Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Who's leading?

John 10: 11-16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 22, 2018 – Earth Sunday


         When we think of Earth Sunday and Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we might conjure pastoral images in our mind’s eye: green pastures, spring flowers, cool clear water, blue skies, puffy clouds, and wooly sheep, with Jesus standing in the midst of this bucolic scene. And yet Earth Sunday compels us to look not only to our faith but to science when it comes to the care of the earth.


         It’s in our hands. Indeed it is, and yet science and political conversations won’t get us anywhere if we don’t first have a transformation of the heart. Gus Speth, an environmental lawyer and US advisor on climate change, said in an interview, “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”


         It’s baffling to me, as it probably is to you, that people choose not to believe in science. Flat earthers, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, and moon-landing hoaxers have websites, social media pages, and a growing number of followers. But if people are not convinced by facts, there is indeed something else going on, even more so than selfishness, greed and apathy but also fear, anxiety, doubt, and despair. Science may not require our faith in it for it to be true, but it still requires our trust. And these days trust is often hard to come by, both in the public sphere and in our relationships with one another.

         Who are we listening to? What’s trending in our head? Who do we allow to lead us? Who do we trust? On our worship table we have photos of those who have been, who continue to be shepherds to us, who lead and guide us with compassion, kindness, wisdom, common sense, intelligence, and wholeheartedness. Some of us have heroes like Malala or Martin Luther King Jr. or the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school. Some of us hold to the wisdom of parents or other family members or dear friends.

         Our leaders, our shepherds, our guides are far from perfect, even those we idolize. We live among hired hands and predators, trying to find our way, as best as we can. We are ourselves hired hands and predators with our desires, needs, and wants, the rapacious way we continue to treat the earth and each other. Even when we listen to that still small voice within, we forget about things like unconscious bias and privilege and hidden commitments, assumptions, and the lies we tell ourselves. That tiny little organ in our brains, the amygdala, still has the power to override our logic, yes, even our love, with fear and anger, certain that it is right. We follow our hearts and say our heart is never wrong, but isn’t that where trust is born and yet also abused, where we carry our hurt and our grudges.

         Human as we are, we are in desperate need of a shepherd who accepts us no matter what, and so we follow Jesus or Muhammad or Buddha or Krishna or Waheguru or Confucius or Yahweh—all male, by the way. But even Jesus did not listen solely to his own counsel. Jesus made it clear in every gospel that it was not about him but about the One who sent him. Radical forgiveness and unconditional love and restorative justice and unbounded compassion do not come naturally. Even if we think of God as an idea, we still need the idea of God to help us do and be what does not come naturally: to evolve to a higher way of being; a cultural and spiritual transformation.

         Jesus called disciples—a servanthood community—to travel with him. There’s no such thing as an army of one. We’re in this together. It’s in our hands. And so as much as we need to listen to a leader, a guide, a shepherd, we need to listen to each other and to the earth. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I am the vine. I am the light. I am the bread of life. I am the way, the truth, and the life”. These remind us of the One who revealed to Moses, “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be”. “I am” is an identity statement. If we are to be one people, sharing one planet, headed toward one future, we must become “we are”. In the Zulu language there is a word, ubuntu, which means “I am because we are”. But it goes even further than that: I am what I am because of who we all are. A person is a person through other people. Even more so, we are because the earth is.


         What do you believe in? In what and in whom do you put your trust? What do you really want? How will you live so that we all can live? Think of one thing you can do to move toward the cultural and spiritual transformation of “We Are”.

         Happy Earth Day, Church. Amen.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Everything happens in a body

Luke 24: 36-48
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 15, 2018


         Third week of Easter and the disciples are still grappling with what resurrection actually is and what does it mean. Two thousand years later and so are we.


          Sallie McFague, in her book Models of God, asks what if the resurrection of the body was seen “as God’s promise to be with us in God’s body, our world? What if God’s promise of permanent presence to all space and time were imagined as a worldly reality, a palpable, bodily presence? What if, then, we did not have to go somewhere special (church) or somewhere else (another world) to be in the presence of God but could feel ourselves in that presence at all times and in all places? What if we imagined God’s presence as in us and in all others, including the last and the least?”

         Usually I would work my way up to a piece of good news like that, but things being the way they are these days, I’d rather start with it right from the beginning. It’s never been easy to live as intertwined flesh and blood and spirit, to live in a body. From the rampant flu we had this winter to a low immune response due to the stress of the daily news to chronic pain and illness to sometimes a general malaise when things are not right—our bodies tell us when something is wrong. We experience everything in our bodies, in the body of the earth, and in corporate bodies, like church and work and school and communities—our state, our nation, our world. And all of these bodies could use some resurrection right now—some very real palpable presence of the sacred, of what’s good and right and true and whole.

         Buddhism has a meditation, a teaching called the Five Remembrances; they sound like bad news but they are intended to set us free. One, I will grow old. Two, this body will know sickness. Three, there is no escape from death. Four, everything and everyone changes. And five, all I have are my actions; my actions are the ground upon which I stand. Ironically, it’s when we don’t accept the reality of a bodily life that we cause suffering for ourselves and others. The problem isn’t that people and things change but when we live as though they don’t change. When we accept the reality of our lives and our bodies, we realize that they really don’t belong to us but they are all of life making itself known through us. Our bodies, our whole lives are a sacrament.

         And so the disciples recognize Jesus resurrected from the dead in the Eucharist, in the breaking of the bread on the way to Emmaus and eating broiled fish. Resurrection happens in our bodies. He shows them his hands and his feet, the instruments of his ministry of healing and meeting people where they are. He shows them that he was wounded, that he had been through the fire and come out on the other side—not the same but changed; not perfect but whole.

         These bodies of ours are complex. We are so very fragile and yet so resilient. We can feel such pleasure and yet experience such profound pain and still live. We inhabit a temple to be cared for and cherished and we are all sizes, all genders, all colors, all abilities, all without shame. How we feel on the inside and how we look on the outside is a complicated relationship. Then we gather them together in corporate bodies, like church and work and school and community and government. We create structures and powers and beauty; we celebrate and corrupt and destroy. We confuse thoughts and emotions, project them on others, carry wounds and chipped shoulders, and yet words of forgiveness have the power to mend our hearts, to restore relationships, to reconcile division.

         Forgiveness is a form of resurrection. So are acceptance and justice and solidarity and compassion and sacrifice and generosity and perseverance. Resurrection is about whenever we’ve been wounded, gone through the fire, and come out on the other side. A colleague quoted these words: “I’m not able to talk to you of resurrection, if you have yet to realize that you have died.” And we die inside when Syrian children, any children are bombed, and someone dies of gun violence, and police ignore their fear by abusing their power, and people of color and transgender folks are not safe in public space,
and thousands of gallons of oil spill on the earth, and a whole nation, the Congo, threatens to destroys itself in genocide, and refugees and immigrants are turned away, and our family and friends suffer pain and loss over which we are powerless. And we wonder when will the resurrection come? How can we live out the resurrection in our bodies? How can we summon the power to forgive, to accept, to work for justice, to know that the only ground we stand upon is our actions?

         What if the resurrection of the body was seen “as God’s promise to be with us in God’s body, our world? What if God’s promise of permanent presence to all space and time were imagined as a worldly reality, a palpable, bodily presence? What if, then, we did not have to go somewhere special (church) or somewhere else (another world) to be in the presence of God but could feel ourselves in that presence at all times and in all places? What if we imagined God’s presence as in us and in all others, including the last and the least?”

         Resurrection is persistent—it does not give up—and so we must persist with it. The bodily, palpable presence of God surrounds us and upholds us, moves through us and with us. A few years ago a Christian koan or contradictory wisdom saying came to me: the Incarnation is the Resurrection; the Resurrection is the Incarnation. When we allow the bodily, palpable presence of God to fully inhabit us, we are resurrected. When we are resurrected, when we forgive, accept, work for justice, share compassion, the bodily, palpable presence of God is made known through us. And when we do these things, wherever we do them, we are Church, the Body of Christ: a body also wounded, gone through the fire, and come out the other side. Deeper still, when we do these things, we are the body human.

         Everything happens in a body—every body, no matter your body: the palpable presence of God made known to us and through us, through all things, the universe and then some. May the resurrection come and may it be made known through you.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Belief + doubt = sanity

John 20: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 8, 2018 (Bright Sunday)


         Earlier this week Andrea and I went to Washington DC to visit the Botanic Gardens, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Hirshhorn Museum. By the time we got to the Hirshhorn, I had walked over 11,000 steps and we still had to make it back to Union Station. So while Andrea ventured upstairs, I took my hurting little puppies down the escalator to the gift shop.

         To my delight there was an art installation that covered every surface of the lower level lobby: floors, walls, even the sides of the escalators. The artist, Barbara Kruger, surrounds the viewer with language, with provocative questions and statements writ large in red and black and white, (reminiscent of what’s black and white and red all over?) that poke at our assumptions and our desire for certainty. Through this piece of artwork, Kruger said she was “interested in introducing doubt”, especially in these days of sound bites, fake news, and propaganda. One panel on the floor read:

         Right outside the gift shop I read:
PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH. and YOU WANT IT. YOU BUY IT. YOU FORGET IT. IT’S A SMALL WORLD BUT NOT IF YOU HAVE TO CLEAN IT. THE WORLD SHRINKS FOR THOSE WHO OWN IT. and MONEY MAKES MONEY. speak to economic justice issues. WHOSE BELIEFS? WHOSE BODY? WHOSE POWER? are questions we’ve been asking since humankind developed the language to ask them, and we’ve been struggling with and often dying because of the answers ever since.

         The title of this work is “Belief + Doubt”, and the statement
BELIEF + DOUBT = SANITY is the first statement you see when you come down the escalator. But not all the statements and questions are so serious. There’s a bit of whimsy if you look for it. You have to look up to read DON’T LOOK DOWN ON ANYONE. In a wry bit of humor the statements BELIEVE ANYTHING. and FORGET EVERYTHING. are interspersed with happy face emoticons. My favorite one is the question over the entrance to the women’s restroom: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU LAUGHED? Laughter is one of the many treasures of being human that helps keep our beliefs and our doubts in balance. Laughter keeps us sane. Like doubt, laughter prevents us from taking anything, even ourselves, too seriously.

         I’d like to think that when Thomas put his hand in Jesus’ side and touched his wounds, that there was a deep laughter born of relief, as when we face our worst fears and our wildest hopes. Thomas was the only one of the disciples who was not behind locked doors, not afraid to be out and about. When it comes to Thomas we talk a lot about doubt and faith but not so much about doubt and fear. There are times we put more faith in our fears, and we have a word for that: despair.

         This story is about so much more than one person who missed out on seeing Jesus alive again for the first time. It’s about Jesus not judging Thomas just because he wants to have the same experience as the rest of the disciples. It’s about the power of forgiveness and sharing peace and the giving of the Holy Spirit and being in community, all of which allow these traumatized disciples to continue living the gospel despite their fears. It’s a story that reminds us that having faith in something we can’t see is uniquely human.

         Belief and doubt and laughter are the holy trinity of Easter joy. We need to check in with ourselves when we think jokes and laughter and downright silliness have no place in worship. Laughter and foolishness have their own reverence—reverence for things we often take for granted or don’t think much about like our bellies and blood pressure and oxygen intake, immune cells and endorphins and increased blood flow, hips and knees and ankles. Laughter helps release stress and relaxes the body: the one we live in and this Body, the one we worship and serve with. Laughter has the power to resurrect us from the dumps of despair and transform anger and fear into something else.

         William Sloane Coffin once said that “the primary religious task is to think straight (which is funny, because many people would say religious people don’t think straight); we can’t think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If our heart is a stone, we can’t have decent thoughts about personal relations or international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind.”

         Laughter has that limbering effect on our hearts as well. Laughter is one of things that make it possible for us to love, especially when it is difficult. It’s too easy these days to give ourselves over to fear and anger and despair. So every day, laugh some. Get your news from Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, or Stephen Colbert. Turn off the news once in a while and listen to some George Carlin or Robin Williams or Dave Chappelle or Paula Poundstone. Have a dance party while you’re waiting in line, any line, in the kitchen while you’re getting dinner ready. 


         Think of your laughter as prayer, as hope, as possibility. Easter is as real and as deep as we live it. As we laugh it. Amen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Dare to be fooled

Mark 16: 1-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 1, 2018 – Easter Sunday

         None of us likes to be fooled nor do we want to miss the boat on anything either. Sometimes we can be persuaded that there must be one right way to do things, to be in the world; much of the time it’s our way or the way of the mob, the trend, the majority, the status quo, or those in the resistance camp. We want to know who and what is right so we won’t have to be wrong. For many folks certainty is the not-so-unconscious drive behind religious faith. Or the rejection of religious faith. None of us likes to be hoodwinked, to be sold a bill of goods, to be taken for a fool.

         And yet Easter is the most foolish story of all and dares us to be fools in the telling and the living of it. Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.” We dare to be fooled, that our worst thing is not the last thing. This is the heart of the foolishness of this story and the foolishness that this world needs most right now.


         23 year old Stephon Clark shot in the back by police while talking on his cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard is not the last thing, is not the end of his story. And Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and too many more.

         17 students and staff members killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is not the last thing. The thousands who have been killed due to gun violence—it is not the last thing.


         Being insulted, ridiculed, and threatened because of your age, your sexuality, your gender, because you dare to speak truth to BS and to power, because you survived, is not the last thing.

         Being excluded or not feeling safe at school or in the workplace or on the street because of your color, your gender or gender expression, your sexuality, your ability is not the last thing.

         Countless women, men, children, people of all ages and colors sexually abused and assaulted, their stories only now being told, is not the last thing.

         Being misgendered and invisible to others, having your pronouns ignored or disregarded is not the last thing.

         Environmental protection laws being dismantled by our current administration is not the last thing. An ever-increasing military budget is not the last thing.

         Wars in Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, the Congo, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and so many more are not the last thing.

         Having to leave one’s country and family and home to go to a strange place, speak another language, depend on others, is not the last thing. Being deported from this country, the only country you’ve ever known, leaving behind your family and home, is not the last thing.

        The ever-widening gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of us, the 46 million Americans who live in poverty, the more than 3 billion people worldwide who live on $2.50 a day, is not the last thing.


         Your worst thing, whatever was done to you, whatever wound or hurt or rage you are carrying, whatever shame or guilt over something you’ve done or left undone, whatever you fear about the future, is not. The. Last. Thing.

         UCC colleague Ben Guess who now works for the ACLU says, “Easter has always been somewhat difficult for me, one of the hardest Sundays to preach — for me. Grateful I leave it to others to do these days. The ultimate cheerful victory proclaimed is glib and empty without realization of the vast oppression, violence and racism many know. My hope and bet is on resurrection still, but I believe the crucifixion is probably still the more obvious place to invest our work and lives. I’m invested in Easter but with wide eyes opened. The stone is large and heavy.”

         It is entirely appropriate that we meet Easter at this Table; it is the best foolishness of all on this day. Resurrection sets the table with broken body and blood shed because there is still justice to be restored; there are still wounds to be acknowledged and healed; there is still forgiveness to be sought and repentance to be offered; there is still betrayal and desertion in the human heart; there is still the death of innocents at the hands of empire. And there is still compassion to be shared; there is still unconditional love to be learned and given; there are relationships that still need to be repaired; there is still peace to be achieved; because as long as we don’t give up on these things, there is still hope.

         And for this we must dare to be willing fools. Suckers for Jesus, for wholeness, for resurrection. Amen.