Tuesday, September 25, 2018

How are the children?

Mark 9: 30-37
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 23, 2018

On August 29, Rev. Traci Blackmon, our Executive Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries, was one of the leaders of a protest at the southern border near Tucson, Arizona. She asked the question, “How are the children?” It’s a greeting used by the Maasai in Africa. If the children are well, then all is well. But we know the answer to that question is “The children are not well at all.”

Our children are not just vulnerable, they are at risk. 20% of children in this nation under the age of 18 live under the poverty level. They are at risk at school: the quality of their education, whether or not they have enough food, whether or not they have family support, whether or not they can use the bathroom they feel comfortable using, whether or not someone will show up with a gun.

They are at risk for being bullied, for not being accepted and loved as they are. They are at risk for being thrown out of their homes, for being homeless, vulnerable to human trafficking. They are at risk for physical, psychological, and sexual abuse and assault, for not being believed or taken seriously decades after the fact. They are at risk for anxiety and depression. They are at risk of incarceration. They are at risk because of bigoted immigration policies. They are at risk because of capitalism, greed, street violence, drugs, climate change, hunger, war. Traci said, “Our children are not well, and until the children are well, the whole world is sick.”

Most, if not all, salvation stories have children as agents of change, redemption and peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11: 6)
And yet we say children are the future or what I consider worse, our future. Remember that we were once the future for those before us, that expectation heaped upon our shoulders. Our generations were judged and derided as much as we were hailed and looked to with hope. Ironically if we looked at children not as the future or our future but as their right now, our right now in God’s presence, God in this minute, can’t wait any longer, the future just might take care of itself. Children have the power to save us each day of our lives. They can save us from being self-absorbed, greedy, depressed, angry, lonely, just by being themselves. Children remind us that we are all worthy of love, simply because we draw breath.

Today I wish to place a particular child in your midst. Her name is Pollyanna. Over the years I believe Pollyanna has gotten a bad rap. Her attitude of gladness is dismissed as naïveté, saccharin-sweetened optimism or just plain delusional. If you really want to know who Pollyanna is, forget Disney and Hayley Mills—read the book by Eleanor Porter.

The character Pollyanna was the child of a missionary minister who raised her by himself after his wife, her mother died. The two were dependent upon the mercy of God in the form of the Ladies’ Aid Society and their donations sent in barrels. Anything and everything could come to Pollyanna and her father in these barrels. It was like a grab bag from Goodwill or a church rummage sale. Sometimes there were useful yet damaged things, like a worn carpet or framed pictures with no glass. But what Pollyanna longed for was a doll to play with and love. So Pollyanna’s father wrote to those who supported his ministry with the request for a doll.

No dolls had been donated. What came instead was a pair of crutches. It was then that Pollyanna’s father taught her about the game—the Glad Game. The game is to find something about everything to be glad about. At first Pollyanna could not figure out how to be glad about a pair of crutches when what she really wanted was a doll. So her father gave her the first one of many ways Pollyanna could be glad: “Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—need—‘em!”

Yes, a pretty ableist story but this was 1913, well before the polio vaccine. Pollyanna thought it was a lovely game, and the harder it was to play, the more fun it was to think of reasons to be glad. But there were also times it was not fun, when it was too hard, like when a father dies and goes to heaven and there isn’t anyone but a Ladies’ Aid Society. Pollyanna discovered, though, that when you’re hunting for the glad things, you sort of forget the other kind.

Her father’s invention of this game began not with Pollyanna but with himself. Pollyanna asked her father once if he was glad he was a minister. He replied that he most always was, but he wouldn’t stay a minister a minute if it wasn’t for the rejoicing texts. These are the scriptures in the Bible that begin with “Be glad in the Lord” or “Rejoice greatly” or “Shout for joy”. Pollyanna’s father counted these texts and there were eight hundred of them. Her father then said to Pollyanna, “So if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, God must want us to do it—some.” Those texts then became a comfort to her father whenever things went wrong or not the way he wished they were or ought to be.

I wondered about that figure: eight hundred texts. So I went to my online bible browser, complete with concordance. Using the King James Version (remember it was published in 1913) I typed in the word ‘glad’: 180. ‘Happy’: 34. ‘Delight’: 94. ‘Joy’: 256. ‘Rejoice’: 275. All this adds up to 839 texts that tell us to be glad, happy, joyful, and to rejoice and experience delight. But I was still curious, so I searched some more. ‘Blessed’: 350. ‘Mercy’: 356. ‘Love’: 645.

As we care for children and young people, as we fight for their rights, their safety, their needs, their acceptance as persons in their own right, it’s important for us to remember what makes our hearts glad, and to do those things, experience those things, and not take them for granted. How is the child within each of us? When I asked folks on Facebook, what makes you glad, I received over 80 responses. Things like: “Quiet moments with my family.” “A day with nothing to do.” “Knowing I put a day to good use.” “When I remember to do something important.” “Carpooling to work with my husband.” “When I have enough money to pay for rent and groceries.” “An act of kindness.” “Having another day to try to get it right.”

Many folks commented about seeing or helping other people smile, especially family, friends, and children. Others talked about giving back in some way, being in nature, simple pleasures like holding hands, a good night’s sleep, a sunny day, music, and good health. One person said this: “I am facing the very serious illness of my partner. Things she used to do that would drive me crazy now make me glad because she is still here. Funny how it is all about your perspective.”

“Our children are not well, and until the children are well, the whole world is sick.” Our children are not well because we are not well, because in ways that deeply matter, we have forgotten what it means to be glad, what it means to experience delight, what it means to welcome God’s presence, to be in God’s presence, like basking in the sun; what it means to be a child, to be a child of God, and that every child is a child of God.

So play Pollyanna’s Glad Game every day. Ask the child within you what would make them glad. Ask a child or young person what makes them glad and then help them do that. Sponsor or mentor a child if you can. Spend more time in the company of children, especially the active, inquisitive, talkative, boisterous ones and the quiet, shy, removed ones. Do the Jesus thing and ask questions, ask what their pronouns are, and then listen, really listen. Because not only their lives but ours too actually depend on it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Who are you?

Mark 8: 27-38
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 16, 2018

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

I wouldn’t think of Jesus as someone who needs the approval of others or who needs to know what other people are saying about him.

Come to find out, no one thinks he is who he says he is but rather one of the heroes of the faith, back from the dead. Somehow this is easier to believe.

Then Jesus brings it home: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asks this question on the road, as he and his disciples are heading out of Galilee, out of their comfort zone, to the margins of Jewish society, into villages and towns built by the Roman Empire. Not exactly a safe place to tell the truth about Jesus and his purpose or why the disciples are with him, but the crossroads of the marginalized and the powerful is usually where the truth needs to be told the most.

“Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus never proclaimed himself in the gospel of Mark but the coming kingdom of God, which had to do more with healing, teaching, lifting up and feeding people.

“Who do you say that I am?”

It’s not a question we think about very often but one we should, as individuals and as a church. Who are you, Jesus?

Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. In the inclusive language version of the gospels, Jesus is the Human One. And not just any human but the least of humanity. Jesus carried not just any cross but the cross of the marginalized and criminalized, the shamed and rejected and despised, because he lived with those on the margins, he was shamed and rejected and despised, and convicted as a criminal.

“Who do you say that I am?”

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

It is easier to say that Jesus was kind and good, and hope that we are also kind and good.

It is easier to say that Jesus was a teacher and healer, and hope that we are also teachers and healers.

It is easier to say that Jesus was a savior, and hope that we too might help save a life.

It is even easier to say that Jesus was the son of God, for then it is easier for us to deny that we could ever have anything to do with him or be anything like him.

But it is much harder to say that Jesus was marginalized and criminalized, because if that is not who we are, then that is a cross for us to take up for those who are.

It is much harder to say that Jesus was shamed and rejected and despised, because if that is not who we are, then that is a cross for us to take up for those who are.

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

It is much harder to say that Jesus was a refugee, poor, homeless, his people treated like immigrants in their own country, a radical within his own faith tradition.

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

It is much harder to say that Jesus was in a prison cell or in his Section 8 housing or his trailer when the hurricane hit.

It is much harder to say that Jesus is still locked up in detention camp with thousands like him because his parents had to run for their lives.

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

It is much harder to say that Jesus is jeered and derided and called racial slurs because he kneels for the anthem of an empire that murders his kin.

It is much harder to say that Jesus was shot and killed in his own home by one sworn to protect him and his character assaulted and smeared after the fact.

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

It is much harder to say that Jesus cannot use the bathroom that he is most comfortable using because who he really is, is a child of God.

It is much harder to say that the Christ, the Anointed One, goes beyond gender; that each and every body—messy, beautiful, fragile flesh and blood—shows us what it means to be the Body of Christ; because there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male nor female, for all are one in them; all are one in Christ.

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

It is much harder to say I love you without condition, without limit, without deserving it, so Jesus taught us that we can’t even hate within the confines of our own hearts.

It is much harder to forgive and so Jesus taught us to forgive seven times seventy.

It is much harder to love one’s enemies and pray for them, so Jesus said from that cross, “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

To say who Jesus is requires us to answer with who we are.

“You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.”

Anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to those who cannot see, freedom to those who are oppressed.

Though they barely understood, the disciples followed.

Is this who we are?

Is this who we want to become?

With the cross, there is no other answer than the one that is the hardest to give.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Labor of love

James 1: 17-27
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Sept. 2, 2018 


Earlier this week, as part of my sermon preparation, I posed a question on my Facebook page: “Do you love whatever it is that you do? If not, why do you do it?” And I asked about whatever you do because what you do could be a volunteer position or you’re a stay-home parent or really anything; because we all labor in different ways; because I didn’t want to limit the responses I got.

Some who responded said that no, they don’t exactly love what they do, but what they do allows them to do other things that they are passionate about, enables them to do the things that feed the soul, or it provides for the people they love, or they don’t love what they do but they love why they do it, even if “it” is doing the right thing. One person responded in all caps, “IT AIN’T ABOUT ME!”, that the ego can be a trap, that all labor done faithfully is a holy thing. Some responded that yes, they do love what they do but not all the time. One person said, like marriage, our work is about making a life. Another pointed out that this is a question for the middle and upper class, while someone else responded that for the working and middle classes, the answer is rent or mortgage and health insurance.

I have to say that this is one of my favorite ways to begin thinking about what the message will be because of how people respond and engage, how we all want our lives to matter in some way; that who we are is important somehow to someone else. We all know the world is not only unfair but unjust, not only when it comes to our work but especially how we care for those whose work is taken for granted or painfully necessary or tedious and unsafe and those who are unable to work. Our love, who we are, who we love, is in our work, in our livelihood whether we love what we do or not. 

Image by Kurt Walker
Nobel laureate and economist James Buchanan would’ve said that sounds like a naïve pipedream. Like Ayn Rand but even worse, Buchanan believed no one is altruistic, that everyone—politicians and government workers but also teachers, doctors, and civil rights activists—are all out for themselves, that all of us only want to control others and their resources to ensure our own survival. In his 1975 book, The Limits of Liberty, he wrote, “Each person seeks mastery over a world of slaves.”

Black children and teen workers, glass factory, 1914. Photo by Lewis Hine.

Buchanan’s ideas sound scary and familiar enough but even more so when he caught the attention of Charles Koch and the power of all that money. In Buchanan, Koch found someone who could help him save capitalists like himself from the democracy we cherish, and slowly, quietly corrupt it into an oligarchy. And we’ve seen the signs of this oncoming collapse in the Citizens United decision, in the privatization of schools, prisons, health care—every policy that favors the preservation of wealth and limits the agency of the poor, the marginalized, and those teetering on the edge of losing what they have.

Breaker boys in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, 1922.  Photo by Lewis Hine.

So the real question before us is, do we love not only being and doing but becoming what it means to be a Christian? Do we love becoming a disciple, a follower of Jesus, a church person, a minister like it says in the bulletin? Because I believe in that so-called naïve pipedream. I believe that it is this kind of love, a deeper love—a love that is patient and kind, a love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, a love that does not insist on its own way, a love that seeks the truth and never gives up, a love that compels us to love both our enemies and our neighbor, a love that we don’t always feel but without it, as Eugene Peterson puts it, we are bankrupt—it is this kind of love with which we labor and fight, resist and persist, and eventually, evolve. It is this kind of love with which we resist evil, make justice and establish peace.

South Carolina cotton mill.  Photo by Lewis Hine.

This is the word, the word that “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1: 14, The Message), that word we come to know in Jesus, whose word is love--I think this is what the author of James means when he makes the distinction between hearers of the word and doers of the word. Is that word implanted in us? Has that love become visible in our flesh and blood? That kind of love sounds like music to our ears but are we willing to actually love that way, to love the world that way, even when we aren’t feeling it?

5 year old field hand picking cotton.  Photo by Lewis Hine.

For it is here at this Table that we remember that God so loved the world that God gave us Jesus, that whoever believes in him, that is, allows their lives to be changed by that love, they shall not perish but have eternal life—they shall come alive with love.

Fair Labor Standards Act passed in 1938, effectively creating what we take for granted as childhood.Photo by Lewis Hine.

Samuel Gompers, an American labor leader and the first president of the American Federation of Labor, said in 1893 that “what does labor want [but what we all want]? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

Sounds like eternal life to me, like a labor of love.