Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Not of this world

John 18: 33-37
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 25, 2018 – Reign of Christ, Hippie Sunday

Jesus before Pilate

(Why Hippie Sunday?  First, to honor the spirituality of some hippies in the congregation. That's the short answer.  But also, because hippies, all of us, are explorers of the human experience.  And in their exploration, the hippies of the 60's tried to find the edge of human experience where everyone lives in peace and harmony.  We know what war is like, as well as oppression, prejudice, disconnection, dehumanization.  But what about acceptance, belonging, wholeheartedness, authenticity?  Doesn't that sound like the reign of Christ?  Keep reading.)


It’s been 40 years since Jonestown happened; it’s been 40 years since more than 900 people followed Rev. Jim Jones in a mass suicide by drinking Flavor Aid poisoned with cyanide. It’s where we get the phrase “they drank the Kool Aid”, which means following someone blindly, falling hook, line, and sinker for the cult of personality, lacking critical thinking skills, not only believing but spreading propaganda, what has come to be called “fake news”.

Peoples Temple, Redwood Valley, CA

This wasn’t any nationalist, alt-right, ultra-conservative, or Christian fundamentalist fringe group. This is what had started as the Peoples Temple of Indianapolis, IN—a blend of Christianity, communism, and socialism—for its time one of the most racially and socially integrated churches in the Midwest. It had a progressive social justice mission: feed the hungry, shelter and clothe the needy, provide rental assistance and job placement services, to lift up those society had left behind. For a time Jones even served on the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission. He received a MLK Jr. Humanitarian award.

It’s important to remember this because it’s not just a certain kind of ideology or ignorance or lack of education that leads to a cult following. Many of Rev. Jones’ closest followers were intelligent, socially conscious, college-educated people who wanted to make the world a better place and they believed that Rev. Jones was the leader they needed to do that. Even though they knew that he tricked people into thinking he was pulling cancers out of people’s bodies by using rotten chicken parts, they convinced themselves that the ends—a world where race, money, gender didn’t divide people—that this justified the means.

So when Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world, he can sound like a cult leader ready to lead his disciples to the next plane of existence. Part of the Confirmation class curriculum at the church where I served in seminary focused on the difference between a cult and joining a church, to instill critical thinking skills, to show that there’s a difference between education and learning and indoctrination and behavior modification, between following Jesus and the cult of personality.

A king can often be an oil-and-water mixture of a leader with the heart of his people, tradition, ego, power, and the cult of personality. After decades of slavery and wilderness living and worshiping out of a suitcase and tribal rivalry, Israel wanted to settle down and have a king to rule and to judge. God wanted to be sovereign in the hearts of the people and unify them, but the people craved worldly belonging—everyone else had a king, so why shouldn’t they?

Jesus’ disciples and followers saw him as a direct descendant of this desire but now as messiah too: a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and save his people. Centuries later he would become the King of kings, the Lord of lords. And yet he was a rejected king, a failed king. In the next chapter of John, the crowds cry in their fear of power that they have no king but Caesar. Jesus is crucified with a placard over his head that mocks him as King of the Jews, executed as a criminal against the state.

Part of the revolution that initiated this nation is that we would have no king, no sovereign, no distant landlord, no one to tell us what we could or could not do with our land, our property. “Give me liberty or give me death!” “No taxation without representation!” “Don’t tread on me!”

Who or what is the authority in how we live now? Though it still plays a part, the Bible no longer takes precedence. Christendom, Christian empire, Christian supremacy, has been over for quite some time and thank goodness. But still we must ask ourselves, what is sovereign in our lives? Are there any ends we hold dear that would justify any means? What could command us to give our lives for the greater good? And who gets to decide what the greater good is? What difference does it make in our faith journey and in how we live our lives that Jesus was a servant and a slave and not an earthly ruler?

Franciscan friar Fr. Richard Rohr wrote, “When the Christian church became the established religion of the empire, it started reading the Gospel from the position of maintaining power and social order instead of experiencing the profound power of powerlessness that Jesus revealed.” He goes on to say that “Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, and loving. However, we made it into an established ‘religion’ (and all that goes with that) and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain in most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s ‘personal Lord and Savior’”. As the church faces dwindling membership, resources, and relevance, as religion faces this, we are often more concerned with institutional survival than lifestyle change.

That lifestyle change is that we are in this world but not of this world. The lifestyle change is that the kingdom of God, the church is within us. And the needs of the world call the church within us out into the world. The Beloved Community begins within us. Solidarity, acceptance, believing that we’re enough begins within us. Wholeness, authenticity, belonging begins within us. Peace, justice, unconditional love begins within us. And yet it doesn’t have a chance if we’re the only ones in that Beloved Community. As humanity stands now, we need something, someone to remind us that God is God and we are not, that no one deserves grace but we all need it, that more often than not we are powerless to save. But it’s hard to surrender, to get to that place within us when our privilege gets in the way. It’s harder still when we don’t have what we need for living.

We’ve been at this point in history more times than we can count, at the precipice between what was and what will be, between a tenuous peace and the threat of all-out war, between the disguise of a sustainable civilization and utter collapse. At the height of the Vietnam War, during the energy crisis, John Lennon released his anthem “Imagine”—what has been called the antithesis of a call to arms. Sometimes we are so ready to fight, to call out the traitor and the bully, that we cannot hear the “profound power of powerlessness” to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world but of a world yet to be born, yet to be inhabited. Like Jesus and many other spiritual teachers, John Lennon invites us to live in it now, to birth this new world through our lives, through our dreams. We “give peace a chance” when we are peace-filled, justice-minded. By how we choose to live our lives we can imagine a world yet to be born, a lifestyle change into servanthood, the profound power of powerlessness, and allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts. 

 May it be so.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Bricks and mortar

November 18, 2018 - Commitment Sunday

The message this morning was in two parts:  the Finance Committee shared a skit and I followed it with an extended invitation to the offering.

Stewardship Skit - "Bricks and Mortar"

Setting the stage:

Narrator: Two parishioners are discussing a community pot-luck dinner to be held collectively by several area churches. They are excited about the prospect of visiting a large church which is hosting the event - the two have never been inside and wonder what the building is like. They are heading there together.

Gladys: Mildred, what did you bring for the pot luck dinner at the Centre Street UCC?

Mildred: Well, there wasn’t a sign-up sheet like we have in our church. I thought perhaps a chicken casserole would be good. How about you, Gladys?

Gladys: I brought some pumpkin bars – seems the like the time of year to have some pumpkin.

Mildred: Without a sign-up sheet we could end up with a bunch of crock pots full of chili! Best not to think about “beans, beans the musical fruit…” Hee, hee!

Okay, we are almost there.

Gladys: Wow, what a big church it is! Look at those stained glass windows! I wonder how many members there are. I bet they don’t have any problems recruiting folks for the choir. Let’s go around to the back, Mildred - information on the flyer said the back door near the kitchen would be open.

Mildred: Hope we’ll see some folks from their church who might show us around before the event gets underway.

Gary: Hello, ladies, welcome! My name is Gary – some of us from our facilities group will be setting up for the dinner. Would you like a quick tour?

Mildred and Gladys: Yes, please!

Mildred: Tell us all about your church…must be wonderful to hear hymns being played on that big pipe organ.

Gary: Well, we’re glad to have the pipe organ working again – took a long time to raise the money to get it fixed. There was damage to the ceiling area above the organ. Believe it or not we had actual bats in the belfry – made a terrible mess.

Gladys: Look at that beautiful carpet down the center aisle. Imagine having a center aisle.

Gary: Carpet was just replaced because we had floorboards that were soft from some plumbing issues underneath that area.

Mildred: The wood on those pews must be oak – look at the grain!

Gary: The facilities group hired a contractor recently to remove some of the pews to accommodate wheelchairs – there wasn’t enough room for them to maneuver.

Gladys: Best to get back to the kitchen now – it is getting late. Thank you so much for the tour, Gary.

Narrator: As the two parishioners are setting up for the potluck dinner, they look out and see a homeless person on the corner and invite them in.  They decline but they thank Mildred and Gladys for their kindness. After the gathering, Gladys and Mildred give them a bag with some water and a plate from the potluck buffet.

Mildred: You know, Gladys, after getting that tour and hearing about some of the problems they’ve had to wrestle with, makes you feel different about a great big church. Perhaps it is not so much about the bricks and mortar that matters, but how we live our lives after leaving the building that is important.

The End

         When Jesus said to his disciples that not one stone would be left upon another, that all would be thrown down, the temple was already rubble, the city of Jerusalem in ruins.  The gospel of Mark was written around the year 70 CE, when Jerusalem was sacked by the Romans and the Second Temple was destroyed.  The First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE.  The Second Temple, built by groups of Jews returning from exile, stood on the Temple Mount from 516 BCE until its destruction in 70 CE. 
During the reign of King Herod the Great (the one that ordered the death of all boys under the age of two around the time when Jesus was born), the temple was expanded and completely refurbished into something that would have indeed inspired awe but also deep disgust.  Opulence comes not only from wealth but from the exploitation of the poor.

Our Savior Lutheran Church, Paradise, CA
Mark’s proximate readers would have known all this.  And so through a conflation of history with Jesus’ teaching, we have a parable of sorts, a wisdom story.  We too are awed by great buildings and structures.  We too appreciate the accumulation of wealth because of what it can do.  I had the good fortune to visit the cathedral in Mainz, Germany.  It was begun in 976 CE and was added onto and renovated over the next thousand years.  It survived WWI and multiple bombing raids in WWII.  And yet in Syria, ancient cities such as Damascus and Aleppo are in ruins.  Not to mention the devastating forest fires in California destroying homes and communities and lives.

Damascus, Syria

            We’ve seen the devastation to human lives in the systems, structures, and institutions we created.  We are also witnessing structural and institutional change all around us.  The hope for every generation is that world we live in is not the one in which we were born.  Just as walls and barriers to justice and access and acceptance are coming down, for some not nearly fast enough, there are some who are furiously trying to keep them in place.  Systems built with evil intent, that effect evil in human lives, and the life of this planet, must come down.  And unfortunately the Church has played a part in perpetrating evil in human lives and in the life of this planet.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo

            When we pledge, when we make a commitment to the church, we are invited to be mindful that we are making a commitment not to a building or an institution or even a religion or denomination but what those things stand for.

Yesterday at the meeting of the Central Atlantic Conference to call Rev. Freeman Palmer as our next Conference Minister, in his enthusiasm for the United Church of Christ, Freeman said that he wanted the UCC to take over the world.  I’m not sure I want that to happen but I think what he meant was, I want peace to take over the world.  I want justice to take over the world.  I want kindness and compassion to take over the world.  I want safety in public space for everyone to take over the world.  I want dignity and respect to take over.  I want forgiveness and responsibility to take over.  I want equality to take over.  I want everyone to have enough to take over.  I want unconditional love to take over the world.

            Not everyone has to be Christian or believe in God for this to happen.  But we do have to choose.  I believe that when we pledge to the ministry of the United Church of Christ and to the New Ark, when we make a commitment as a member of the church, we are making a choice:  the choice that what was—oppression, exploitation, abuse, and everything that goes with them—must go and that the new—freedom, wholeness, unity—will not come unless we work for them, give toward them, believe in them, and live into them.

            Today I invite you to make that choice and to worship God, to make an offering with that choice.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

All gifts are good

Mark 12: 38-44
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 11, 2018 – Stewardship Sunday

The Widow's Mite, James C. Christiansen, 1998

Although it is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, today I want to remember another important day. It was only 20 years later. November 9 marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht or Reichskristallnacht or Reichspogromnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, an act of state terrorism against Jews throughout Nazi Germany. This act of evil did not come about out of nowhere but as a result of actions, some large but many of them small, that came from feelings of loss, resentment, anger, fear, hatred, and the desire to control, to affix blame, and exact retribution.

November 9 also marked the 29th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, this act of restoration did not come about out of nowhere but as a result of actions, some large but many of them small, that came from feelings of tension, conflict, hope, courage, connection, and the desire for struggles that give birth to freedom, interdependence, and justice.

It’s the big actions, big money, the bigshots, big givers that tend to attract our attention, to which we ascribe power, that we enshrine in hierarchical systems and even emulate them and aspire to be like them. Our culture judges baby steps, small contributions, the average person as not enough, a drop in the bucket, something to be stepped on.

Unlike those who preach a prosperity gospel, who give what they’ll never miss, Jesus lifts up the one who gives all that she has out of her poverty. Jesus didn’t call the educated elites and city dwellers or suburbanites to be his disciples but blue collar fishermen and a bean counter and rural folks. Often we can be persuaded that if we give enough, if we are educated enough, it ensures that we are good people. Or no matter how much we give, whether it’s our time or our money or ourselves, it’ll never be good enough, we’ll never be enough.

Shame and pride are killing us. Comparing ourselves to one another is killing us. Greed is killing us. Heaping ever-heavier burdens on the working poor is killing us. Maybe evil sneaks up on us because we don’t celebrate enough the sweet small stuff and all the people that make it possible that makes life so precious. Maybe evil sneaks up on us because sometimes it’s dressed up to look like us. Maybe evil sneaks up on us because it was there all along and we allowed ourselves to be distracted. Maybe evil sneaks up on us not only because we discount and dismiss the small steps toward the dark side but also the small gifts of goodness that happen every day.

One gift of goodness was yesterday’s third annual Day at the Farm at Brewer’s Hideaway Farm in Rising Sun, MD. Our resident farmer, Rachel, had said that we would be harvesting dried corn and Wally beans. I had never heard of Wally beans so I googled them. Of all things, I found a recipe for the baked beans my mother used to make with lima beans, pinto beans, and kidney beans. But I was pretty sure that wasn’t what Rachel meant.

Turns out Wally beans came from none other than our own Wally McCurdy. About six or seven years ago he had a ruined crop of a variety of lima beans and had managed to save five beans, like the five magic beans in “Jack and the Beanstalk”. He gave Rachel a few of those beans and kept a few. Out of a few beans came a row of beans plants now twenty feet long and enough to share.

Have you ever paid a bill for a friend, like the water or electricity or internet? Have you ever picked up the tab for everyone at dinner, given a generous tip? Have you ever paid for someone else’s groceries? Have you ever paid for the coffee of the person standing in line behind you? Have you ever paid the toll for the car behind you? Have you ever been on the receiving end of such a gift? Did it feel small? No, it didn’t, did it? If you’ve been on either side, it feels pretty good to give a gift like that and to receive a gift like that. I wonder what the world would be like we did more of this every day.

Have you ever given $5 or $10 to a political campaign or fundraiser or Kickstarter campaign? Facebook is now filled with folks who do small fundraisers in honor of their birthday. We proudly say “One person, one vote” and we know, we know that one vote is no small thing. We who call ourselves progressive appreciate the person running for office who takes no PAC money, even when they lose. The Social Justice committee of the New Ark uses its benevolence funds to give gifts of $100-$500-$1000 to organizations for whom that amount makes such a difference, especially those non-profits that do not receive large grants.

Most Sundays when I invite us to worship God with our offering I try to make it plain that your time here in worship is indeed an offering. In these days of competing attentions and activities and the need for a true day of rest, I consider your presence here to be no small gift at all but indeed, some Sundays you may be giving with your time all you have to live on.

Next Sunday we will all be invited to fill out a pledge card and place it in the wooden ark that will be on the worship table. We tend to think that making a pledge is for a large sum of money. A pledge of a gift is a spiritual practice, no matter the size of the gift. Public radio encourages people to pledge a dollar a day for a year. Imagine every day putting a dollar in a container and then at the end of the week, bringing $7 dollars to church and putting it in the plate. You might think, what is $7 dollars when I could round it up to $10? That’s $520 dollars for the year. That’s a gift that the Social Justice committee can make to the Newark Area Welfare Fund or the Housing Alliance of Delaware or to help LGBTQ youth attend a Pride march in NYC.

All of the gifts we give—time, money, food, ourselves, what we’re good at or what we’d like to learn, the direction of our lives each day—all of these are good, no matter the quantity. Every gift counts. What Jesus is calling our attention to is not the quantity of our gift but the quality of our hearts. The rich who were giving large sums gave what they wouldn’t miss. The widow gave all she had to live on; though she gave out of her poverty she was not poor in spirit but rich in hope.

When we receive our pledge cards, whether in the mail or in worship next week, I invite us to hold that card in prayer and to pledge what we can, whatever it is, as though we are rich in hope. 

Hope that it is the many small gifts as well as the large ones that make a difference in this world.

Hope that it is kindness and compassion that have the power to restore justice. 

Hope that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, truth is stronger than lies.