Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Say anything

John 3: 1-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 27, 2018 – Trinity Sunday, Mental Health Sunday

         About 8 years ago, I wrote a sermon with the same title; that there are taboo subjects we tend to be silent about in the company of others, including church, and usually those are money, sex, politics, and religion. But there is another reality we are so reticent to talk about, we don’t even list it among the things we don’t talk about: mental health and mental illness.


         Let me say right at the outset—I am no mental health expert. But just because many of us are not knowledgeable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it and learn about it, especially in church, especially when one in four families copes with some variant and degree of situational or chronic mental illness. That’s 43 million adults. That’s one in five teens. For those that identify as cisgender, that’s almost twice as many women than men. That could be as many as 10 families in this congregation, and my family is one of them. We need to talk about it especially when not talking about it increases stigma, shame, and isolation.


         LGBTQ persons are 3 times more likely to experience a mental health condition, compounding the stigma, shame, and isolation. For LGBTQ people aged 10–24, suicide is one of the leading causes of death. LGBTQ youth are 4 times more likely and questioning youth are 3 times more likely to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harm than straight people. Between 38-65% of transgender individuals overwhelmingly think about suicide and the plans to carry it out. Family support plays a particularly important role in decreasing the likelihood of suicide. Someone who faces rejection after coming out to their families is more than 8 times more likely to attempt suicide than someone who is accepted by their family after revealing their sexual orientation. And as many as 40% of homeless teens identify as LGBTQ. All because they can’t talk about it and find community.

         I’m not saying supportive community and being able to talk openly about sexuality and gender and mental health replaces the need for medication and therapy. All of these resources need to be available for mental illness just as we have many treatment approaches to physical illness. I’m not saying we only need to change our minds to have mental health, and I don’t think that’s not entirely what Grace was saying. And yet they also lived the heart of Jesus’ message in their healing: they learned to love themself as they are and now uses that self-love to help save the lives of others. Love plays a foundational part in our mental health: unconditional, self-giving love: for God—for what is good, holy, and true—love for others and for ourselves, and community built around that love.

Jesus and Nicodemus, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1899
         Jesus told Nicodemus and the faith community from which came John’s gospel, that he was sent not to condemn but to love that we might be saved through that love. Nicodemus had to come to Jesus under cover of darkness to talk about his theological questions. He couldn’t speak openly in his faith community about his questions nor could he be seen speaking with Jesus. In many of the healing stories in the gospels, people with mental illness were thought to be possessed by demons and they were ostracized from community. In the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus, he said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” I am beginning to think that Jesus himself was neurodivergent, that is, that he had a brain, a mind that functioned in ways that diverged significantly from the dominant societal standards of ‘normal’, and he continues to do so from today’s standards of ‘normal’.

         Ernest Bruder, who was an innovative psychiatric hospital chaplain and author of the seminal book Ministering to Deeply Troubled People, said it like this: “Those with mental illness are just like us, only more so.” No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. We all have the same fundamental needs, no matter who we are, but even more so for those experiencing a mental health condition. We all need supportive community and acceptance and opportunities to serve and contribute and to have the love of God made manifest through us.

         I think the same is true for God. I think God is just like us, only more so. Even God needs someone to talk to, to say anything. Even God should not be alone. And so in the Trinity I see a metaphor, a model of community. In Andrei Rublev’s icon, each figure’s head is bowed, a humble posture, as if they are listening to one another. Adjusting for perspective, all three figures seem to be the same height—none is superior or inferior to the others. They appear to be no specific gender. Each carries a staff—this is a traveling God, the three-in-one on a journey. Perhaps most important, they are seated at table, taking time to rest, sharing a meal from the one bowl in the center of the table. Interdependence. Communion. Self-giving love. And as viewers of this icon, we become part of the picture; we are included in the circle; we share in its message, and God provides for us a sacred space for hospitality and refreshment.

         I invite us to pray about, think about our journey as an Open and Affirming congregation: how we can be more intentional in our acceptance and affirmation of everyone, especially LGBTQ individuals, any who live with a mental health condition and their families, and provide safe, sacred space within this community and within our hearts. By doing so, we just might save a life. Holy One, help us to listen to one another, really listen, learn from one another, to offer self-giving love, that we may realize and live into our interdependence with you and all living things. Amen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Bringing the Church with you

Acts 2: 1-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 20, 2018 – Pentecost and Confirmation Sunday


         This past week Olivia and I, along with Harry and Peggy ******* and what looked like a full house at Mitchell Hall, attended a conversation about energy and innovation with former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz.

I “collared up” as some of my colleagues put it because I wasn’t attending solely as a private citizen but as a community leader in a denomination and a local church that has declared the environment, clean energy, and climate change a justice issue. I wanted to bring Church into the room because in some corners of Christianity there are those who not only deny the role of humanity in climate change but also actively preach against science. I wanted to bring Church in the room because there are social, cultural, and spiritual aspects to our energy problems, which means we will also need social, cultural, and spiritual solutions.

         I even got to ask a question, using a quote by environmental lawyer and advocate Gus Speth that I’ve quoted here before. The short version is that Gus Speth realized the three biggest environmental issues are selfishness, greed, and apathy, which require a cultural and spiritual transformation. I wanted to know if Mr. Biden and Mr. Moniz had witnessed any transformation like that and where did they think it could be coming from besides faith communities.

         Joe took the question, and he really didn’t go where I wanted him to head with it, but that didn’t really matter so much. The Church was still in the room and the question was asked, not only of those leading the conversation but of everyone in the room.

         In the Pentecost story, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, they became not just Church in that room but church for the world—and received is a tame word for what happened. A sound like the rush of a violent wind came through the room. Flames danced above their heads, they spoke in different languages, and Jews from every nation, immigrants living in Jerusalem, understood them. Jerusalem was the New York City of its time.  These disciples were headed for the wide and wild world; to not only bring the Church with them but to be Church wherever they went—to be love and forgiveness and compassion and justice. Their lives would never be the same again.

         Church came into every home and pub and restaurant that watched the royal wedding yesterday when Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry gave the homily—a 13 minute homily, which means he was only getting warmed up! The center of his message was this: “…imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.”

         He continued: “When love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive, when love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the Earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside, to study war no more. When love is the way, there's plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God's children because when love is the way, we actually treat each other well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all … that's a new heaven, a new Earth, a new world, a new human family.”

         This is what it means to bring the Church with you. Love is the way and we are the means by which Love makes itself visible, palpable, real in the world. Love is the way when we accept and affirm and recognize and value everyone, sacrificing our own privilege and comfort for the sake of another.

         It has been an honor and a pleasure to engage with you, the Confirm Not Conform class, about how love is known through you: what kind of person you want to be, what’s important to you, what life is asking of you, and assure you, as we do with everyone, that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, that you are welcome here, no matter what. You are thoughtful, caring, loving, interesting, imaginative, intelligent, hopeful people. You want to do what is right, stand up for something important, make a difference in this world.

         Bring Church with you wherever you go, in whatever you do. Bring this church with you. Bring diversity with you. Bring the poor and the hurt and the marginalized with you. Bring questions, especially the hard questions and the questions no one else is asking. Bring respect for every voice, every opinion. Bring the village. Bring our flaws and our sins for none of us can hide from ourselves or each other. Bring forgiveness. Bring unconditional love. Bring compassion. Bring justice. Bring generosity. Bring hope. Bring the truth. Bring joy. Bring your whole hearts. When you do this, when any of us do this, we are not only bringing Church with us, we are being the Church, the Body of Christ. When we do this, we embody the truth of what it means to be human, what it means to be the Beloved Community.



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The path of descent

Psalm 1
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 13, 2018

Sagrada Familia staircase

         The first hymn in any hymnal can be telling. Only one hymn gets to be first and a committee usually decides which one it is, intentionally or unintentionally setting the tone or at least implying what is of utmost importance. In both the Presbyterian and Methodist hymnals the first hymn is “Holy, Holy, Holy”, a hymn about the Trinity. In the Pilgrim hymnal, the one I grew up with, the first hymn is “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past”, a good stalwart Congregational hymn. In our New Century Hymnal the first hymn is “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”, which seems appropriate, given the wide theological diversity that is the United Church of Christ. In the Chalice hymnal of the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), the first hymn is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”; they are practicing what it means to be “joyful though you have considered all the facts” (Wendell Berry).


         Psalm 1 is no different, in that it sets the tone for the songbook of God’s people, Israel. The first word in this hymnal is “happy” or blessed, the same word used at the beginning of the Beatitudes. The Hebrew word for ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ is ashar and it has less to do with the feeling of happiness but rather how you get there. C.S. Lewis once said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me ‘happy’. I always knew a bottle of port would do that. If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Like the teachings of Jesus, ashar is the narrow path, the direct path, allowing ourselves to be led by God rather than by our ego or the path without purpose or the guilty or wicked.

         It’s a wisdom psalm, in that there is a forced choice: a wise way and a foolish way. The wise way, God’s way, leads to not only happiness and joy, but to being grounded, sustained, fruitful, to thriving; the other way leads to exclusion, destruction and death.


         When I read this psalm earlier in the week, it sounded like so much good news, given the wicked and the wrongful that’s been happening in our nation and in our world. White people calling the police on people of color for cooking out in the park in Oakland, CA, for taking a nap in the common room of a dorm at Yale, for going to Waffle House after prom in North Carolina, for checking out of an Airbnb in California, for waiting for someone at Starbucks in Philadelphia. Those who act wrongly are carried off in the wind. I can picture certain folks being carried away in a tornado like the flying cow in the movie “Twister” or Miss Gulch in "The Wizard of Oz". The wrongful will not stand in the lights of justice, like cockroaches that will only come out under cover of darkness.

         But then I realized I sounded like the Pharisee in the temple praying next to someone, thanking God that he was not like that sinner over there. And I was reminded of a verse from 1 John: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. I may be trying to live on the direct and narrow path but I live in and benefit from a wicked and wrongful system. Even though the system is rigged against me in some ways—the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass the Delaware Senate earlier this week—for the most part I live a comfortable life in this American empire. And comfort can actually hinder a true spiritual life.

         I have to confess, though I am a Jesus nerd and a church geek, I am not consumed with the teaching of God; I do not meditate on divine wisdom both day and night. I know I’m supposed to use my own heart and brain to figure things out as much as I rely on divine wisdom. And yet my heart and brain can get caught up in my ego, my fears, my assumptions, my prejudices. So perhaps it’s no wonder that I long to feel like that tree that’s planted by the water, which yields fruit in its season, whose leaves do not wither. But the tree doesn’t appear out of nowhere; it grows from a seed, a seed that before it could become a tree had to first be buried and die.


         We are pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures. We will do anything to preserve the status quo, to prevent failure and hold off death as long as we can. Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar, says that failure, uncertainty, surrender, woundedness, relapse, death—these are our greatest teachers. Many of the stories coming to us now in popular culture, in movies and books, have an underlying theme of ‘burn it all down’ or the end of the world as we know it. In all its incarnations, empire fails as a system that benefits all the people that live in that empire. Religion as it currently stands fails as a system to transform our world to love our neighbor as ourselves, something all religions have in common. Democracy has failed in that it has not kept the corrupt and self-seeking as a manageable minority but rather allowed these elements to have more power than ever. If it feels like everything you thought you knew is unraveling, it’s because it is.

         For millennia we have done our best to avoid this part of the Christian narrative: the way to resurrection, to renewal, is through the cross, through failure and death. The path of transformation is the path of descent. To find our true self, our whole life, we must first lose it.

St. John of the Cross put it this way:

To come to the pleasure you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.

To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you know not.

To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not.

To come to be what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not.

         I know. It sounds awful. This is the guy who wrote about the dark night of the soul, about how it is in the dark, when all our complacency, pretense, privilege and comforts are stripped away that we become fully dependent on God—on what is good, holy, and true. Our spiritual BS is transformed into true spirituality, into a relationship that allows us to change and grow into our authentic self.


         In truth this really is so much good news, in that when we think we’ve lost our way, when we’ve hit rock bottom, when we don’t know what to do, that is when the path appears, when we’re ready to be more at home with the questions than requiring answers, when the power that created the cosmos and each one of us is more visible and active through us.

         Resurrection, coming through the impossible, doesn’t make any sense until we know what it is to fail, to hurt, to die to ourselves, as individuals and as church and as a nation. Only then can something new come forth. Only then can we know that we belong to everyone and everything. Amen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Growing community

John 15: 9-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 6, 2018

         When you hear the word “church”, what’s the first thing you think of? 

  • People
  • Community
  • Fellowship
  • Faith
  • God (3x)
  • Worship service
  • Pastor
  • Prayer
  • Service
  • Love
  • Mission
  • Caring
  • Jesus

         When you hear the word “community”, what do you think of? 

  • Non-existent
  • Sharing
  • Neighbors
  • Support
  • Friends
  • Potluck meals
  • Shared ideology
  • Acceptance
  • Worship service
  • Family
  • Village


         We think of church as an example of community but is community an example of church? More and more, people who identify as Christian or as spiritual but not religious are making and finding intentional community outside of traditional church. I’m not talking about church on the golf course or the hiking trail or the beach or with the Sunday morning newspaper, although we all need that sometimes. I once saw a photo of someone in a kayak alone on a misty lake with the caption: “Religion is a person sitting in church thinking about kayaking. Spirituality is a person sitting in a kayak thinking about God.” But we can no more say “I am the church” than a student can say “I am the class” or a soccer player can say “I am the team”. On the other hand, as Garrison Keillor once said, sitting in church doesn’t make you any more of a Christian than sitting in your garage makes you a car.

         Community is something that is grown, and good community, good church helps us grow: spiritually, emotionally, resiliently. Intentional community outside the church sometimes reminds me of organic farming. It’s not quite as organized but there is some planning involved. Rather than weeding out the clover, allow it to grow and feed nitrogen into the soil for the vegetables. Marigolds in with the veggies might keep the deer away but they do a better job with the aphids. Let your chickens have free range through the garden to eat the bugs and add a little natural fertilizer. It can get messy and mucky. Have lots of patience and don’t be too attached to the outcome. And remember, it may not look perfect but there will be food that will be nourishing and delicious to eat, plus some to share.

         One example of intentional community outside the church that we’ve experimented with is our Beer and Carols event at Grain on Main during Advent—the goal of which is not to get people to come to church but to grow community through the church, to plant seeds. The first year we had to sing over the music coming through the speakers. I was about to come down with bronchitis. I don’t think anyone sang with us. But we had fun. The next year the owners at Grain said they’d turn off the music when we sang. A few people joined in here and there.

This past year they put the event up on the sign outside, creating an expectation of caroling. We had two women join us who saw the event on Facebook. Later I found out that people were impatient for us to begin! So next year, I’ll begin with an announcement of a timetable and hand out song sheets to anyone who’d like to join us.

Beer and Carols, 2017

         I’m not saying we should do away with institutional church, by no means. This is where we hear the gospel of forgiveness and the world calling for justice and where we find time for rest, to be refreshed and cared for, to be seen and valued and heard, and yet not perfectly but hopefully honestly, truthfully. But the days of attracting people to become a part of a church are on the wane and have been for some time. And yet church, community is still so very much needed, especially the no-matter-what kind of community. It’s not easy to let go of our expectations of how things should be. I read on a blog earlier this week: “Dashed expectations are a big factor to burnout. We will often work extra hard and long to make sure the outcome is what we expect it to be, because we believe it will lower our anxiety if we remain in control.”


         Jesus had one expectation: Love one another as I have loved you. The purpose of this expectation? That his joy would be in us so that our joy might be complete, whole, full. This is the fruit we will bear; this is the outcome of growing community. Which means church is more than who we are in this place, more than what we do because we are church. Church is wherever, whenever we are connected to something greater than ourselves that compels us to share who we are and what we have with others—to love one another. Our whole lives are a sacrament and the world is the Table where our lives are broken open and poured out for forgiveness’ sake. Amen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Where to draw the line?

1 John 4: 7-21**
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 29, 2018


         I’ve heard some folks say of late, “Boy, we sure could use an exorcism about now. Do you do those?” People are tired of, literally worn out from, feeling angry and overwhelmed, but mostly we’ve had it with feeling afraid of what could happen next. If we can’t banish the source of our fear, wouldn’t it be a relief to banish the fear itself?

         The following was written by Rev. Julia Seymour at the Lutheran Church of Hope in Anchorage, AK. Hear these strong words, this renouncement of fear.

Phantasm of fear, I renounce you!
I refuse to call you “spirit” for you are not of God.
You work to oppose the creative forces of the Lord in life and resurrection.
Your efforts will not last.
And you know this.

Delusion of fear, I renounce you!
You may talk loudly, boastfully.
You may bring your buddies, death and destruction, as backup to your threats.
You know your days are numbered.
There is no fear in the life to come.

Specter of fear, I renounce you!
Your work of dividing, fomenting, pain-causing…
We will overcome. With God on our side,
You cannot stand.
Perfect Love, the kind that comes from Christ, casts out fear.

Revenant of fear, I renounce you!
Shrivel and die, you impotent thing!
You may plant, but you will not reap.
You may build, but you will not inhabit.
You may fish, but you will not catch.
There is no home for you, no toe hold, no place of belonging.
You are banished to wither and die… fertilizing the soil of hope and joy.

So be it.
In the name of Christ, so say we all.

         Powerful words—to draw the line and say to fear, here, this far, no further, you shall come not closer. But where do we draw the line between us and our fear?

         It reminded me of a scene from a Star Trek movie—when are you going to see that all truth can be found in Star Trek—when Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the Enterprise battle against a ruthless cyborg race called the Borg. The Borg take no prisoners; they assimilate all lifeforms into their collective, wiping out whole civilizations. Every time a line is drawn, it is obliterated.

         Too many compromises. Too many retreats. In his quest for vengeance against his enemy, Captain Picard seeks to control his fear of the destruction his ship. But Lily reminds him of how anger and fear can waste a human life; that saving the human lives aboard his ship is where the line needs to be drawn. A starship, even one as beloved as the Enterprise, can be replaced.


         Sometimes it seems like we think know what love is until we are face to face with our fear. Right up until last week I have been afraid of what could happen between the United States and nuclear-armed North Korea, along with China and Russia, and I am not alone. A line has been drawn across the middle of the Korean peninsula for 65 years and no one has crossed it. Until this past week when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in crossed the Military Demarcation Line in Panmunjom. I know most observers are skeptical as to whether Kim Jong Un is sincere in his declaration for a nuclear-free, unified Korea. I know we’ve been here many times before, when the disablement of nuclear activities has been brokered, only to have inspectors ousted and nuclear tests continued. Let us also not forget the tens of thousands of prisoners enslaved in gulags in Pyongyang.

         And yet as I watched the two men shake each other’s hands and embrace, even hold hands as they crossed from north to south, south to north and back again, I have to confess that hope, the most irrational form of love, began to rise within me. We like to think that our fear keeps us shrewd and smart and our optimism in check but it can also shrink our vision and our prayers and what we are willing to give.

         We draw the line between our fear and what we love as far as we can. But when we do that, we’ve drawn the line with fear and we’ve escaped nothing. So we must draw the line with love, with love that casts out fear. Lines drawn with love mean healthy boundaries and safe places for everyone. And that love begins with us. We love because God first loved us. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves. We can only be bold and fierce in our love as we are bold and fierce to love and accept and forgive ourselves.

         Neither our unknown neighbor nor our enemy needs our fear. They already have it. What they do not have is our love. We cannot love if we have no love to give. Someone reminded me just yesterday, we don’t need love. We are the love. Casting out our fear doesn’t have to be strongly worded any more than that. We don’t need love. We are the love. The love that was in Jesus is in us. And the Greek word for perfect means complete, as in whole. As in wholehearted. We won’t love perfectly. Love is pretty messy. Jesus knew that. But we can still love with our whole hearts.

"When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me
Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

"And I know that I deserve your love
There is nothing that I’m not worthy of
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me"

         Imagine a church, a community of fearless, fiercely loving people. Wholehearted. That’s force to be reckoned with.  Amen.


**We strive use inclusive language at the New Ark.  The following is 1 John 4: 7-21 from The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation.  References to gender have been changed, from "sisters and brothers" to "friends and neighbors".

let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten of God
and has knowledge of God.
Those who do not love know nothing of God, for God is love.
God’s love was revealed in our midst in this way:
for sending the Only Begotten into the world,
that we might have faith through the Anointed One.
Love, then, consists in this:
not that we have loved God,
but that God has loved us
and has sent the Only Begotten
to be an offering for our sins.
if God has loved us so,
we must have the same love for one another.
No one has ever seen God;
yet if we love one another,
God dwells in us,
and God's love is brought to perfection in us.
The way we know that we remain in God and God in us
is that we have been given the Spirit.
We have seen for ourselves and can testify
that God has sent the Only Begotten as Savior of the world.
When any acknowledge that Jesus is the Only Begotten
God dwells in them
and they in God.
We have come to know and to believe
in the love God has for us.
God is love,
and those who abide in love
abide in God,
and God in them.

Love will come to perfection in us when we can face the day of Judgement without fear–because our relation to this world is just like Christ's. There is no fear in love, for perfect love drives out fear. To fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love.

We love because God first loved us. If you say you love God but hate your friend or neighbor, you are a liar. For you cannot love God, whom you have not seen, if you hate your neighbor, whom you have seen. If we love God, we should love our friends and neighbors as well; we have this commandment from God.