Monday, December 17, 2012

A Pastoral Letter to Christ Congregational Church

Dear Friends,

As part of Jesus’ birth narrative, Matthew’s Gospel quotes the words of the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more” (Matthew 2:18; Jeremiah 31:15). In our hearing of the Christmas story, we are confronted with Rachel’s refusal. Her lamentation is part of the chorus that proclaims Christ’s birth. Until the events of this past weekend, Rachel’s weeping may have seemed discordant with the joyous songs of angels singing “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” But now, as we face the massacre in Newtown, CT, we have some questions. Where was God? Why didn’t a loving God stop this from happening? Why does God allow evil to abound? Our flowing tears and authentic questions are now part of our welcome of the Christ child.

Matthew’s Gospel story refers to King Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s children, an event that we have come to call the murder of the Holy Innocents, remembered in song by the familiar Coventry Carol:
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Rachel represents the suffering of those who are deprived of their freedom by an oppressive power. Who can give hope to Rachel when innocent children become victims of evil? For anyone to speak cheaply or glibly in the midst of such evil is certainly to utter blasphemy. Rachel refuses the consolation of facile explanations and false reassurance. Rachel refuses to be comforted by empty words. The Gospel writer wants us to remember that there are situations in which only God may speak of hope. In the face of the killings in Newtown, we will hear all kinds of voices trying to explain what happened. Some voices are repugnant, such as the suggestion that God allowed this to happen because God is not allowed in public schools. Other answers sound benign, but to our ears are equally repugnant – that God is short of angels in heaven and needed these children. We don’t have all the answers, but we believe in our hearts that God speaks in the midst of those who grieve and hurt at this moment. If we want to hear the voice of our still speaking God, let us tune our ears to the Divine Spirit whose name refuses to be spoken unless spoken through those who have been silenced, and through the tears of those who weep for their loss.

During this season of hope, love and joy, we also affirm that Jesus knows all about suffering, evil and pain. Jesus tells his followers that they will face violence. But he also tells them that they will not be alone when evil abounds. Jesus does not stand by idly when our hearts are breaking. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God is with us, reminding us that the Divine Child comes to fill our suffering with the presence of loving light.

In times of darkness, we can be tempted to pull back from others and cocoon. But there is another way. Facing evil can lead us to become peacemakers. Peacemakers are people who heal by pulling close and building community, instead of breaking apart. Peacemakers are people who can get in touch with their own pain and disappointment with God and reach out to others who suffer. Peacemakers are those who have suffered with Christ, just like Christ has suffered with us. So, let us find those deep places of compassion, humility, and the desire to root out the weeds of evil.

Please come talk to us if you have any questions or concerns, or if you just need to share in this time of grief.

In faith,
Pastor Matt and Pastor Amy

Two Meditations for Advent 3, December 16, 2012

The Illusions of Darkness
11 AM
Listen Here

In the beginning the Word already existed.
    The Word was with God,
    and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
    and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
    and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
    and the darkness can never extinguish it.
John 1:1-5

Ok, here is a brain twister for your physicists out there. What is the opposite of light? Were you going to say darkness? Don’t be too quick to answer this one. We now know that particles have anti-particles. Since light is made up of particles called photons, then the opposite of light is anti-photons or anti-light. But wait! It turns out that the anti-particle for the photon is the photon. Which means that the opposite of light is . . . light.

As it turns out, the universe is composed of light. What we call darkness is simply the absence of light. Even in the farthest corners of the universe, light still exists. It may be a small quantity of light, immeasurable by existing technology, but the light is still there. The experience of darkness just means that we cannot see the light.

We are facing some dark times right now, and we have a lot of questions as we think about the power of evil and eruptions of heart-sickening violence. For some of us, the events in the news can bring back memories of some of darkest griefs in our own lives … suffering a great disappointment … the loss of someone you cherished…the breaking off of a relationship … moving far away from family and friends … hearing the awful news of an illness … or perhaps financial distress. What do these dark hours of the soul feel like to you? Did you want to give up all hope? Was there something or someone who pulled you through? Did you try to pray? Were you too hurt to do anything?

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced a dark hour in his own life. On Christmas Day 1863, Longfellow received the horrible news that his dearly-treasured son had been critically wounded in battle during the Civil War. Longfellow’s wife had died in a tragic accident two years before. Now his faith was tested again by the war. His son returned home and Longfellow tended to his son’s crippling wounds. He saw other wounded soldiers on the streets of his city. He visited with families who lost sons in battle and he asked, “Where is the peace?” Then, picking up pen a paper, he tried to answer his own question by writing a poem:
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day,
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
The last verse is especially moving to me.
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!’”
It seems like we are surrounded by darkness. Or . . . maybe we just can’t see the light yet. It’s not mistake that Christmas comes at the darkest time of year. Jesus is born in the middle of the night of the longest night of the year in the deep darkness of the winter solstice. When the earth is the most desolate, we sing our hope. When the darkest part of the year comes, we think about what it takes to bring about peace. Light shines in the darkness. Or, to put it another way, we finally see the light that we couldn’t see before.

You Are Made to Shine
9 AM

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:6-9
We don’t always want people to be who they really are. Our culture has a code phrase for this: “Don’t Ask. Don’t tell.” In other words, you must suppress and compromise an essential part of who you are. Chris and I are celebrating our 20th anniversary next week, and I still have not learned a hard lesson.  There are times in life when “Don’t ask. Don’t tell” seems appropriate, but that’s a false conclusion. Still, there are certain questions I avoid, like, "What color is this?" I read about a study that examined the color identification and vocabulary skills of male and female college students. Guess what? I don’t know about any gender bias in the research, but the study found that women identified significantly more elaborate colors than did the men. Apparently there is a difference between blue and periwinkle.

Some relationships have third-rail questions that partners don’t like to be asked:
“Do I look fat in this outfit?” and the related question, “Do you like my new haircut?”
“What are you thinking?”
“Would you remarry after I die?”

These are not questions. They are ambushes.

 “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a recipe for cowardice and mediocrity. And that’s not what God wants for our community and our personal relationships. It’s not what God wants for you.  The Apostle Paul says puts it this way: whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, THINK on these things and DO these things. You were made for so much more than mediocrity.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a denial of the essential YOU. You were made for fullness and blessing. Your life purpose is to be more fully who God made you to be. And God made you to shine. So let Divine Light shine!

Who are you to question the greatness that is the image of God’s light in you? When you are boldly and confidently yourself, you are offering your highest good to the world. And God knows we need more of that right now. In the words of Marianne Williamson,
“Who are you not to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world . . . You are meant to shine, as children do. You were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. It’s not just in some; it’s in everyone. And as you let your own light shine, you unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As you are liberated from your own fear, your presence automatically liberates others.” (Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles)
Today, as we think about those whose lights have been snuffed out, the victims of the worst of what our aching world has to offer, we also have an opportunity to think about how each of us is can shine the light of love and compassion – how we can put our core faith values into practice. We have a chance to listen for God, in our times of grief and our moments of gratitude, to seek God’s highest aims for the world, to think about our connections and interconnections. And think about making some commitments.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to destroy the life or spirit of     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to take what is not given.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to engage in abusive     relationships.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak falsely or deceptively.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harm self or others through     poisonous thoughts or deeds
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to dwell on past errors.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak of self separate from     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to possess any form of life     selfishly.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harbor ill-will toward any     human being.
When we can work on these things, we will begin to understand the true power of Christ, love’s pure light, at work in us, around us, and through us this season.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sermon for December 9, 2012, Advent 2

Hope for Things to Come
Listen Here

“There will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!” Then he gave them this illustration: “Notice the fig tree, or any other tree. When the leaves come out, you know without being told that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that the Kingdom of God is near.  I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth.  Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36

When I was growing up in the 1970's and 80's, I was sure we were all going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Both had nuclear weapons. Each nation held back from launching a nuclear holocaust because of the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch its warheads . . . but we feared that such restraint could not last forever. By mistake or intention, a foreign government would launch its weapons, we launch ours, and the world would end -- fire, followed by ice, with famine and unspeakable global destruction. As children, my friends and I asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. Maybe I worried too much, but that anxiety provided the backdrop to much of my childhood and adolescence.

I have put aside the fear of nuclear war, for the moment, but I am no less am concerned for the future of humanity and the world in which we live. Now my fears center on global warming and the growing possibility that we are making our planet uninhabitable. The World Bank just took the unprecedented step of making a comment about climate change. The World Bank said that unless serious action is taken, warming of 4 degrees Celsius or more is unavoidable and the consequences will be dire. We are facing a crisis as human beings, a crisis borne of the over-population of our planet and human beings’ insatiable desire for more.

Worries do not have to be on a global scale, though. The toughest distractions are the personal ones. For instance, sometimes I become so focused on my work, I tend to lose sight of my place in the big picture. I can spend hours before the computer, and then rush to get ready for meetings and then rush to them, that I forget what it is that I am proclaiming. I can miss my family’s joys, and my moments of personal happiness and what it is that God is actually doing all around me.

The world is filled with problems. There will always be something that challenges our faith. Jesus warns us that things like warfare, floods, famine and our crumbling creation are always a prospect. And he reminds us that personal worries can be more distracting than global threats. Personal problems are perilous because they are subtle and sneaky. We can feel trapped, feeling sorry for ourselves, tempted to work harder to fix it, focusing on one part of life so much that we miss the bigger picture.

What about you? Do you ever feel lost in today -- lost in the concerns that this moment brings? Has your life been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate the wonderful things happening around you?

In today’s reading, we get a sense of how Jesus calls his faith community to respond to calamity. I hear three responses: Stand, Watch, and Pray.

First, Stand. In the face of catastrophe, Jesus says, “Stand and look up, for your salvation is near.” The Greek implies that in the face of hard times, the disciple should lift and straighten one’s self up. Don’t shrink back in fear. Jesus is so stoically matter-of-fact in today’s text one has to wonder if he’s being driven by faith or fatalism. Some commentators wonder the same thing. They tell us that when the end of days comes, when we stand up and lift up our arms, Jesus will grab us and pull us right up and out of that mess. But wait . . . that’s not what Jesus really said, is it? Swoop in and take you out of it.” Jesus actually says, “Stand up and lift up your heads because your redemption is drawing near!” It’s not about fatalism. It’s not about Jesus plucking us out of danger. It’s about us having hope, strength and perseverance in the face of the worst that life has to offer. Straighten up. Lift yourself. Make a level path and go to the intersection where life’s pain and God’s mercy meet. We can live our lives puzzled by anxiety and weighed down by a crushing load of pain. But that is not the life that God wants for you. It is not purpose for which Jesus came and is coming again. That is not redemption.

The promise of Christ is that the future is not going to be like the present. On that day, evil will perish and that a new heaven and a new earth will come upon us – a heaven and earth of everlasting peace and justice, joy and love. So stand up and prepare to accept the dawning of a new and wonderful reality.

Jesus also tells his followers to Watch. The Greek means to be alert, even to the point of sleeplessness. Think of the prayer vigil we had here last month for Question 6 where we stayed awake, and prayed, and watched for the presence of the Spirit. Jesus tells us about the signs of his coming so that we might watch for it. We are great at noticing what we want and ignoring what we don't. There are things happening right now that we aren't noticing but will someday demand our total attention and immediate response.  Our children or grandchildren are growing up while we are preoccupied with adult responsibilities and anxieties. Soon they will stand nearly grown before us, and we'll wonder where the time went. We might ignore physical symptoms in our bodies that will one day, will demand our attention.  A relationship may be fading due to lack of attention. One day we may face its loss with surprise, because we didn't see it coming. Climate change, economic crises, the rise of religious intolerance — things are happening, and it shouldn't just be the professional futurists who are taking note. There will come a time, if there hasn't already, when these developments demand our immediate and full attention. On the positive side, there are relationships that beckon us and opportunities that are open to us that we may not be noticing.

Third, Pray. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view. Prayer is about joining God’s aims for the world when tragedy destroys our cities and our families are scattered or destroyed. Prayer is about keeping alert for signs of God’s loving presence when we get bad news and don’t know how we will go on. We pray even when we don’t always see God’s face or feel God’s presence. Jesus encourages followers to be at prayer so that we can live productive lives.  He says that prayer produces in us something like sprouting leaves and branches laden with figs, as good fig trees should do at the end of summer. A withered life, a prayer-less life, can be filled with destructive vices. A prayer-less life can shrink away in fear and get caught up in paralyzing anxiety. Life is short. Seasons are short. So do things that make a difference. Stand. Watch. Pray and see that happens when shriveled hopes bloom.

There is an old Advent hymn entitled, “Wake Awake.” It was written by Philip Nicoli in the year 1598. Nicoli was a Lutheran pastor in Germany. In six months, 1300 of his church members died. 1300 members! It was the time of the Bubonic Plague across Germany. Can you imagine if CCC had 170 funerals this month? Or thirty funerals this afternoon? To help himself live with the tragedy around him, Pastor Nicoli wrote meditations. Refelcting on this time in his life, he wrote, “There seemed to me nothing more sweet, delightful and agreeable than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of eternal life, obtained through Jesus Christ. In my heart, I dwelled on this day and night and searched the Scriptures as to what eternal life meant. Then, day by day, I wrote out my meditations. I found myself wonderfully well comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content.” 1300 funerals. 1300 deaths. 1300 moments of mourning. In the epicenter of suffering, at one of the worst moments in history, Pastor Nicoli composed a hymn based on his thoughts about everlasting life. He wrote, “Wake, awake, for night is flying, the watchmen on the heights are crying, Awake Jerusalem at last.” 

Welcome to Advent 2012. In the face of the worst life has to offer, “Wake, Awake!” We put our hope in God’s Reign of love and compassion. When life has us feeling trapped and unaware, we remember that Christ comes to make all things new;
barriers can be broken,
communities can be formed,
opposites can be reconciled,
unity can be established,
disease can be cured,
addiction can be broken,
towns can be renewed,
cultures can be reconciled,
hope can be established,
and people can be blessed.

Stand. Watch. Pray. God is up to something.
discouraged folks, cheer up,
dishonest folks, ‘fess up,
sour folks, sweeten up,
closed folks, open up,
conflicted folks, make up,
sleeping folks, wake up,
lukewarm folks, fire up,
dry bones, shake up,
and pew potatoes stand up!

Life is short. Time is short. So Wake up! Be alert! Don’t you fall asleep on me! There are so many awful events surrounding us. And so many miracles all around us! Stand up! Wake up! Eyes. Ears. Minds. Hearts. Watch! See the world around you! Pray! Know the blessings of God surrounding your life!


Monday, December 3, 2012

Sermon for December 2, 2012 / Advent 1

Advent is Like a Prison Cell
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11
Sounds upbeat from a man in prison, doesn’t it? Conditions in ancient prisons were harsh. Prisoners were often chained to a post or perhaps to a guard. Poor ventilation and cramped, rat-infested quarters only added to the misery. And then there was the waiting – waiting for one’s case to come to trial, waiting for possible release, maybe waiting for death. In one Roman cell waits a messenger and theologian named Paul. His crime, preaching the destabilizing Gospel of Christ. While he waits, he writes a letter to his friends at the church in the city of Philippi. The letter gushes with love and gratitude. Paul says, “In all circumstances, in good or in bad, we learn to give thanks and live in peace. This prison is a gift. Since I have been in chains, Christ has given not only the gift of faith but also the gift of learning about suffering.” Paul knows that everyone is going to suffer, even God. If God can’t escape suffering in Christ, then no one is exempt. And so, we connect in our pain, just as we stay united in our joy. Instead of being self-absorbed or self-seeking, Paul encourages the church to be joyful, to be humble and to serve the needs of others.

Kind of reminds me of another prisoner of the Gospel. Just two days after Adolf Hitler had seized control of Germany in early 1933, a German minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer delivered a radio sermon in which he warned Germans that “the Führer concept” was dangerous and wrong. Thus began a twelve-year struggle against Nazism, with Bonhoeffer ultimately getting arrested in 1943. For Bonhoeffer, waiting was a fact of life during the war: waiting to be released from prison; waiting to be able to spend more than an hour a month in the company of his young fiancée; waiting for the end of the war. There was little he could do except pray and wield a powerful pen.  All of this waiting left Bonhoeffer with a sense of helplessness. In December, 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote these words from his cell: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other – things that are really of no consequence – the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.” But the prison door never opened for Bonhoeffer. As the Third Reich crumbled in April 1945, papers were discovered confirming Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 8, 1945, just ten days before German forces began to surrender and less than three weeks before Hitler’s own death. Bonhoeffer was thirty-nine years old. Was Bonhoeffer’s waiting in vain?

Waiting is built into the natural order. We wait for seeds sown to grow and bear fruit. We wait nine months for the baby to be born. We wait for children to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives. We wait for promotions and new opportunities. We wait for investments to mature. We wait for healing after surgery. We wait for transitions to retirement communities, assisted living and nursing care. Waiting can be full of anticipation or it can be full of dread. If we believe, like Bonhoeffer, that God is in charge of history and comes to earth to fix up our lives, then we might wait with hopefulness and helplessness. If we are waiting on God to free us from life’s confinements, then what can WE do except hope, pray, and wait. Because in this scenario, deliverance – salvation – must come from an outside rescuing force. And something about this troubles me.

Here’s what bothers me -- most all of us, at one time or another, turn to God as a sort of divine, benevolent superhero in flowing white robes. The Brave-Redeemer breaks down prison doors and bends human will like an iron bar in the hands of Superman.  In the words of John Donne’s 14th Sonnet:
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow burn, and make me new . . .
People pray and plead that SuperGod will make up for our human weakness by using heavenly super-strength to make us better. Like prisoners waiting for release, we were taught to put our hope in the One who will intervene in our human experience and save us. I think this theology is a serious misunderstanding of how we are to live with our God. God is not a caped superhero who flies to our rescue. The God whom we see demonstrated in Christ came not as a triumphant dictator or a magical hero, but a humble servant. God in Christ reaches out to us, patiently and gently calls us to produce a harvest of righteousness. Do you remember that line from the end of the passage we read in Philippians? The phrase can literally mean the fruit of justice. It comes from a legal term referring to a judicial verdict of approval. Paul thinks that God, as judge, gives approval to certain behaviors we see in Jesus – actions like honesty, truth, generosity, kindness, meekness, goodness.

In my view, Christians have a mixed history in producing the fruit of justice. Let me give you an example of what I mean. World AIDS day was yesterday. World AIDS Day began in 1988.  In the 20 or so years that have followed, more than 25 million people have died from AIDS. 33.4 million currently live with HIV/AIDS – nearly 95% of whom live in the developing world. Grim statistics. They cause me to ask, “Where do we see God in this?” HIV is a preventable and so, theoretically, there should be fewer new infections. With over 23 drugs to treat HIV, the number of deaths should be decreasing dramatically. Although the number of new infections has decreased and people with HIV infection live longer, more productive lives, there has not been a sea change in the epidemic. One reason is that getting drugs to HIV infected people in resource-poor countries is not easy. Many governments, where needs are greater and more urgent, are slow to respond to the needs of their people. I would argue that another reason why there has not been a huge change is that the Church has not gotten involved. As the HIV epidemic took off in the US and in resource-poor communities, the Christian church in The United States, with few exceptions, chose to stand on the sidelines. Issues of sexuality and blame took precedence over compassion and mission. The teachings of Jesus were largely ignored. Jesus, and his forerunner John the Baptist, whom we heard about in our first reading, preached Good News to the poor and announced freedom to those who were wounded by human indignity and oppression. Christians have a special responsibility to produce a harvest of righteousness – the fruit of justice – to act with integrity and virtue and to speak prophetically in the name of a just, righteous and compassionate God. So, where was the Church in the face of AIDS? Silent. Instead of taking the opportunity to reflect on our identity and mission, the overwhelming religious response to AIDS was fear and callousness. What were we waiting for? What ARE we waiting for? SuperGod to fly in and fix it? To judge? To restore? To mend? To bust open the prison doors? Are we waiting in hopefulness and helplessness?

It’s not just about AIDS. The world is filled with so many problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. There will always be moments where life feels like a prison cell and we are just waiting for help. But in all the waiting, I don’t want us to miss a chance to know God. I don’t want us to miss seeing what God is doing. I don’t want us to miss out on participating in what God is doing. I don’t want us to be so distracted with hoping and waiting and doing this, that, and the other, that we fail to recognize the presence of Christ.

Church, what are we waiting for? Are we waiting for God to do something new without calling ourselves to fully immerse ourselves in the pain around us? Are we waiting for God to keep an Advent promise without keeping ours?

Faith, hope, love, peace, confidence, friendship, memories, courage; everything depends on sustaining these graces, in our own lives and especially in the lives of our brothers and sisters who suffer. So, no, I’m not waiting on God. If anything, maybe God is waiting for us.  Maybe God is waiting for us to intervene. Maybe God is waiting for us to open doors. Maybe God is waiting for us to offer a healing touch with words of tenderness, love, and forgiveness. Maybe God is waiting for us to declare the way of God in the desserts of life. Maybe God calls us to produce the fruit of justice --  the tender empathy that motivates us to action.

I leave us with some words that were written on a square on the emotionally gripping AIDS quilt – perhaps a reminder of the fruit of justice we can produce . . .
[AIDS] cannot cripple love
It cannot shatter hope
It cannot corrode faith
It cannot eat away peace
It cannot destroy confidence
It cannot kill friendship
It cannot shout out memories
It cannot silence courage
It cannot reduce eternal life
It cannot quench the spirit
It cannot invade the soul or the love we have for you
Our confinements cannot suppress love – not just the love we receive but the love we share. Let’s not miss out on being part of God’s bigger plan – that your love may overflow with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Sermon for November 18, 2012

Jesus and the New Classism
Thanksgiving Sunday

How many of us can remember a Thanksgiving when we haven’t participated in a food drive, or helped out at Thanksgiving dinners for the homeless, or invited a lonely neighbor over for dinner? How many of us can remember a Thanksgiving when provided money for food or assembled or distributed Thanksgiving baskets for those in need of attention and care? For most of us, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving unless we remember our responsibility to those who exist at the edges of society. It says a lot about our character as Americans that during our holiday of giving thanks, we have an impulse to share with those whose needs are greater than our own; that we share with those who so often feel forgotten.

Thanksgiving is a time of great generosity. But is it also a time of justice? Let’s turn to the example of Jesus to look for some answers. This is from Mark 12:38ff.
Jesus taught: “Beware of these teachers of religious law! For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces.  And how they love the seats of honor in the synagogues and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. Notice how Jesus is setting up the Scribes. A Scribe’s primary occupation was writing out copies of the Jewish Scriptures and teaching the people what the law said. Scribes studied the fine details of following Jewish law. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes the point repeatedly that the Scribes, these leaders and law experts, expect privilege and status. Jesus consistently calls religious people to be last and “servants of all.” But the Scribes use religion as a veil for economic opportunism. Let’s see how this scene plays out.
Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.”
What is the moral of this story? I was always taught that Jesus wants his followers to see the contrast between religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman. The interpretation comes straight from John Calvin, granddaddy of the Reformed tradition. In his Harmony of the Gospels, Calvin says the poor should not hesitate to express their devotion to God cheerfully out of their slender means, “for if they consecrate themselves, their offering, which appears to be mean and worthless” will not be seen as insignificant. According to Calvin, the chief sacrifice God wants from us is self denial.

Oh Calvin?! You know I love you, but sometimes you make me uncomfortable. Using the poor as an object lesson about self-denial sounds like an implication of the so-called 47% “moocher class” we’ve been hearing about.  We have lots of cultural stereotypes that go with the word “poor.” We are taught poor people are unintelligent, inarticulate, and overly emotional. Another stereotype is poor people spend money on frivolous things. If poor people just gave up on satellite television and IPhones, they would pop up into the middle class. Poverty has a different face. To be sure, those in poverty are forced to deny themselves constantly, but it is not the kind of self-denial that makes God smile. The poor must deny the things that all of us want: a comfortable life, a convenient life, a healthy life, a life full of small pleasures. Poor people end up denying themselves lattes, fresh cut flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables, health care and time for exercise, mp3 players, travel, expensive clothes and accessories, not to mention all of the “must-have” consumer goods that are constantly marketed to us. And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves, and members of their families for a long time. It’s true today. It was true in Jesus’ day. I do not think Jesus is holding the poor widow’s ultimate financial sacrifice up as a model for us. Let’s rethink this.

Jesus and his disciples are hanging out at the Temple. Jesus must feel a little out of step with the hustle and bustle of urban life. The city is disconcertingly big and busy. Think of how it feels to visit New York City on a crowded day. For me it’s amazing and scary all at the same time. The full array of humanity is there to see: rich and poor, greed and generosity, religion and commercialism. Imagine it’s the same in Jerusalem. Swarms of people are there, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Jesus makes his way to the Temple treasury. The Temple has 13 trumpet-shaped chests along the walls of a space called The Court of Women. Temple worshippers toss their financial offerings into these chests. Some of the donors are rich people who give from their abundance. But Jesus singles out one woman. We know two things about her. She is poor and she is a widow. In Jewish law, she is a member of a protected class. Hebrew Scripture clearly calls people to care for widows because they have no support net (Deut. 14.29). Jewish faith understands that God’s creation has enough for everyone to flourish. If there is poverty, it’s because some in creation have filled their pockets first. So, instead of being a recipient of Temple funds, the poor widow donates two little coins. She gives all that is left of her whole life.

Jesus says, “She just gave everything she had to live on! She gives from her destitution!” His words are not praise, but a lament. He is not admiring the poor widow’s generous spirit of self-denial. No, Jesus is condemning a religion-supported economic system that creates classes of haves and have-nots. The poor widow is not empowered. Instead of protecting widows, the Scribes exploit them in order to feed their self-important status. For Jesus, the Temple becomes a symbol of that which devours the resources of the poor. And Jesus objects.

We see the equivalent of the poor widow in our communities. The poor are not some lump of people at the bottom of society who are just there as the underclass, permanently outside the mainstream of American life. The poor are working people. If we understand that poverty is something that is happening to working class Americans, then we begin to understand America’s new classism.

To think about class in America, is to think about how we are divided by economic and social status. To think about class in America, is to think about how we are separated from one another -- on the other side of the fence, on the other side of the tracks, on the other side of town. The "haves", the "have-nots", the almost haves…the haves, for now. "Class" is the elephant in the room of our schools, our justice system, our county council meetings, our extended families at the Thanksgiving Table, and yes, "class" is the elephant in the room of our churches. So let’s talk about it.

Martin Luther King Jr., especially in his later writings, identified three elements working together to cause oppression in America. Each element works separately but in tandem with the other two to create a perfect storm of lost opportunity for millions of Americans. The first element is racism. Racism tries to put white American men in control of a system that has keeps people of color and women out of positions of power and opportunities for advancement. The Conference Ministers of the UCC just sent out a pastoral letter to our churches. The ministers, “call on all settings of the church to maintain a vigilant voice in this struggle for racial justice and equality.” The ministers write, “We urge you to speak out when voices emerge on the landscape that threatens to turn back the clock and undo the work of those who came before us. We invite our white members, families, and churches to develop new skills as allies in dismantling white privilege and fostering new dimensions of racial justice and equality.”

The second part of the triangle of oppression is classism. King realized, as he peeled back the layers of American oppression, that racism was not operating alone. How could it be that people of the racially dominant group could be oppressed with a power equal to that of racism? And how could it be that people of color could achieve at the highest levels in some parts of the American society, in business, academia, and government, in spite of their color and cultural background? King linked it to classism.

The third part of the triangle is poverty. If poverty alone were alleviated, if each person truly had enough food, wealth, healthcare, and good jobs, it would alleviate the oppression caused by racism and classism. But it would not end that oppression. Dr. King said, “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all [people] are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brothers'[and sister’s] keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality.”

As I said earlier, I think most Americans are generous people. We want to help. We want to heal. But how do we achieve and maintain equality and also embrace diversity? If the poor are in reality part of the working class, cycling in and out of poverty and near-poverty, what does that imply for the traditional Christian concern for the poor?

The idea offering charity for the poor is part of who we are. Charity is a beautiful thing. But charity is not a practical program, because the way for the poor to have a better life is for them to have more power.  Generosity is not enough. We stand for generosity with Justice. Generosity with justice means we aren’t just charitable toward the poor. If we approach working people who are poor with a sense of charity, it’s humiliating to many people. People will take charity because they’re hungry, and they’ll even appreciate it in a certain way. However, charity can be given in a way that’s deeply hurtful and in the long run counterproductive. There’s another way. Generosity with justice. We offer help in a way that says, "Let’s work together, let’s stand together, in ways that make us fully and equally powerful as we seek to fulfill our common interests and individual needs.”

Generosity with justice questions hierarchies of dominator and dominated. Where inequity exists, we will not accept the widely-held perspective that blames the victims. Generosity with justice allows us to feel the pain of these oppressive and unbalanced social, religious, and economic systems, regardless of our privileged or unprivileged position. We listen with compassion. We learn the history and experiences of others. We become conscious of the immediate and long-term impact of each move we make.

Generosity with justice let’s go of oppressive dynamics and helps us commit to living life for its highest purpose.

Generosity with justice helps our individual needs and desires become secondary to those of the community, local and global.

Generosity with justice fosters awareness of how our actions affect others. It nourishes relationships that are guided by deep intuition, openness and creativity. With gratitude and justice, we feel and experience a profound sense of interrelatedness with everything.

Generosity with justice limits destructive behaviors such as arrogance, self-centeredness, superiority, inferiority, doubt, worry, fear, anxiety.

Generosity with justice helps us not just count our blessings, but count our privileges.

If we keep reading in Mark’s gospel, we will hear Jesus predict the collapse of the Temple, and with it, the dawning of a new world in which the powers of domination and inequity will be toppled, a world in which justice is restored to the most compromised among us, a world in which the ethics of the law are restored. This new beginning dawns when we claim our identity.

Our generous Thanksgiving outreach with food is awesome. But with justice, our generosity extends into actions designed to end violence in our cities families, schools and neighborhoods as well as in other countries.  In other words, we can use this observance of the Thanksgiving holiday to remind ourselves that generosity with justice connects us to the heart of God. And that’s something to be thankful for. We live more fully into God’s new reality. We breathe it. We live it. We dream it. We pray for it. We work for it. 

“Classism and Economic Injustice,”
Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman, pp.318-323.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize Speech,
“Don’t be charitable to the poor...”
“Deep Interrelatedness and Transformation,”
"Thanksgiving 2011”
Pastoral Letter on Racism, November 2012
Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Sermon for November 4, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: A Theology of Hospitality
Isaiah 58:7

When I think about hospitality, about Grammy Braddock. That woman always had people in her house. It was inevitable – she had 16 children. Every Christmas Eve we would go to her tiny apartment at the senior living complex. Every room would be stuffed with Braddocks. Our family overflowed into the sidewalks and parking lots. She never had much money, but she always put some food out – mashed potato salad with green peas sticks in my memory for some reason. And she always had gifts for her 55 grandchildren – a pair of mittens or a box of chocolate covered cherries. When we arrived, she would go into her bed room and pick something from her stockpile of gifts, wrap it up, and hand it to me as if she had seen this box of mints in the store and thought only of you.

When I think about hospitality, about Grandma Hudson. She had more money than Grammy Braddock and lived in a bigger house. It was also stuffed with people – and animals. Holidays were not just for the family. Friends would come over. Friends of friends would come over. Friends of friends would bring their pets over. Sometimes we would bring our elderly neighbor to my grandparent’s house, just so she wouldn’t be alone on the holidays. My grandmother welcomed anyone in and treated guests as part of the family. Even her annoying neighbors had a spot at the table.

My parents also had the gift of hospitality. I remember a bike rider stopping by our house in CT. He was on a long distance ride and he needed a place to pitch his tent for the night. My parents offered our yard. They all stayed up long into the night talking, eating, and laughing with this visitor. His trip became a yearly event – the biker in the back yard. I also remember how my parents hired unemployed guys to do odd jobs around the house, knowing full well that my father and brother and me could do it ourselves.

I remember the older woman who lived down the street. Mildred would walk by the house every day, deadhead my mother’s flowers by the mailbox, and then scream for my mother to come out of the house. “Debby. Deeeeebyyyyy!” she would screech. When my mother appeared, the Mildred would ask “Is your dog tied up.” Mildred was deathly afraid of dogs. Of course, all of her screaming would make Natasha, our 200 pound malamute, go wild --lunging for the mailbox until her chain yanked her back. Mildred became a member of the family – the strange spinster aunt who trembled and cried a lot.

I like to think that I have inherited the famous gift of hospitality, but something may have gone wrong. I remember a dark, windy November night out in Western New York. Zoe was just a baby. Chris and I sat down for dinner in the parsonage when we hard a knock on the door. I opened the door to a young, scruffy man with severe Tourette ’s syndrome looking for odd jobs and a few bucks. There was no work to do – all our leaves had long ago blown over into the neighbor’s yard. We invited him in for dinner. Unfortunately for him, I was on my latest diet kick, and had cooked a disgusting casserole with turkey, artichokes, and cottage cheese. He ate it without complaint and, but politely declined seconds. However, when Chris offered him a peanut butter sandwich, he inhaled three of them down.

I imagine you have a hospitality story. Maybe it is about a time you were treated kindly -- a meal, a warm embraces, reassuring eye contact, a kind smile, gestures respect and acceptance. Your birth story is a hospitality story. How were you welcomed into this world? Hopefully, you received hospitality in the form of nourishment, nurturing, and joyful reception, all of which led to a profound sense of safety and security. That kind of deep welcome gives people space to meet, to express ourselves spontaneously, and to be ourselves. As I have mentioned in other sermons, this kind of welcome is what’s supposed to happen in the public square. Strangers make room for diversity, for difference and disagreement, for new thoughts and new insights.  And as Christians in the public square, we make room for uncorrupted love., heartfelt tolerance, and sincere questions, and delight in our commonalities.

Maybe you have a different hospitality story. Perhaps yours is a story of rejection. The word hospitality actually comes from a Latin word, meaning “guest.” “Hospitality” is also connected to the Latin word hostio, from which we get the English word “hostility.” It means to give retribution or to pay back. A hostio is a victim – one who is treated with hostility. Hospitality and hostility – they come from the same root. The first pays a stranger with kindness. The second pays back a victim with revenge. Our attitude is what determines whether a stranger ends up as a friend or an enemy. We hear plenty of hostility stories. Many of us have lived them. Some of us have starred in them. The point is, we offer and accept genuine hospitality to the degree that we have experienced such in our own lives. The process can be formative or de-formative.

Hospitality has the power to heal democracy because hospitality requires us to open our hearts to the “other.”  The challenge faced in our individual lives and in our homes is the same challenge faced in the public square. It’s the challenge of letting strangers be who are and what they are, and allowing them to open us up to another reality. Hospitality demands that we have courage to engage the most strange, the most unusual, and the most bizarre that we encounter. In other words, hospitality provides safe space for deep democracy to take root – a system where there are no strangers, no outsiders, and no closed hearts.

When I think of hospitality, I think of the story of Chinue Sugihara.  Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat in the 1940’s, stationed as a border guard in  Lithuania. The Japanese authorities ordered him not to help the Jews. Jews who fled from Poland into Lithuania needed permission to pass through the Soviet Union and Japan in order to continue to other destinations. One day not long after he took up his post, Sugihara found three hundred desperate people, some who had walked all the way from Poland, standing outside his consulate, begging for his help. He had already been officially forbidden to help any Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. He knew to act was to endanger not only his own life, but also the lives of his family. Sugihara made a decision after consulting with his family and listening to his five-year old son ask, ‘If we don’t help them, won’t they die?’”

Before his arrest and deportation Sugihara issued more than two thousand exit visas. At one point his hand was so worn from signing these documents he had to put on ice packs to continue. In fact, even after being dismissed from his post, even after his family was ordered to an internment camp, even while riding on the train to his imprisonment he continued to write those exit visas, one paper at a time. And now it is said that there are 50,000 Jewish descendants of Sugihara. One man made a huge difference with his act of creative resistance, with his dedication to radical hospitality. How inclusive will we be? How will we, as Americans, find it in our hearts to welcome more people into our democracy?

It’s not an easy question. We all have areas in our lives that we are not willing to examine. I imagine the same is true with our public and political habits. We don't always realize that we are being inhospitable to people who are different than us. Exclusion can be very unintentional. But that doesn't mean it isn't real, or that it doesn't need to be reckoned with in our institutions, from our homes and our churches. The idea of welcome goes beyond shaking someone's hand or offering a drink. True welcome means realizing that we are made better when we allow the backgrounds of others to help shape everything we're about. And as Christians, we have a faith that helps us ask some important declarations when we meet those who are different. We say:
"You and I are equally dependent on God."
"You and I are both made in the image of God."
"You and I have the same dignity."
"You and I can learn from each other."
"You and I need each other."
"You and I can be safe with one another."
"You and I can enjoy each other."
"You and I can listen to each other."
"You and I can  be reconciled to one another."

 Ysaye Maria Barnwell of Sweet Honey In The Rock puts the issue before us across time and categories. Her song calls to attention how too many of us see others in categories. She asks us whether they are worthy to share space as neighbors and family members. I can’t sing it, but I can pray it. Would you pray with me?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child, a poet, a prophet or king?
Would you harbor an exile, or a refuge, a person living with AIDS?
Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth, a fugitive or a slave?
Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech, a lesbian or a gay?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Amy Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Abingdon:2001).,%20Process.pdf

Friday, November 2, 2012

Sermon for October 28, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: The New American Economy
“Then the King will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, anything you did for even the least of my people here, you also did for me.’” Matthew 25:40
Welcome to the new American Economy. The American middle class is in trouble. Our incomes stagnate or fall while the costs of life’s necessities continue to rise. Even for those with jobs, the promise of economic growth has failed to deliver. Income for the typical middle class household has actually fallen over the past 10 years. For the past decade, Gallup has asked Americans about their biggest financial concern. Those in the middle class have consistently said they are most worried about not earning enough money, the high cost of living, and risks such as maintaining a decent standard of living in retirement and losing their job. Sadly, Americans have also been telling pollsters, even before the start of the Great Recession, that they think their children will be worse off than they are.

If the middle class is at risk, that means the new American Economy has a growing population of at-risk families. Tens of millions of people live in poverty, although many refuse to think of themselves as “poor.” Some make daily choices as to which necessities they will have to live without. Many work part- or full-time, but on that basis, are still unable to lift their families out of poverty. Others are physically or mentally unable to work. Many lack the family, educational, and community support important for making good choices in their lives. Although those living in poverty are particularly visible in cities, their more hidden reality in suburban, small town, and rural areas can be just as painful. A greater proportion of people of color live in conditions of poverty. The poor are disproportionately women with their children. Systemic racism and sexism continue to be evident in the incidence of poverty. There is nothing generous about our national definition of poverty. In 2010 the official poverty line was a family income of just below $22,500 for a family of four, or about $100 a week. That’s the ceiling, not the average.  More than 40% of poor U.S. families have incomes of less than half the poverty line. A fifth of American children live in poverty and two-fifths in low-income households – up 33% since 2000.

Here is one of the problems. And this is not partisan politics. This is just facts. Instead of addressing the needs of the desperately poor and its shrinking middle class, American economics has taken the lion’s share of our impressive Gross Domestic Product and invested in a far-reaching project of income redistribution to the rich. The share of domestic income going to the middle class has been shrinking for decades. The poorest fifth of American households have seen their after-tax income increase by 18%. The richest fifth, have seen real income increases of 65%. For the top 1%, real income went up 275%. America is now a land of economic insecurity for most, and a playground of unprecedented wealth for a small minority. We live in an unequal society where those on top can enforce their will against people who have less. Those on the bottom have little reason to believe they will get a fair shake. No wonder we sense that our politics are permeated by distrust.

What America should we strive to create? If the economic arena becomes a reigning power for us, the question arises: in what or whom shall we place our trust and hope? We can’t place our hope in the GDP. We can’t place our hope in unlimited economic growth. Neither Wall Street, nor K Street, t nor Madison Avenue have your family’s best interests on their agenda. And even though we’ve heard it before, it bears repeating: Money does not buy happiness. You may have heard the joke, “Those who say money can’t buy happiness just don’t know where to shop!” The data actually indicate that money really can’t buy happiness among the more affluent. Study after study show that income is a weak generator of well-being. Do you know what produces happiness? The answer is complicated, but one answer is: “Other people.” We flourish in settings with warm, nurturing, and rewarding interpersonal relationships. And we flourish best when we are giving, not getting.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy spoke of this. “Our Gross National Product . . . counts air pollution and cigarette advertising . . . it counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts . . . nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riot in our cities . . . and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet, the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our [relationships], the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom or our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything . . . except that which makes life  worthwhile.”

I suggest, as Christians, we think strongly about what Jesus said about God’s economics. That which we keep to ourselves, that which we hoard, that which we take at the expense of other’s survival, we keep from God. And what we give to the least of those among us, we give to God. Our faith in God provides a vantage point for critiquing any and every system of this world, all of which fall short of what God intends. Human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, gross economic exploitation. God stands in judgment of those in authority who fall short of their responsibility, and is moved with compassion to deliver the impoverished from all that oppresses them.

From the vantage point of faith, here is what I see as the vision for the New American Economy: sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all! The language comes from a study put out in 1999 by the ELCA. Their statement affirms that as people of faith, we confess that we depend on God and are interdependent with one another. Through these relationships we are nurtured, sustained, and held accountable.
  • As people of faith, we confess that in Christ we realize that what human beings want is not necessarily what they need for the sake of life.
  • As people of faith, we acknowledge that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for the neighbor.
  • As people of faith,, we recognize that intense competitiveness can destroy relationships and work against the reconciliation and cooperation God desires among people.
  • As people of faith, we affirm that God promises a world where there is enough for everyone, if only we would learn how to use and share what God has given for the sake of all.
  • As people of faith, we insist that economic growth must be evaluated by its short-term, and long-term effects on the well-being of all creation and people, especially those who are poor.
In light of these realities, as people of faith we must commit ourselves to serve Christ by serving the least.  We provide counsel, food, clothing, shelter, and money for people in need, in ways that respect their dignity. We develop mutual, face-to-face, empowering relationships between people who have enough and people living in poverty. We advocate for public and private policies that effectively address the causes of poverty. We support organizations and community-based efforts that enable low-income people to obtain more sufficient, sustainable livelihoods. And we continue working to eradicate racism and sexism.

Most of all, we ask the Spirit of God to expand our vision and transforms our priorities. I get  restless when I see us offer  less than what God intends for the world.  We do not eat alone; everyone needs to eat. The multitudes present around God’s global table become our neighbors rather than competitors or strangers. Empowered by God, we continue to act, pray, and hope that through economic life there truly will be sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all.

As I was preparing for the early worship service, I found a poem by Drew Dellinger, called “hieroglyphic staircase.”
it's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do
What if God is asking those questions of us?
What did we do when the our economic household was being plundered?
What did we do when our democracy were unraveling?
Did we fill the streets when equality was stolen?
What will we tell our great, great grandchildren?
What did we do once we knew?

We can realize a new vision if enough of us join together to fight for it. This new dream foresees an America where the pursuit of happiness is not about more getting and spending but in the growth of human solidarity, real democracy, and devotion to the public good; an America where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; An America where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; An America and where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate. 

The vision of a New American Economy is a vision of a Jesus economy, where no citizens or immigrants are left to fend for themselves alone and afraid. Because in this new way of life together, we don’t keep holding on to what we already have while we grab more as if our life depends on it. In this new way of life together, we don’t keep gathering and hoarding so we have to build ever-bigger attics or rent ever-larger storage units. In this story, Jesus offers us a vision of a new life together – the vision of an economy in which we hold only to give, and we gather only to share.

“Making Our Middle Class Stronger: 35 Policies to Revitalize America’s Middle Class,”
“A Social Statement on Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All by the ELCA” (1999).
America the Possible by Gustave Speth (NetGalley Edition: 2012)
Drew Dellinger, “Hieroglyphic Staircase”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sermon for October 21, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: The Meaning of Public Life
We have this task of reconciling people to God. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And God gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making an appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. 2 Corinthians:18b-21
If you want to undermine American democracy, here’s my advice: Stifle dissent. Eliminate tension. How do you do that? Actually, it's already being done for us by fear mongers and haters, by  dividers and conquerors who make the political arena so abusive that many citizens want nothing to do with it.

We don’t have to jail or torture people to stifle dissent.  Here’s what we do. Start by making citizens so distrustful and dismissive of each other -- especially of those who are "different" in their political/religious/philosophical convictions or their sexual orientation/ ethnicity/race -- that the power of "We the People" dissipates as we tear each other apart instead of confronting democracy's true antagonists.

Get citizens to think of their neighbors as “those people.” Encourage citizens to express anger without insight. Create a civic emptiness that non-democratic powers, like big money, are ready, willing and eager to fill.

If you want to undermine the power of the public square, send people shopping at the mall. Really. The public square used to be the place where strangers would interact freely with each other.  Our word public is related to the word pub – the public house – the place where a cross-section of the community can be found sharing news, circulating gossip, discussing local issues, listening to music or talking sports. The community weaves itself in the public square.

In the 1960’s, Americans defined civil rights in the public square. Americans marched in the streets. Close your eyes and try to imagine the civil rights protests of the ‘60s happening at a mall. What power does a street demonstration have when no one is on the street to see it? Malls are private commercial enterprises that have one goal: to get consumers to spend money.  Yes, strangers gather at the mall, but there are limits on how many can gather and what they can do. The mall supports only non-controversial activities. Beggars and homeless people are banned from the mall. Explicit political activity is forbidden. So are soapbox orators. In my younger, zealous, Evangelical days, my friends and I used to go to the mall and persuade shoppers to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We would approach unsuspecting bargain hunters with Gospel tracts, and start faith conversations with a lot of talk about hellfire and judgment scattered in. Let me tell you first hand that mall security does not approve of this. The mall is designed to minimize face-to-face encounters with other’s ideas and dreams, with their disappointments and passions.

I’m picking on shopping, but it’s not just about the mall. We see the decline of public life all around us. When I say, “public life,” I’m talking about places where strangers mingle, face-to-face; places where citizens can connect with  dignity, independence and vision.

I agree with Parker Palmer, who in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, states, “The most important thing ‘We the People’ can do to restore democracy is to restore the venues and vitality of public life that we have opportunities to participate in on a daily basis” (108).

The truth is most people are good and decent. They want the best for themselves and their families. Most people have good morals and values. But let’s be clear. Public good doesn’t automatically flow from private virtue. Just because a person is an upright citizen does not mean he or she will serve the cause of justice. Good people do not always challenge the status quo. Moral people do not always take that which is merely legal and make it more ethical as well. Upright people do not always speak truth to power or take personal action against that which keeps us from living into our fullest potential for the common good.

We are individually held to account for our personal acts of charity or the lack thereof. We are responsible for how the actions we take influence our society in its treatment of the "least of these.” The stranger. The outcast. Those who are lost. Those who are struggling. Commitment to the poor and disadvantaged among us is a critical part of Christian social teaching. A Christian public social ethic invites the community to overcome every form of exploitation and oppression. We not only alleviate the most urgent needs in society, but also uncover the roots of evil and propose initiatives to make social, political and economic structures more just and humane.

When I think about the meaning of public life for Christians, I turn to this passage in 2 Corinthians. Our job is to be reconcilers. Ambassadors. That's what the author of 2 Corinthians tells his church friends. He says; the reason Christ came to us is to show us how much God loves this world, how much God wants to bring people closer to wholeness, and closer to one another. He says; think of yourselves as ambassadors entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation. Think of yourselves as the ones who build the bridges and do the work of healing. Use the power of Christ's love to connect people in ways deeper than words.

We sure have heard a lot of talk about Ambassadors lately, haven’t we? While the incident in Benghazi, Libya is being thrown around as a political weapon, I think something’s getting lost. In the debate over whose fault it was that American diplomats and soldiers died, neither candidate spends a lot of time talking about the character of Ambassador Chris Stevens, a person who really built connections and worked for healing.  Let’s not forget the human life at the center of all this, the life of someone who always lived as an ambassador.

Ambassador Chris Stevens' family created a website which they hope will not only share his story, but which will inspire others to live as he lived. Here is man whom both Hillary Clinton and John McCain called friend. He spent his life committed to the idea that people could be brought together, that East and West could build bridges of understanding. There’s a beautiful picture on the website of Chris Stevens and an Arab man laughing together. Go to the site and read the testimonials that Americans and Libyans, Israelis and Saudis have posted.  One Libyan man wrote, “Chris Stevens was loving to all people, there were no restrictions on his visa.”

Another wrote, “With sadness we grieve, and we shed tears, we will achieve your vision if it
takes one hundred years." Person after person, with names like Hassan, and Anne, Austin and Mahmud, David and Ibrahim, grieve and thank God for someone who made them feel significant. Each one witnesses to the power that one life can have, one life passionately committed to connection, to understanding, to true ambassadorship.

You are ambassadors for Christ, Scripture says. To you is entrusted the ministry of reconciliation. Surely Chris Stevens' life was something like this. And all of us here in this place? We too are called to live something like this, too. Our faith moves us to build better relations between individuals, between families, between ethnicities and nations. We, too, are called to build a better world with God's help. The work of reconciliation begins when we restore the public square and reclaim the meaning of public life.

A healthy public life engages the stranger in the public square. As Christ’s ambassadors, we say, “Come back. There are no strangers in the American experience. There are no strangers in our public life. We are building a community of reconciliation where all can participate equally and fully. We may not agree. We do not have to. Our strength is how we engage one another in our diversity.”

A healthy public life recognizes those on the margins of the public square. We say, “Come back. God’s love for you has nothing to do with your economic status, or where you live, or what you do for a job, where you come from or what you believe. We are building a community of reconciliation where outsiders are not a threat.

It’s not about changing “those people”. There are people who say, “Sure, you can have your share of our commonwealth, but first you have to become like one of us.” That’s not reconciliation. That’s called exclusion through assimilation. No, reconcilers and ambassadors meet people on their own terms and invite them to join together in lives of wholeness an peace. It takes wisdom. God’s wisdom. Wisdom that is  pure, wisdom that’s peaceful, wisdom that’s gentle, wisdom that’s willing to yield, and full of mercy, without partiality or hypocrisy.

When Chris and I were invited to Silver Spring as I was interviewing to become your Sr. Minister, we stayed in a city-center hotel. In between meetings and meals, we explored the Downtown Silver Spring area. It was a bright, beautiful October day. As we sat by the fountain, we saw people of all nations walking by. People of different generations interacted with each other as they enjoyed the sun, the farmer’s market, and the good vibe in the air. At one point, a young boy approached a stranger, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair, and they began to talk and laugh as the boy’s parents looked on. It was beautiful. It was such an idyllic urban tableau, we accused the Search Committee of hiring actors to express the greatness of Silver Spring. I know that the tableau we experienced had its flaws, but it demonstrated the possibility and promise of strangers coming together. That’s the power of the public square. That’s the meaning of public life.

A healthy public life engages in the challenging and vexing work of citizenship, especially as we debate basic principles of how best to carry out the unique calling that is America’s. And so, I close with the plea of our greatest president, delivered at the most perilous time in our nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln’s words are still needed today:  “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, pp.94-117.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sermon for September 30, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: Americans on the Margins

Whenever I confront the evil of which we humans are capable, I feel guilty, and saddened, angry and tired. How about you? I resonate with the words once written by Franz Kafka:
You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
These are the questions I want to think about today: Are we better off as a nation when we engage the suffering of nation or when we hold back?  Does holding back actually cause more personal suffering, or is this protective posture necessary for our health? Let’s dig in by looking at an episode on Mark’s gospel.

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.”

“Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us. If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I tell you the truth, that person will surely be rewarded. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into  . . .  For everyone will be tested with fire. Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.”
Mark 9:38-50
John the Disciple is getting whiney again. He confronts his mentor with an arrogant objection. “Jesus, there is this maverick exorcist going around doing miracles and claiming it’s done with your power. He is using our brand, Jesus, but he’s not in our organization. We should make him stop. Right?  Right?” John sees a threat. His wants Jesus to draw a red line around the threat – to build boundaries around the exercise of compassionate ministry.

Let’s not be so shocked. We all have our turfs to protect. There is, of course, the home and family.  We have territory at work—both paid and volunteer—upon which no outsider is permitted to tread.  And we look to government to draw protect boundaries, too. There are city and county boundaries, national borders.  There are copyright laws that protect intellectual territory. 

What if the God we worship sees every single one of the margins we build and the territories we protect . . . and challenges all of them? What if God is asking us to re-draw the margins?

How does Jesus respond to John’s fear and anger and sense of injustice? He says, “John, knock it off.  Our job right now is to take care of the little ones. Our job is to expose the evil tendencies of humanity, beginning with the Self. Our job is to bring more salt and light, more flavor and brilliance, to the nations. Our job is to live in peace.”  Jesus welcomes anyone who does works of healing and justice. Those with “holier than thou” fantasies think that compassion belongs to the privileged few. Jesus protests against religious and political systems that exclude and dominate other people by reserving blessing for a fortunate few. And every time Jesus points this out, he calls for an end to corrupted systems that segregate, stigmatize, and subjugate people.

Love.  Mercy. Justice.  Love! Mercy! Justice!  It doesn’t seem realistic for a Republic, does it? Who leads by colluding with the dispossessed? How can engaging the suffering of nation make it stronger? 

At the heart of my response is an understanding of private and public life. Privacy is at the heart of the American Dream. We all value privacy, right?  We put borders around our private lives. The signs around our personal territory say, “NO STRANGERS ALLOWED EXCEPT BY INVITATION.” Strangers can only have legitimate access to our private lives when we invite them in. Our nation’s founder’s believed in this principle. They canonized the belief that private citizens who are free to pursue their own happiness will use their gains to contribute to the common good.

Somewhere along the line, Americans started believing that we could pursue our own happiness with no regard for the needs of others – and even at the expense of others. There goes the American Dream of equality and prosperity for all! The dream dissolves when people care more about personal wealth instead of commonwealth. Now we see growing sub-communities of American people living on the margins of economic and political life. Middle and upper-class Americans used to be able to ignore them. But, after a few years of economic turmoil, job losses and housing foreclosures, we are exposed to a new American experience. For Americans on the margins, private life is not area of sanctity and safety. Private life is isolating and fearful. Private life can be about suspicion instead of success; risk instead of reward. That’s why new social movements, like the Occupy Movement, come from the ranks of the dispossessed. Americans on the Margins realize that private interests are strengthened only when people band together as strangers with shared public interests. It’s the only way to improve life and make their voices heard.

If we take Jesus’ ministry on the margins seriously, might we realize that the corridors of power are located in surprising and disturbing places?

Political life functions around clear lines of rank, privilege and honor. Living a life of redemptive protest, a life of healing and wholeness means a status reversal. Where once leadership was seen to come from the front, from elected or appointed persons in defined roles, a new breed of leadership is emerging.
    Instead of leading from over, we can lead from among and beside.
    Instead of leading from certainty, we can lead by exploration, cooperation and faith.
    Instead of leading as managers, we can lead as mystics and poets
    Instead of leading convulsively, we can lead with inner freedom
    Instead of leading from the center, we can lead from the margins.

What is true in politics is also true of our faith. We cannot afford to work out our faith dislocated from the world around us. My faith compels me to help to build an American Dream that sanctify the margins of life.

The devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast revealed that there are at least two kinds of Americans: those who can get themselves out of harm’s way, and those who cannot; those whom the government rushes to help, and those it does not; those who are expendable, and those who are not.  A few days after Katrina made landfall, Tim Wise wrote a column for MSN online entitled A God with Whom I Am Not Familiar. Bothered by a restaurant patron at another table, Wise wrote an open letter.

You don't know me. But I know you. I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans. You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal morally scolding the people of that devastated city, heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster struck. When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, one of your friends offered her response, but only after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh. "Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know, they just don't have the same regard." She then added that police should shoot the looters and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.

If we want to believe that Americans on the Margins are immoral, and greedy and unworthy of support, so be it. If you want to believe that exclusion is solved by scolding victims, I guess it’s your right.  But, as Wise says, let's leave God out of it, shall we? Any God who blesses your lunch while children go to be hungry and people die in the streets is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way.

Endless growth, unlimited development, class warfare, stripping the planet clean of its resources with no consequence – this is the Dream gone delusional. I just read a story about how the profitable giant Dr. Pepper/Snapple conglomerate is demanding wage and benefit cuts.  Even though the Dr. Pepper Company made a profit of $555 million last year, it wants to make recession wages the local standard. The company told the workers to think of themselves as a “commodity” like soybeans or oil. You know what, this is not the American Dream I buy into. The American Dream I follow is a Dream closer to Dr. King’s than Dr. Pepper’s

I support the American Dream that affirms the worth and dignity of every person.

I support the American Dream that focuses some national resources on those who are least likely to receive justice, equity, or compassion from the government.

I support the American Dream that roots for the underdog.

I support the American Dream that can’t force people to love the poor, but can at least keep them from starving to death.

I support the American Dream in which there are no strangers in the corridors of power.

I support the American Dream that affirms a world community of peace, liberty, and justice for all – a Dream where we learn about how our standard of living depends on a lower standard of living for many – a Dream where we remember that those who suffer as a result of U.S. economic policies suffer on our behalf – a Dream that opposes the use of war to support American economic growth.

I support an American Dream in which the decisive test of political sincerity is the insistence on improving the lives of the most oppressed.

I support the American Dream that will not close its eyes and stop up its ears to shut out this call, even when we're angry, or uncertain, or just plain tired.

Grounded in our tradition, we are the stewards of a Gospel that gains energy and authenticity on the margins.  Empowered by our principles, we bear a Gospel whose message is lived and preached in accountability with those who are most compromised. Bound in community, we are one with those whom Jesus called, “the least of these.” Connected by the spirit of life and love, we refuse to hold back.

Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, pp.89-93.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sermon for September 23, 2012

Faith in the Public Square: The Power of Heartbreak

God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3
Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief. Proverbs 14:13
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. Proverbs 13:12

Hope deferred makes the heart sick. How true. How true. I confess, I struggled with the misery of hopelessness this past Summer. In this pulpit last August, after yet another set of public shootings and horrible violence at home and abroad, I confessed my melancholy.  As I look at the world today, it just seems too much: Too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference.  Yes, I want something different for my community, for my family, for my church, for my sisters and brothers who suffer.  I identify with those words from Proverbs: Hope deferred makes the heart sick.

I resonate with a minister who in a sermon said, "There are times when I am ready to give up on America." Sounds terrible, doesn’t it. I love America, my country, my home. I love democracy. I love the American spirit – it speaks to the excellent parts of who we have become as a nation. I love our country so much, I feel discouraged when I sense that we are not our best. I have awfully high expectations of us; both our leaders and the diverse, stubborn, civic-minded American people.  I sense that there is a disconnect between my expectations and the current American experience. Who can articulate our common values? Where is the concern for the common good?  The truth is, there are some people, including some of our elected leaders, who are not interested in finding solutions to foster the common good. There are a few so-called “public” legislators on all levels of government who not only do NOT care how people are doing, they are averse to serving them. Our own modern-day prophet Jeremiah, Bill Moyers, once observed, “Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck . . . We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power.” I’m getting the impression that the American experience is one of unregulated greed, calculated cruelty, and the arrogance of power. Can it be different? Can we have political civilization, and spiritual culture, that nurtures obligation, reciprocity, and trust? I hope we can. I need to believe we can. Lately, a number of books have come out talking about the intersections of faith and public life. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf published A Public Faith. A pastor colleague, Disciples minister Bob Cornwall recently came out with his book, Faith in the Public Square. The Archbishop  of Canterbury just released a book with the same title. And then there is the sensitive Quaker, Parker Palmer, who wrote Healing the Heart of Democracy. I want to take Palmer’s lead today and think about how our journey of healing and hope begins by connecting with the power of heartbreak.

Palmer takes us back to September 11, 2001 – the date when America received a massive blow to its collective heart. Not just the heart of our economy, as symbolized by the World Trade Center towers. Not just the heart of our military might, as symbolized by the Pentagon. Those attacks were a strike at America’s deepest sensibilities about who we are and who we want to be as a nation. Here in this congregation, we saw our member’s and friend’s hearts break apart and bleed. The rest of the world saw America’s heart broken apart and bleeding. Even as friends at CCC held one another in grief, much of the rest of the world responded to the USA as friends of a family that had suffered a great loss. People in far-off lands, a lot of them more oppressed and victimized than we, offered their deep empathy. They delivered the equivalent of flowers or casseroles or visits -- those small but meaningful acts of kindness that can help a grieving family make it through. The American heart broke apart and many of us were touched to hear people around the world saying, “Today, I am an American, too.” We had a moment of national vulnerability and a significant opportunity to keep our heart open. We had a chance to return the gifts of care we had received, even as we explored ways to bring our attackers to justice.

Americans tend not to linger in heartbreak for too long. We are people of action. People of decision.  I have to wonder . . . if our leaders had the capacity to hold our national heartbreak longer, might we have begun to understand that the terror we felt on September 11 is daily life for many people around the world and here at home? Did we miss an opportunity to make the world a safer place for everyone, including us? Might we have learned to become a more compassionate member of the international community? Might our pain and grief, might this very personal attack, have increased our capacity to hold the pain of the world?

Americans, as a people, are by and large uneasy with holding our heartbreak for too long. In the weeks following the attacks, the American heart clenched like a fist and struck back. We were unable to let the tension between compassion and justice open us to more life-giving responses. We did what nations tend to do when their hearts are broken: we declared war on those who injured us. Don’t get me wrong; we don’t want to ignore crimes committed against us. I actually don’t think it’s in the public interest to turn the other cheek to terrorist attacks. Peace does not just happen by wishing for it. We have to fight for it, to suffer for it. We need to demand it from ourselves and the world’s governments as if peace were God’s most cherished hope for humanity.

I’m just wondering . . . can still be a healthier country, a more whole people, if we are willing to understand the dynamics of the broken heart?

We all know people whose hearts have been broken. We have suffered loss. Family members and friends have died or have been injured or have died in attacks and wars. We live through sadness. People lost homes to a corrupt economy. We live through hardship. People have lost jobs to inhumane corporate decisions. We live through grief. People lose loved ones and ask, “Why? Why her? Why him? Why now?” Every time we feel such bitter loss, people react differently. Some become angry and withdrawn. Some shut their hearts down, retreating into fearful isolation or angrily lashing out. Brokenhearted and heavily armed, some people nourish their pain by making their world an even more dangerous place. For some broken hearts, the words of Proverbs ring true: Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.

Others become more compassionate. They treat their despair with tenderness. They realize that anger can lead to false perceptions, and false perceptions can lead to more suffering. So they nurture their heartbreak with tenderness and care.  I don’t know why some people respond one way or another. I don’t know all the steps to how a shattered soul becomes whole again. But I do know this . . . The heart breaks a thousand times. We can watch our hearts break apart, or we can watch them break open. Personally, I can’t let myself go down the road of hopelessness. I need to believe it can be better. I want to experience the words of the Psalmist: God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. It is possible to step back, and breathe deeply, and allow our anxiety to settle, and sense new possibilities in situations that once seemed unsolvable.

Parker Palmer tells the story of the Quaker mystic John Woolman, a Quaker who lived in colonial New Jersey. A tailor by trade, Woolman lived among Quaker farmers and merchants whose believed all human beings were equal in the eyes of God. The problem was, their spiritual beliefs did not match their wallets.  The farmer’s and merchant’s wealth depended on slave labor. John Woolman received “a revelation from God” that slavery was a moral abomination and that Quakers should set their slaves free. For twenty years, at great personal cost, Woolman devoted himself to sharing this revelation with members of his religious community. When he visited a remote farmhouse to speak of his conviction, he would fast rather than eat a meal prepared or served by slaves. When he discovered that he had inadvertently benefited from a slave’s labor, he would insist on paying that person.

Woolman’s message was not well received by his fellow Quakers. Embracing Woolman’s beliefs would have required the comfortable Quaker gentry to make a considerable financial sacrifice. John Woolman held this terrible tension as he traveled from town to town, farm to farm, meeting to meeting, speaking his truth and standing in the gap between the Quaker vision of “God in every person” and the reality of Quaker slaveholding. But he nurtured tension, and the conflict, and the heartbreak  for two decades, until the Quaker community finally reached consensus and freed all of its slaves.

It was not just John Woolman who held the tension with tenderness. The Quaker gentry did, too. The community refused to resolve the tension prematurely either by throwing Woolman out or by taking a vote and allowing the slavery-approving majority to have its way. The community allowed the tension between vision and reality to break their individual and collective hearts OPEN: open to justice, open to truth, open to love.  It took twenty years for the Quakers to officially condemn the institution of slavery banish it from their lives. But they were the first religious community to condemn slavery, eighty years before the Civil War.

If we want to see healing in the public square, if we want to see wholeness restored to civic life, we must open ourselves to tension and expand our capacity to learn, and adapt and make some sense of this world. Our hearts can break open, not apart. That’s the power of heartbreak. Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own aches and the pain of the world. Who among us has not seen witnessed a time when compassion and grace grow out of great suffering, when a broken-open heart can become a source of healing, when sadness extends our ability to reach out?  A broken-open heart can enlarge enough to listen to other who has a different heartbreak than our own. A broken-open heart can give voice to its own wisdom and values. And when we practice this open-hearted speaking and listening, holding space for the tensions between us, we strengthen our public life. We can do this in our families, and our congregation, in our schools and offices and in our political life.

Can we acknowledge our heartbreak over the struggles we face in our own times? Can we embrace the contradictions and also hold the common ground we share with all of those in this land?

Our hearts will get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next depends on HOW our hearts break. There are many tears to be shed in America today, for reasons ranging from loved ones lost to war and terrorism to dark forebodings about the future facing our children. Many tears have been shed in private, and some have been shed in public, and many more are being suppressed. If our hearts break open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be a new life.

And in the public square, politics in the hands of those whose hearts have been broken open, not apart, helps us hold our differences creatively and use our power courageously for the sake of a more equitable, a more just, and a more compassionate world.

'Moyers on Democracy' by Bill Moyers,0,2392586.story
Parker Palmer, "The Politics of the Brokenhearted,"
Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy (2011)
William Sloane Coffin, Credo (2004)

Tich Nhat Hanh, Anger.

Rev. Myke Johnson, The Heart of Democracy.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...