Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Each other's keeper

Luke 2: 1-16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 24, 2018

Nativity scene, Paradise, CA

Last night on Netflix I finally got around to watching “Nanette”, a stand-up comedy act written and performed by Australian comic Hannah Gadsby. It affected me profoundly. Within in a little over an hour she talked about art history, gender, sexuality, misogyny, sexual assault and abuse, her painful childhood and young adulthood, her coming-out story as a lesbian. She explained that she has primarily done self-deprecatory humor, which means her personhood, her identity is the punchline, and so she can no longer do comedy, because of what it does to her story and to her soul. She said, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore: not to myself or to anyone else who identifies with me.”

In a similar vein, because it is a story about those who exist in the margins, we can no longer domesticate the Christmas story into a cozy tale in which the wise magi from the east and the shepherds in the field are characters in one story when they are two completely different tales about how Jesus came into the world; a story in which we have westernized, colonized a Palestinian home into which Joseph and Mary were welcomed and squeezed into the main downstairs room with the animals rather than squeezed out of an inn; a story that has become so blissfully domesticated that the outcast, the grieving, the lonely, the wounded, the dehumanized are alienated from Christmas, that this story squeezes them out of the picture simply because of who they are.

Churches have added Blue Advent and Blue Christmas services which can bring some solace to those who are hurting this time of year. But why must those who already feel on the margins of this story be separated from the whole? Don’t we all have sorrow in our stories, especially this time of the year? Couldn’t we all be chosen family together in one room, like Joseph and Mary and Jesus and the animals and their extended family in Bethlehem? Couldn’t we take care of each other like Joseph shepherding his betrothed and a child not his own through exile and home again? What if we companioned each other through the dark, be light for each other, as we search for where the light will lead us? Isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Can we please ask ourselves just how did that happen, how hurting people became alienated from Christmas, as the stories were written for specifically for the lowly? How did we allow that to happen? How did something that was intended to set people free become locked up? To keep us safe? Because when we tell these stories with a certain glow and gloss, we can forget where these birth stories eventually lead. 

Both birth stories are about how the world enshrines and protects the powerful and the cruel, but God is all about the vulnerable and what appears to be weak but more like resilient. Those who wrote these stories wanted us to remember that in the midst of despair, cruelty, evil and oppression, this child was Love enfleshed, born to his own, vulnerable, a target right from the start; that his life began the way it ended.

Hannah Gadsby reminded me that a joke has two parts, while a story has three. A joke begins with tension and ends with release: what she calls a beginning and a middle. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And all our stories—your story, my story, our shared stories, the Christmas stories—deserve to be told properly and honestly. The whole story, even if it discomforts we who are listening. Especially if it does. When we hear the whole story, we become keepers of each other’s stories, each other’s sorrows and joys, and we become each other’s keepers. For how can we then walk away as though untouched? Our stories become enfleshed in one another, and we become one flesh, what we churchy types call the Body of Christ. 

One day, though, when we have been telling our stories properly, honestly, again and again, enfleshed in one human being after another, we’ll all become one flesh, and we’ll truly be able to call ourselves humanity, humankind, each other’s keeper, no one a stranger, because we will have learned to protect the vulnerable and shame no one, and the word ‘hate’ never heard or taught again and cruelty vanished from the earth. But first we have to tell the whole story. When we’re ready to tell it. And the rest of us need to make a full-hearted space for it. That’s what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas, Church.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Mary smashes the patriarchy

Luke 1: 46-55
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 23, 2018

The Annunciation by Rose M. Barron


Some of you may be wondering what does it mean to “smash the patriarchy”. On the website Quora I found this definition: “Smashing the patriarchy means challenging the dominant social, political and cultural system that values masculinity over femininity. The patriarchy perpetuates oppressive and limiting gender roles, sexual assault, and the political and economic subordination of women. Smashing the patriarchy means challenging and confronting the assumptions underlying this system. The patriarchy hurts both men and women, and both men and women can challenge it.”

But this doesn’t go far enough. Smashing the patriarchy means challenging the systems that value masculinity over every other identity and expression; the subordination of any gender that isn’t cisgender male; the patriarchy hurts everyone, and everyone can challenge it. Smashing the patriarchy means doing away with societal expectations based on gender, gender expression, sexuality, skin color, ability, class, nationality, and ethnicity. Patriarchy is the foundation beneath any system that values power over, competition, hierarchy, supremacy, privilege, violence. Patriarchy hurts and wounds all of humanity and the very earth from which it draws life. So in the silence of the priest Zechariah, when Mary prophesies and sings,

“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

She’s smashing the patriarchy. She goes pretty far but not far enough, and yet she’s showing us the loose threads to pull which will lead to its unraveling. Why is strength masculine? Why is God my Savior masculine? In 1973, feminist theologian Mary Daly defined the patriarchy as, “If God is male, then the male is God.” So is Mary in the gospel of Luke saying, “Please, O God, unseat and topple the powers that oppress us but keep the domestic and religious arrangements the same”? In the words of Elastigirl, “I don’t think so. I don’t think so.” In an effort to liberate language about the Divine (and those who hear it), some churches use the feminine pronoun. “SHE has shown strength with HER arm; SHE has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

But even that language is still exclusive. If we are created in the divine image, God is all genders and beyond gender. “They have shown strength with their arm; they have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. They have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; they have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” When everyone is made in God’s image, we see God in everyone. And use their pronouns.

Where Mary appears to go too far (yet we have not) is when she uses the past tense to describe these events. God has already accomplished all of this in Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies, in their children yet to be born. God’s promises are kept in the forthcoming births of John and Jesus. And yet do not all parents have high hopes for their children? Did not our parents have dreams for us and their parents and so on? Hopes that the world would be a better place because of us, will be a better place because of our children?

But then we look around us and we see how little the world has changed, how little humanity has changed since Mary sang her song; how we seem to repeat history but with increased technology. As we have increased our ability to care for and feed every human being, we have also increased our ability to destroy all life on this planet, and which one are we closer to realizing? Yesterday I read another of David Hayward’s cartoons, in which a crowd of people are poised over Jesus in the manger, with one person accusing, “So, Jesus, you know how it was prophesied that you would bring down the rulers from their thrones? Right about now would be a really good time for that!” We’ve had not only 2,000 years but hundreds more from the justice visions of Isaiah and Jeremiah and many others, all the way back to the story of God establishing a covenant with Noah, with all people living in peace and harmony. What happened to smashing the patriarchy?

The patriarchy is smart. It created its own throne, put itself on that throne, and enshrined itself with power and policy and prophets and tradition, then kept reinventing itself. Way better than Madonna. Even though it is power over, it’s subtle, insidious. When 39% of all women and 47% of white women voted for a president that hardly anyone would call a feminist, when the 2019 Congress will have a total of 126 women for the first time—one fifth of the seats, yet still comprising a little over half of the nation’s population—when the Violence Against Women Act is allowed to lapse in a government shutdown, when lynching is only now becoming a federal crime, when we are only now beginning to understand that no two human beings are the same and yet we all are bone and flesh and blood, and now divided more than ever, we can see how difficult it is to bring down the powerful, entrenched on their thrones.

If violence and force do not work, and waiting for God to do something begins to look like doing nothing, if our policies and politics clearly do not work, then maybe it’s time to smash by stepping over and around the power-over types. Listen to 15 year old Greta Thunberg of Sweden when she spoke on behalf of the world’s youth climate movement before the UN’s 24th Climate Change Conference in Poland earlier this month. She is a modern day Mary, full of her own hope and power.

As she sat next to UN Secretary General António Guterres, she rebuked, “How can we expect countries like India, Columbia, or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we who already have everything don’t care even a second about our actual commitments to the Paris agreement?” When school started in August, Greta went to the Swedish parliament and went on strike for the climate. Some people said she should’ve been in school. Others said that she should become a climate scientist so she can “solve the climate crisis”. Her response: “The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? …Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can no longer save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.”

“So we have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not. The people will rise to the challenge. And since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago. Thank you.” And as usual, they gave the young prophet their smiles and polite, appreciative applause, instead of what should have been tears of remorse.

It’s on us. It’s always been on us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We cannot smash the patriarchy when we have made ourselves comfortable in it. Jesus came to make us, the comfortable, uncomfortable, which is good news for those who have been made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin; those who have been dehumanized because of their gender, their gender expression, their sexuality, their body, their mind, their religion, their skin color, their poverty. Jesus came to disrupt and disturb us, to show us how we have made peace with what does not bring peace. The peace we seek, the hope we desire, the joy that eludes us, the love that can knit us together, comes to us whenever we are able to say with the humility and strength of Mary, “Let it happen to me”, and we let go.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Love letters

Philippians 1: 3-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 9, 2018 – Second Sunday in Advent

Have you ever received a love letter? Have you ever sent one? It was handwritten, wasn’t it? That seems to be one of the qualifications, according to those who responded to this question on a Facebook post of mine. Some friends said their letters contained poetry, song lyrics, candid honest feelings. Some were written in code so as not to be discovered. Some letters described the mundane things done during a day. Some were from a beloved serving in the military or a childhood sweetheart. What makes a love letter so precious is the overwhelming feeling of having someone’s complete attention and affection focused on you and you alone.

Many folks who have received a love letter have kept them. I have every anniversary, Valentine’s, and birthday card that David has ever given me. Even though he did not write every word in the card, David knows how to pick just the right card with just the right message to melt my heart. So I can imagine him standing in front of the card section in a store and reading cards one by one until he finds the one that makes him think of me.

Sometimes a love letter can be from someone you’ve never met. One friend in New Jersey received the following letter from a neighbor: “Dear neighbors, I hope this isn’t too odd, but I just wanted to relay a quick message of gratitude to you. I moved to [this town] a little more than a year ago from [where I grew up]. The area I had grown up in was much more diverse and accepting than [this town] (which I quickly learned). It was very hard to stay positive in such a conservative town. However, on days walking to and from my bus stop, I would notice your house in particular. The stickers on your car would always put a smile on my face and I thank you for that! More recently I noticed the sign on your lawn that reads ‘No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor’. The first day I saw this I was overwhelmed with joy to see such a thing in [this town]. So I just wanted to say thank you for openly expressing your beliefs and giving me a strong sense of hope and happiness in these trying times.”

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is just such a love letter: one that was intended to give a strong sense of hope and happiness in trying times. Paul has great affection for this community of faith, so much so that the very thought of them sustains him while he is in prison and moves him to write them this letter. In fact, this is the happiest of Paul’s letters. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction of Philippians in his paraphrase The Message, writes, “Paul doesn’t tell us that we can be happy, or how to be happy. He simply and unmistakably is happy. None of his circumstances contribute to his joy: he wrote from a jail cell, his work was under attack by competitors, and after twenty years or so of hard traveling in the service of Jesus, he was tired and would have welcomed some relief.”

This church has spent 39 years in service to Jesus and a good number of those years have been spent in hard traveling—packing up everything needed for Sunday, unpacking it at the Masonic lodge or in the basement of Calvary Baptist or at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, unfolding and folding up chairs, then packing it all back up again for next Sunday. And yet you continued to be church and joyfully so. I’ve done my own share of traveling and serving Jesus, having preached in 24 congregations alone in the Connecticut conference, never staying long enough to have a real and lasting relationship with a faith community as their pastor.

Until now. I’ve been your pastor for five years now, and I think it’s high time I wrote you a love letter, to let you know how much I love you and appreciate you.

What first attracted me to you is that you are an Open and Affirming church and that you have been for most of your life together. The United Church of Christ became ONA in 1985; you became an ONA congregation in 1990, only eleven years after your founding. And I love our ONA statement and that you revisited it in 2011 to keep it current.

The second thing that attracted me is your solar panels. In an instant you communicated to me that you are a church that cares deeply about the environment and takes climate change seriously. I love that this church doesn’t look like a church. I love that you purposefully did not have a building for many years and when you did decide to be a bricks-and-mortar church, you chose to re-purpose a building rather than build new construction.

Putting together Go Bags
I love that you took 6 months out of your search process to deal with some significant conflict. No community of faith is ever free of conflict; even now I would bet there are still some residual feelings or at least some painful memories. And yet think of your own relationships and friendships in which there has been conflict and pain and yet you are still in relationship with at least some of those persons. That alone speaks to the strength of covenantal relationships and the power of forgiveness, which is a continual process.

Perler bead ornaments

I love that you make most decisions by discernment and consensus rather than by vote. You value every voice and listen to every opinion, even when you disagree with it. Sometimes you will say you talk things to death but that’s not it at all. Life lived in community is a form of evolution in and of itself, and evolution takes the time it needs. And I love that you are still evolving.

Creating the Advent icon 

I love that this is a community, a culture of individuals. No one can pigeon-hole or assume anything about anyone. We say that people are unique but as people are in relationship together, we know how friends or spouses or even a group of people can become homogenous, can begin to resemble each other over time. But not you. Each of you has kept your fierce uniqueness and yet softened each other’s edges with love and compassion and forgiveness and acceptance.

I love that justice work is the fire of your service to Jesus. You disrupt your lives in the service of others, whether it is volunteering at the Empowerment Center or cooking and serving a meal at Hope Dining Room or spending part or all of your evening for Code Purple or putting together Go-Bags or giving some time at Community Day or at the Delaware Food Bank or the Clothing Bank in Wilmington or at Pride in Dover, or marching for our lives or for women’s rights or for climate change awareness and action or with our Sikh neighbors and our Muslim friends and our Jewish siblings.

I love that you have quarterly meetings together and that the congregation as it is gathered that day is the decision-making body of the church. I love that you select rather than elect officers and committee members. And I love that you do not use Robert’s Rules of Order.

Easter cupcakes
I love that in 39 years you have developed some cherished traditions, such as the Festival of Light at the end of the Christmas Eve service and Soup and Sharing before the service. I love Easter cupcakes and the flower cross. I love that you come forward for Communion and tear the bread, that you have both wine and grape juice. I love Perler beads at the Advent party. I love cheese and crackers on Celebration Sunday. I love the seafood feast and the Christmas party. I love that we make time to eat together; I would love us to do more that! I love that you have made room for some new traditions, like the Advent icon and Beer and Carols.

Easter flower cross
I love that when you could’ve chosen to be anything, you chose to be a congregation of the United Church of Christ, especially given that in northern Delaware we are an outpost of the UCC. I love that our life together isn’t perfect or seamless, that our flaws are just as visible as our virtues. I love that when we have guests in worship, you immediately introduce yourselves after worship and engage them in conversation. I love looking around Wells Hall or the Christmas party or the seafood feast and see everyone talking to everyone, no one a stranger.

I wrote this love letter to you to remind you that you, you are the love letter: to each other, to yourselves, to this community, to the places where you live and work, to your friends and your families; indeed you are a love letter to the world. Handwritten with your hands, delivered with your feet, your time, your energy, your heart, your mind, enfleshed in your body. For Jesus was God’s love letter to humanity and to all the earth, and it is Jesus, love incarnate, love enfleshed who overflows from within us into our lives and our life together, because Love can’t help but do that. That’s what love does: it knits the world back together, one life at a time. And sustains us while we do it. Because there is no limit to love. We make it as we go along. Much love to you, Church.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Only God can make a tree

Jeremiah 33: 14-16
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 2, 2018 – First Sunday in Advent

"Survivors Survive" by David Hayward


Family trees are complicated because we’re complicated. Earlier this week on Facebook I asked the question, “How’s your family tree?” asking folks to share whatever they wanted. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments:

From my brother: My Family tree is big, with lots of branches and a variety of Fruits. There are a few scars on the Bark but that just adds character.

My family tree has weathered a lot. We’ve lost limbs, and some branches have wandered away. Through Chosen Family, though, I have a big beautiful grafted beauty that has dozens of different kinds of fruit.

Our family tree was redefined when we adopted our three children. You know how you add branches when people come into your family? I used to think that was what was happening with our adoptions as well, that we were just adding to what we'd already established. The reality is that our tree has grown new trunks, each one of them with their own set of branches and vines, some of them sprouting their own added trunks. We no more "own" our tree than anyone can own any tree - and although that's been difficult sometimes it's also been so wonderful. It probably looks like a tangled up mess to someone from the outside, but it's something we are proud of and continue to cultivate.

It's changing with the seasons.

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

My tree is full of fabulous stories and strong women - women who had much more independence, property and education than their English sisters to the south. I look to my tree for inspiration and strength.

Small and struggling both to get new growth and stay alive.

Always immigrating.

Becoming more racially diverse as the generations continue.

My family tree is my family's story; it locates me in time and space, draws out my self-understanding, and gives me vision for understanding who I am.

Rooted. Though I'm recently discovering that the tree is currently full of nuts.

My family tree is a bunch of broken sticks and grafts held together by wires. It stays alive through a hybrid of vigor, acts of God, and the fact that it’s too confused to die.

Split between the righteous and the faithful.

Curtain for the Ark, Tree of Life, Prov. 3: 18
That last one would speak to Jeremiah. When God’s word came to Jeremiah he was in a Babylonian prison. Jerusalem is uninhabitable to humans and animals, the temple is in ruins, God’s people are cut down like a tree. Jews refer to Torah as the Tree of Life and living one’s life rooted in the Torah is wisdom. In the book of Proverbs we read “It is a tree of life to all who grasp it, and whoever holds on to it is happy; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all it paths are peace.” The leaders of the southern kingdom of Judah had been faithless, had not followed God’s law, and the tree withered because its roots had no foothold.

In the midst of loss and pain and death—Yemen, Syria, the migrant caravan, Paradise, CA, our own experiences of exile and losing heart—Jeremiah sinks deep into the imagination of his people and gives a word of fierce hope, tender forgiveness, inside-out healing, and tenacious courage. Like a tree that has dropped all its leaves and to all appearances is dead, Jeremiah cuts at a twig until he reaches the green promise of life beneath.

"The Branch" by L.L. Effler
The days are surely coming, says Jeremiah. In the living of our lives, in the life of this world, in our life together as Church, pain and sorrow and sacrifice and the hard work of community are inevitable. But so are new life, rebirth, wholeness, justice, and righteousness when we don’t give up on them, when we wait and also act with hope. When we come to this Table, we remember another family tree, our ancestors in the faith who betrayed and deserted and denied, and who also learned and survived and courageously lived the gospel. And we remember Jesus, who didn’t give up on them, who died upon another tree and it looked as though the story was over but not quite yet.

Who are the people, what are the situations where you have just about given up hope? Where are you challenged to right a wrong, to forgive a transgression, or let go of a grudge? How are we as a church being called to be a sprig of hope, a sign of life, rooted in justice and doing what we can for righteousness? How is Jesus the righteous Branch in our lives and in our life together?

One of the last people to comment said that her family tree was like the Charlie Brown Christmas tree: like Linus said, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It's not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” Advent is the time when we learn how to live into that love, into that hope, that what appears to be failure, weakness, neglect, bad choices is not the last word. When we have hope, hope is always the last word.