a different point of view. How many of us have left a church because the church or a group of church folk or someone in the church sinned against us? How many of us stayed, despite our hurt? How many of us have allowed our hurts, our wounds to fester rather than heal?

         Eugene Peterson uses the word ‘hurt’, but the more traditional phrase ‘sinned against’ means “missed the mark”, “crossed a line or a boundary”, “to wander off the path of righteousness”. Every week we say the words “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus isn’t talking about egregious actions like abuse or assault or oppression or institutional racism or sexism or homophobia. In this instance sin is the missteps, the unseeing ways, the ways we allow fear and ego to take control when we live in community.

         Often these missteps can hurt, as though someone didn’t see us, acted like we weren’t there. We feel like our community, our tribe let us down.
We feel vulnerable as a result, and so to protect ourselves, we can throw up a wall of anger and resentment, often resulting in conflict. But we can’t sustain that wall indefinitely and so we leave community, we leave church, we leave the group, we unfriend, or just disappear without a word.

         We know all this, but it’s hard to remember when we’re in the midst of it. The hardest thing of all to remember is to not take any of it personally. Even when someone’s missing the mark or crossing a line is about us as a person. What others say and do is a projection of their own inner life, their experiences, their wounds, their fears. Ironically, people project that stuff because they’re feeling vulnerable, unsure, awkward, which ramps up anxiety and a need for control. The limbic brain takes over, and once that starts it can be hard to stop.

         Which is why it’s important for us to not take things personally. When we do, our limbic brain gets involved—the center of our primitive emotions—and it all goes downhill from there.
Not taking it personally, going high when they go low, engaging in the spiritual discipline of forbearance is the grinding, tough work of following Jesus; you know, the one famous for saying, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” while being executed by the state. If the thought of Jesus on the cross stops us from anything, it ought to at least halt our self-pity in its tracks.

         That dang Jesus. He’s weird. Anne Lamott in her book entitled Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith says “Why couldn’t Jesus command us to obsess about everything, to try to control and manipulate people, to try not to breathe at all, or to pay attention, stomp away to brood when people annoy us, and then eat a big bag of Hershey’s Kisses in bed? Maybe in some translations he did.”

         Not taking things personally is what makes it possible for us to go to someone who hurt us and to try to work it out. Jesus isn’t trying to get us to humiliate or abase ourselves. Jesus is trying to get all the lost sheep home. All of them.
~ Frederick Buechner
And the one who hurt us is often the most lost of all. Someone who won’t listen to you when you’re trying to work it out has lost their way in the relationship, in themselves, in community, in our nation, our world. Every day it can feel like our moorings are being snapped, one by one. Those identities like gender and sexuality and belief we thought of as rock-solid now feel like shifting sand. All kinds of climate are becoming more volatile and unpredictable. We’re all feeling a bit lost these days.

         About ten years ago when I was between ministry gigs and staying home with children, I volunteered to be a deacon in my home church. During our first meeting, we introduced ourselves and said a few words about why our church was important to us.
One longtime member said the reason church was important to him was that in such a changing world, church was the one thing that didn’t change. I inwardly cringed because the reason church is important to me is precisely because church is about transformation—about changing in such a way that we are saved from ourselves, from our missteps and our unseeing ways, from our fear and our egos. And in turn the church changes, because our lives change. It goes on from there out into our homes and our relationships and the places we go to school and work and volunteer. A changed life can change the world, because our little corner of it is no longer enough. Jesus is trying to get all the lost sheep home. All of us.

         So when someone is on our last nerve, when they’re being obnoxious or just rubbing us the wrong way, when they forget to do something we’ve asked more than once, when we want to use the word ‘lazy’, when we feel like we’re being picked on, instead of making assumptions about someone or taking any of it personally, we need to scrounge up some courage to ask questions.
“Are you okay?” “Is there something you’re worried about?” “When was the last time you ate?” “What kind of day are you having?” “Can I help?” And then listen to what they say. And if all you get back is more flack, Jesus says to treat that one as a Gentile or a tax collector. And we all know how Jesus treats outsiders. He forgives them, heals them, and turns them into disciples.

         All of this may seem like small potatoes but conflict is conflict, and this is how it gets started. And if it’s one thing the world needs, it’s less conflict. A whole lot less.
People are fond of using the phrase “slippery slope” but not in reference to our own behavior. When we think less of someone, we don’t allow them to be human, like us. In the truest sense of the word, we dehumanize them. We demonize them. Which means we get to treat them any way we want to with impunity. They become lost to us, and we become lost to ourselves.

         We’d like to think this evil is elsewhere, but it resides in all of us
And as it gets potentially harder to live in this world—wildfires, earthquakes, devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, and how those affect our economy, our food supply, and energy production—we can’t afford to treat each other as anything less than who we are. We’re human. We are flawed, fearful, angry, suspicious, anxious, but we are also courageous, generous, kind, compassionate, forgiving. We can choose, every day. We have the capacity to evolve beyond our knee-jerk reactions and assumptions about others. Jesus thought so.

         So if we are to say ‘yes’ to anything, if we are to take anything personally and take it with us into eternity, let it be love and all that comes from it. Anything less than that requires a resounding ‘no’. And if there’s going to be more than one of us on the journey, let’s take Jesus with us. We’re going to need him something fierce.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Room of Requirement

Romans 12: 9-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 3, 2017


         During our college move-in trip with Olivia we took a couple of days to visit Universal Studios, especially the Wizarding World of Harry Potter: King’s Cross station, Diagon Alley, Hogsmeade, and of course, Hogwarts. Much attention was paid in painstaking detail, including a fire-breathing dragon over the wizards’ bank Gringotts, an animatronic Hedwig the owl on platform 9 ¾, and a secluded, unmarked entrance to Diagon Alley.

         One piece of spectacular movie magic that could not be duplicated is the Come and Go room in Hogwarts, otherwise known as the Room of Requirement. According to the house elf Dobby, the Room of Requirement is “a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped with the seeker’s needs.” To open it, you must walk past the area of the door three times, concentrating specifically on what you need. It’s been a place to study, a training room and hideout for Dumbledore’s Army, it’s been the Room of Hidden Things—it’s even appeared as a water closet for a certain headmaster.

         The room can be spacious or small, depending on what is needed, probably the result of what is called an extension charm. Not to go too deep into the weeds but an extension charm not only increases the interior space of an object but also makes it lighter. Can you see where I’m going with this?

         I like to think of the Church as a Room of Requirement, but the door is always open because the real need is always there.

It’s not all things to all people, but the Church is called to be what the seeker usually needs: unconditional welcome, acceptance, nurture, challenge, meaning, mission. Sometimes it’s a safe place to spend the night. Rather than the room to hide things in, the Church is where what is hidden or lost gets found; what is broken is restored and becomes whole again. It’s where our interior space is enlarged so we can be full of grace. The weight of what we carry becomes lighter because we share it.

         But the Church isn’t just a collection of walls and floors and a roof. It’s not only we who gather intentionally as the Church but it’s also every human being. You can see where I’m going with this, right?  
The real Room of Requirement is our hearts and our lives, our bodies and our will, our brains and our minds, and whenever we let our love be genuine, or as Eugene Peterson puts it, love from the center of who we are, we are not just ourselves, we are Church; we are not our own but God’s. Anyone who does this is not their own, but each other’s, everyone’s. It’s a room that requires something of us and not easy; it is God who seeks us out because the need is real. It is suffering and injustice that seeks us out because the need for compassion and justice is real. Not our need but the need of the other; the other who is not like us but wholly other and just as holy as God holds us to be.

         The apostle Paul doesn’t get too specific in his letter to the Romans about who are these saints and strangers and enemies. He leaves that up to his listeners to know or figure out. Or maybe he was worried his words would fall into the wrong hands. But sometimes we need specifics, if only to close the loopholes our nerve might slip through.

         Sherman Alexie, who wrote the screenplay for the film Smoke Signals, gets a little more specific for us in his newest poem entitled “Hymn”. This is the last half of it.

But it’s wrong to measure my family and friends
By where their love for me begins or ends.

It’s too easy to keep a domestic score.
This world demands more love than that. More.

So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be
Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet

For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?
Will you welcome the lost to your shore?

Will you battle the blood-thieves
And rescue the powerless from their teeth?

Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?

My friends, I'm not quite sure what I should do.
I'm as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.

But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist

To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.

I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.

I will sing honor songs for the unfamiliar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.

I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.

I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.

And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.

I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.

We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.

We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.

We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.

         Now you see where I’m going with this. We are in serious danger of being overcome by evil, not the evil without but the evil within.

We are in danger of allowing evil to literally get the best of us: to move into that Room of Requirement called our hearts and minds and shrink that space until we are as fisted and knotted as those we rail against. Love is what expands and opens, love that is not easy but hard, confounding, like a cross with an innocent nailed to it. Love is what our enemy needs most of all, and of all people, it needs to come from us. And it is this Table that gives us the nourishment, the reminder, the courage, the strength, the provocation to love when it is hard, to keep ourselves open when we’d like to shut down, to keep going when we feel like giving up.

         The world has a real need for this Room of Requirement. Thank God we can enter it anytime.