Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Each other's keeper

Luke 2: 1-16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 24, 2018

Nativity scene, Paradise, CA

Last night on Netflix I finally got around to watching “Nanette”, a stand-up comedy act written and performed by Australian comic Hannah Gadsby. It affected me profoundly. Within in a little over an hour she talked about art history, gender, sexuality, misogyny, sexual assault and abuse, her painful childhood and young adulthood, her coming-out story as a lesbian. She explained that she has primarily done self-deprecatory humor, which means her personhood, her identity is the punchline, and so she can no longer do comedy, because of what it does to her story and to her soul. She said, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore: not to myself or to anyone else who identifies with me.”

In a similar vein, because it is a story about those who exist in the margins, we can no longer domesticate the Christmas story into a cozy tale in which the wise magi from the east and the shepherds in the field are characters in one story when they are two completely different tales about how Jesus came into the world; a story in which we have westernized, colonized a Palestinian home into which Joseph and Mary were welcomed and squeezed into the main downstairs room with the animals rather than squeezed out of an inn; a story that has become so blissfully domesticated that the outcast, the grieving, the lonely, the wounded, the dehumanized are alienated from Christmas, that this story squeezes them out of the picture simply because of who they are.

Churches have added Blue Advent and Blue Christmas services which can bring some solace to those who are hurting this time of year. But why must those who already feel on the margins of this story be separated from the whole? Don’t we all have sorrow in our stories, especially this time of the year? Couldn’t we all be chosen family together in one room, like Joseph and Mary and Jesus and the animals and their extended family in Bethlehem? Couldn’t we take care of each other like Joseph shepherding his betrothed and a child not his own through exile and home again? What if we companioned each other through the dark, be light for each other, as we search for where the light will lead us? Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Can we please ask ourselves just how did that happen, how hurting people became alienated from Christmas, as the stories were written for specifically for the lowly? How did we allow that to happen? How did something that was intended to set people free become locked up? To keep us safe? Because when we tell these stories with a certain glow and gloss, we can forget where these birth stories eventually lead. 

Both birth stories are about how the world enshrines and protects the powerful and the cruel, but God is all about the vulnerable and what appears to be weak but more like resilient. Those who wrote these stories wanted us to remember that in the midst of despair, cruelty, evil and oppression, this child was Love enfleshed, born to his own, vulnerable, a target right from the start; that his life began the way it ended.

Hannah Gadsby reminded me that a joke has two parts, while a story has three. A joke begins with tension and ends with release: what she calls a beginning and a middle. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And all our stories—your story, my story, our shared stories, the Christmas stories—deserve to be told properly and honestly. The whole story, even if it discomforts we who are listening. Especially if it does. When we hear the whole story, we become keepers of each other’s stories, each other’s sorrows and joys, and we become each other’s keepers. For how can we then walk away as though untouched? Our stories become enfleshed in one another, and we become one flesh, what we churchy types call the Body of Christ. 

One day, though, when we have been telling our stories properly, honestly, again and again, enfleshed in one human being after another, we’ll all become one flesh, and we’ll truly be able to call ourselves humanity, humankind, each other’s keeper, no one a stranger, because we will have learned to protect the vulnerable and shame no one, and the word ‘hate’ never heard or taught again and cruelty vanished from the earth. But first we have to tell the whole story. When we’re ready to tell it. And the rest of us need to make a full-hearted space for it. That’s what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas, Church.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mary smashes the patriarchy

Luke 1: 46-55
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 23, 2018

The Annunciation by Rose M. Barron


Some of you may be wondering what does it mean to “smash the patriarchy”. On the website Quora I found this definition: “Smashing the patriarchy means challenging the dominant social, political and cultural system that values masculinity over femininity. The patriarchy perpetuates oppressive and limiting gender roles, sexual assault, and the political and economic subordination of women. Smashing the patriarchy means challenging and confronting the assumptions underlying this system. The patriarchy hurts both men and women, and both men and women can challenge it.”

But this doesn’t go far enough. Smashing the patriarchy means challenging the systems that value masculinity over every other identity and expression; the subordination of any gender that isn’t cisgender male; the patriarchy hurts everyone, and everyone can challenge it. Smashing the patriarchy means doing away with societal expectations based on gender, gender expression, sexuality, skin color, ability, class, nationality, and ethnicity. Patriarchy is the foundation beneath any system that values power over, competition, hierarchy, supremacy, privilege, violence. Patriarchy hurts and wounds all of humanity and the very earth from which it draws life. So in the silence of the priest Zechariah, when Mary prophesies and sings,

“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

She’s smashing the patriarchy. She goes pretty far but not far enough, and yet she’s showing us the loose threads to pull which will lead to its unraveling. Why is strength masculine? Why is God my Savior masculine? In 1973, feminist theologian Mary Daly defined the patriarchy as, “If God is male, then the male is God.” So is Mary in the gospel of Luke saying, “Please, O God, unseat and topple the powers that oppress us but keep the domestic and religious arrangements the same”? In the words of Elastigirl, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so.” In an effort to liberate language about the Divine (and those who hear it), some churches use the feminine pronoun. “SHE has shown strength with HER arm; SHE has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

But even that language is still exclusive. If we are created in the divine image, God is all genders and beyond gender. “They have shown strength with their arm; they have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. They have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; they have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” When everyone is made in God’s image, we see God in everyone. And use their pronouns.

Where Mary appears to go too far (yet we have not) is when she uses the past tense to describe these events. God has already accomplished all of this in Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies, in their children yet to be born. God’s promises are kept in the forthcoming births of John and Jesus. And yet do not all parents have high hopes for their children? Did not our parents have dreams for us and their parents and so on? Hopes that the world would be a better place because of us, will be a better place because of our children?

But then we look around us and we see how little the world has changed, how little humanity has changed since Mary sang her song; how we seem to repeat history but with increased technology. As we have increased our ability to care for and feed every human being, we have also increased our ability to destroy all life on this planet, and which one are we closer to realizing? Yesterday I read another of David Hayward’s cartoons, in which a crowd of people are poised over Jesus in the manger, with one person accusing, “So, Jesus, you know how it was prophesied that you would bring down the rulers from their thrones? Right about now would be a really good time for that!” We’ve had not only 2,000 years but hundreds more from the justice visions of Isaiah and Jeremiah and many others, all the way back to the story of God establishing a covenant with Noah, with all people living in peace and harmony. What happened to smashing the patriarchy?

The patriarchy is smart. It created its own throne, put itself on that throne, and enshrined itself with power and policy and prophets and tradition, then kept reinventing itself. Way better than Madonna. Even though it is power over, it’s subtle, insidious. When 39% of all women and 47% of white women voted for a president that hardly anyone would call a feminist, when the 2019 Congress will have a total of 126 women for the first time—one fifth of the seats, yet still comprising a little over half of the nation’s population—when the Violence Against Women Act is allowed to lapse in a government shutdown, when lynching is only now becoming a federal crime, when we are only now beginning to understand that no two human beings are the same and yet we all are bone and flesh and blood, and now divided more than ever, we can see how difficult it is to bring down the powerful, entrenched on their thrones.

If violence and force do not work, and waiting for God to do something begins to look like doing nothing, if our policies and politics clearly do not work, then maybe it’s time to smash by stepping over and around the power-over types. Listen to 15 year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden when she spoke on behalf of the world’s youth climate movement before the UN’s 24th Climate Change Conference in Poland earlier this month. She is a modern day Mary, full of her own hope and power.

As she sat next to UN Secretary General António Guterres, she rebuked, “How can we expect countries like India, Columbia, or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we who already have everything don’t care even a second about our actual commitments to the Paris agreement?” When school started in August, Greta went to the Swedish parliament and went on strike for the climate. Some people said she should’ve been in school. Others said that she should become a climate scientist so she can “solve the climate crisis”. Her response: “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? …Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.”

“So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago. Thank you.” And as usual, they gave the young prophet their smiles and polite, appreciative applause, instead of what should have been tears of remorse.

It’s on us. It’s always been on us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We cannot smash the patriarchy when we have made ourselves comfortable in it. Jesus came to make us, the comfortable, uncomfortable, which is good news for those who have been made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin; those who have been dehumanized because of their gender, their gender expression, their sexuality, their body, their mind, their religion, their skin color, their poverty. Jesus came to disrupt and disturb us, to show us how we have made peace with what does not bring peace. The peace we seek, the hope we desire, the joy that eludes us, the love that can knit us together, comes to us whenever we are able to say with the humility and strength of Mary, “Let it happen to me”, and we let go.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Love letters

Philippians 1: 3-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 9, 2018 – Second Sunday in Advent

Have you ever received a love letter? Have you ever sent one? It was handwritten, wasn’t it? That seems to be one of the qualifications, according to those who responded to this question on a Facebook post of mine. Some friends said their letters contained poetry, song lyrics, candid honest feelings. Some were written in code so as not to be discovered. Some letters described the mundane things done during a day. Some were from a beloved serving in the military or a childhood sweetheart. What makes a love letter so precious is the overwhelming feeling of having someone’s complete attention and affection focused on you and you alone.

Many folks who have received a love letter have kept them. I have every anniversary, Valentine’s, and birthday card that David has ever given me. Even though he did not write every word in the card, David knows how to pick just the right card with just the right message to melt my heart. So I can imagine him standing in front of the card section in a store and reading cards one by one until he finds the one that makes him think of me.

Sometimes a love letter can be from someone you’ve never met. One friend in New Jersey received the following letter from a neighbor: “Dear neighbors, I hope this isn’t too odd, but I just wanted to relay a quick message of gratitude to you. I moved to [this town] a little more than a year ago from [where I grew up]. The area I had grown up in was much more diverse and accepting than [this town] (which I quickly learned). It was very hard to stay positive in such a conservative town. However, on days walking to and from my bus stop, I would notice your house in particular. The stickers on your car would always put a smile on my face and I thank you for that! More recently I noticed the sign on your lawn that reads ‘No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor’. The first day I saw this I was overwhelmed with joy to see such a thing in [this town]. So I just wanted to say thank you for openly expressing your beliefs and giving me a strong sense of hope and happiness in these trying times.”

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is just such a love letter: one that was intended to give a strong sense of hope and happiness in trying times. Paul has great affection for this community of faith, so much so that the very thought of them sustains him while he is in prison and moves him to write them this letter. In fact, this is the happiest of Paul’s letters. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction of Philippians in his paraphrase The Message, writes, “Paul doesn’t tell us that we can be happy, or how to be happy. He simply and unmistakably is happy. None of his circumstances contribute to his joy: he wrote from a jail cell, his work was under attack by competitors, and after twenty years or so of hard traveling in the service of Jesus, he was tired and would have welcomed some relief.”

This church has spent 39 years in service to Jesus and a good number of those years have been spent in hard traveling—packing up everything needed for Sunday, unpacking it at the Masonic lodge or in the basement of Calvary Baptist or at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, unfolding and folding up chairs, then packing it all back up again for next Sunday. And yet you continued to be church and joyfully so. I’ve done my own share of traveling and serving Jesus, having preached in 24 congregations alone in the Connecticut conference, never staying long enough to have a real and lasting relationship with a faith community as their pastor.

Until now. I’ve been your pastor for five years now, and I think it’s high time I wrote you a love letter, to let you know how much I love you and appreciate you.

What first attracted me to you is that you are an Open and Affirming church and that you have been for most of your life together. The United Church of Christ became ONA in 1985; you became an ONA congregation in 1990, only eleven years after your founding. And I love our ONA statement and that you revisited it in 2011 to keep it current.

The second thing that attracted me is your solar panels. In an instant you communicated to me that you are a church that cares deeply about the environment and takes climate change seriously. I love that this church doesn’t look like a church. I love that you purposefully did not have a building for many years and when you did decide to be a bricks-and-mortar church, you chose to re-purpose a building rather than build new construction.

Putting together Go Bags
I love that you took 6 months out of your search process to deal with some significant conflict. No community of faith is ever free of conflict; even now I would bet there are still some residual feelings or at least some painful memories. And yet think of your own relationships and friendships in which there has been conflict and pain and yet you are still in relationship with at least some of those persons. That alone speaks to the strength of covenantal relationships and the power of forgiveness, which is a continual process.

Perler bead ornaments

I love that you make most decisions by discernment and consensus rather than by vote. You value every voice and listen to every opinion, even when you disagree with it. Sometimes you will say you talk things to death but that’s not it at all. Life lived in community is a form of evolution in and of itself, and evolution takes the time it needs. And I love that you are still evolving.

Creating the Advent icon 

I love that this is a community, a culture of individuals. No one can pigeon-hole or assume anything about anyone. We say that people are unique but as people are in relationship together, we know how friends or spouses or even a group of people can become homogenous, can begin to resemble each other over time. But not you. Each of you has kept your fierce uniqueness and yet softened each other’s edges with love and compassion and forgiveness and acceptance.

I love that justice work is the fire of your service to Jesus. You disrupt your lives in the service of others, whether it is volunteering at the Empowerment Center or cooking and serving a meal at Hope Dining Room or spending part or all of your evening for Code Purple or putting together Go-Bags or giving some time at Community Day or at the Delaware Food Bank or the Clothing Bank in Wilmington or at Pride in Dover, or marching for our lives or for women’s rights or for climate change awareness and action or with our Sikh neighbors and our Muslim friends and our Jewish siblings.

I love that you have quarterly meetings together and that the congregation as it is gathered that day is the decision-making body of the church. I love that you select rather than elect officers and committee members. And I love that you do not use Robert’s Rules of Order.

Easter cupcakes
I love that in 39 years you have developed some cherished traditions, such as the Festival of Light at the end of the Christmas Eve service and Soup and Sharing before the service. I love Easter cupcakes and the flower cross. I love that you come forward for Communion and tear the bread, that you have both wine and grape juice. I love Perler beads at the Advent party. I love cheese and crackers on Celebration Sunday. I love the seafood feast and the Christmas party. I love that we make time to eat together; I would love us to do more that! I love that you have made room for some new traditions, like the Advent icon and Beer and Carols.

Easter flower cross
I love that when you could’ve chosen to be anything, you chose to be a congregation of the United Church of Christ, especially given that in northern Delaware we are an outpost of the UCC. I love that our life together isn’t perfect or seamless, that our flaws are just as visible as our virtues. I love that when we have guests in worship, you immediately introduce yourselves after worship and engage them in conversation. I love looking around Wells Hall or the Christmas party or the seafood feast and see everyone talking to everyone, no one a stranger.

I wrote this love letter to you to remind you that you, you are the love letter: to each other, to yourselves, to this community, to the places where you live and work, to your friends and your families; indeed you are a love letter to the world. Handwritten with your hands, delivered with your feet, your time, your energy, your heart, your mind, enfleshed in your body. For Jesus was God’s love letter to humanity and to all the earth, and it is Jesus, love incarnate, love enfleshed who overflows from within us into our lives and our life together, because Love can’t help but do that. That’s what love does: it knits the world back together, one life at a time. And sustains us while we do it. Because there is no limit to love. We make it as we go along. Much love to you, Church.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Only God can make a tree

Jeremiah 33: 14-16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 2, 2018 – First Sunday in Advent

"Survivors Survive" by David Hayward


Family trees are complicated because we’re complicated. Earlier this week on Facebook I asked the question, “How’s your family tree?” asking folks to share whatever they wanted. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments:

From my brother: My Family tree is big, with lots of branches and a variety of Fruits. There are a few scars on the Bark but that just adds character.

My family tree has weathered a lot. We’ve lost limbs, and some branches have wandered away. Through Chosen Family, though, I have a big beautiful grafted beauty that has dozens of different kinds of fruit.

Our family tree was redefined when we adopted our three children. You know how you add branches when people come into your family? I used to think that was what was happening with our adoptions as well, that we were just adding to what we'd already established. The reality is that our tree has grown new trunks, each one of them with their own set of branches and vines, some of them sprouting their own added trunks. We no more "own" our tree than anyone can own any tree - and although that's been difficult sometimes it's also been so wonderful. It probably looks like a tangled up mess to someone from the outside, but it's something we are proud of and continue to cultivate.

It's changing with the seasons.

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

My tree is full of fabulous stories and strong women - women who had much more independence, property and education than their English sisters to the south. I look to my tree for inspiration and strength.

Small and struggling both to get new growth and stay alive.

Always immigrating.

Becoming more racially diverse as the generations continue.

My family tree is my family's story; it locates me in time and space, draws out my self-understanding, and gives me vision for understanding who I am.

Rooted. Though I'm recently discovering that the tree is currently full of nuts.

My family tree is a bunch of broken sticks and grafts held together by wires. It stays alive through a hybrid of vigor, acts of God, and the fact that it’s too confused to die.

Split between the righteous and the faithful.

Curtain for the Ark, Tree of Life, Prov. 3: 18
That last one would speak to Jeremiah. When God’s word came to Jeremiah he was in a Babylonian prison. Jerusalem is uninhabitable to humans and animals, the temple is in ruins, God’s people are cut down like a tree. Jews refer to Torah as the Tree of Life and living one’s life rooted in the Torah is wisdom. In the book of Proverbs we read “It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all it paths are peace.” The leaders of the southern kingdom of Judah had been faithless, had not followed God’s law, and the tree withered because its roots had no foothold.

In the midst of loss and pain and death—Yemen, Syria, the migrant caravan, Paradise, CA, our own experiences of exile and losing heart—Jeremiah sinks deep into the imagination of his people and gives a word of fierce hope, tender forgiveness, inside-out healing, and tenacious courage. Like a tree that has dropped all its leaves and to all appearances is dead, Jeremiah cuts at a twig until he reaches the green promise of life beneath.

"The Branch" by L.L. Effler
The days are surely coming, says Jeremiah. In the living of our lives, in the life of this world, in our life together as Church, pain and sorrow and sacrifice and the hard work of community are inevitable. But so are new life, rebirth, wholeness, justice, and righteousness when we don’t give up on them, when we wait and also act with hope. When we come to this Table, we remember another family tree, our ancestors in the faith who betrayed and deserted and denied, and who also learned and survived and courageously lived the gospel. And we remember Jesus, who didn’t give up on them, who died upon another tree and it looked as though the story was over but not quite yet.

Who are the people, what are the situations where you have just about given up hope? Where are you challenged to right a wrong, to forgive a transgression, or let go of a grudge? How are we as a church being called to be a sprig of hope, a sign of life, rooted in justice and doing what we can for righteousness? How is Jesus the righteous Branch in our lives and in our life together?

One of the last people to comment said that her family tree was like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree: like Linus said, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” Advent is the time when we learn how to live into that love, into that hope, that what appears to be failure, weakness, neglect, bad choices is not the last word. When we have hope, hope is always the last word.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Not of this world

John 18: 33-37
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 25, 2018 – Reign of Christ, Hippie Sunday

Jesus before Pilate

(Why Hippie Sunday?  First, to honor the spirituality of some hippies in the congregation. That's the short answer.  But also, because hippies, all of us, are explorers of the human experience.  And in their exploration, the hippies of the 60's tried to find the edge of human experience where everyone lives in peace and harmony.  We know what war is like, as well as oppression, prejudice, disconnection, dehumanization.  But what about acceptance, belonging, wholeheartedness, authenticity?  Doesn't that sound like the reign of Christ?  Keep reading.)


It’s been 40 years since Jonestown happened; it’s been 40 years since more than 900 people followed Rev. Jim Jones in a mass suicide by drinking Flavor Aid poisoned with cyanide. It’s where we get the phrase “they drank the Kool Aid”, which means following someone blindly, falling hook, line, and sinker for the cult of personality, lacking critical thinking skills, not only believing but spreading propaganda, what has come to be called “fake news”.

Peoples Temple, Redwood Valley, CA

This wasn’t any nationalist, alt-right, ultra-conservative, or Christian fundamentalist fringe group. This is what had started as the Peoples Temple of Indianapolis, IN—a blend of Christianity, communism, and socialism—for its time one of the most racially and socially integrated churches in the Midwest. It had a progressive social justice mission: feed the hungry, shelter and clothe the needy, provide rental assistance and job placement services, to lift up those society had left behind. For a time Jones even served on the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. He received a MLK Jr. Humanitarian award.

It’s important to remember this because it’s not just a certain kind of ideology or ignorance or lack of education that leads to a cult following. Many of Rev. Jones’ closest followers were intelligent, socially conscious, college-educated people who wanted to make the world a better place and they believed that Rev. Jones was the leader they needed to do that. Even though they knew that he tricked people into thinking he was pulling cancers out of people’s bodies by using rotten chicken parts, they convinced themselves that the ends—a world where race, money, gender didn’t divide people—that this justified the means.

So when Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world, he can sound like a cult leader ready to lead his disciples to the next plane of existence. Part of the Confirmation class curriculum at the church where I served in seminary focused on the difference between a cult and joining a church, to instill critical thinking skills, to show that there’s a difference between education and learning and indoctrination and behavior modification, between following Jesus and the cult of personality.

A king can often be an oil-and-water mixture of a leader with the heart of his people, tradition, ego, power, and the cult of personality. After decades of slavery and wilderness living and worshiping out of a suitcase and tribal rivalry, Israel wanted to settle down and have a king to rule and to judge. God wanted to be sovereign in the hearts of the people and unify them, but the people craved worldly belonging—everyone else had a king, so why shouldn’t they?

Jesus’ disciples and followers saw him as a direct descendant of this desire but now as messiah too: a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and save his people. Centuries later he would become the King of kings, the Lord of lords. And yet he was a rejected king, a failed king. In the next chapter of John, the crowds cry in their fear of power that they have no king but Caesar. Jesus is crucified with a placard over his head that mocks him as King of the Jews, executed as a criminal against the state.

Part of the revolution that initiated this nation is that we would have no king, no sovereign, no distant landlord, no one to tell us what we could or could not do with our land, our property. “Give me liberty or give me death!” “No taxation without representation!” “Don’t tread on me!”

Who or what is the authority in how we live now? Though it still plays a part, the Bible no longer takes precedence. Christendom, Christian empire, Christian supremacy, has been over for quite some time and thank goodness. But still we must ask ourselves, what is sovereign in our lives? Are there any ends we hold dear that would justify any means? What could command us to give our lives for the greater good? And who gets to decide what the greater good is? What difference does it make in our faith journey and in how we live our lives that Jesus was a servant and a slave and not an earthly ruler?

Franciscan friar Fr. Richard Rohr wrote, “When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed.” He goes on to say that “Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established ‘religion’ (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s ‘personal Lord and Savior’”. As the church faces dwindling membership, resources, and relevance, as religion faces this, we are often more concerned with institutional survival than lifestyle change.

That lifestyle change is that we are in this world but not of this world. The lifestyle change is that the kingdom of God, the church is within us. And the needs of the world call the church within us out into the world. The Beloved Community begins within us. Solidarity, acceptance, believing that we’re enough begins within us. Wholeness, authenticity, belonging begins within us. Peace, justice, unconditional love begins within us. And yet it doesn’t have a chance if we’re the only ones in that Beloved Community. As humanity stands now, we need something, someone to remind us that God is God and we are not, that no one deserves grace but we all need it, that more often than not we are powerless to save. But it’s hard to surrender, to get to that place within us when our privilege gets in the way. It’s harder still when we don’t have what we need for living.

We’ve been at this point in history more times than we can count, at the precipice between what was and what will be, between a tenuous peace and the threat of all-out war, between the disguise of a sustainable civilization and utter collapse. At the height of the Vietnam War, during the energy crisis, John Lennon released his anthem “Imagine”—what has been called the antithesis of a call to arms. Sometimes we are so ready to fight, to call out the traitor and the bully, that we cannot hear the “profound power of powerlessness” to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world but of a world yet to be born, yet to be inhabited. Like Jesus and many other spiritual teachers, John Lennon invites us to live in it now, to birth this new world through our lives, through our dreams. We “give peace a chance” when we are peace-filled, justice-minded. By how we choose to live our lives we can imagine a world yet to be born, a lifestyle change into servanthood, the profound power of powerlessness, and allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts. 

 May it be so.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Bricks and mortar

November 18, 2018 - Commitment Sunday

The message this morning was in two parts:  the Finance Committee shared a skit and I followed it with an extended invitation to the offering.

Stewardship Skit - "Bricks and Mortar"

Setting the stage:

Narrator: Two parishioners are discussing a community pot-luck dinner to be held collectively by several area churches. They are excited about the prospect of visiting a large church which is hosting the event - the two have never been inside and wonder what the building is like. They are heading there together.

Gladys: Mildred, what did you bring for the pot luck dinner at the Centre Street UCC?

Mildred: Well, there wasn’t a sign-up sheet like we have in our church. I thought perhaps a chicken casserole would be good. How about you, Gladys?

Gladys: I brought some pumpkin bars – seems the like the time of year to have some pumpkin.

Mildred: Without a sign-up sheet we could end up with a bunch of crock pots full of chili! Best not to think about “beans, beans the musical fruit…” Hee, hee!

Okay, we are almost there.

Gladys: Wow, what a big church it is! Look at those stained glass windows! I wonder how many members there are. I bet they don’t have any problems recruiting folks for the choir. Let’s go around to the back, Mildred - information on the flyer said the back door near the kitchen would be open.

Mildred: Hope we’ll see some folks from their church who might show us around before the event gets underway.

Gary: Hello, ladies, welcome! My name is Gary – some of us from our facilities group will be setting up for the dinner. Would you like a quick tour?

Mildred and Gladys: Yes, please!

Mildred: Tell us all about your church…must be wonderful to hear hymns being played on that big pipe organ.

Gary: Well, we’re glad to have the pipe organ working again – took a long time to raise the money to get it fixed. There was damage to the ceiling area above the organ. Believe it or not we had actual bats in the belfry – made a terrible mess.

Gladys: Look at that beautiful carpet down the center aisle. Imagine having a center aisle.

Gary: Carpet was just replaced because we had floorboards that were soft from some plumbing issues underneath that area.

Mildred: The wood on those pews must be oak – look at the grain!

Gary: The facilities group hired a contractor recently to remove some of the pews to accommodate wheelchairs – there wasn’t enough room for them to maneuver.

Gladys: Best to get back to the kitchen now – it is getting late. Thank you so much for the tour, Gary.

Narrator: As the two parishioners are setting up for the potluck dinner, they look out and see a homeless person on the corner and invite them in.  They decline but they thank Mildred and Gladys for their kindness. After the gathering, Gladys and Mildred give them a bag with some water and a plate from the potluck buffet.

Mildred: You know, Gladys, after getting that tour and hearing about some of the problems they’ve had to wrestle with, makes you feel different about a great big church. Perhaps it is not so much about the bricks and mortar that matters, but how we live our lives after leaving the building that is important.

The End

         When Jesus said to his disciples that not one stone would be left upon another, that all would be thrown down, the temple was already rubble, the city of Jerusalem in ruins.  The gospel of Mark was written around the year 70 CE, when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the Second Temple was destroyed.  The First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.  The Second Temple, built by groups of Jews returning from exile, stood on the Temple Mount from 516 BCE until its destruction in 70 CE. 
During the reign of King Herod the Great (the one that ordered the death of all boys under the age of two around the time when Jesus was born), the temple was expanded and completely refurbished into something that would have indeed inspired awe but also deep disgust.  Opulence comes not only from wealth but from the exploitation of the poor.

Our Savior Lutheran Church, Paradise, CA
Mark’s proximate readers would have known all this.  And so through a conflation of history with Jesus’ teaching, we have a parable of sorts, a wisdom story.  We too are awed by great buildings and structures.  We too appreciate the accumulation of wealth because of what it can do.  I had the good fortune to visit the cathedral in Mainz, Germany.  It was begun in 976 CE and was added onto and renovated over the next thousand years.  It survived WWI and multiple bombing raids in WWII.  And yet in Syria, ancient cities such as Damascus and Aleppo are in ruins.  Not to mention the devastating forest fires in California destroying homes and communities and lives.

Damascus, Syria

            We’ve seen the devastation to human lives in the systems, structures, and institutions we created.  We are also witnessing structural and institutional change all around us.  The hope for every generation is that world we live in is not the one in which we were born.  Just as walls and barriers to justice and access and acceptance are coming down, for some not nearly fast enough, there are some who are furiously trying to keep them in place.  Systems built with evil intent, that effect evil in human lives, and the life of this planet, must come down.  And unfortunately the Church has played a part in perpetrating evil in human lives and in the life of this planet.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo

            When we pledge, when we make a commitment to the church, we are invited to be mindful that we are making a commitment not to a building or an institution or even a religion or denomination but what those things stand for.

Yesterday at the meeting of the Central Atlantic Conference to call Rev. Freeman Palmer as our next Conference Minister, in his enthusiasm for the United Church of Christ, Freeman said that he wanted the UCC to take over the world.  I’m not sure I want that to happen but I think what he meant was, I want peace to take over the world.  I want justice to take over the world.  I want kindness and compassion to take over the world.  I want safety in public space for everyone to take over the world.  I want dignity and respect to take over.  I want forgiveness and responsibility to take over.  I want equality to take over.  I want everyone to have enough to take over.  I want unconditional love to take over the world.

            Not everyone has to be Christian or believe in God for this to happen.  But we do have to choose.  I believe that when we pledge to the ministry of the United Church of Christ and to the New Ark, when we make a commitment as a member of the church, we are making a choice:  the choice that what was—oppression, exploitation, abuse, and everything that goes with them—must go and that the new—freedom, wholeness, unity—will not come unless we work for them, give toward them, believe in them, and live into them.

            Today I invite you to make that choice and to worship God, to make an offering with that choice.