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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

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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.

 

God as Father

In Father, Jesus, Matthew, Relationality, Trinity, UCC Annapolis on June 16, 2014 at 2:08 pm

A sermon reflecting on the idea of God as Father, existing within the Trinity. For Trinity Sunday and Father’s Day. Delivered June 15, 2014, at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Text: St Matthew 28:16-20

Lilian Daniel, a UCC minister known for her sharp witticisms, recently wrote about the approach of Father’s Day:

If all you did was watch the news in these weeks leading up to Father’s Day, you’d think that when men hit middle age, they suddenly become twittering twits with the self restraint and judgment of a starving cobra at a rat convention. Lately in the news, we’ve seen tale after tale of men behaving badly.

We are well aware of the idea of fathers bumbling about, or being deadbeats, or missing in action, and so many other things. The behavior of these non-restrained middle-aged people does not reflect fathering so much as individuals who have forgotten that they live in relationship with each other. Fathering does not exist without something to father in the first place.

In addition to being Father’s Day, the church also celebrates “Trinity Sunday.” The Trinity reflects the dynamic that God exists in active relationship. The historic formulation of this is “Father-Son-Holy Spirit.” Rather than see these as locked terms, however, we can dig into the relationship between these “names of God” that the ancient church, a product of a patriarchal time, might have been trying to convey:

-”Father” is the historic understanding of the aspect of God that calls to us. It’s not a gendered term.  . . . . The LGBT community is opening up what it means to be a father-figure, making us all aware that we each have, at times, a responsibility to be father figures.

-”Son” is the historic understanding of that aspect of God that responds to the call. Jesus came and showed us what this response looks like. His response continues to encourage us to respond today. And today, we understand the church to be not just a gathering of people on Sunday mornings, but the “body of Christ”, real and present in the world each hour of every day – and you are it – responding to the call of God that comes from the world.

-”Holy Spirit” is the awareness of that call from God and response from God moving all around us. We awaken ourselves to the real presence of God in the tension of these relationships, calling and responding in all corners of the world, as thick as birdsong in the morning hours.

At different times in our lives, we experience and participate in these aspects of God. At times we will be the ones who call others, whether it be the people in our household or around the world, to use their gifts and talents and be held responsible and accountable for their actions and behaviors. That call may not always be an explicit one, of course – it may be a slow, quiet call that emerges as a father cares for a child. How this is done can be very different. The voice of the father can be distant, cold and far away; or close, near, and helping in life.

Those Winter Sundays

Robert Hayden, 1913 – 1980

Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house, Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Inside the cracks between the words of this poem we hear echoes of anger and dislike. This is a father who wakes up in the blueblack cold and makes the world habitable – who polishes shoes so that the family can go out into the world beyond the walls of the house. Yet, the father is so disliked that no one says, “thank you.” It is doubtful whether the words “I love you” have been shared with him or by him.

Yet, this father still calls his children into the household and equips them to face the world. This father calls them to deal with the “chronic angers” of the house. We share this cold and distant fathering image of God, too – a God who does not feel a “very present help in danger,” as in Psalm 46. This is a distant God who demands of us to become ourselves in a world full of angers and hurts, of woundedness and trauma, death, disease, pestilence: a habitable world, but very inhospital. We’d rather that this God did not exist at times: we don’t want to praise the creator who pushes us into the fray. We don’t even like that there is a fray that we have to respond to! {{In the past we’ve tried to blame ourselves for this state of the world, saying we were the cause of the fall and sinfulness.}} Our feelings toward God in this case are nearer to Psalm 88: “you have caused my friends to betray me, my companions to shun me.” We’d rather not have to hear the call of this God demanding us to rouse ourselves and go into the world, giving up our own comfort to meet the needs of the world.

And yet, this father still calls us: and the writer, though harboring rebellion, still responds. Even by ignoring the call of God, we are responding to that call and affirming that a relationship, even if not a good one, exists. The story of Jonah, infamous for being trapped in the belly of a fish, is the story of a prophet called to share judgement on the city of Ninevah. He doesn’t want to do it – he would need to go outside of his comfort zone, outside of where he wanted to be. Granted, in trying to escape his responsibility of the call he goes all over the world, only to discover that God’s call is still reaching to him.

We can respect that distance. Psalm 8 praises a God who seems far away, but has earned that respect.

Fathering, as I said, comes in many different ways of being in relationship, however. It does not always come from a cold and distant God who calls us to respond to an angry world. Often, the father image of God calls us to respond by guiding us in ways to celebrate life despite hardships. Out of poverty comes this poem by Suzanne Rancourt, called “Whose Mouth do I speak with.”

I can remember my father bringing home spruce gum. He worked in the woods and filled his pockets with golden chunks of pitch. For his children he provided this special sacrament and we’d gather at his feet, around his legs, bumping his lunchbox, and his empty thermos rattled inside. Our skin would stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing and we’d smell like Mumma’s Pine Sol. We had no money for store bought gum but that’s all right. The spruce gum was so close to chewing amber as though in our mouths we held the eyes of Coyote and how many other children had fathers that placed on their innocent, anxious tongue the blood of tree?

Here is a father so close to the children that their skin “stick to Daddy’s gluey clothing.” When Jesus prayed what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he used the Aramaic term “Abba,” which we have called “Father,” but more accurately is “Daddy.” It’s a closeness in relationship, a relationship which does not distantly call, but is right there sticking to us, forging that relationship intimately by placing the “blood of tree” on our very tongues and helping us to taste the world and learn not to fear it.

We need both of the figures of the father image of God: a distant call that draws us out of ourselves, and a closer call that journeys with us as we traverse the boundaries of the known (store-bought gum) into the unknown (blood of tree). In doing this, we can develop a whole image of God as Father that is both present, and distant.

As children we need this sort of development – a distant call as found in Psalm 88 and Psalm 8, and a closer call, such as in Psalm 46, to guide us. We won’t always like what we receive from those calls. But when we respond to them, as the Body of Christ, we find that we are able to mature and grow up into the people we are called to be. Jesus has been partaking the role of the “Son” in our gospel accounts, responding the the parent and showing us how we could respond, too. However, through response Jesus grows and matures, too, until we get to that final chapter of St Matthew’s gospel. Here, Jesus has now been “given authority” by God. He now gives the disciples the Great Commission to go and share his love through that relationship to all peoples. In responding, they too will grow and mature to the point where it will be them issuing the calls, and another generation acting in joyous response. Today, we are all called to respond: some of us will be the ones making the calls into our church, community and world; others will be responding; some will be doing both. And in that dynamic of call and response, we can feel the presence of God surrounding the world and engaging with its chronic angers, taking joy that we can taste the world and be fully awake and alive to it. Amen.

 

On being a living grove together

In Acts, Churches Together, Jesus, John, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on June 2, 2014 at 4:41 pm

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On the first Sunday of each month, we share in an intergenerational service which offers an interactive “sermon-story”. Shared here are the notes I complied beforehand to help guide it, but the message itself is forged amongst us when we gather together. 

Key text: Acts 1:6-14

Read up first on the folk tale of the bundle of sticks.

It’s easy to break sticks individually. It’s much harder to break piles of sticks. And yet, this parable goes a little further than even that: take a bunch of sticks that we pick up, and pull them together. Do they fit comfortably together? Do they rub up against one another? Do you think them a “natural fit” if bound together? No! In fact, they’re very much like we are – each of us is different, and when we place ourselves in a group together, we’re bound to have our differences and things that make us uncomfortable with one another. And yet, if we remain bound together, what happens? We become unbreakable from whatever in our world might try and break us.

But I have a problem with this parable, as wise as it may be: the problem is, sticks are dead. They’ve fallen out of trees, or been plucked from them, and they have no life in them. They’re only changing into decay, and not growing more and more as one another. So, I’d like to propose a different way of reading this story: rather than have groups of sticks, what if we had groups of trees – living, rooted plants of all shapes and sizes growing in a forest grove? What about that? The winds that howl through the world have less chance of uprooting a forest than they do a single tree. And groves provide habitats for all sorts of ecosystems: what sorts of things might live in the ecosystem that a grove might form?

Large animals.

Small animals.

Plants.

Bugs.

Fungi. Did you know that one teaspoon of good soil contains two miles of fungi networks? All of that life comes possible when we grow together, because we create diverse and rich communities that enliven and strengthen us.

Today is the day we celebrate when Jesus leaves earth. Does that sound like something we should celebrate? Why do you think we do it, then?

Holy Spirit – when it comes, Jesus tells us that we will be his witnesses – the people who share his story and live in the ways he has taught us – to “all the ends of the earth.” Does that sound good, or does that sound scary? It’s probably a bit of both! It’s good because it means that how Jesus lives, we too may be able to live. We can, like a forest grove, come together and develop rich, deep communities that foster all sorts of life to all sorts of people, plants, animals and things unseen. And, we can enjoy that life together. That, to me, sounds heavenly!

But it’s scary, too: the disciples, and now us, are called to live like Jesus. Before he left, they thought they could simply follow Jesus, and have him tell them what was right, and what was wrong, and how to live good lives. But now that he’s gone . . . who can tell them those things? Who?

But I think that ultimately, it is exciting. Most things that are exciting and worth doing are both good and scary, like rollercoasters. Being together as a church should be both good, and scary. What are good and scary things about being a church to you?

As Jesus leaves, he invites his disciples to put their roots down into a community and enrich that community, and grow together as guided by the holy spirit. To become entire rich, fertile ecosystems capable of making and sustaining life together. And I think that’s what we should be. The disciples, after hearing all this, went and prayed. Perhaps the words of Jesus in John’s gospel were echoing in their ears as they prayed: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

“That they may all be one” is the slogan of the United Church of Christ. And by becoming one organizing full of rich life of all different varieties, we, too, can grow to be strong and fertile people of the world.

 

St Paul’s Commencement Speech

In Acts, Fear, Idolatry, St Paul, UCC Annapolis on May 27, 2014 at 2:37 pm

“St Paul’s Commencement Speech”

May 25, 2014

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

Book of Acts 17:22-31

It is the season of commencement speeches. We get told incredible pieces of advice in 22-minutes sermons, which are chopped down into snippets and posted on social media. Here, an arbitrary collection of such quotes that range from the inspiring to the absurd:

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” – J.K. Rowling, Harvard University 2008

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” – Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” – David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

“By the time I was your age, I thought I knew who I was, but I had no idea. For example, when I was your age I was dating men. So what I’m saying is, when you’re older, most of you will be gay.” -Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University, 2009

“There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized.” -Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College, 2011

“When you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later.” -Stephen Colbert, Knox College 2006

The idea of a commencement speech is to offer the opportunity for someone who has lived a wise and long successful life to lecture an incoming crowd of people who are just beginning life with wisdom and anecdotes they wished they’d known when they were their age. It takes place in a ceremony marking the end of a long period of accomplishment, but is itself meant to mark a beginning – commencing a new thing, rather than ending a good thing. It is a very American practice: it looks forward, and does not seem interested in looking backward for the people who have just finished a degree. In fact, it cannot look back, because a good commencement speech challenges rigid thinking and encourages a breaking of the boundaries and risk-taking that is necessary to live a successful life. The tools one needs to get through school fashion new tools to get one through life. You need to leave the old tools behind, and begin using the new ones, with new ways of thinking and acting.

St Paul’s speech to the Athenians was much shorter than our normal 22-minute commencement speech, but it marked the beginning of something new in Christianity. It, too, has pithy quotes, my favorite of which is “in God we live and move and have our being,” although Paul himself didn’t write that – he pulled that from an ancient Greek poet. Yet what makes it profound is that it begins Paul’s outright ministry to the Greeks, the Gentiles, to everyone else including the Jews. Before this speech, Paul limited himself to sharing his message about Jesus with Jewish people living in the area around the Mediterranean. After this speech, Paul opens up his ministry to all people. Paul realizes that Jesus’ message of love, of service to one another, of living in shared community, of seeing true loyalty as due to each other and not to structures of power, was a message that needed to be shared with everyone.

How did he arrive at this? There’s evidence in his speech: “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship. . .”, he says in v. 23. Paul, who had not too long before this been a zealous and close-minded persecutor of anything that was not purely related to his radical brand of Judaism, had learned to respectfully and carefully examine the objects of worship of another culture. When he did this, he not-too-surprisingly, found God. He had learned to recognize that God is not exclusively located in one single practice of religion, nor isolated to a single race or anything else: God was everywhere, calling out to one another to love each other with that same, passionate love with which God loves humankind.

What Paul encounters in Athens is idolatry; not quite worship to God, even if he recognizes that God is present there. He encounters figures of gods hewn from precious metals and rocks. He sees entire rituals performed around these figures, with animals sacrificed to them and attention drawn to them. He realizes, perhaps, why he has always disliked idolatry: it was worship to an object that pulled a person’s attention away from God to an inanimate object, and he knew that to serve God, one had to “love your neighbor as yourself.” All of that extravagant energy, all that attention, all that beauty and skill in poetry and drama, in speeches and acts of sacrifice, were being pointed to gold, silver, marble and iron, and not God located in the people around them.

What are our idols today? There are many things that pull our attention and focus away from God and each other, and these are our idols today. In ancient Greece we know the gods represented desired things:

Wealth – Plutus

Love (both erotic and platonic) – Aprodite

Wisdom and Knowledge – Athena

Power – Zeus

War – Ares

Efficiency and speed – Hermes

Order and discipline – Apollo

Chaos and entertainment – Bacchus

You would worship the one who could give you what you desired and wanted, and ply that god with gifts to convince them to give it to you. Today, our idols are much the same, though they don’t have the personification that the Greek gods did. We sacrifice to them, too: our well-being, our time, our values, our love of one another, and so much more, are sacrificed in order to receive the blessings that power, wealth, order and discipline, or non-stop entertainment give to us.

Paul spoke to the Athenians on Mars Hill, where philosophers and learned people would gather, to share with them what he thought was the antidote to the inherent selfishness of their society: the church, belonging to the Body of Christ today, and becoming one with God. His call was to plant churches, and in so doing he realized that they should be spiritual homes for all. He did not dismiss his audience as pagans and idolaters – far from it! He showed that he respected them and their religion by carefully contemplating it. But, he wanted to correct them from engaging in a self-serving religion and instead invite them into a religion that was focused on an unknown God because it was focused on one another, with each person being unknowable.

Today, we have much the same challenge. Our world might feel increasingly saturated with a chaotic number of activities, yet structured to an exhaustive point where failure seems inevitable and yet unforgivable. A parody in the television show Portlandia displayed a family using charts to show lifetime success if their pre-school child was accepted to a rather posh preschool, and lifetime failure if he did not perform well at his interview. While overblown, the comedy sketch shows us something of our own society. we are obsessed with success as defined by our society; we’re not scared enough of the living death that occurs when we are over-worked, over-stressed, over-tired or over-stimulated. Communities should help relieve that; not increase that! Yet, in our own church community, many of our committee positions are viewed as life-draining, rather than life-affirming. We need to fix that.

In our world, we are encouraged to take advantage of others and preserve our own financial well-being as we buy products and services from others, sometimes aware that the people making our clothes are not earning a living wage. We measure everything, yet have no real respect for how our way of life impacts our natural environment. It is a temptation, to those of us who might see this, to keep from constantly shouting at everyone around us for not seeing the error of their ways. It is a temptation every Sunday to harangue about why we don’t jump to it for justice and peace each day, actively agitating against that which is killing our compassion to one another and our world.

Paul understood that God is in all things, and all things are in God. He, like us, need to carefully examine the world around us, and each of the idols that we and our culture worships, and discover where in that is God located? Paul finds it in the unknown God, and he shares this with the gathered people. He tells them, as a Greek poet has already told them, that “we too are God’s offspring.” Paul is not a Greek: and yet, he has made it part of his lifeskill to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the Greeks to get to know and appreciate and respect them.

We, too, must carefully examine our world. We must get to know everything that drives it, and we must live with open eyes and open arms. We must, as God does and Jesus did, love it. Paul learns to love the world, and love this Greek culture. We must learn to love our world and love our culture. But we, like him, must also learn how to redirect people to life within this world, rather than the deathliness that comes from selfishness. Where people are worshipping the stock market, we might be called to help them recognize God within that market, and help people to see the other people that those fluctuations in numbers represent. Where people worship entertainment, we might be called to help people recognize God in the relationships forged in company together around a good joke, a good dinner, or even a good movie. We should recognize that all things in the world serve to bring people together, but that when we focus on the tools that bring us together rather than the act of togetherness and unity, we lose the point of Jesus’ life amongst us, and God’s love that remains with us.

Jesus, as he is about to leave, reminds his disciples that they will still have what he calls the Advocate, which we call the Holy Spirit, with them after he leaves. They will no longer have the person of Jesus with them, but they will be able to follow him through prayer and discernment in their world. They formed the church to be the organization that keeps following Jesus, that calls people to focus on life. Paul was founding those churches. We continue them, being communities of spiritual nurture that reaches far beyond the walls of this place. Today, we share with one another an additional collection for strengthen the church Sunday. We make it possible for other communities to speak lovingly into their societies and help others focus on God, the God present in the other person, in one another, in the bonds of love. We mark this commencement of life together, a life where we will experience failure, but also hope; disappointment, but also life; sadness, but also love: and we will connect the dots together so that at all times we love one another, and in so doing, be a church living life in a way that shows that we love God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a good friend

In Authenticity, Fear, Jesus, Job, Lent, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on March 23, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Preached at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis on Sunday, March 23

Job 24:1-12; 25:1-6; 25:1-4, 9-14

Last spring I had an invitation to join in a roundtable discussion in Cambridge regarding the model that an organization, called ARMONIA, was using to “transform poverty into life” in the poorest parts of Mexico City and the far-flung parts of the Oaxaca Province in Mexico. The organization’s founder and director, Saul Cruz, was at the table, and he told us that he wanted us to come and be missionaries to his Mexico City complex. He wanted our churches to send youth groups and adult study groups to ARMONIA. That was not surprising. What was surprising was that he wanted us to come to learn from them how to be missionaries in our own communities – not theirs. Saul, you see, had been a fairly well off psychologist in Mexico City about 21 years ago now. He and his wife both had successful practices. They had good friends, good cars, and a good condo in which to raise their kids and live the good life. Yet Saul was fighting a nagging feeling that something was not right. Through a series of circumstances, he realized that he was called to build a community center in one of the most dangerous parts of towns, rife with drugs and poverty. Together with his wife, they began piecemeal to move into the community and, through the community network, build a community center with the local community, run by the local community, and for the local community, while they became a part of that community. He literally took what had been a rubbish dump and turned it into a place of life. He didn’t want experts coming from far off lands to dictate what was good for the people there. They knew what they needed. Today, several similar centers are around Mexico City, each with the goal of lifting people out of poverty and engaging them with a new life.

At first he was afraid of making this transition. Yet his faith compelled him to do something that made him engage with people, and to let go of all the certainties which he had, up until then, spent his life making. Now, he teaches people from America and Britain how to do the same thing. Churches go to ARMONIA secure in their faiths and secure in their doctrines. They come ready to dispense this goodness and their efforts to make life better for that faceless mass of people, “the poor.”

They leave shaken to their very core in the certainties of their faith and their life. The assumptions that they once held so dear are gone. They have engaged with poverty by getting to know people, and they cannot explain it away as some judgement from God for some sin. It’s so big that they have trouble even blaming it on systemic global injustice. Saul told all of this to a room full of theologians, people who are very adept and talking about troubles, but sometimes lack the empathetic ability to actually understand and engage with these circumstances from anything but academic levels. We were told this by a man who followed Jesus’ call to be Christ to others, and on faith and faith alone went and did it. As a future minister, I had to ask myself: how can I help people let go of their fixed beliefs and find faith – and the courage borne of such faith! – to be and do what God is calling them to do?

Counter this to another story I heard of a missionary trip to Tanzania not too long ago. A group of teenagers went to build a school, having raised money from their church for such a project. They arrived, and each day they built up the walls of the school in the hot sun using concrete blocks. Each night they went back to their dorms, tired and fulfilled with missionary zeal. The person who related this story to me discovered on the last day of her two-week trip that each night the local community went to the schoolhouse, tore down their walls, and then built them right back up to where they had been. Why? Because suburban-raised teenagers tend to know nothing about building concrete walls. The locals, glad to accept the gift, also wanted to make sure it was stable but not insult the giver. The terrible sadness in this entire “mission trip” was that there was never any interaction between the people: the youth arrived secure in their faith and literally built up unsound walls to sustain it each day. Had it not been for that accidental revelation at the end of that encounter, she would never have been challenged in her own beliefs of her goodness. She never would have had to confront the real poverty of the people. In the end, she realized that she never really engaged with them or got to know them. She arrived with her beliefs, and never once had to let go of those and go by faith alone.

A person can believe anything, but faith: well, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11.1, AV).  Faith is the ability to let go of the certainties of control, to not look at a person in a different situation and judge them based upon what you believe to be certain. It’s the ability to let go of certainties and take up the call of God on your life to engage with one another without judgement. Unlike Job’s friends.

Our reading this morning comes from the end of the conversation with Job with his three friends. Job has been stricken with terrible torments: his children all have been killed in the disastrous collapse of a building. On the same day, some raiders from the north stole all of the cattle he had, robbing him of all wealth. He gets stricken with suppurating sores from the ends of his toes to the top of his head. In response, he sits in an ash heap, with a broken fragment of pottery, a potsherd, and is silent for seven days. He is joined in this commiseration by his three friends. When they see him, they do not recognize him, so stricken is he. Upon seeing their friend, they tear their clothes and they throw dust on their heads. They make themselves uncomfortable. And they sit, for seven whole days, in silence with Job. Such compassion! But at the end of those seven days, Job opens his mouth, and what he says scandalizes them as much as it might scandalize us today:

“Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’ (3.3) . . . Why did I not die at the birth? (3.11) . . . Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? (3.23) . . . Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes.”

Blasphemy! From the mouth of one so supposedly pious as Job! He wishes not for his life to end, but for it to never have existed! He does not curse God – Job never curses God – but he curses near everything else. In so doing, he casts doubt on the wisdom of God as far as the friends are concerned. By cursing the very day he was born, cursing his own birth (!), bemoaning that he has human comprehension (light) and yet cannot make sense of his pain, he is telling his friends that something is awry with God’s finely wrought plan for the world.

Job’s doubt was shocking to his friends because their doctrinal system of understanding was that if something bad happens to a person, he or she must surely have deserved it. They have three assumed beliefs which they brought with them to this travesty. The first two are ones that we are probably familiar:

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is just and good.
  3. Job is good.

Therefore, if Job is not guilty, how is it possible to explain what befalls him (Gutierrez 21) unless we doubt the first two? The friends assumed that Job was in denial about what sin now was causing him pain. They believe that to be good friends to Job, their task is to make Job understand the first two points and accept the fallacy that he is not to blame. It never occurs to them to actually engage with Job outside of these fixed assumptions and actually trust the experience and viewpoint of their friend. Rather than open themselves to Job, they impose upon him their own viewpoint of how the world is, and of how God is. Not because God is actually like that, but because if God were not, it would destroy how they understand the world.

Job can’t accept their view of the world and God as correct. He’s righteously mad at God. He provides a litany of injustices that the all-powerful God permits: “[The poor] go about naked, without clothing; hungry, they carry the sheaves” – implying that they will not eat any of the bread made from those sheaves! “Among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil” – for the profit of the wicked but not themselves! “They tread the winepresses, but suffer thirst. From out of the city the dying groan, and the soul of the wounded cries for help; yet God charges no one with wrong.” Where is this justice, Job asks his friends, of which you speak so certainly?

Bildad’s response, the one we read, is a last-ditch attempt to save his falsely pious view of the world. He hides behind his version of God. He declaims Job as being irrational at not accepting what is the prevailing wisdom about God. Job will have none of it: dripping with sarcasm, he charges the pious Bildad of dispensing not God’s wisdom, but his own (“with whose help have you uttered words, and whose breath has come out from you?”). Job concludes by acknowledging that no one can know God’s justice: God is a mystery, because the world is obviously not operating on just principles, and he’s mad at God because of this.

Part of our resistance to letting go of the concepts of a mechanistically just God is because we are afraid of letting go of the way our life is now. Like Job’s friends, we don’t want to let go and literally let God because we don’t want to give up our jobs, our way of life, or our friends. Like Saul Cruz of ARMONIA, we have goals of doing great things with this life, and a normal professional life demands that we control and organize that life. Plus, we like things the way they are. We’ve spent our lives striving for things to make just enough sense that we can manage them, and manage them we’re going to do. This is the view of Job’s three friends, and doubtless was his own view before this disaster knocked him from his false position of believing he could make sense of the world. Like the teens on the mission trip building shaky walls, he really was not aware of the world and the people in it, and just how weak his own structure was. (potsherd)

There is not reason to despair. We are held in this world when we do let go of false certainties and go by faith. Our needs will change when we follow what Jesus is calling us to do in the world and stop trying to substitute those with material needs and wealth. Jesus says, in the Gospel of St Matthew Ch. 11, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus never says that you will not have a yoke, nor a burden: but by going with the grain of God’s call upon your life, the burden goes from impossible to light, from death to life, from war to peace. It is a way that engages with each aspect of life. In that old way of life, you judged others not to make their life better, but to keep yours secure. That was the real failure of Job’s friends, as much as it was the teen missionary group building shaky walls: their action was designed to make them more secure in their beliefs, rather than challenge those by living and acting out in faith.

One Great Hour of Sharing is a campaign designed to have wealthy western Christians donate money to people in need throughout the world. It only works if we disengage from any sense of superiority in the world and re-engage as the people we are called to be, taking up Jesus’ yoke and developing the character through trial and suffering as urged in St Paul’s letter to the Romans. God’s world does not make sense: there are homeless people in this County living in a tent city they call the Death Camp down on Rt 198. It’s not pretty, but what brought them there must defy our simplified explanations of just treatment. We must challenge ourselves to be people of faith, as Saul Cruz’s ARMONIA program does, and not build shaky walls of belief absent of relationship with God’s people. We must trust God even when angry at God at the way things are, and take on the yoke Jesus offers us. This faith-based, rather than belief-based, life brings abundant life and makes us good friends to one another. Amen.

Being Perfect and Holy

In 1 Corinthians, Doctor Who, Holiness, Jesus, Leviticus, Matthew, Perfection, Progressive Christianity, UCC Annapolis on February 24, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Cor. 3:10-11, 16-19; St. Matt. 5:38-48;

also: Mary Oliver’s “What I Have Learned So Far” (a beautiful rendering by students at Marquette University).

Delivered at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis, Sunday, Feb 23, 2014

In the British television show Doctor Who, the arch rival of the hero, Doctor Who, are the Daleks. The Daleks were once living organisms, but mutated to such a degree that their bodies atrophied and their brains expanded so much that they dispensed with their bodies and housed them in mechanical devices. Their brains, so it is rumoured, expanded because they were ever thinking on becoming perfect. Their bodies only served to keep them from being perfect; but they could think up the perfect mechanical body. They were bent ever onward toward perfection: becoming thinking, incorruptible beings who operated on a single, conforming logical code. Arriving at the feeling that they themselves were perfect, they realized that every other creature in the universe that was not like them was therefore imperfect, and needed to be exterminated. Thus their mantra whenever they invade earth (which happens often in the television series): “exterminate.” Their goal is to rid the universe of imperfection, creating one pure and perfect Dalek world. For them, perfection is conformity. Luckily for the world, we have Doctor Who, an alien with two hearts who can travel through space and time, to defend us without the use of weapons, and often uses love and relationships to engage with the negative forces of power and dominance.

The Dalek understanding of perfection through conformity is perhaps what we as people of faith living in modern America think of as perfection. How often have you said, or thought, or heard said: “I’m only human”? The implication here is that as one is only human, one is therefore imperfect. This means for whomever says this that there is some outside standard that defines perfection, and that we fall short of whatever that standard might be. A church in a neighboring village to ours in England had on its sign: “No perfect people allowed.” While it seemed a good welcoming, it also indicated that no one was, or ever could be, perfect, when compared to an external, divinely-ordained outside standard.

One such outside standard might be Jesus himself. We sometimes think of Jesus as the only perfect human being. But Jesus does not say, “I am perfect, and you are not.” Nor does he say, “I am perfect, and you must be like me.” He does not say, “Follow me; but ha-ha, you can’t, because you’re not perfect.” Jesus instead says: “You . . . must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now, either we take that and say – we can never be perfect, so let’s just go about begging for forgiveness for the rest of our lives and pray for divine grace to make up the difference between ourselves and the external perfect standard. Or we can say, perhaps the definition of “perfect” that exists in our world now does not mean the same thing as what Jesus or God ever intended. Perhaps “perfection” has a totally different meaning altogether. Perhaps “perfection” is found not in a mechanistic realm of comparing ourselves to some perfect external standard. Perhaps Jesus would not have given us this teaching that we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect unless it was attainable.

So what is holy perfection if it is achievable and possible by human beings? First, it is not the perfection as found by the Daleks. They are materially incorruptible, they operate on a scientific basis, but they lack humanity, the very essence of what makes them living, sentient creatures aware of their world and surrounding. No, this cannot be perfection, even if it is ostensibly achievable. Rather, the economist Adam Smith can point us back in the right direction: “To feel much for others and little for ourselves; to restrain selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.” This is the definition formed by the same person whose economic principles have undergirded capitalism; rather than being a system of exploitation that relies on human greed, it suggests that its very founder was intent on it being used to harness selflessness.

Smith’s quote brings us back to Jesus, who is talking with a group of people and is taking issue with the way “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” has been interpreted. He knows that it is being used as a code of retributive justice, a way of justifying violence in response to wrongs committed. This was never the intent of Moses’ decree in Exodus: it was never listed as a system to justify violence in response to a wrong. It was given as a preventative measure to instill in people a fear that if a violent act were taken against someone, they would have that equally visited upon the perpetrator. Further, it was intended to limit the response to a wrong. An “eye for an eye” meant just that: if one’s eye were taken, the wronged person could take the eye of another person and nothing more: no imprisonment, no fine, no other penalty, just another person’s eye. And seriously, who would want someone else’s eye? It’s really an absurd system, because what you get in retribution really does not satisfy whatever rage you might feel at being wronged. When an enraged person is wronged, she doesn’t want just the other person’s eye: she wants their entire lives. Moses’ code was intended to prevent, not to justify, violent acts either in committing them or responding to them. Following this code means that when a violent act is committed, everyone loses because the exchange is not satisfactory.

Jesus is attempting to restore that balance and more by making it very clear that violence, either in initiating it or responding with it, is never justified. Turn the other cheek, he says. Give to those who ask you, he says. And he goes further than the balance of Moses’ code: if someone asks for your coat, give also to him your cloak! Love your enemy, pray for those who persecute you . . . why? Because there is nothing distinctive to the character of your life if you operate it from the perspective of a legal balance sheet. There is nothing remarkable about hating your enemies: that’s expected behavior, and it has utterly failed to stop the cycle of violence. There is nothing remarkable about only greeting the people you know, of your own social class and mental awareness, or sexuality, or worldview: everybody does that. Instead, to be children of God, to be perfect as God is perfect, means to go against the balanced worldview and throw it off-balance: if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with her two miles. Go beyond the commandments, beyond what’s required, because in this space beyond the legalisms and scientisms of our day lays perfection, lays love. Jesus is reminding anyone who will listen that the world is out of balance, and this is evidenced because there are people without coats and cloaks. The only way to correct that balance is to go beyond the commandments to love and serve one another, what he (and Adam Smith) calls “being perfect.”

It’s not like Jesus is giving an entirely new teaching. He’s restoring an understanding of what Moses’ “eye for eye” teaching was supposed to mean all along. The book of Leviticus was written as the guidebook for the priestly orders. Yet the instruction we receive in today’s reading is “for all the congregation”: it’s directed to everyone. Instead of perfect, the term which Jesus uses in our gospel reading, we get the instruction, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Similar to Jesus’ instruction, it is given with the understanding that it is obtainable. It means that you can be holy. It then proceeds to tell you how you can be holy. The first is an agricultural image about leaving behind some of what is gathered from the harvest for the poor, hungry and alien to gather themselves, but the others are clearly the same. Let me interpret the first:

  1. When you work, do not let all of your work serve only for your benefit. Work also for the poor and the hungry, and let some of the food you have acquired for your own benefit be provided for them also.
  2. And now, what are the others?

These are what it means to be holy. Living in this way, and going beyond the commandments to love and serve one another is what it means to be perfect. Adam Smith had it right; the Daleks had it wrong because they focused entirely upon themselves. This is what St Paul meant when he reminded us that we are God’s temples and that God’s Spirit does live in us. Too often that teaching has been used to pile guilt on top of us, showing that we are missing some external perfect mark. But nothing could be further from what Paul is trying to share with us in that letter! He is saying that you always and already are God’s temple, the Body of Christ present in the world today, the people you are if you just be yourselves! And in being yourselves, God’s gifts to the world, you learn to value the gift that is the other person, so much so that you will happily give them your coat and your cloak if they are in need. To love them is to love yourself, and to love yourself is to love them.

The very fact that on our table today are empty paper sacks is a reminder that there are empty mouths out there. If you ate breakfast this morning, remember that agricultural saying that we should leave something of our own to give to those who have not. As Jesus is teaching us, we perfect people must go beyond the reactive provision for those in need now and begin to address the systemic problems that lie at the root of our world that causes there to be empty mouths. This is a big issue, but by going beyond the commandments, beyond our comfort zones, beyond what we think we can afford in time and money, we find that we are being God’s perfect temples in the world. This should energize us and ignite us. And as Mary Oliver said in our poetry reading to begin our worship, “be ignited, or be gone.” Amen.

Lead us from death to life: a re-orienting faith

In 1 Corinthians, Deuteronomy, Fear, Matthew, Progressive Christianity, Radical Welcome, Relationality, UCC Annapolis, Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Texts: Deut. 30:15-18; 1 Cor. 3:1-9; St Matt. 5:21-37

I can imagine the people wandering the desert having listen to Moses. There he is, telling them about this fertile land that they’re supposed to be heading for, and he gives them all these stiff rules that they have to follow. They’ve been slaves for a really long time! They know how to follow rules. Wasn’t this Moses guy supposed to lead them to freedom? And yet here he is, handing down commandments and telling them how to act. It really is not cool. Plus, they’re stranded in the wilderness anyhow, right? So why would they actually want to listen to this guy about life right now?

Moses is telling the people traveling in the wilderness to follow the commandments which he has handed on. This comes as no surprise to us, really: in our lives and our work we are always told to “follow the rules”, and the fear of death used as the reason is surprisingly common. Or some sort of threat is given as to why we must follow the rules. A “Do Not Enter” sign on a road, for example, motivates you by fear of death and an accident to not drive down that road. The IRS threatens penalties and taxes for breaking the rules. The great thing about such rules is that normally we have no trouble following them. We comprehend them, and we therefore obey them in part because it is in our self-interest to do so. Making decisions about which rules to follow becomes all the more difficult, however, if what we should be doing is not in our own immediate self-interest.

Moses is making a hard case saying that “you will live and thrive and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering” if you “command the commandments I’m giving you right now by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments, his regulations, and his case laws.” I suspect he’s making a hard case because “loving the Lord your God” and obeying God’s commandments are not actually in one’s immediate self-interest. And indeed, if we were to study the Jewish Torah, which is loaded up with protections of widows, orphans, respect to neighbor, respect to illegal aliens, Jubilee years where all debts are forgiven, prohibitions against garnering up an excess of wealth, and so forth, we might have to agree: this book is NOT in our self-interest. The people are about to enter a land which is fertile, a land in which a person can make a really fantastic amount of money. They’re crossing the threshold of death – which is represented by wandering the wilderness to the East of the Jordan and where they’re entirely dependent upon things like manna – to life, a fertile land “flowing with milk and honey” that can be sustainably developed for life to continue peacefully in community forever. And yet, Moses warns that even this bountiful place of beauty can be overcome with greed and destroyed. The place of life can become a place of death. The “other gods” he warns about don’t have to literally be other gods – they are anything in the lives of the people that focus them away from God’s own beloved community, a community with rules that don’t protect the privileges of private citizens, but instead focus upon justice for the poor and the oppressed. Moses is convinced that the only way possible for the already fertile land to remain a place of life, and not a place of death, is if the people follow the commandments which prevent them from privileging themselves over the needs of a neighbor.

Moses makes it look clean and straight-forward. But we in this very church know that life is not clean and straightforward. Even the very best of intentions can become exploitative of our neighbor. However, in a community that practices neighborliness and keeps on practicing it, trying to be “good” regardless of how difficult, trying to “obey the commandments by loving God, walking in God’s ways, and keeping God’s commandments of justice and peace, it might be possible to cultivate an ethos of being good that is not motivated by immediate negative fears, such as death or a penalty.

In 1942, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small Protestant village in the middle of France, began saving about 5,000 Jews. To borrow one quote, “never was a Jew turned away or turned in” in the course of the war. The people of this community had routines and they had ways of hiding the the refugees. They helped their refugees garner false identification papers. Their community, tightly knit, welcomed in the strangers who came and stayed united despite the obvious threat of death looming over their heads like swords of Damocles. They interwove their lives with them; some were killed for the mere suspicion of harboring Jewish refugees, including one clergy person. They heard stories of nearby villages that were completely destroyed by the Nazi SS for sheltering refugees. Yet they continued to patiently harbor and shelter and assist refugees in escaping. After the war was over, no one outside of the community spoke of it nor did they speak of it. I was not until the late 1970s that a man who as a child had been harbored there began to inquire about it. The response he received was different: “How do you call us ‘good’,” they said. “We were doing what had to be done.” You can see them shrugging their shoulders as they return to the task at hand.

For the people of Le Chambon there was no dramatic interpretation of Scripture or theological explanation for what they did. They did what they did because it “had to be done.” But what compelled them to do it, risking life, limb and community to save complete strangers who were not held in high esteem by the majority of Europe at the time? For them, it was out of a habit of neighborliness – a sense of being and doing what God required of them every single day, as a community. They had been doing this for a long time, never dramatically, but always because it “needed to be done.” Becoming a community is not something which happens quickly. I say “community” as while I know that many see this church as a family, I like to think of it as a beloved community, with people from all walks of life that lays out a extravagant welcome, and can talk openly and safely with one another without threat, jealousy, harm or pain.

But: This is not a point at which we can arrive quickly. It takes years of patient growth, practicing welcome and developing as new people come in, former people leave, and approaches to issues evolve. When St Paul writes to the Corinthians, he refers to them as “infants in Christ”, a newly-formed community that was still exploring what it meant to be a church. Yet whatever prompted the letter to the Corinthians convinced him that they were not a growing congregation: they had not matured, and were still plagued with in-fighting and jealousy and strife. He does not give up on them: he prays for them without ceasing, and gives thanks for them. He urges them, however, to change their ways, and to re-orient themselves in the spirit of the good news to love and serve God, rather than be slaves to their own self-interest.

This is the crux of the Jesus message. The citizens of Le Chambon knew this message, and had been living as the beloved community for many years. They had matured into “spiritual people” whose values moved away from themselves and toward God: that is, God’s world and God’s people (who are all people) who were in need. They disobeyed the human laws of Vichy France and put their lives on the line for complete strangers when others like them were dying, and the vast majority was fearfully cowering for their own lives. The people of Le Chambon lived in such a way for such a long time that they no longer even needed to be told to obey the commandments in the didactic style which Moses employs in Deuteronomy, or the disappointed pastor in St Paul does when he enjoins the Corinthians to cease being vindictive to one another. Their long-term faith journey re-oriented them away from the selfish concerns of avoiding death to focusing on fostering and flowering life. It only became noticeable to the world when a crisis fell upon them: but before that, it had been there, being practiced in the ordinary everydayness of life. It did not require a crisis to happen.

In order for us to be a people of faith, we must put away those relics of our selfish times. In the beginning, we will need rules and regulations to help guide us. But as we evolve and grow as a people of faith, we become more confident of how to navigate the path in front of us and assure a just and peaceful and welcoming community that knows, implicitly, the right thing that God is calling us to do in that time, in that place. We need to do it as a community: it cannot be done alone. This again is why I so strongly believe we need a church, even against those arguments that one can “find God on a morning stroll through the woods.” True, divinity is present everywhere, as a Unitarian prayer goes, but as it continues: “but in certain places and certain times we feel a speciality of presence: may this be such a place, and such a time.”

In our gospel reading, Jesus tells us what happens when we go beyond the structures that held us up in our faith infancy. We no longer just say “killing is bad”; we say “anger is bad,” and saying terrible things about one another is bad, just as bad as killing. It is so bad that if you come to worship with anger in your heart, Jesus tells you to get up, and go back to the person with whom you are angry and be reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and be able to worship God in the sanctuary with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and indeed, with your entire being. How many of us came into worship with hatred in our hearts for someone, something? And yet, who here is ready to leave? You may. There is no shame in following the teachings of Jesus. Come and worship God reconciled with one another. This is what it means to pass the peace: we remove anger from our hearts, and take away hard feelings.

Living in a community and growing in faith together will make it possible to not even need to rely on the basic commandments, but will make it possible to go beyond the commandments. Our Scripture readings, though from old documents that have lived with communities in very different times, continue to help guide us, calling to us to live out the good news of Jesus. We have received the commandments, but we can hear in these Scriptures where Jesus wants us to go: beyond the commandments. We move from the self-interest that exploits our fertile lands and brings death and re-orient our community to the sharing in the journey that leads to life. We pray for our communal faith to so occupy our bones that we find when a crisis DOES happen, we can respond in the same manner as the citizens of Le Chambon-sur-Ligne: “We were doing what had to be done”.

Amen.

Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014

The United Church of Christ of Annapolis

8 Carvel Circle

Edgewater, MD 21037

http://www.uccannapolis.org

(410) 266-8596 x200

Making a joyful noise: in the edgelands

In After Pentecost, Fear, Joy, Luke, Pharisees, Progressive Christianity, UCC Annapolis on October 14, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Sermon given at The United Church of Christ of Annapolis on Sunday, 13 October 2013

living on the edge

 

Podcast version available here.

I have an old t-shirt that says “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.” It claims to be an African proverb, but like all such t-shirts, any statement that appears worthy to be on a bumper sticker might be an “African proverb.” But like all decent bumper stickers and/or African proverbs, it offers a grain of wisdom in its 13 words. It points a person to the edge, to the borderlands; it is from this perspective that one is able to see what is happening around herself. We know that if we are in the middle of a giant crowd, we lose all sense of what is happening around us. Think of a herd of wildebeests running in the savannas of Africa: in the middle of the herd, they follow the wildebeest in front of them, without any real sense of where they are going or what they are doing. They sense the sheer panic of the herd, and they participate in that panic. It becomes their community: a community of blind, mad-crazy fear that runs away from the calculating predators that line their paths. Fear drives them to the safest location, the middle, where nothing can really get at them. But being in the middle of a herd deprives the wildebeests of something else: perspective.   In the middle of the herd, they follow the mad-rush routine of the herd without any engagement. They don’t have to consult their fellow wildebeests on anything: it’s mob rule. They will have no perspective save the frenetic movements of the herd. How many of our lives might feel like that? To gain perspective, one needs to be on the outside of the crowd, maybe even perched on a little promontory overlooking the crowd. One needs to be in the borderwildebeestlands, not necessarily removed from what is happening, but able to see, respond, and react with more than just mob-rule reactionary thinking.

The writer of our gospel reading today places Jesus in the borderlands between Galilee and Samaria. Both regions are nominally Jewish, but both regions hate the other. They disagree fundamentally on where one should worship God: for Galileans, as for most mainstream Jews, the worship location was Jerusalem. For the Samaritans, the worship location was Mount Gerizim. Theological differences were just as stark in Jesus’ time as they are today. Jesus is traveling on his way to Jerusalem, walking through that no-man’s land that exists between most hostile places. And Jesus himself is from Galilee, a Jewish province considered by most to be a poor backwater of little significance. Jesus and the disciples are moving in an unpleasant space.

Usually, our borderlands are unpleasant spaces. One might call to mind those areas that exist on the edges of cities, where industrial “brownsites” deposit the ashen remains of factories in rusty dust and broken glass and rotting brick into weed-infested ground. Graffiti broadcasts the malcontent of a population of human beings subjected to living in this wasteland. Unlike the citizens of the city who are in the middle of everything, those in the borders are not “with it.” They are not following the prescriptive requirements of the crowd, and therefore are not held in the high esteem of the crowd. Not that one should really desire the esteem of those in the middle of the crowd: so intent they are on following the movements of the herd that there is no possible way they can create the space necessary to have the depth to appreciate any one else. Lest we forget, for Jesus to be held in really high esteem by the culture around him, he would have needed to become a Pharisee. Pharisees were those men of high stature in Galilee who followed every required rule, attended worship with due diligence, and held down a job to boot – such as being a carpenter. Only by becoming a borderland-mover and bucking the value system of the crowd was he able to change the world: and today we continue to worship God for it!

So, we find Jesus, a Galilean, engaging with this type of borderland space on his way to Jerusalem. But even in the borderlands, themselves a place of outcasts, Jesus encounters outcasts. Ten people are well outside a village to which he is walking. They are suffering from leprosy. When Jesus heals these ten people, he is not just healing them from a disease. Leprosy in the ancient biblical world was not necessarily the life-threatening illness that took so many human lives until the twentieth century. Instead, leprosy was any skin disease. A wart. A rash. In Jewish culture, whether Galilean or Samaritan, any skin disease made one a complete and utter social outcast – it made one unclean. That is why they kept their distance, and why they kept out of the village. Jesus and the disciples are encountering outcasts of outcasts in a village in the borderlands of Galilee. By healing them, Jesus restores them to social acceptability. They can participate in the community of the village again – they can get jobs, pay rent, buy food, harvest, fish, have families and flourish and do whatever people in the Galilee of Jesus’ time did: all things they could not do while skin-diseased and shunned by everyone else.

Jesus therefore sends them to the priests, who will verify that they are indeed clean and can return to their former roles in society. But one of them turns back. One of them stops. The others are so excited to return to the old routine of things, that they do not think about the miracle. They want to get to the priest and return to the work and lives they had once enjoyed. They might have been rich, they might have been in the middle of the socio-economic structure, who knows? They just want to get back to the way things were.

But one of them stops: one of them realizes that God has done something very different here. He does not see Jesus as some magician miracle worker who allows him to go back to his old life of routine, back into the middle of that mad-crazy wildebeest herd, that community of fear. There were a lot of those back then, who performed miracles and wonders in front of crowds. One of them realizes that Jesus has done something different. But how does he know this? How does this one guy know Jesus has done something different from what anyone else might have done, how does one guy know that God is truly at work here?

Because this one guy is not only an outcast from an outcast Galilean village on the borderlands – he’s a Samaritan. He knows that he’s been healed by someone who is supposed to hate him. He realizes that Jesus is not acting from any selfish motives, and that something new is happening here. He throws himself at Jesus’ feet. He doesn’t bother going to the priests to get a work certificate or whatever was handed out to cleansed people: he praises God that the divide between people was overcome, that a Galilean could care about a Samaritan, that the feud between people over silly differences was over! He saw past his own selfish desire to return to normality, and saw that the true miracle was not that he could work again, but that a Galilean could heal a Samaritan. Truly God was at work here.

Now, in this spirit, draw attention to that key difference that split the Samaritans from the Galileans: the question of where God should be worshipped. The nine who have been healed will perhaps go to where they think God should be worshipped and give thanks. They will go to their local synagogues, or maybe even be so grateful as to go to Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, depending on their persuasion. They will locate God in a cultural building, and will worship God there.

But not this one healed Samaritan. So incredible is the revelation that someone that is supposed to hate him, and whom he is supposed to hate, can heal what sent him to the borderlands, that he worships God at Jesus’ feet. He worships God at the feet of a human being, our brother, Jesus, the Son of Man, Emmanuel, God-with-us. He realizes that God works through people, and he worships God for the person in front of him who has discerned God’s call, and is acting in the way God has asked him to act.

It is likely that the Samaritan would never have gained this perspective had he never been outside of the safe center of his societal herd. Had he remained safely in the center of Samaria, he would never have encountered Jesus, nor have been an outcast in the borderlands of outcasts. Likewise, had Jesus stuck with staying safely in the center, he never would have been changing lives in ways that continue to change our lives to this very day. The Samaritan, in turning back from the routine and falling at Jesus’ feet making a joyful noise, can never go back to the way things were. He can never simply accept the way things are as status quo. He will, like Jesus, always have to live on the fringes of society.

But like Jesus, he will still be able to flourish and make a difference in the fringes. In fact, it is likely that one can only make such necessary changes from the fringes, and not from the center. The wildebeest herd is not controlled by those safely in the center, but by the predators on the outskirts whose movements cause the reactions of the herd. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles of Jerusalem, moved to the outskirts of Babylon after being defeated, instructs them to “Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on it.” The exiles living in the fringes of Babylon can also change the course of that city into something that will flourish. The healed Samaritan can recognize that God is working through him in the fringes, and he, too, can heal the rift between two peoples.

This is my dream for this church. We will always be a people of God operating on the fringes of our community. We are already “The United Church of Christ of Annapolis IN Edgewater” – what could be more borderland than that? We locate the joyful noise of praising God not in this building or place, though it is a God-filled place, but at the feet of Jesus. And we see Christ in our neighbor, and are surprised when our neighbor finds Christ in us. We are the body of Christ, living on the outskirts and operating in the borderlands. We are a crazy people, giving our time and efforts to a community that seeks to help the welfare of the herd while not being in the herd. We are a crazy bunch of borderland fools when we give money which we’ve worked for and earned to homeless shelters full of former outcasts, and pray that they, too, will have the same reaction as this healed Samaritan – though perhaps we’d be more than a little embarrassed if anyone tried worshipping at our feet. I imagine Jesus was embarrassed about that, too. But let us continue to heal rifts, and serve our neighbor, in worship and our work. Living in the borderlands, let us be freed from the narrow confines of how everyone else thinks, and imagine and act in innovative, creative and alternative realities. Let us rest in this God-of-the-borderlands and find solace so that we gain perspective, and not follow willy-nilly that mad-rush of the herd that dominates the 9 to 5 mentality. And let us in this realization share what the healed Samaritan learned from Jesus: “Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.” May that way be very different from the way it used to be. Amen.

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Making a joyful noise by Ryan Sirmons is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together

In After Pentecost, Jesus, Luke, Progressive Christianity, Relationality, UCC Annapolis on October 7, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Sermon given at the United Church of Christ of Annapolis for Sunday, 6 Oct 2013

St Luke 17.5-10

Our good friends in Cambridge, England, Andrew and Susanna, begin each meal together with a simple blessing: “We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together.” During the blessing, guests join hands and intentionally look at one another. Three things are acknowledged in this blessing:

  1. Being. I, as an individual, exist, with all my thoughts and emotions.
  2. Here. I, as an individual, exist here in this space, at this present moment. This is an event, no less nor more than any other event, but I am awakened to the moment of this particular event.
  3. Together. I, as an individual, exist here in this space, at this present moment, alongside other people, whom I see and affirm.

Through the three-fold process of the prayer, we are drawn to intentionally reflect on our own existence and recall that that alone is special; we then move along to expand our awareness to the place, all of those things that signify what “here” might mean during that event. And then, we go even further by growing aware of the people that we are with in that place and affirming that they are there with our eye contact and/or hand-holding. The entire three-fold activity is held together by a unity of thankfulness: we give thanks for each stage.

Thankfulness is one of the most profound of human activities, and yet one of the easiest to forget. Turning back to our Greek classics, those ancient heroes who forgot to thank the gods for their good fortune and instead decided it was solely their own skill that led them to safety or success would quickly find themselves no longer in the good graces of the gods. This was less because of any Greek idea of a bunch of angry gods, but rather the result of a society that saw gratefulness as the binding force of all that existed in the culture. Gratefulness for this culture was not something that was given after the fact, as in the proper response for a favor; rather, it was something that existed already in the world. It was a given that one would be thankful for the existence of another person, because in ways one might not even begin to understand, one was dependent upon that other person and always and already owed them. The heroes owed their success and good fortune to the fabric of the world and community in which they lived.

The most sinister of characters would be that person or group of people who felt that they owed no one anything, or worse, that the world owed them. To them, life in the community was a balance sheet of favors and debts. They would be guilty of what Gary Snyder called “stinginess of thought” in our worship preparation reading. Living a “good life” would be one where nothing was owed on either side of the balance sheet. In today’s world this is a phenomena we are accustomed to witnessing, played out on the grand stage of politics, healthcare, housing, minimum wages, our monthly bills, and interpersonal behavior. So often our system of rewards is based not upon a general, always-present thankfulness for one another, but rather a system of merit decided by those in positions of authority over another: did this person deserve this reward, or no? The thanks is restricted only to those who are deemed deserving because of a certain action, and not in the general sense of just being people interacting with our own household.

In that ancient world, where no one pretended to understand the complex web of interconnectivity between one another, to be always in a state of thankfulness was to be demonstrating some sort of faith. In our society today, we recognize God in a general understanding of thanking God when something just works, or a person recovers from sickness, and so forth. We do not presume to know how it works, and even when it can be easily explained, we just know that something happened that made it work. The choral response we sing today following our pastoral prayer, “Thank You, Lord”, reflects this sentiment.

Though Jesus was probably not drawing from the ancient Greeks, something of this understanding of faith arising from constant thankfulness is apparent in his short parable given in response to the apostles’ request. They ask: “Increase our faith!”. It’s one of the most ludicrous demands in the New Testament. It is a demand for miracles, for acts of unquestionable proof that Jesus is the son of God. It is not thankful for Jesus’ presence amongst them, but is rather a demand upon him to serve them. It is a selfish demand for Jesus to make a spectacle of himself in order to purchase their belief in God. Indeed, this is often what churches feel they need to do as they begin to discern how to grow or be more dynamic or vibrant: they feel that people are demanding that we as a church “increase their faith”. In response we feel obliged to put on spectacular displays for them. And so we are tempted to slick things up without a due regard to substance. That does not mean that a church should not have a party: lest we forget, Jesus’ first miracle is to provide the means to keep the Wedding at Cana going – and back then, weddings went on for days at a time. These activities bind community. Nor does it means that a church should not change in order to be more relevant. But what it does mean is that the church should not have a party for the sake of having a spectacle. Nothing a church does should be for the mere sake of appearances. Jesus answers the apostles’ demand with a substantive response, which is similar to that unity within my friend’s table prayer: to paraphrase, he says “increase your thankfulness”.

Jesus poses a question which assumes that the apostles, the very ones who are supposed to be living in the Jesus Way and showing this to all people, are slaveowners. They are in a position of authority with control of the lives of other people. The question assumes that they feel that it is perfectly natural to live in this hypocritical structure, with them as followers of Jesus, and their slaves as servants who have their own, different and subordinate, ways of doing things. Their lives are lived in a balance-sheet mentality; even their comment, “increase our faith,” suggests that they want that aspect of their lives increased so as to offset some other imbalance. They don’t see that by not living lives of thankfulness they are slaves to their own system. They don’t see that Jesus is teaching them to break out of thinking in those ways!

How often do we thank the postman, or the people laying asphalt to create roads, or the people collecting the garbage and recycling of our homes? Teachers? The people operating the networks that keep the internet and electricity in place? Those treating our wastewater or trying to solve the ecological challenges of the Chesapeake Bay? How often do we thank God for all the things that come together to make our lives possible? True, we pay people, perhaps grudgingly. Let’s face it, though: that transactional activity is not much different than slavery in the sense that one would provide the basic needs of a slave, in return for the slave to function as required.

In order for one to have even a modicum of faith in Jesus’ eyes, that “faith the size of a mustard seed,” Jesus wants the apostles to show how thankful they are for others who interact in their lives. To show this thankfulness, Jesus directs the apostles to how they treat the invitations to their dining table. Is it a place where all can eat together? Or is it a place where only an exclusive few are able to eat? Is it a place where some are standing behind the chairs actively serving the guests? Today is World Communion Sunday, and together with Christians around the globe we will sit at Jesus’ table. It is open to all; it is, as my friend the British-Caribbean theologian Michael Jagessar calls it, “a table with no corners.” It is a place where Jesus expresses his thankfulness for all of us, and selflessly feeds us with the spiritual food that represents the substance and lifeblood of his own life. It is a perpetual example of thankfulness for us to emulate.  In response to this meal, we give thanks to him. This is a thanks that is so much more than a thank-you note. It is a thankfulness that fills the core of our very being, overflows, and is demonstrated by how we act.

How we act upon thankfulness is evidenced every time we break down the structures that perpetuate inequality and mere transactional zero-sum relationships. We give thanks to Jesus and this meal on the communion table every time we give thanks for the lives of our sisters and brothers, those we know, and especially those we do not know, when we affirm that we love them in thought, word and deed. When we recognize how inter-connected we always and already are in our lives, and we are moved to give thanks, we thank God for it. It’s an emotion we can share in common with those ancient Greeks, and an emotion we give thanks to Jesus for reminding us about in this parable, in his life, and in his own open invitation to the table.

So much in our world drags us back to zero-sum thinking. It’s hard to pay an electricity bill with thankfulness. Those whose are furloughed in our congregation from the shut-down, and the many of us directly affected by it, will have trouble getting back to work on thankfulness. Zero-sum structures are part of the fabric of our society, and balance sheets keep us out of a lot of financial trouble. They can be approached prayerfully. Jesus recognizes that there will always be those structures. Yet he refuses to acknowledge that these need to dominate our approach to life together. He wants us to put mutual appreciation and thankfulness in front of our thinking, and let the balance sheets follow such an approach.

He also reminds the apostles that if we only do that which we’re required to do, our lives will end in “zero sums” ourselves, and we will count ourselves as “worthless slaves who have done only what we ought to have done,” no more, no less. In contrast, a life lived out in thankfulness overflows in meaning. When thankfulness overflows, we are able to find meaning in our own being. We can give thanks for being. We are able to open ourselves up more to the place in which we are: we can give thanks for being here. If we can give thanks for being here, we can go so much further and give thanks for being here, together. We find that the prayer itself is a table with no corners, for it works itself around in a circle. Because we can give thanks for being together, we are able to find in the affirmation of ourselves from one another meaning in our own individual being. It is a cycle of building up that continues, and can only be achieved in the feeling of mutual thanksgiving. That is what we do in this church every Sunday, if not every day.

And so, I ask us now, from where we are sitting, to reach out our hands and join them with those around you. Let this be a beginning of a mutual appreciation of one another. Some of you won’t know the person next to you, but know that your life is as connected to them as it is to a parent, a partner, a child: as we prepare to approach the table which Jesus has joyfully prepared for us, which is put together by so many hands in the Body of Christ around the world, let us say our prayer as we take in the space around us, and the people around us: “We give thanks for being, we give thanks for being here, we give thanks for being here together. Amen.”

Bibliography: http://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, All Things Shining (2011)