Tuesday, March 27, 2018

March for our lives

Mark 11: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 25, 2018 – Palm Sunday

(I started writing this on Friday and finished Saturday evening after I returned from the march.)


         Tomorrow is the March for Our Lives, and I have to admit I’m a little scared. I don’t like big crowds. I’ve been to First Night in Boston and to a Junkanoo parade on New Year’s in the Bahamas, both occasions for celebrating and I hated both. I couldn’t escape from being pressed up against people. I’m 5’2” so most people are taller than me. It felt almost suffocating. I even had my butt grabbed and had to walk with my fist behind me, ready to punch any other would-be grabbers. At Barack Obama’s first inauguration, which was an entirely different kind of crowd altogether, I just wanted some space.

          So why am I going to Washington DC when I could’ve marched in Wilmington? Why am I going the day after a Rainbow Chorale performance, the day before Palm Sunday? Because this march is the civil rights March on Washington of our time. Because this march is the 21st century march against empire and violence.

         When Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time, it was a 1st century protest march against empire and violence. Like any other observant Jew, he was there for the festival of Passover. On that same day, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, would have also entered Jerusalem, not to observe Passover, but to quell any kind of disturbance that might result. Remember that Passover is a festival of liberation from captivity and slavery at the hands of another empire.

          So more than likely there were two processions that day, from the east and the west, entering the holy city of Jerusalem, the city of peace. Pilate would have entered on his horse, a stallion, a symbol of strength. Jesus entered on a colt, a young one since it had never been ridden before. Pilate entered as a show of imperial force, accompanied by soldiers both on horseback and on foot, a military parade. Jesus entered with his disciples, his friends who were peasants and fishermen.

          We don’t know what the crowds would have shouted as Pilate came into the city but they definitely didn’t say what they said for Jesus: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”


         ‘Hosanna’ means “save us”, and normally the people would shout this to the one who had the power to save them, the one who held their very lives in their hands, namely their lord and master, the emperor. In fact, beginning with Emperor Augustus, the Roman emperor was referred to as the Son of God, having been conceived by the god Apollo, and thus was to be worshiped as such. There are inscriptions that refer to him as “lord” and “savior”.

          So for the crowds to shout “Save us” to Jesus and call him “Lord” and “Savior”, to even go so far as to look to Jesus to inaugurate a new government—blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David—this is what makes this parade a protest march and also seals Jesus’ fate of execution.


         Some biblical texts refer to what we call Palm Sunday as Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. And maybe it was in the sense that the crowds acknowledged him as lord and savior rather than Pilate or the emperor. But it is those same crowds who will call for his execution by the end of the week. True and lasting change hardly happens in a week. It takes a very long time.

         Earlier this week I was reflecting on our rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights: the right to assemble, the right to free speech, the right to peaceably protest our government. People revolt and resort to violence when they do not have these rights and change is desperately needed. And yet the men who wrote these documents were for the most part rich landowners, many of whom owned slaves themselves. And so under what biblical scholars call a hermeneutic of suspicion—which is just a fancy of way of saying some things don’t always mean what we think they mean—I wondered if perhaps these rights came from a desire to prevent revolution. After all, it’s bloody and deadly and costly, especially to those who have the most to lose. But revolution also comes from the bottom up, from those who have no rights, no voice, no agency, no legitimacy.

          So let there be the ability to change government, to protest against its powers but allow the change to come about slowly, peacefully, nonviolently. Maybe it takes longer for those with too much power to be divested of it, but at least we don’t replace one bully with another. We don’t become the very thing we’re trying to change.

The March from space.  We're PURPLE.

         And so my fears were blessedly unfounded yesterday at the March for Our Lives. Yes, there were big crowds. The permit for the march applied for a crowd of 500,000 but it was estimated at about 800,000. But it was a peaceful, nonviolent crowd, with families and small children in strollers and on shoulders, busloads of high school students, teachers and principals, and grandparents who probably protested the Vietnam War. We were all colors, all ages, all sizes and abilities. We were there to bear witness to one another and to those who have died and to the power of being together.


         David, Andrea, and I got separated from the group of students we came with. We couldn’t get near Pennsylvania Avenue, let alone of the large screens that were displayed in some areas. We finally got a view of one in front of the National Archives. We could hear the crowd roar from the other side. We stood with thousands of other people as Emma Gonzalez led us through a protracted silence to show us just how long and how short a time it takes for 17 human lives to end. Some in the crowd couldn’t take the silence and started to shout “Never again!” over and over.

This photo came up in the slide show
just as I got to this paragraph.
Passions were high as evidenced by some of the sassy signs we saw, some of which were rated PG-13, most of them pointed and unequivocal in their message. One chant, “Hey, hey NRA, how many kids did you kill today?” was reminiscent of a Vietnam protest chant, “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” One of the most poignant, truthtelling signs I saw held by a student read: “I don’t know anyone who isn’t afraid of getting shot at school”.


         People marched in all kinds of weather from California to Florida sun to rain in Kentucky to snow in Indiana and Iowa. There were more than 800 other protests planned around the nation and the globe. Just to name a few: Poughkeepsie, NY; Athens, GA; Denver, CO; South Bend, IN; Dubuque, IA; Killeen, TX, home of Ft. Hood; Chattanooga, TN; Montpelier, VT; Charleston, WV; Concord, NH; Oxford, MS; Cleveland, OH; Hartford, CT; Bowling Green, KY; Birmingham, AL; Anchorage, AK; Las Vegas, NV; Bogota, Columbia; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Paris, France; Berlin, Germany; Sydney, Australia; London, UK; Geneva, Switzerland. In New York the crowd numbered about 175,000; Paul McCartney was one of the protesters because, as he put it, he lost a very dear friend to gun violence. Early estimates say that the March for Our Lives could be the biggest single-day protest in DC’s history.

Art by Pia Guerra
And the message is the same as it was twenty centuries ago: we are not only tired of living in a violent culture but we are dying as a result of it and we can stand it no more. Every march that has ever been is about the right to exist safely in public space, to breathe the same air without fear for our lives; to have life and liberty and be able to pursue happiness like anyone else. We are indeed marching for our very lives, for the life of future generations, for the future of the human race. As Emma said yesterday, fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.

         As I have said before, not only here but around the world we are crucifying our children on the cross we were supposed to take up. These children and young adults remind us again and again that they 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, their righteous anger. We must now not only celebrate them and encourage them, but get out of their way.

          Hosanna! Save us! The human race does indeed need saving, but we’re the only ones who can do it. The question is, will we? After yesterday, I’m beginning to think we will. Amen.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The next right thing

Jeremiah 31: 31-34
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 18, 2018

The Prophet Jeremiah, Marc Chagall, 1968

         “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Let’s be clear about one thing in regard to this passage and the Hebrew scriptures in general: The new covenant or the suffering servant of Isaiah or any of the hopeful writings about the long-awaited Messiah are not prophecies about Jesus. Christians may prayerfully read these scriptures with hindsight, but these hopes and promises must be allowed to stand on their own, because our Jewish friends and neighbors still harbor these hopes, still look to these promises as yet to be fulfilled.


         And to a certain extent, so do we. Though we may look to Jesus as the new covenant, the fulfillment of this covenant is not yet realized. On the whole, we human beings do not behave as though God’s law of love is written on our hearts. We do not act as though we live in a state of grace and forgiveness. We do not live our lives as one people nor do we seem to be getting closer to that hope. In this age of global communication and information it appears we have fed our fears and anxieties and hate more than we have nourished our hopes and dreams and loves. We seem more divided and conflicted than ever.

         Yet I believe nothing is inevitable, because we always have a choice, and it does indeed make a difference what we choose.  These times are only as dark as when we forget we are the light of the world and brighter still when we shine together. Even when we are powerless over other people, situations, and events, we can still choose how to meet those challenges. And it is through our choices whether we will move closer to this new covenant of radical forgiveness, unconditional love, restorative justice, and fearless compassion or not. 


         And yet God is already there waiting for us. In every covenant story God initiates the promise, the hope, the dream, and with these comes a code of behavior, not just for individuals or a community but for a people. We keep looking to God to see if God will keep these promises, fulfill our hopes, manifest our dreams. But it’s not God who hedges a bet or seeks their own way or finds loopholes in that code of behavior. Can you hear your heart in God’s broken heart? “It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.” Or “though I was married to them” since God is beyond gender.

         We’re the ones who divorce ourselves from what is sacred, from the Ground of All Being, even from the earth itself. I say ‘we’ because this is the human story as much as it is a story unique to Israel and Judah. And even though we human beings break our promises, the old story tells us that God reaches out again and again, forgiving our sins and remembering them no more.

         But now this new covenant will not exist on stone tablets or in circumcised flesh or as a bow set in the sky—though God still upholds all the promises set forth in these previous covenants: promises of peace, descendants, and God’s abiding presence. “The days are surely coming” for this new covenant, when exile will end and God’s people will be one. This time God will put this law of love within and write it on human hearts. It will become a part of the people, their identity, how they will know who they are and how to be with others. This is our fervent hope as well.


         Now as then we have to choose. None of this is coerced but offered freely. When I read “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”, when I understand it as identity, as part of who we are, I think of our DNA, that this law of love will become written into our DNA; that we can flip a compassion switch in our genetic code; that we can still evolve, change, and grow as a human race. We can choose compassion, forgiveness, unconditional love, and restorative justice. We can imprint God’s law of love into our very being.

         So in dealing with this passage I’m going to call forth one of my first loves which is psychology and specifically human development. Because all along in these stories of God and God’s people, God has been trying to develop a better relationship with human beings so that human beings will be better. This passage in Jeremiah reminds me of one development theory called object relations. When we are small we treat everything and everyone around us as an object, and we manipulate these objects to get what we need and want. We learn what happens when we cry, how the objects called parents respond to us, and we learn how to manipulate that response. Ideally, as we grow and hopefully mature, we internalize what our parents and other caregivers did for us: we mother ourselves, father ourselves, parent, care for ourselves. We no longer have to manipulate the world around us to get what we need and want. We realize our interdependence and our ability to care for others as well as ourselves.

         I see the same relationship between human beings and our parental God. Throughout Judeo-Christian history human beings have treated God as an object external to us to be manipulated to get what we need and want. We entreat God with prayers, make promises, “if you do this, I will…”, compete with our siblings in faith, throw tantrums (cause conflict) when we don’t get our way. But when we choose God’s ways of love and forgiveness, we evolve. We internalize unconditional love, radical forgiveness, restorative justice, fearless compassion. They become part of who we are, our identity, how we see ourselves and how we have relationships with others.

         We are at a unique stage in our evolution as human beings. I don’t think we’re done yet; I certainly hope not. We’re at a point where we can choose who we will be as a human race. Will we be fearful, obeying our fight or flight response without a second thought, or will we be thoughtful, consider the choices before us, taking into account who will be affected by our behavior besides us? Will we dominate and control, compete for everything—power, resources, what we need to live—or will we embrace our interdependence and learn to trust each other? Will we continue externalize God as something apart from us or will we realize that God, what is good and holy and true, is within each of us, within this living universe? Will we despair the future or live passionately for it? Will we allow this law of love to be tattooed on our hearts or will our descendants read something else there?

         Evolution takes an enormously long time, baby step by baby step, but instead of survival of the fittest, it’s going to be survival of the kindest, for it is only by taking on what does not always come naturally to us—compassion, forgiveness—that we will not only survive but thrive. So what do we do? We do the next right thing, one thing at a time. We let go of the agenda to get it right, to be right, and instead we move into the mystery of trusting the stillspeaking God. We listen. We pay attention, especially to those parts of the gospel that we don’t like because they aren’t easy, like love your enemy and pray for them, forgive seven times seventy, if you got two coats, give one away, lose your life to find it, take up your cross and follow me.


         Someone I know quoted a line from a song: “Sometimes the hard thing and the right thing are the same.” That’s how we grow. It’s how we end up asking for help. It’s how we become brave. It’s how we end up at the cross. And it’s how we get to the other side. Amen.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Look up

Numbers 21: 4-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 11, 2018

         This chant, “Hospodi Pomilui”, written by Russian composer Lvovsky in the 19th c., is sung in Russian Orthodox churches in worship on the Eve of Holy Rood or Holy Cross. It means “Lord, have mercy” and the words are sung seventy-five times, reminiscent of the scripture when Jesus tells his disciples that they must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times or seven times seventy. In the service the bishop stands in the center of the church, holding the cross above his head. As he lowers the cross, the choir sings in decreasing volume, to the point of pianississimo—as the cross touches the floor. Then the cross is raised again and the choir rises in a crescendo of triumph.

         Although the eyes of the worshippers are drawn downward as the cross is lowered, ultimately we are compelled to gaze upward. The psalmist asks, I lift my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? We know that God, that power and mystery, does not reside only above us but around us and beneath us and within us. We do not look up as in location but in attitude adjustment.

Asclepius with serpent-entwined staff
The Israelites are in dire need of an attitude adjustment. Not only does the food stink, but there’s not enough of it. Not only is God’s idea of rescue a long, hard walk but God has rescued them only to kill them in the desert. In another passage in Exodus, the Israelites complain to Moses, “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!” Basically they’re saying that slavery with comfort food is better compared to this tortuous freedom where they have to depend on God and each other.

         And then we read that God sends poisonous snakes among the people; the snakes bite them, and some die. God doesn’t send the snakes as punishment for all their complaining; the people come to that conclusion themselves. “Where did all these snakes come from? God must have sent them to punish us.” By coming to that conclusion we can see they do know they need to trust God, but they aren’t doing a very good job of it. They own up to the simplest of parent/child relations: bad behavior has its own consequences. Their complaints bite back.

         God sends snakes to bite people just because they complain about the food? Sounds a bit ludicrous to me. Sometimes my kids used to grouse about what I cooked for dinner but snake bites? Jesus said “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Maker in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7: 9-11) God gives good things, not snakes, right?

Seraph means 'burning one'
But in Hebrew, the word used for fiery serpent is seraph, as in the seraphim, celestial beings in the court of heaven. In early Judaism these were six-winged flying snakes who also sang the praises of heaven. Literally, seraph means ‘burning one’. These were the angels who touched Isaiah’s lips with burning coals in order to purify his speech. Those who looked upon the seraphim directly would be incinerated due to their intense brightness and heat.


         If God does send fiery serpents it is to remind these downcast Israelites that what they long for is not what satisfies the stomach but what satisfies the soul—the companionship of God. Sometimes what we long for the most, we also avoid the most. We long for closeness with God, “to shake the hand of the universe”, but we also fear and doubt the intense brightness and heat of such love that can cut through our despair. Like Dante, many of us to seek to find heaven by traveling straight through hell.

Brazen Serpent Monument by Italian sculptor Giovanni Fantoni.
Mount Nebo, Jordan.
(Photo: Dawn Chesser)

         God then commands Moses to take a staff, to fashion a bronze serpent coiled around it, and to have everyone who has been bitten to look upon it and they will live. This sounds an awful lot like the Rod of Asclepius, the Greek god associated with healing and the medicinal arts. It also sounds like God is violating the second commandment about idol worship. But what are rules and laws if they can’t be stretched now and then to show mercy and love? Eventually this pole with a bronze serpent would be destroyed because it became an object of worship for the people of Israel—something to hang onto rather than point the way.

         These days we are overwhelmed by whole host of needs, causes, news stories, and theories, and our own needs pointing us in any number of directions. We feel like we’re wandering in a desert of our own, trying to find our way. We spend a lot of time looking down, carefully putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes despairing. We spend a lot of time looking around us, at all the demands for our time, our energy, our resources, doing what we can to be faithful and compassionate, to live into God’s Beloved Community.

         But often I think we forget the power of looking up, the healing power of awe, the reminder of how small we are and yet so very rare and precious. Who stops and looks up at the Canada geese as they honk and fly over in their V formations? Have you ever paused to witness the river of birds, the flocks of grackles as they make their way home for the evening? Have you closed your eyes and listened to the hushed flutter of their wings? How about cloud formations or the night sky?

Parker Curry in awe of Michelle Obama's portrait (Photo: Ben Hines)

         Children spend a lot of time looking up because everyone and everything is taller. Who was captured by a photograph of 2 year old Parker Curry looking up at the portrait of Michelle Obama in the National Portrait Gallery, her little mouth forming a perfect O of wonder? For all of us amateur art critics, that portrait is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Kikito by French photographer and artist JR

         When was the last time any of us looked up at a piece of architecture or art? Last September, artist and French photographer JR installed a massive photograph of a child named Kikito looking over the border fence from Mexico into California as though he was peering over the railing of his crib, compelling border guards and others to look up at his sweet face. 

Eyes of the Dreamer by JR

         In October JR built a massive dining table across the U.S./Mexican border in the town of Tecate and painted on the table “the eyes of the dreamer”, one eye on each side of the border. From an aerial view these eyes are looking upward to the sky, as if that were the only limit. People gathered around both sides of the table to enjoy a giant picnic of good food and festive music, with half of the band on each side. The table became a bridge. And with the border fence bisecting the table, a cross was formed.

         In John’s gospel we are reminded that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up on a cross so that we would be saved, healed through him. When I was a teenager, that story saved my life. The idea that someone loved me so much as to die for me meant that my life had worth, that I was loved beyond measure. More importantly, I was part of a church that lived out that unconditional love and acceptance. And looking up at the cross reminds me of that. Because that kind of love comes at a cost: the kind of love that lays down one’s life for friends.


         Where does each of us need to look up and be healed in our own lives? How do we need to look up in our life together as a church? What are our sources of contention and complaint and how are they coming back to bite us? Where do we need to let go and let God? The cross reminds us that there are things we can no longer not see. When we look up at this cross, what do we see there?

         In the end, the Christian faith isn’t intended to be comforting so much as a transformation of our hearts and lives. Heads up, because before we get to Easter, the cross goes before it. Lord, have mercy on us. Amen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Rearranging the furniture

John 2: 13-22
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 4, 2018


         “Rearranging the furniture”. I did that a lot in college and in seminary. Not so much now, unless our family is moving from one state to another. I found that phrase in a prayer by Methodist minister John van de Laar that I read online:

Truth be told, Jesus,
There are lots of tables that need overturning
    in our lives;

Beneath the veneer of respectability
  the tidy rows and neat regulations
    hide dark addictions and angry judgements
      hungry greeds and heartless rejections

We know the pain—and so do those around us—
   of keeping up the façade;
What a relief it would be to have it all
   upset, smashed, scattered, destroyed

So, perhaps, Jesus, today you could pay us a visit
  and help us to radically rearrange
    the furniture of our lives


          Jesus drove the moneychangers and the dove and animal vendors out of the temple because they were in the Court of the Gentiles, a space reserved for non-Jews, for all nations to gather, to pray and worship. Space isn’t sacred in and of itself but sacred because of what we do there, how we behave in that space, how we care for one another, how we care for that space. Jesus was the original Occupy Wall Street; he was a protest movement of one citizen of the Beloved Community, the kin-dom of God; Gentile Lives Matter.

         Whenever, wherever there is power, there are those who will put up barriers and walls to protect it; laws to codify it; fears to enshrine it; politics to control it; money to bankroll it; tradition to maintain it. And it is privilege that allows us to take it all for granted and tells us this is the way things have been and should be, world without end, amen. And when we do this, the seeds of revolution and liberation get planted.

        Gandhi, along with 80 or so trusted volunteers, marched 240 miles to the sea to make salt, which was against British law; over 60,000 people were arrested as result of this protest. He called for days of prayer and fasting and brought Britain’s colonial infrastructure to a halt. In 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence.

         Martin Luther King Jr, along with 200,000 other people, marched on Washington, as well as Selma and Birmingham. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and in 1968 the Civil Rights Act into law.

        In 1989, 320,000 protesters from East and West Germany brought down the Berlin Wall and united a nation.

         From the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, generations of women fought for the vote. They obstructed traffic, picketed the White House, and even burned Woodrow Wilson in effigy. They were verbally harassed, beaten, and force fed in psychiatric facilities when they went on a hunger strike. Women got the vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment.

        The Stonewall riots in 1969 were the catalyst for LGBT rights and the marriage equality movement, which became law in 2015.

        On March 14, students, teachers, administrators, and allies around our nation will walk out of their schools for 17 minutes for gun law reform. On March 24 millions will March for Our Lives in Washington DC and around the country.

         Power and public space are to be shared and accessible to all. The real power, the most sacred space is within each of us, no matter who we are. “The kin-dom of God is within you.” Jesus declared his own body to be a temple, like our own bodies—the space in which the holy can always be encountered. The challenge has always been, how can we the people move out of each other’s way and yet still be interdependent, connected, in community—that unshakable, unbreakable covenant of being human together—and all of it is holy, sacred: the intersection of human/divine work, mystery, creativity, imagination in harmony and unity with the earth and all living things.

Rearranging the furniture on a sinking ship

         The season of Lent is a time when we consider our own barriers and walls between us and God, the mystery, the sacred; how we’ve become disconnected from ourselves and each other and this world. How does Jesus need to rearrange the furniture in our lives? What needs to be smashed and scattered to make a space within us? How does this piece of furniture, the Table, enable us to reconnect, to clear a path, to turn toward what is good and holy and true? And yet this Table also reminds us of the ableist barriers and cisgender bathroom walls, of all the stumbling blocks we continue to put in the way of others, that we’ve neglected to remove, the power we’ve enshrined; the ways we have betrayed and deserted Jesus and his ways of justice and peace, that all people would have an abundant, joyful life. Where will you be when the revolution comes? Because it’s already here.

We know the pain—and so do those around us—
   of keeping up the façade;
What a relief it would be to have it all
   upset, smashed, scattered, destroyed

So, perhaps, Jesus, today you could pay us a visit
  and help us to radically rearrange
    the furniture of our lives