Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Losing yourself

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-17a; Mark 8: 31-38
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 25, 2018


         Two of today’s lectionary scriptures are about forsaking one identity for another; about trusting God and being led to blessing through an unknown future; about taking up what is placed in front us, even when it is demanding and painful. In both of these readings I hear the suffering and the courage of those who have to leave their homes in order to save their lives; I hear the stories of undocumented immigrant families and DACA children; I hear the voices of student activists who, by their pain and their grief, have been put center stage in the debate for gun reform. And so that we might hear these scriptures anew, I have rewritten passages from Genesis and the gospel of Mark from the point of view of these students.

         First, the reading from Genesis, when God called Abram and Sarai to leave their home in Haran:

         “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

         “‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

         “‘I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.’

         “God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’  Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed.”

         When students in Florida were 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, violence, pain and passion came upon them, and in this horrific event they heard their lives and the voices of those who were killed: “I am Justice and I have been delayed too long; I am the Future, your future; walk before me, and be authentic; be exactly who you are. And you will make a covenant between you and this nation, and your movement will become exceedingly numerous.” Then these youths stood in the places of power and decision; and they realized, they declared with conviction:

         “We did not ask for this responsibility. We had dreams about our future that didn’t include friends and teachers dying and PTSD. We went to school, we studied for our AP Gov. exam; we debated the 2nd Amendment in class, but never did we think we would be standing before legislators, even the President of the United States, and have to argue for our lives, for our elected leaders to covenant with us regarding our safety. This is our covenant: we will be the kids you read about in textbooks….because this will be the last mass shooting in the United States. No longer shall we be known only as David or Emma or Cameron or Sarah or Delaney, or Eva or Maxine or Sophia or Natalie, but our names shall be known for #NeverAgain and
#Youth4BlackLives; and we are the ancestors of a multitude of youth activists. Our voices were obscured and denounced and ignored when our skin was black and brown, when we rose up and organized after Trayvon Martin, when we came from Chicago and Ferguson; now that some of us are white and privileged students from Florida, we have your attention. Businesses and corporations are boycotting the NRA. State legislatures are taking the reins of gun reform.

         “We want this to be a covenant for all of us, and all our offspring after us throughout generations, for an everlasting covenant, that never again will we live through another mass shooting. Never again will we lose black and brown youths to gun violence.”

          And there were some who heard this and laughed. They mocked the power, the conviction of this generation and called them crisis actors and political tools, and accused them of being outspoken and articulate.

         Then these youth began to teach us that they have undergone great suffering; that they have been rejected by elders and the chief priests and the Congress, and they are sick of being killed, and rising again and again only to have it happen again and again. They said all this quite openly. And the NRA and Senator Rubio and other leaders took them aside and began to rebuke them. But turning and looking at a nation ready for gun reform, these youth rebuked our nation’s leaders and conspiracy theorists and said, “Get behind us, accusers! For you are setting your mind not on sacred things but on your own small fears.”

         These young activists called to the crowds across this nation to march and protest, to write and call and irritate representatives, to walk out and sit in and lie down, and said to them, “If any want to have safe schools and safe public space and not fear one another, let them deny themselves of their assault-style weapons and their high-capacity ammo clips and their idolatry of the 2nd amendment, and take up their cross and follow us. For those who want to save their life with a gun will lose it, and those who lose their life as they know it, who let go of their fear, for our sake and for the sake of life and love, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world—power and money and false security—and forfeit their lives, their souls? Indeed, what can anyone give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of us and of our words in this treacherous and corrupt generation, of them future generations will also be ashamed when, instead of the glory of Beloved Community, they will feast on ashes like bread and mingle tears in their drink.”

         Around the world, in war-torn Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, and Yemen, in countries that engage in human trafficking and religious persecution, and here in our own nation, we are crucifying our children on the cross we were supposed to take up. Our children are dragging us out of our homes, out of our comfort, out of what has been, to another land so that they might have future generations. These children have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, in a nation that conducts endless war, and who have witnessed 10 of the deadliest shootings since 1999. We can no longer be surprised by their prophetic witness, by their righteous anger. It’s time we lose ourselves to the ways of peace and justice before we lose our children. Amen.

"The Untouchables", Erik Ravelo
"The first image refers to pedophilia in the Vatican. Second child sexual abuse in tourism in Thailand, and the third refers to the war in Syria. The fourth image refers to the trafficking of organs on the black market, where most of the victims are children from poor countries; fifth refers to gun violence in the U.S.. And finally, the sixth image refers to obesity, blaming the big fast food companies.
The new series produced by Cuban artist Erik Ravelo was titled as "The Untouchables", are photographs of children crucified for his supposed oppressors, each for a different reason and a clear message, seeks to reaffirm the right of children to be protected and report abuse suffered by them especially in countries such as Brazil, Syria, Thailand, United States and Japan"

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Genesis 9: 8-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 18, 2018

Noah and the Rainbow, Marc Chagall, 1966


         It never ceases to amaze me—the timing of the lectionary with what is happening in our world. Just when I’m having one of those days when I think it’s crazed or quaint or parochial to look for wisdom in a collection of books written thousands of years ago, the Bible goes and upends my post-modern, scientific, supposedly-evolved point of view. Especially the Psalms. I love that the ancient songbook of God’s people includes rage and pettiness and hubris and joy and gratitude and deep love and fear; that all of those and much more are acceptable in worship and can be brought into the presence of God. We don’t have to clean up our act to be relationship with God; we can show up as we are.

         The Psalms show us how very human we are and how we haven’t changed all that much. The psalm for today includes this verse:

“Do not let those who wait for you 
be put to shame;
let them be ashamed 
    who are wantonly treacherous.” 

       (Psalm 25: 3, NRSV) 


         I’m angry and ashamed of a seemingly wantonly-treacherous Congress who, since the shooting at Sandy Hook in 2012, since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, has done mostly nothing to prevent gun violence in public and domestic spaces. I’m angry that it never seems to be the time to talk about and do something about reforming gun laws. I’m angry that the pleas of survivors and family members seem to fall on deaf ears and hard hearts. I’m angry that our schools do not have enough professional support of counselors, nurses, and social workers to help children deal with problems they shouldn’t have to deal with. I’m angry that responsible gun owners are vilified for owning guns. I’m angry because I feel powerless in the face of such violence, death, and suffering.


         I understand why wrath is one of the seven deadly sins. When we are powerless and angry and fearful and disconnected from each other, wrath can feel like all we have left to affect some kind of change, to do something, anything, and we are tempted to violence. Or we weaponize our words and our discourse. We lash out and hurt and wound. And I use “we” because this is a human problem, not an “us and them” problem. I use “we” because I believe in empathy to create change. I use “we” because a large part of the problem is how disconnected we are from people we disagree with, who experience life differently than we do. I use “we” because it makes it that much harder to demonize someone if we’re all in this together.


         In the Genesis story of the great flood, God had gotten to the point of wrath with human beings. God was powerless to change the wickedness of humanity, our wanton treachery, and was angry that we had become corrupt, perhaps even fearful of what we had become or what we could do. God and the creation were estranged from each other, disconnected; God’s image in humanity was obscured.

         Then God does the unthinkable. God becomes the ultimate weaponized bully, and destroys all life, save for Noah and his family, and two of every creature aboard a gigantic floating barn. It’s difficult to imagine why this story would be comforting to God’s people in exile, but for them this was a story of hope. Their homes were destroyed, their temple in ruins, friends and family members raped and killed or carried off as slaves. The destruction of a flood to lay waste to a corrupt humanity wasn’t much of a stretch. That God saved one family and started over again perhaps said to them that they had not been abandoned in exile; that one day God would start over again with them. To them, the story may have sounded like grace.

Photo by Ed Fisher
    To ensure that it did sound like grace, and hope, God made a promise to never again wield power to destroy life. God had the power but yielded it in favor of covenant and connection with God’s creation and with humankind. And God took God’s weapon, a bow, and hung it up for good in the heavens. Unlike the fearsome gods of empire, like the Assyrian god Ashur with his bow and arrow, the God of Israel would be disarmed, and not only that, there would be a covenant, a reminder of this promise of peace in the rainbow.

         And yet those who heard this story knew that there was another passenger aboard the ark: the seeds of violence and evil and all that distorts God’s image within us. It’s never been easy for us to disarm ourselves, to put down our weapons, to not act on our anger and fear and disconnection, to remember our unbreakable covenant—that we are human together, all of us born from this earth.

         Last week I lifted up words from Martin Luther King Jr., that the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence but nonviolence and nonexistence, and yet Dr. King had been known to carry a revolver. There are some who frame this debate as either/or: you’re either for guns or against guns.  So if you're black and you preach nonviolence but carry a gun, you must be a liar or a coward? Power to kill, to defend, or no power at all? I call BS. That’s not what the framers of our constitution wanted. Like the story of God and the rainbow, it’s about power but with limits, with checks and balances. And the answer to power out of whack is not to meet it with more power, to meet violence with more violence.

         It’s devastatingly ironic that this senseless tragedy occurred not only on Valentine’s Day but Ash Wednesday. The season of Lent is a time when we turn away from the paths of sin and suffering and turn toward God and the ways of peace, justice, and unconditional love, that our joy might be restored. A time to confront our mortality and the obstacles to a life fully inhabited. A time to examine our own use of weapons and power—whatever we use to strike out or withhold to injure and harm. A time that leads to a different interpretation of this story—complete disarmament on the cross and yet betrayal and desertion, death and suffering are not the last word.

         The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have formed their own covenant: we are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks…because this will be the last mass shooting in the United States.

“Do not let those who wait for you
be put to shame.
let them be ashamed 
who are wantonly treacherous.” 

         Not only our government but we all have been put on notice when it comes to gun reform. What if our Lenten fast became one action every day toward reducing gun violence and promoting connection and belonging in our nation? Call senators and representatives, write a letter to the editor, be heard at school board meetings; engage in honest conversation, give support to a teacher, reach out to someone struggling with anxiety and depression and self-acceptance, mend a broken relationship if you can; support out-of-state candidates who won’t take contributions from the NRA, speak truth to BS, and fight for what’s right— because our very lives and the lives of our children actually do depend on us taking another path. Amen.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Dark enough to see the stars

Mark 9: 2-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday


         Earlier this week, referencing one of the Super Bowl ads, a colleague quipped about one of the verses from this morning’s gospel lesson: “’And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.’ The Transfiguration: It’s really a Tide ad”.

         For many who watch the Super Bowl but who aren’t interested in football, the attraction is the advertisements. At $5 million a pop for 30 seconds, we expect to see something more than the usual ploys to get our attention. More often than not pop culture makes an appearance, like Volkswagen with a Star Wars theme or Visa with Marvel comic book heroes.

         But some ads shine a light on that same culture, whether it’s a PSA for domestic violence and abuse in 2015. Or Clint Eastwood giving us a halftime speech in 2012, after the recession: how we pull together when times are hard.


         And I thought that the light was shining when a commercial opened with words from Martin Luther King, Jr. from 50 years ago that day: “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s the new definition of greatness.” And then we saw images of servanthood: people hard at work, ranchers, teachers, neighbors of all colors and stripes, soldiers and medics, parents and children, first responders, and that all we need to serve is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. And you bet I’m in, heart and soul.

         Then the clincher: Ram trucks, built to serve. And my jaw dropped. You see, Dr. King’s words came from a sermon entitled “The Drum Major Instinct”, in which he also said: “Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car. … And you know, before you know it, you're just buying that stuff. That's the way the advertisers do it.” And he went on to say, “Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first.” Same sermon. And for reasons beyond my understanding, those who are in charge of Dr. King’s estate gave permission for his words to be used to sell a car.

         Another clergy colleague in New York City—female, African-American, mother, immigrant rights activist—asked this question on Sunday night: “The things folks are willing to look past, in order to watch football, are insurmountable to me. Why aren’t they to you?” And I squirmed because she’s right. Even though players from both teams have taken a knee in protest during the national anthem, we didn’t see it Sunday night. We saw Brandin Cooks take that awful blindside hit to his head, and we kept watching. That man’s life will never be the same again, like many players in the NFL. And we knew what was going to happen on the streets of Philly as soon as the Eagles scored their final touchdown.

         And yet it’s complicated too. It’s not black and white. The city of Philadelphia needed that win. Some called it a David and Goliath game. The cathartic release of emotion was palpable for many. Football in and of itself is a great game, and yet it has a shadow side of racism, money, power, violence, and bodily damage that oftentimes we’re willing to look past. We cheer when the light reveals the shadowy places of others and yet it is oh so hard for us to look openly at something so beloved and culturally entrenched as football and the Super Bowl.

         50 years ago, Star Trek was in its third season and known for shining a light on some difficult and very present struggles, such as nationalism, fascism, the Vietnam War, and racism. In this episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, the crew of the Enterprise encounters two humanoids: one is black on the right side, the other is black on the left side. One is a freedom fighter, a fugitive who stole a shuttlecraft from a Federation starbase; the other, the enforcer who has been chasing his quarry for centuries. Both have an all-consuming hatred for the other.

         Faithful Jews that they were, Peter, James, and John thought they must have been witnessing the end of their oppression and the beginning of God’s saving reign on earth. Certainly God does take sides when it comes to injustice. But then I think God wants everyone to be free: the oppressed and the oppressor, the survivor and the abuser, those who have power and those who don’t. When that light shines on the mountaintop, we need to remember that the rest of the story takes place in the valley of the shadow of death and eventually leads to another hill, this time with a cross on it.

         We want the glory, the light of truth to shine and expose the shadows, especially those that harm and hurt the marginalized and criminalized, the dehumanized among us. But that light shines everywhere, and sooner or later it casts our shadow. Carl Jung said until we make the unconscious conscious, until we bring our shadow into the light and embrace it, it will dictate our lives and we will call it “it is what it is”.

         The night before Dr. King was assassinated, and he struggled with his own shadow, his own demons: he gave his famous “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” sermon and said these words, “[The] world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. …It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.” Fifty years later and that is where we are now but for how much longer?

         And yet it was that night he was happy, joyful even, that night before. That night he wasn’t worried about anything and he feared no one, because he had seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.

         That’s what God, what Love wants for all of us. But it won’t happen until the criminalized and marginalized and dehumanized among us receive it first and in full measure, until we own the shadows in each of us. It’s dark enough now to see the stars. Nonviolence or nonexistence. It’s up to us to shine the light. Amen.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Healed from within

Mark 1: 29-39
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 4, 2018


         Have you ever been to a physician’s office, looked impatiently at the time while waiting in the examining room, only to have the doctor enter with these words: “Sorry you had to wait so long, busy day.” As it is, Jesus comes across like a doctor on the run in the gospel of Mark, moving along from the synagogue to the house of Simon and Andrew, teaching and healing as he goes, often preceded by the word “immediately”. Jesus tries to slow down a bit by going to a secluded place to pray and meditate. Even with all the technology we have to make the practice of medicine more accurate, efficient, and expedient, nothing can replace or duplicate the human element of compassion multiplied by the factor of time. When caregivers take time to listen and understand, we feel as though we have been seen, our concerns have been heard, and we know we are valued. We experience empathy.

J. Kirk Richards, 2011, Healing All Manner of Sickness

         I’m not sure if healing occurs without empathy—deep down-in-your-bones healing. Sympathy is suffering alongside. Empathy is entering into the suffering of another. One cannot be entirely removed from the healing of those in their care; we can’t heal at an emotional, spiritual distance from one another. Compassion, courage, and self-gift are communicated through presence, touch, kind words, companionable silence; the look in our eyes; how we listen and pay attention to things like body language; how we respond to the suffering of others.

         Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter an empath on a planet whose sun is about to go nova. They’ve beamed down to the surface to rescue two Federation researchers who have literally disappeared without a trace. The three are also taken in the same way and find themselves in a laboratory situation: two humanoid beings from a technologically advanced species are testing the empathic woman to see if her species deserves to be rescued from the destruction of the supernova. They torture Kirk and McCoy in order to provoke her ability to not only sense emotions but to heal others by absorbing their pain and injury into her own body. Up until now, she has allowed her instinct for self-preservation to outweigh any thought of self-sacrifice. But as she interacts with these three friends, she assimilates their qualities of courage, sacrifice, and deep compassion.


         When Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, she immediately begins to serve. She imitates Jesus through service, by offering herself. The healer needs healing too. Jesus finds a quiet corner to recharge, but the disciples are overwhelmed by the needs of the crowds and they search him out. Jesus too struggled with self-preservation and self-sacrifice and the courage, the energy it takes to enter into the suffering of others.


         To enter into the suffering of another, to have empathy, requires that we acknowledge and draw power from our own suffering, our own fears, our own wounds. We need to be an empath with our own story. To enter into the suffering of another is to enter the fullness of our shared humanity. This is why the idea of an incarnational God, a God who enters into our humanity, is so powerful. From the UCC Statement of Faith: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death, and reconciling the world to yourself.” Compassion and courage lead to empathy; empathy leads to forgiveness, redemption, justice, freedom, a transformed life.

         And it is this Table that demonstrates how pain can be turned into power; how the bread broken for us can become the hunger for justice; how the cup poured out for us can become the thirst for mercy and wholeness. With its betrayal and desertion, the Table reminds us how painful, messy, and risky love can be but also that healing happens much the same way. More than anything else, the Table calls us to service of others: to feed each other, support and care for each other, accept each other, and through that service we are transformed, from wounded to healed, from healed to healer. Thanks be to God.

How empathic are you?  
Find out by taking this empathy quotient inventory.