Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Alleluia anyway

Exodus 33: 12-23
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 22, 2017

Moses in the cleft of the rock

         I’ve had a few weddings recently, and the theme of one of them was “Ride or Die”. Neither the bride nor the groom is a biker but they both love hip hop music: “I’m a movement by myself, but we’re a force when we’re together”. “Baby, you are my ride or die”. And when they thought of their commitment to each other, the first thing they thought of was ride or die: that they would stick together no matter what, ‘til death do they part.

         During the ceremony I said to all those gathered that we have a word in the Church for ride or die: alleluia. I’ve talked about this before, so let me talk about it again, because alleluia bears repeating, over and over. In Hebrew, the word alleluia is two words. The first, halal, hallu, or hallel, means to praise, but not just to praise but to boast, to act insanely with praise, to go mad with praise, to make a fool of oneself with praise. Kind of like that feeling you have when you fall in love and you want to tell everyone how wonderful it is. The second word is Yah, the first half of the unspeakable name of God, Yahweh: it’s like breathing—yah, weh, yah, weh. The first half of God’s name because we cannot see all of God, we cannot see all of what God is doing.

         And so alleluia means “praise with abandon the half-seen, half-hidden God”. Give praise, even when you can’t see all of who or what God is. Give praise, even when you can’t see all of what God is doing. Give praise, even when you can’t see the outcome. Alleluia. Ride or die.

         Moses is God’s ride or die man. They have such a connection to each other, God even confesses to Moses just how much God would rather not travel with the Israelites because God is way too tempted to do away with them, they are so stiff-necked. And it is because of Moses’ relationship with God that God decides to stick with these stubborn people.

         Because they are so close, Moses then has the audacity to ask God to see God’s glory, all of it. And wouldn’t we all? This half-seen, half-hidden nonsense seems like it can only take us so far. Some days I just want a sign, a divine plan, and I don’t believe in signs or that God’s got a hidden plan for me. We want to pull back the veil, just to get a hint, a clue, some direction, some idea of how this is all going to play out. There are days when ride or die, when alleluia is damn hard.

         Where are the places in our lives where we want to see God but we only get God’s backside? Where are the places, the people in whom we want to see God but can’t? Who are the people whose backside is the only thing we wish we could see of them? It’s not easy to feel the love these days. God wasn’t always feeling it for the Israelites and they were pretty terrified of him. The only time the Israelites were ready to give an alleluia and party with God was when they could hold the holy in their hot little hands. If it weren’t for Moses and his persistence, the story wouldn’t have gone much further.


         That’s true for any story, including ours. How is it that we persist with God, with what is good and holy and true? How do we persist in love? Human connections, connection to animals, connection to the earth, to music and art and play are what give us the ability to have empathy and compassion, to forgive and to offer unconditional love, to accept ourselves and others as we all are. They give us the strength to be vulnerable, to be resilient, to persist, that the persisting itself is a holy thing worthy of praise.

         If we’re feeling disconnected, more than likely we’re feeling like we don’t have the strength to persist in love, to praise anyway. So what about that cleft of rock in which God puts Moses, hemming him in, almost like a tomb? It might’ve looked something like the Hebrew letter beit:

         Beit or bet is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Every letter has a meaning and bet means “house” as in “house of God”: beth-el. It looks like a three-sided house, with the front door always open. It’s also the first letter of Genesis, of the Hebrew scriptures: “In the beginning of, God created…”. We are God’s house, God’s dwelling place, you, me, the whole of creation. There is nowhere we can go where God is not. There is no one, nothing we can encounter in which God is not. God is half-hidden, half-seen because God is in every imperfect one of us. Yes, every.


         This isn’t about necessary justice, about who’s right and who’s wrong or accepting unacceptable behavior. It’s about staying connected to what is good and holy and true so we don’t succumb to our fear or our anger or our lust for vengeance. It’s about being in that cleft of rock and praising what we can see rather than cursing what we can’t. And so where we can, whenever we can, an unearned, undeserved, unconditional alleluia is more likely to bring forth the holy within than any expectation or requirement we might have.

            Another word for it is mercy. Ride or die. Alleluia anyway.

         If you're having trouble saying or singing alleluia, take a page from these silent monks:

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Living in-between

Exodus 32: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 15, 2017

            These days it’s not so easy to “woke this morning with my mind stayed on Jesus”. People are getting tired, bone-tired and weary of the news and what’s in it. The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, says that people are tired but “it’s a Fannie Lou Hamer kind of ‘sick and tired of being sick and tired’. …They are tired of the attacks on voting rights, tired of the attacks on healthcare and the poor and living wages; tired of the policies and practices of white supremacy and tired of the hypocrisy of politicians who claim they are offended by Trump’s style, but [when it comes to] substance and policy, [despite the] extremism and racism they vote with him and have the same agenda.”

            Like many before her and around her, Fannie Lou Hamer was a Moses of her time, trying to bring people to freedom. She was the 20th child born to sharecropper parents in the Mississippi delta. She started picking cotton at the age of six. In her 40’s she was sterilized without her knowledge or consent, given what was known then as the Mississippi appendectomy. Because she participated in an effort to register to vote and refused to withdraw her application, she was kicked off the plantation. Hamer told the landowner that she didn’t go down there to register for him but for herself, something she would repeat often in her speeches for civil rights. Through the watchful eye of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, she was tapped to be a community organizer, working for desegregation and voting rights.

         Knowing what it was like to grow up with almost nothing, she helped deliver food and clothing to the poorest residents in the delta. But she also knew that things would not change if those in power were not voted out, so sometimes she would withhold the food or clothing until the recipient agreed to register to vote.

         Hamer was beaten in jail after having been arrested for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter.  Her injuries were so severe they affected her for the rest of her life.  As one of the founding members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party she ran for Congress, challenging the Democratic incumbent.  The MFDP was part of the Freedom Summer in 1964 that brought hundreds of college students, most of them white, to work for civil rights.  When members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee objected, Hamer said, “If we’re trying to break down this barrier of segregation, we can’t segregate ourselves.” 


         Hamer testified before the credentials committee of the Democratic National Party to allow members of the MFDP to sit at the convention as Mississippi representatives. Pressured by Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, the credentials committee withdrew their support but offered two at-large seats. Humphrey made it clear that Hamer was not to take one of those seats. The offer was rejected with Hamer stating, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats!” She spent the rest of her life organizing for voting rights and school desegregation, initiating Head Start programs and farming co-ops to improve the lives of Delta residents. In 1977 she died of cancer at the age of 60.

         Fannie Lou Hamer lived her whole life in-between: in-between slavery and civil rights, in between civil rights and the first black president, in between voting rights for blacks and for women and where we are now. Like Moses, she never got to see the Promised Land, only from afar. Though she could have, she never gave up. Though she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, it was that conviction that propelled her forward.

         In that desert, God’s people were sick and tired of being sick and tired. They were living in-between. They had been freed from captivity and slavery only to now be wandering out the desert: food insecure, no sign of water, with a God who terrified them, who they could not see. And they were dependent on this God, on Yahweh, for everything they needed but only one day at a time. More than once God’s people cried out, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness?”

         Then Moses has to go and spend a little too much time with God on the mountain. The people get even more anxious without their leader who stands between them and God. They feel abandoned, exposed, and vulnerable. Aaron, Moses’ little brother, who’s been left in charge and working under great stress, gives in to the people’s demands and creates what is essentially a transitional object: a pacifier to soothe the soul of the people. Then they get up early for church, cut loose and have a worship party, because their anxiety has been relieved.

         Of course, God is having none of it. Knowing how human we are, God expected the people would break the covenant at some point, but the dust had barely settled on those stone tablets; the words of promise still hung in the air. Conveniently, God left a loophole in that promise never to destroy human flesh; saying never again would waters flood the earth. But hot wrath that consumes? Wide open.

            Enter Moses, the in-between man, the people’s chief negotiator. He talks God down from destructive anger and plays to the divine ego: “You don’t want your enemies to call you names and speak ill of you. Don’t you want to be remembered by your faithfulness to your promises, for your kindness and mercy?” And not for the first time, God’s mind changes.

         It’s where we all live, in-between. Between what was and what will be, between perfect health and illness, between chaos and peace; for some us it’s between jobs, between relationships, between hope and fear, between faithfulness and faithlessness. Between good and evil, life and death, between Good Friday and Easter morning: it’s where it all takes place. Our whole lives are one big transition, from birth to death, with a multitude of transitions in between. For some of us this latest transition we find ourselves in seems worse than any other before it. We are Fannie Lou Hamer tired. And so there are days and sometimes even longer nights we are caught between consuming anger that lashes out and gripping anxiety that grabs for the nearest thing that can soothe us.
Jesus In-Between by David Hayward
But it is in that in-between space where honest-to-goodness worship can happen, where compassion can speak words of wisdom and clarity. It is that space, that calm, that eye in the storm that the Church is called to be. We are standard bearers of justice and forgiveness, unconditional love and acceptance but we stand in that breach between the anger and the anxiety. We are worn from the storm but are we not also ready to invite those who will stand us into that breach, that in-between space where love prevails? Are we not also ready to create the Beloved Community in that space? To not just soothe our souls but to save the soul of our country? The question then becomes, what’s stopping us?

            Martin Luther wrote that “the best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn”. What if we laughed and sang our way through these days? Like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah and John Oliver and Jimmy Kimmel and Samantha Bee and the folks at SNL who get us to laugh through our tears. Like the firefighters from American Samoa who sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in their native language as they came down the mountain near Junction City, CA. Like Fannie Lou Hamer who was famous for her voice at rallies, known for singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain”. What if we got together once a week, right out in the parking lot, to tell jokes and sing freedom songs and invited others to join us? What if we became the non-anxious Moses we all need right now?

            We may get angry, and sometimes we need to get angry, but that’s a cover for our fear, and a fearful people can be controlled, manipulated, coerced. We may be anxious but whatever we reach for is just a temporary fix. We long to put our faith and trust in something greater than ourselves. What if we put our faith and trust in humanity, in the divine goodness within each of us? What if instead of giving over to despair we gave ourselves to laughter and to singing? What if this is the hard transition before the birth of new life? Our singing may not change the world, but it might change us.


         We may not get to see the Promised Land ourselves. The arc of history may bend toward justice but it’s a long arc. Nonetheless.

I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
Till I die
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
I will watch, fight, and pray
Till I die


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blessed by guilt

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Matthew 21: 33-46
Heritage United Church of Christ, Baltimore, MD
October 8, 2017

(This is the second year that the Rev. Julius Jefferson, senior pastor at Heritage UCC, and I preach at each other's church, taking turns so we can worship with our congregations.)

         From the very beginning, the people of God, who is the great “I AM”, were intended to be different from their neighbors. The Babylonian creation story is one of violence and bloodshed. In the Hebrew scriptures God speaks and brings order in the midst of chaos, with light and darkness, land and seas and heavens, creatures of all kinds, and human beings in a garden. Rather than the ways of empire, God established the people to be God’s tabernacle, God’s dwelling place.

         But the story is more complicated than that. Despite God’s hope, God’s dream, violence and bloodshed run through the story of God’s people like every other civilization. Brother kills brother, God’s people become corrupt and violent; God floods the earth; generations are born into captivity and slavery, whole peoples are conquered in the name of establishing a promised land; rape, lust, and murder become the weapons of patriarchy.

         So God lays down the law, a law of love: God’s laws are a sign of God’s love for us just as parents set rules and boundaries for their children. God also knows that we will break these laws, and so they are also a way to return to God. When we leave something undone, when we do something wrong, when we sin, our feelings of guilt and remorse become the pathway to wholeness. But more often than not, we hide from our wrongdoing, we refuse to acknowledge it, we justify ourselves, we blame others, we sin under the radar, in backrooms, in the shadows, by ourselves. We find loopholes and good enough reasons and convincing lies. We tell ourselves we’re not as bad as that person over there and so what does it matter.

         It matters because our moral compass as a human race is on a rapidly falling decline. Our ability to live up to what we value and believe has always been in question but it seems now more than ever, the abyss is inescapable. Each day it seems the question is shifting from “If…” to “When…”. Author and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck in his book People of the Lie defined sin as “nothing more and nothing less than a failure to be continually perfect. Because it is impossible for us to be continually perfect, we are all sinners.” Evil is a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge our failure, our inability to tolerate the fact that we are indeed sinful.

         We can see this evasiveness, this unwillingness in the scripture readings for today. After Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, terrified of God’s power in the thunder and lightning, in the sound of the trumpet or shofar, and the smoke that covered the mountain, God’s people tell Moses that they’d rather hear from him what God wants instead of God speaking directly to them. Like Adam and Eve before them, they want to hide from God.

         Jesus tells a parable of how God sent one prophet after another to God’s people, how the people stoned God’s prophets, beat them, and would not listen. Then God sent God’s son, and still not able to bear God’s law of love, the people killed the son. No guilt, no remorse. And yet when the Pharisees hear this story, they fear it is about them. To use a word not often heard in mainline churches, the Pharisees are convicted.

         Conviction is the work of the Holy Spirit in which we are able to see ourselves as God sees us, with our guilt and our inability to save ourselves. This is not unlike the first four steps of the twelve: Admitted that we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable; came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God; made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

         But it’s that first step that hangs us up. We have to admit, confess, face ourselves. One of the oldest calls to confession begins with verses from the first letter of John: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just. God will forgive us our sins and cleanse from all unrighteousness.”

         We don’t like to admit we’re wrong or that we’ve done wrong, that we are powerless or that we’re part of the insanity. A Facebook friend of mine wrote earlier this week that we got the president we deserve. He said, “We want dedication, thoughtfulness, and human decency in our elected officials, but we are largely unwilling to demand it of ourselves, our society, our own political parties. Trump represents all of us a lot more than we care to admit. To change who we get as leaders, we must first change ourselves.” A friend of his replied with these words: “We shame and blame and are surprised when our politicians do it. We bully the people around us and are surprised when our leaders do it. We export our problems, and we act surprised when our government does it. We pollute our own backyards and are surprised when our corporations do it. All we have to do is look at ourselves to see Trump.”

         If we aren’t feeling guilty about the current administration, if we aren’t convicted as to how we conduct political debate and public discourse, if we see ourselves as somehow apart from the horrible mess and abject pain of Charlottesville and San Juan and Las Vegas, evil has taken root within us. This evil within hides where we cannot see it, but it cannot hide from God. The inability of whites to face our sinful selves promotes white privilege and bolsters white fragility. It is the reason why we as a nation still have not faced the genocide through which this nation was born and our imperial economy that was built on the backs of and with the blood of slaves. It is why human trafficking, child labor, and the slavery of poverty are still with us today.

         Tomorrow is Columbus Day. Some cities have changed it to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but in truth it should become our national day of atonement, our first step of the twelve, the beginning of true compassion and empathy as a nation. Talk about ‘Make America Great Again’. But this would require sacrifice, humility, courage, fearlessness and a good deal of pain—nothing less than the love that was nailed to a cross. 

         If I may nerd out for a moment, our national soul is beginning to look like what was left of Lord Voldemort after his confrontation with Harry Potter: small, shriveled, weak and bloody. The only thing that would save Voldemort at this point was remorse—guilt. But it would be extremely painful and he would have to love something, someone, anyone, more than himself. But in order to do that, he would have to know what that kind of love was like. But no one had ever loved Tom Riddle, not really, except perhaps Dumbledore, who tried more than anyone to save Tom from himself.

         The question for our nation and for ourselves is this: what do we love more than our country, more than the flag, more than ourselves, more than our freedoms, our laws, more than guns or war or money or power or security, more than our very lives? All these are idolatry, false gods. When we can answer that question, for everyone on this earth and not just our own, we just might find the peace and restored justice we are seeking.


*Sermon title borrowed from People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, pg. 71, paperback edition, 2nd edition, 1998.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Taking a knee

Philippians 2: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 1, 2017 – World Communion Sunday

Stand by Sitting by Androo

         You’d think with all the media attention, Colin Kaepernick is the first black athlete to protest during the national anthem. Not so. On the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, track medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists during the Star Spangled Banner. They were suspended and sent home.
Four years later at the Munich games, two other track medalists Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews unceremoniously stood on the podium with their backs to the flag. They were barred from Olympic competition by the US Olympic Committee because “they insulted the American flag.” Twenty years later in an interview, Collett said this about it: “I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.”

         America’s relationship to black athletes has been one of love/hate from the very beginning. The first African-American to play major league baseball, Jackie Robinson received death threats.

In 1969 Curt Flood did not accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Philadelphia Phillies, stating that he was not a piece of property to be bought and sold, and lost his suit against Major League Baseball. Eventually it led to the union to bargain for binding arbitration for grievances. This allowed baseball players to be free agents, but it cost Flood his career and his health.

         Female black athletes have also used their sport as a protest platform but for the most part receive less attention than their male counterparts. Olympic sprint champion Wilma Rudolph insisted that her hometown parade be integrated. Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, who catch hell for being strong black women, have fought for equal pay at Wimbledon.

         Perhaps one of the first black athlete activists was Octavius Catto. Just after the Civil War, he founded and was captain of the Pythians, an all-black team in Philadelphia.

An educator, writer, orator, activist and athlete, Catto was something of a Renaissance man. Along with his fiancĂ©e Caroline Le Count, Catto worked to get black voters to the polls and successfully integrated Philly’s trolley cars. But tensions were high between the city’s Irish and black populations. On Election Day in 1871, at the age of 32, Catto was shot by Frank Kelly, an Irish political operative. Kelly was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

         Earlier this week on public radio a caller responded to Kaepernick’s protest with these words: Just because you have the right to do something doesn’t mean it’s right to do it.

Not unlike Paul’s teaching moment to the church in Corinth when he says, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.” But he follows that up with something that sounds a lot like his letter to the Philippians: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

         Paul appeals to the church in Philippi that they live in unity with each other, having the same love, sharing the same mind as Christ.

This requires not just regarding each other as equals but regarding others as better, as Christ emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Unity requires humility, servanthood. If we are to live together in unity we cannot claim for ourselves that which we would not claim for everyone else.

         We cannot claim affordable healthcare for ourselves and not for others and call this community.  We cannot claim outstanding education for ourselves
and not for others and call this community.  We cannot claim a living wage for ourselves and not for others and call this community. We cannot declare our right to exist and to be safe in public space and not guarantee the same for everyone and call this community. We human beings can be selfish and selfless but only the imbalance of one more than the other leads to unity. The other imbalance leads to supremacy, privilege, and empire.

         Protest is not selfish; it’s costly and dangerous.  Protest is the imbalance necessary when one group asserts their own advantage at the cost of others’ rights,
when they regard themselves as better or more important or more worthy than others, when people exploit their privilege at the expense of others. A Facebook friend and theologian, Lee Wyatt, posted this: “Protest over race cannot divide us. That has already happened. Protest keeps us from ignoring that division.” But we have been ignoring that division for more than two centuries because we don’t like the protest, because we don’t want to regard others as better, because we are afraid.

         It is time we all took a knee and humbled our pride, our nationalism, and our sense of entitlement and the need to be right.  And this Table requires our humility if it is to have any
power in our lives and in our life together. In more liturgical churches, the Eucharist or the Communion elements are received while kneeling. On this World Communion Sunday how will we approach this Table in humility? Where in our lives do we regard ourselves as better than others? How are we being called to empty ourselves, to reject the exploitation of any life, to look to the interests of others, especially the most vulnerable? How can we claim this Table as exclusively Christian when the unlimited, unconditional grace it affords is for everyone?

         Paul advised the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, that is, how we live out our salvation, the saving unlimited, unconditional grace of God, here and now in the world. There is a selfless power at work in this world and we are its hands and feet, its heart and its agent.

         And we are its knees. Amen.