Archive for the ‘Grace’ Category

I am . . . Free

In Grace, Matthew, Romans, Sin, St Paul, UCC Annapolis on June 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39


Friends, I have a confession to make: last week, I broke the law of our city by jaywalking. That’s right, you now have a minister whom you know if a lawbreaker. And not only that, but one who broke the law consciously and without regret. But I did have a reason: You see, it was one of those intensely hot days. I was wearing my clerical collar, which does not lend itself to comfort in the humidity of Annapolis. On the other side of the street, there was a long, long stretch of glorious shade, and I just had to get over there. Just had to. So, not seeing any traffic on Duke of Gloucester, I crossed. Not that far from the offices of the City Council. And so – I broke the law.

Now, while I’m willing to confess along with St. Paul that “I am chief amongst sinners,” (1 Tim. 1:15, attr. to St. Paul) I suspect that I am in a sanctuary full of people who have broken laws. Raise your hand if you have never transgressed a law, ever. So: let me reiterate what we share in the beginning: God has loved you, God loves you now, and God will love you always. The parking ticket will be OK. All laws that you have broken will be forgiven. The grace of God is with you!

This is what St. Paul is saying in the beginning of today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. We are a people living in grace – we have already “died to sin.” What does that mean? Well, obviously it doesn’t mean that we don’t break laws anymore, and it doesn’t mean that we live lives where we don’t hurt one another, either. After all, we begin each worship service confessing that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We do this because, rather than struggling hard to say that we’re living perfect lives, we confess that we all make mistakes, but that we gather together nonetheless and we share in the joy that comes from laying down those burdens, together, free in the knowledge that “sin” is not that which defines us. Therefore, when Paul says we have “died to sin,” he’s saying that we are not a people defined by our sins and everything that has caused us hurt and to hurt one another. So if we are not a people defined by what holds us back, what are we defined by?

There’s an old saying that there are two certainties in life: “death, and taxes.” Paul focuses on the certainty of death in this passage: we all will die. That’s a universal law. I was once asked in this very church by one of our children, James, “why did Paul write to the Romans?” I think this very passage is the reason – to explain to us that we have to die. But Paul doesn’t see our death as the death that happens when the county issues a death certificate. Not at all! Paul, instead, sees that death as something we choose to make happen when we decide to live in the Jesus Way. When the first Christians felt called to be baptized, they decided to DIE to the way that they once had lived their lives, and now instead be resurrected to LIFE in the radical, subversive and alternative way that Jesus had exemplified for us. That’s the universal death that Paul talks about here.

Choosing to die to how we have lived is not easy – in fact, it’s excruciatingly painful. Paul writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with [Jesus] so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” Letting go of all that which we know causes harm and pain to others, but gives us immediate satisfaction, is extremely painful. It is, I think, as painful as a crucifixion, which is why we don’t readily do it. It’s why we fear doing it, letting go of our “fictions of control.”

One such thing is our approach to stewardship of the earth. In that litany of praise to a God woven into the very fabric of the universe, Genesis 1, humankind acknowledges that it has been given “stewardship over all the earth.” And yet, as I write this, I know we continue to perpetuate a throw-away culture that fails to see the earth’s resources as finite, and our usage of them as damaging not just in the immediate time, but for the lives of ancestors we will never know about. A styrofoam cup takes at least 500 years to biodegrade; most plastics, if they can and are recycled, can only be recycled once before they, too, take 500 years to biodegrade. Yet, we accept excess packaging and one-use food containers as a “necessary evil” for delivery. If we accept them as a necessary evil, however, we are accepting these materials as a “sin.” How can we make aware the grace of God’s love if we are contributing to the sin of our negligent, if not willful, harm to the environment of our world? If you begin to even picture the scale of a societal shift that would be needed to create a change on this, you can see how changing this would be a painful societal shift. Think about our dependence on oil and gas, even to come here this morning and power these very lights? But the result of dying to that damaging, sinful ways of living, and being resurrected to a life in harmony with the world: Abundant life. Less air pollution in the creation of one-use items, less toxicity leaching into our waterways, less damage to our world. Is it doable? By all means! It must be. But we must have faith that we can do it, and work through the fear that we cannot. This applies just as much to War, Gun violence, and a myriad of other issues that plague us.

Every time we turn away from that which harms each other, we die a little more to that way of life. And it feels like a death because we’re not sure what we’re going to do in its stead. Our old way of life, marked by excess stuff, selfish desires, or whatever it might have once been, dies a little more. That could cause us fear. Though it seems trivial, we are overwhelmed by the question of how are we going to get drinks to people in fast food establishments without styrofoam containers. The fear of an alternative that might cost too much has kept us from doing it. Yet we must die to that way of life, and have faith that we will be resurrected to a new way of doing things.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 10:39: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It’s one of the greatest paradoxes in the Christian faith, and it’s repeated by Jesus again in Matthew 16. God’s grace, woven into the very fabric of the universe, will be experienced when we let go of all those things that we’re afraid we cannot do without but yet cause harm and divisiveness: when we die to our old way of life, regardless of how much pain it causes to do so, and we live in the Jesus Way, a way that depends on faith, hope, and love. How much fear is in your life? What motivates you every single day – fear, or love?

For much of our lives, it has been laws that have helped keep us on the straight and narrow. But a law on its own motivates primarily negatively – fear of punishment if we don’t do what it says. Fear hardly inspires us to give up that which we are already living by. In the case of environmental change, no amount of fear mongering to date has yet prompted a real and visceral change in how the majority of our world is living its life. Same with our criminal justice system: tough punishment for crimes has resulted not in a decrease of crime, but a 500% increase in the population of incarcerated people over the past 30 years in the United States. The regional body of our denomination itself just voted to end “the New Jim Crow”, which has seen a disproportionate number of African American people placed in prisons on maximum sentences for crimes that other demographic groups receive little if no punishment for in that same 30-year-period. Punishment and fear do not, alone, motivate us.

So what do we turn to? No laws? When we die to the old way of doing things, having engaged with and worked through our fear of what it means to dispense of those old ways and live in an entirely new way, we live by three things alone: faith, hope, and love. We are resurrected from the deathliness of our old ways that were ossified and fixed into place by fear and brought with Christ into a way of living that is motivated primarily by love of the other, love of that which is different. To be free, we cannot be motivated by laws or fear, but by love.

Skeptics in our room will say, “I cannot love our way out of the homelessness crisis.” Love requires action, both individual and community-based action, and the development of structures and values that are developed in love and can change as the need requires it.  If we shrug our shoulders, though, Paul has assured us that grace cannot be seen. If we, those who purport to have been baptized into death with Christ and therefore dead to that which denies thriving and abundant life in the world, refuse to change our way, then we are not living as resurrected people through whom flows the grace of God. We must be the ones motivated by love to transform our world, co-creators with Christ, unveiling the freeing grace which heals all wounds, which heals all divisions, which unites us together.

Jaywalking was invented in the early twentieth century in the United States. It was developed by the automobile lobby as a way to ridicule anyone who was not driving and helped to fuel the transition of our culture from one reliant on walking and public transportation to one reliant on the individual automobile. It dressed itself up as a public service good, as the lobby funded social organizations such as the Scouts and Kiwanis to promote “safe” crossing alternatives in the rising wave of automobile crossing. Their announcements derided pedestrians as uncool: the term itself is derogatory: a “jay” was an uneducated, backwards bumpkin new to the city. To not be a “jaywalker” was to be someone who was a sophisticated urbanite, one who was dead to wonder and probably drove a car, because that was “the thing to do.” It’s a law only in a handful of countries, places where automobiles have primacy over people. The lobby behind it helped shape America’s twentieth century development such that public transport has become infeasible for so many communities. So yes, I broke a law this week when I crossed the street. It didn’t occur to me at the time that it was an act of civil disobedience, but perhaps it was. Perhaps it was meant as a repudiation of a shift in our lived architecture from walkable distances to spread out ones linked not by shared transport, but by individual ones. Perhaps it was a statement to all and sundry that what matters most is the people themselves who inhabit a place and not the machines that move within them.

And so, take it from this sermon and keep moving it: live by love first. Engage with that which you know is sin in our way of living in the world, and work through that fear that seems to freeze it in place. Know that God’s grace is with you, and that in dying to sin and resurrecting to life, it is illuminated for us and others. And, know too that you are never alone: Christ is with us, in this Body of Christ, in our prayers, and everywhere we gather to intentionally die to the old, harmful ways of living and be resurrected in the new ways of living in the world.



Radical welcome and “take up your cross”

In Authenticity, Grace, Jesus, Matthew, Prophetic, Radical Welcome on June 6, 2013 at 10:28 am

For Morning Chapel at Westminster College, 6 June 2013.

No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” So goes one of my most-loved mottoes from my denomination, the United Church of Christ. If I am engaged in trying to radically welcome a person to a church. It goes well on flyers and billboards, or spoken at some point during the service when people are invited to stand up and make themselves known so that they can be accosted by the diaconate at coffee following the service. It is far better than the ubiquitous “All are welcome” sign that I suspect comes with the rejoinder, “All are welcome: to become just like us.” It brought me through the church door when I was a teenager, and the concept kept me going back throughout my adult life. No matter where I was, I could always come back to the church. It is a message we need to hear in more than just a church concept; it needs to be a part of our cultural community fabric.

But it is only a partial concept. It stops short of any radical change demanded either of the church or the person coming in. Nor did Jesus say “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This places the locus for action no longer on coming into a place, but going outward. This is about being a people of action. It also challenges us: if “no matter who we are, we are welcome here” is to be our motto for church, then we are also implicitly saying that we are content with whomever we are and whomever anyone else in. Gone is the radical nature of church which challenges people to get engaged, viscerally and without limit, to the work that the church is called to be in community. Church is, as far as I can tell after three years of training in this College, this Federation, this University, a place for challenging. Without challenges of self-denial, we create an atmosphere of entitlement both within the church and in the individuals. I suspect this creates many sort of issues.

This passage of self-denial serves as the crux of Jesus’ theology. For Calvin self-denial stands in radical opposition of every shrewd Christian adjustment to the circumstances. The commentator Ulrich Luz says this: “The contradiction which arrests [this biblical passage] is that [hu]man[kind] is required to make the greatest possible sacrifice to dedicate [its] whole life as a sacrifice – and wherefore? There is no wherefore. “Then it is madness,” says the understanding. There is no wherefore, because there is an infinite wherefore.”

This self-denial lies at the crux of what I have learned in this place. It is a self-denial that is undertaken not for any reward or wherefore, but because this is what it means to follow Christ. It is a self-denial that allows for the formation of communities that can be truly inclusive in actions so vibrant that no poster boards are needed to advertise it, no slick websites, but because we are shaping ourselves toward that cross, Christ-like to one another. But we also live in an entitlements society, where we deserve this and that. I’m no saint in this regard: I have far more self-denial to learn. Nor am I arguing for Christian asceticism for the sake of asceticism. I am saying that self-denial is about all having enough, just enough. As I look at statistics about which children perform the best, I cannot help but see a resonance with those that are neither rich nor poor but who live on just enough.

This culture of enough is catching on, and I hope in our self-denial as Christian leaders we can harness some of this energy. “Join Wall Street. Save The World,” a recent article in The Washington Post, details how young people are living on just enough – which their contemporaries might call ascetic, while giving the vast majority of their inflated salaries to charities around the world. The people doing this want to impact their world, and make good things happen. I think the world is looking for our message, looking for this challenging message of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Without wherefore or why, beyond reason itself. These young professionals are not doing this out of a professed faith, but because they know that they need to do something positive in the world. What we as people of faith bring is the grace of God, something that can resonate with the experiences that they want and desire to share. This is good news both for the church, her ministers, and the people.

The journey, a word I use hesitantly because it is too linear to describe the process by which we follow Christ, is indeed a long one. But as I prepare to leave this place now, I look forward to it. While I think we have started here, there is still much that needs to be done in order to pick up the cross. 

Tricking ourselves into grace

In Authenticity, Discrimination, Genesis, Grace, Jacob, Progressive Christianity, Science/Religion on September 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Prepared text for the message delivered at Open Table UCC
Mobile, Alabama, on the Fourth Sunday of Pentecost, 10 July 11

Start by perusing the story of Br’er Rabbit and the Dollar-a-minute: focusing on deception of Br’er Fox out of his peas and Br’er Bear, which he felt entitled to and rightfully should capture.

Now in light of all that, let’s reflect on that first scripture reading that Todd read for us today. It’s a difficult story. It should, in our liberal religious tradition’s emphasis on fairness and equality, make us bristle. Jacob essentially tricked his brother out of what was rightfully his all because Esau, his own brother, was hungry. He was starving after working all day, securing food and future for his family and his community. He comes in exhausted. Yet here’s Jacob, with a lot of food surrounding him, some of it probably even secured by Esau if we’re to expand this folktale to a practical reality, denying the food to his brother unless he gives him his entire inheritance in exchange. Not a small something, either: every material thing he had worked for and certainly felt entitled to as the rough-hewn and manly eldest son of Isaac.
This exchange of property – a bowl of lentils for the inheritance of what is identified in Hebrew culture as Israel – is nearly as unjust to us as the sale of the island of Manhattan for a handful of glass beads. This paltry exchange is partly used as the justification for Jacob to secure the hereditary rights to the land of Israel – to eventually take on that name, we’ll find later in Genesis!
From this point, the storyteller contends, we find the creation of a separate nation of Hebrews and the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. Esau is the personification of the land of Edom, for Esau is red and ruddy, and the land of Edom is of a reddish and rugged topography. The Hebrews of ancient times were not in good stead with the Edomites, and much of our biblical narrative is coloured by this impression of an entire nation. Our narrative itself implies that Esau “despised” his inheritance; he did not care enough about it that he would give it all up for a bowl of soup – that ‘red stuff’, no doubt a foreshadowing of the red and agriculturally poorer region of Edom that he would now receive instead of what the Israelites would later, biblically, inherit as a land of “milk and honey.”
But what we do not think about is whether or not Jacob did Esau a favour. It’s not in our socio-cultural matrix to think that tricking someone out of what is rightly theirs could be equivalent to doing good. But this should take a new turn when we think of Jacob not as a scheming younger brother, but instead of fitting the literary and folktale archetype of the “trickster,” in the same vein of Br’er Rabbit to both Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear in our story.
Most ancient cultures have an archetypical trickster in their pantheon of gods. An archetype is a term developed by the late great psychiatrist Carl Jung, and is generally an idealised demigod that serves the important and fundamental role of showing people how self-important they can make themselves out to be. The trickster reminds its victim that her or his inauthenticities are not all that essential to a real and genuine life. Jacob reminds Esau of what is important – food, the bread of life, and Br’er Rabbit remind Br’er Fox not to be greedy with his garden and Br’er Bear that something which seems to be too good to be true is exactly that.
The trickster character is ubiquitous globally: there’s the recognisable Puck in Celtic folklore who makes a common appearance in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. There’s the Norse Loki, who was infamous for solving problems with trickery and deception. And of course Br’er Rabbit. All of these characters are neither particularly strong, nor do they rail against the injustice of the world. Their protests and movements for justice are somewhere behind all of this, hidden, but forceful and effective.
To this pantheon of figures we can add Jacob. Jacob saw a brother who was showered with affection: his father’s love, his father’s material wealth, and all of the fruits of the newly established Israelite nation. But he also was aware that Esau did not fully appreciate it: in fact, he rather took it for granted. His father appreciated a man who was a man’s man, rather than a cerebral man who seemed stuck around the kitchen making stew. He had by birthright the entire future of his father’s inheritance, which in biblical-speak was the entire future of Israel. We can imagine a big, swaggering fella.
And so, the trickster, as Jacob, took it all away.
This is what the trickster does. When there is an imbalance in the system or a lack of appreciation, the trickster takes away the coveted object or objects by sheer outmanoeuvring. All of a sudden, Esau goes from swaggering ol’ brother to a relative nobody: for without land, in ancient standards, one could very well be a nobody.
At the same time, Jacob does not impoverish his brother. This trickster gives him food, and by the standards of our narrative, Esau needed the food in order to live. The priority he set at that moment, that of preserving life over the accumulation of riches, was to become his new standard. In summary, the trickster made Esau re-evaluate what was truly important in his life rather than letting him live on in a lifestyle of entitled self-righteousness.
When humankind is deprived of entitlement and self-righteousness, what then is left? Here, amongst the ruins of a lifestyle for Esau, is found the remnants of the true and authentic voice of the individual.
In this way the trickster is a very important aspect of our lives. He – and the trickster is universally depicted as male, though often with transgender characteristics – reminds the comfortable of just how tenuous their situation really is. When we seek to hide behind masks, he unmasks us and forces us to reflect upon the real world. These masks have allowed some of our country’s worse injustices to occur in the past: we have used our masks to remove us from black slavery, societal segregation, gender and sexuality-based discrimination, environmental disaster: you name it. Trickster remove the trappings of our justifications, and we are forced to confront and cultivate our authentic selves.
It is our authentic selves which provide the “fruits” of all creation. When we are authentic, we achieve our goals. I don’t mean to throw out some catchy little bit of sophistry which we can place on bracelets and buttons. We will not always see the fruits of our labours. But when we work and fine-tune the multifaceted gifts which God has given us, we bear good fruit. Imagine this then as an ecosystem: we bear fruit, and that fruit then sustains other people. They can use that energy to grow and develop, and thus go forth and inspire and teach others of these good gifts.
An authentic response to our faith is akin to placing us in the good soil which was part of our second reading of Jesus’ parable, which Mary read for us. The trickster recognises when we are growing amidst the weeds or in the quick but unsustainable growth of the rocky soil, and “tricks” us despite ourselves into extrapolating ourselves out of the suffocating weeds of our self-centred lives or the restrictive and rocky soil. The trickster replants us into the good soil by which we can grow, and grow to our fullest and most authentic potential. We just might not have been aware that this new setting was our authentic and necessary place.
Authenticity. VIDEO CLIPS. This past weekend I attended, along with Pastor Ellen and Myra, the national convention of our church’s denomination, the United Church of Christ, in Tampa. Along with nearly 4,000 people from around the world, we participated partially and watched a string of inspiring speakers and leaders. Most of them stood in front of us and reminded us of the strong social justice aspect of the UCC, and many emphasised particular projects on which they were working and hoped that our churches would also support. A person would give us a stirring speech, and we all would stand up and nod and applaud. Another speaker would say another issue of importance, and we would nod and applaud. And another stood up and we would again nod and applaud. And another, and another. You get the idea. And after all of it I felt, well, tired.
Each particular cause spoke to me in a way because I knew that each one was important. Jesus’s work on earth raised awareness of the downtrodden and the poor, not only amongst those who were not downtrodden and poor, but also raised self-awareness amongst those who were. Progressive Christianity trumpets its ability to empathise with people: my nearly three weeks with this congregation have shown me that action is the watchword with this group of dedicated individuals.
And yet we know that we cannot achieve every thing that we want to see happen. Attempting to do so will make us disillusioned and blinded to a failure or an inability to convince someone of just how true and biblical our cause really is.
But we should, as always, look to Jesus: not the crucified Jesus on a cross or even some historical rendering of what anthropologists suppose a Middle Eastern peasant carpenter would have looked like: I mean look at the way he achieved his work. One of his most memorable acts was to transform water into wine in order to keep a wedding party going. He was known to relax, and let people anoint and bathe his feet. Despite the rampant injustices surrounding his time – and which would eventually take his own life – he appears to have led a balanced, humble and authentic life.
It is this self-same sense of peace and renewal which Jesus may have enjoyed during those moments of rest and companionship which drives us to worship. We participate in worship to be renewed and refreshed in order to go out and be amongst the people. It allows us to re-focus and re-prioritise our efforts to grow the fruits which are most appropriate to our own gifts. What happens if we do not take the time to rest, both within and outside of this service? If we do not take an opportunity to breathe, pause, to reflect, replenish and renew?
Stressed plants do not produce good fruit. Poor fruit provides little nourishment for the future, and therefore the efforts of the plant, though significant, can fade away with lessened impact. Stressed tomato plants do not produce, in the unique words of my inimitable mother, a “Happy Tomato.” But those of us who are concerned about all of these things and the parade of injustices recreated at the UCC convention, how can we truly and possibly relax?
I suggest to you that it is achieved through grace. By grace I am not stipulating that God directly intervenes because you believe in God. Such a model invites the old imagery of the mythological white bearded guy in heaven, not to mention the diminishment of a free will which is vital to the creative life force of all creation. Instead I am reinterpreting the definition of grace to be that trust you place in others to carry on in the same spirit of your work and do what is necessary to do those things which bring human life and its impact upon earth into balance.
It is difficult for us to trust that this process works. However, by being authentic people of faith we become in tune with what John Polkinghorne, a British physicist and Anglican priest, calls “the divine pattern.” The authentic fruits of our labours, developed in this balanced yet purposeful manner, tricked into bounteous growth by the unmasking of our false trappings by our own tricksters (is the pastor a trickster? – I’ll leave that one to you all), sustains the people we help and the people we inspire. And the part of grace is trusting that they will carry forward the message when we are not doing it. That they will be capable stewards of those just and worthy causes which can and must be achieved. We must allow grace to work through others in order to continue to be the true and authentic selves we are. People will naturally find recourse in this divine pattern: and they will adapt their surroundings to it.
Yes, some of us are preternaturally more occupied than others. There is that old “Type A” and “Type B” personality split. Some of us are a bit more compulsively motivated, and some must be stirred at great depth by the actions that need be achieved. Given that all of creation is freely creating itself, these differences in personality can be said to have evolved from some prehistoric and ancient needs and necessities for survival. But as some of us explored in the past two weeks at our Open Table Discussions at Serda’s and Satori, we can discern that this divine creation is constantly responding and developing with an undergirding pattern. It is recognition of this pattern which drives us to rebalance the excesses of our own lives and creation: environmentally and relationally.
We will fall short of our ultimate goals. But if we are authentic to our purpose, which will sometimes need to be reminded by an unmasking shock such as the one Jacob delivered to Esau. Responding authentically, we will bear good fruit in our community. And upon these efforts we will inspire others to pick up where we could not, and adapt to changes in ways we cannot now imagine. And they, too, will benefit from the collective activity of grace and be able to live a balanced and purposeful life, achieved through the example of you and the people of this congregation.
And also let us not forget the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. This is a classic twist of a trickster story. In it the trickster, Brer Rabbit, falls victim to the trick of the Tar Baby by Brer Fox. The rabbit, as you may know, gets caught in the tar because it doesn’t think the non-responsive tar baby is being respectful to him. His own hubris gets him stuck, and causes him to re-examine what his gifts and true genius are. It’s not in demanding respect, but in sideswiping shows of power. Brer Fox steps out swelled up with pride at having caught ol’ Brer Rabbit, who slips back into his own authentic self. He tricks Brer Fox into the briar patch, and leaves that old worth fox seething with rage.
Returning to our authentic ways will always free us from the seemingly intractable tar babies of our world.
And so taking our time, let us close with this poem by Mary Oliver, “The Sun”.