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.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon for September 16, 2012

Generosity in an Age of Fear

Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity. For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. So we have urged Titus, who encouraged your giving in the first place, to return to you and encourage you to finish this ministry of giving. Since you excel in so many ways—in your faith, your gifted speakers, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, and your love from us—I want you to excel also in this gracious act of giving. I am not commanding you to do this. But I am testing how genuine your love is by comparing it with the eagerness of the other churches. You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. 2 Corinthians 8:1-9

Whatever happened to the African killer bees? Remember during the mid-1990s, television news reported on the looming invasion of aggressive killer bees that would come from Central America and Mexico to take over the Southwestern United States. A few headlines from the Arizona Republic and The Arizona Daily Star told the story: “Africanized Bees Found at Interstate 8 Rest Stop.” “Killer Bees Blamed for 3 Attacks.” “Pit Bull Dies of Nearly 2,000 Stings; Killer Bees Blamed.” Hollywood produced a made-for-TV horror movie about the bees -- A small town sheriff grapples with a swarm of killer bees in an effort to protect his town and family. We don’t hear much about them anymore. Somehow after September 11, a few wars, an economic collapse, global warming, new pandemic warnings, and high gas prices, we all forgot about the killer bees. We have other issues to be afraid of. And frankly, FEAR gets brings in great media ratings.

I can understand why. Fear is hardwired deep inside our brain. We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We’re afraid of the hurt between men and women, between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Fear grips the institutions that contain our lives. Every one of them, from the family to the corporation, has a built-in hierarchy of fear. Students fear teachers, workers fear their bosses, children fear their parents, patients fear their doctors. There is even fear in the church. We are even told to fear God. Our Scriptures proclaim, “It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30-31).

We are afraid today, aren’t we? We are slowly emerging from the worse economic period since the Great Depression, so we are informed. We are afraid. And fear hurts us.

People experience the bad economy in different ways. Some are so insulated that the state of the economy does not really touch them at all. Sure, their investments may be losing money and their home or homes may depreciate in value, but their personal connection to the economy is only seen on a computer screen that tells them this is the case. The rising cost of gasoline, utilities, travel, and food is not felt. A gallon of gas could cost $40 or $400 and there are people who would not be affected.

There are people who live on a solid financial footing. The sub-prime mortgage crisis did not bankrupt them. The economy has caused people in this group to make some basic changes, but nothing drastic. The volatility of the stock market inspired them to set aside extra savings. They delayed some major expenditures such as home remodeling or buying a new car. Vacations were scaled back. They were cautious about how they dispose of disposable income. And they survived.

On the opposite end of the economic scale, those who are hurting the most are those who were already not making it in America. If you were dependent on social services and charities, you still face the dual reality of those services and charities being cut back while you face growing competition for those very resources and services on which you depend. More people seek a share of limited resources. For those whose every cent goes to the basics of food, shelter, and transportation, a dramatic increase in the prices of food and gasoline means that an already unsustainable budget is now impossible.

In the middle . . . between those who are making it in America and those who were never making it . . . lies a vast economic stratum impacted in all sorts of ways by the state of the economy. It’s the famed middle class we’ve been hearing so much about lately. One hard-hit group is retirees whose savings were drawn down more quickly because of an increase in prices and a flagging market. This generation is among the most vulnerable in a tight economy. The other vulnerable group is those in Generation X or Y. Those of us who are forty-ish and under may have the distinction of being the first generation in American history expected to enjoy a lower standard of living than that of their parents’.

We live in a capitalist system, so there are certain things we should expect. There will always be ups and downs in the market. The value of the dollar will fluctuate. The Fed will fiddle with the  rate of inflation, and in the price of consumer goods will adjust. The ability to change, to adapt, to thrive and survive the valleys is linked to the pre-existing health of those in society and to the quality of the safety nets created by society. Think about the financial situations of millions of Americans before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Rates of personal savings declined for years, to the point where there was a negative savings rate in our country. Levels of debt rose with more of this debt concentrated in high interest credit cards and other forms of bad debt. These financial practices were unsustainable, but on the surface they didn’t seem so bad when the economy was soaring. Combine the dangerous personal financial practices of millions of Americans with a moth-eaten security net and you are inviting disaster. All of this in an economy where job changes are more frequent, health insurance was not portable and people found themselves going through stretches of vulnerability and risk.

Biblical economics gets us to think about our responsibility to take care of one another. In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, we hear about an economic bailout package. The Jerusalem church, the mother church, is in trouble. It has filed for Chapter 11. The church can barely pay the light bill. The members of the church used to be well off, but now boycotts and persecutions have used up their resources. The Apostle Paul calls on the Corinthian church to step in and to help out. He already hit up the churches in Galatia, and that they are starting to respond faithfully. In Now, Paul says, “I am going to head over to Ephesus and Macedonia and I’m going to get them to be part of this ‘jump start Jerusalem’ campaign.” Now he wants the Corinthians to come on board as well.” He wants them to see, their responsibility to make an impact on the world for the realm of God that goes far beyond their immediate situation.

Some of our fears about the market and the changes in our country are not really fears about how will we survive. They are fears that we won’t have life exactly how we want. Well you know what? We won’t. Not in god’s realm. The point is not to garner individual wealth at the expense of others. In God’s economy, all are taken care of as long as when all can share what they have with others. Not equal giving, but equal sacrifice. It’s called generosity. Our ultimate allegiance is to God, the author and giver of life. Our faith has always affirmed that the church is called to do its work even at the risk of losing its own life. As we do, we point beyond ourselves to the new reality in Christ.

Some of you here have already lived through enormous financial and economic hardships. Some of you may remember a speech that Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered as the United States faced financial ruin at home. Facing the Great Depression, FDR began his first inaugural address with unconventional words. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Taking over a country with its economy in shambles, Roosevelt named the fear that gripped the hearts of Americans. That line -- “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” -- is the most famous line of that speech, but Roosevelt hammered his message home in the seventh paragraph telling the citizens of the United States,
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
Roosevelt’s words disarm fear. He called on people to act as a part of a larger, shared effort. Fear breeds and multiplies in the distances that separate us from one another. To the extent that we can come together, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart to heart, to the extent we can meet together and share some purpose together, we can unbind the grip of fear.

So, today we have an inauguration of sorts. We begin a capital campaign at a time when there is some unease in our economy. We are relying on the generosity of our members and friends to help CCC fulfill the God-sized tasks we feel called to do. We, as a congregation, decided that our financial resources can either go to pay interest and make profits for a bank, or they can be released to do good in the lives of our families and communities.

I really believe in this campaign because I believe that church still matters in people’s lives. Don’t be afraid. Let’s remember that the church never exists simply for itself. We are not raising money so that we can survive. We are raising money so that we can have a greater impact. You know what I see? Homelessness, hunger, and despair are on the rise. People are still suffering. The staff here at the church notices it every week. And we think that our congregation’s ministries of outreach and inclusion are crucial in meeting the deep needs of our communities. There are justice concerns and mission, education and acts of charity in which we all need to engage.

To be clear, the congregation decided that some of the money we raise will also go to complete some badly needed repairs to our Retreat House property in West Virginia. For many here, the Retreat House has been a sacred space, a place for fellowship, for learning, for learning the art of relaxation and finding some peace. I also know there is some division about the decision to fix it up. Some people love the place. Others wonder why we are keeping it. Remember, we run the church like a democracy, and the voice of the congregation has clearly spoken in favor of repairing the Retreat House. Here’s what I think. I really trust the wisdom in the congregation. All of you who serve on Boards and Committees know that we talk. A lot! We call it processing. It may seem like overkill. Even when we think an issue is decided, we still keep analyzing it. I think it’s a good thing. We take our time. We try our best to listen to everyone and make decisions that make good sense. The Retreat House conversation has been going on for a long time. We will keep talking, and we will decide how that property best supports our mission and ministry. In the meantime, because we know it is important to enough people in our church, and because we support those people, and because we want others to support us, we can give in a spirit of emotional generosity to support the building of community. To me, that’s what it means to live in covenant.

I believe in CCC, in us, and I think financial generosity, and emotional generosity is an investment in the community and in a healthy future. I know that there are some of you who can give more. Some of you may not be able or may not to give at all. Some have already pledged major gifts. No matter what, you need to know you are welcome here! We still believe that no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, this can be a place of nurture and belonging for you. We also believe that as we generously share our with one another, we more closely live out the mission and ministry to which we are called – and we do it fearlessly.

•    Pronouncement—Christian Faith; Economic Life and Justice from Minutes of the 17th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Sermon for September 9, 2012


Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?” So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be . . . just rocks.” Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of the water will be...just water.” Then the angels said, “Well, God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?”

And God answered: “NOPE!”

On some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?”

 And God answered: “NOPE!”

God made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me — really it’s almost done.” But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans, and we are too little.”

“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.” The man and the woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That ’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.

Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” and God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”
From Does God Have a Big Toe by Rabbi Marc Gellman
In the first century, the great question was one of boundaries. Where would the lines be drawn that would determine who should hear the gospel and who would not. It is a question the church has not yet answered. Marcus Borg writes about this in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time. "The struggle between compassion and purity goes on in the churches today. In parts of the church there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life, and they draw their own sharp social boundaries between the righteous and sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many of which are seeking very earnestly to be faithful to Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of Scripture that Jesus himself challenged and opposed. An interpretation of Scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity."

Perhaps this is what’s happening in our Scripture reading from Mark 7:25-30.
A woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about [Jesus], and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds. Jesus calls this woman a dog. He knows what any Jew of his day would know; that this woman does not belong at the table with God’s chosen people. She shouldn’t be asking for Jesus’ help. She has her own people, her own healers, her own teachers. Why trouble Jesus? He doesn’t belong to her. She isn’t one of his people. She is an outsider. She’s a dog, and Jesus tells her so. This insult may get lost on us because most of us like dogs. Dogs are cute Dogs are fun. We have them as pets and companions. Dogs become part of the family. I once read that Leona Helmsley left $12 million in her will for her dog. What’s so bad about being a dog, especially if are Leona Helmsley’s dog? Well, in 1st century Palestine, there was no such thing as a domestic dog. The only dogs were wild dogs, scavengers, eating unclean animals and even human carcasses. For Jesus to call this Gentile woman a dog meant that she was unclean and shouldn’t be hanging around Jews. She comes from an unclean people and an unclean spirit possesses her daughter. And Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the one who came to clean up Israel, to redeem the Jews from impurity. Jesus comes to heal the children of Israel and Jesus will not waste what he has to give on people like this woman and her daughter. As far as Jesus is concerned, they are not part of God’s plan.

At least that’s what I used to think is happening in the beginning of this story. Lately, I’ve approached this text differently. What if Jesus does get it? In fact, what if Mark tells this story to confront some people who are not even mentioned in the text? Let me explain.

In Jesus’ day, Jewish people operated around a strict set of purity codes. Scripture declares, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation" (Acts 10:28). The Apocrypha confirms this. One text says, "Separate yourselves from the nations, and eat not with them . . . For all their works are unclean, and all their ways are a pollution and an abomination and uncleanness" (Jubilees 22:16). So, a purity map developed – like an organizational flowchart that showed where everyone fit in. Everyone knew their place on the chart. Gentiles and Samaritans were out. Morally unclean Jews, like tax collectors, were on the bottom of the chart. Lepers, the poor, widows and those with disabilities were just a step above public sinners on the unclean side of the list. Observant Jews were somewhere in the middle. Religious officials were on the super-pure side of the chart. Everyone knew their purity rating. And everyone knew the rules: those of lesser purity rank should ever intrude on the space of those with higher purity status. And those with high status must always protect their purity by staying away with those who are lower on the map.

According to Jewish religion and culture, Jesus would was expected to avoid all contact with impurity. He was expected to honor the lines and boundaries. But in Mark's gospel, we meet a holy man who seems to trample on all the boundaries of his day. Jesus comes in contact with unclean people: he voluntarily touches a leper, he is touched by a ritually unclean woman and he calls an unclean tax collector and known public sinner to be an disciple. Jesus travels regularly in Samaritan and Gentile territory, crossing boundaries he ought not to cross and exposing himself to pollution on every side. And, while in unclean territory, he speaks with unclean people like the Syrophoenician woman in today’s text.

I think Mark is using Jesus as a way to criticize and re-write the religious purity codes that are still marginalizing desperate people. At first, when Jesus calls the woman a dog, Mark puts the theology of the Pharisees in Jesus’ mouth. It’s a set up. It looks like Jesus is going to tow the party line and reject her. The woman represents all who are excluded by an unjust system. She speaks up for herself. She confronts the oppressive theology. That’s when Jesus turns the system upside down. He offers covenant blessing to outsiders. Mark wants us to know that people and their needs come before rules. Those obsessed with purity emphasize God’s holiness. Jesus emphasizes God’s mercy. Those focused on purity build walls to protect themselves from defilement. Jesus goes out and touches human need. They are working from two radically different sets of assumptions. In Mark’s gospel, the Pharisees symbolize order and regulation. Jesus symbolizes mercy and mission.

And the woman who gets called a dog -- it turns out she is no dog at all. Like I said, it’s a set up. Kind of a reverse psychology. She’s not a dog. No, she is a partner. She and Jesus work to eliminate exclusion and show that anyone can have a right relationship with God. Before all else, before God seeks us out as a lover, a servant or a worshiper, God makes us partners. That is our fundamental, primitive relationship with God. Partners. In the very beginning of creation, God has no brother, sister, friend, spouse, servant or even a pet. Yet, God becomes hopelessly entangled with us. As Rabbi Gellman says in our first reading, a partner is someone to work with God on a big thing that neither God nor we can do alone.

That’s what we are all about here at CCC. We realize that healthy churches learn to expand their boundaries in order to include more people in what God is doing. One way to do this is to tell people the simple truth that God loves everyone. This doesn’t mean that God just loves those who are rich, or super spiritual, or good looking, or the ones who have it all together. God’s love doesn’t stop with those who look or act the same way. God also loves those whom the world labels as ugly or incompetent. The early church gave us Jesus stories to show us how God’s love was extended to those who were seen as outsiders; the poor and oppressed, the lame, and even the Gentiles. The church is not supposed to be a club for people who have it all together. The church is for “rejects.” It is a place where people who have been isolated from God can come and hear life-changing news. The church is a place for people with real pain to hear words of healing and hope. An inclusive vision of the church means that even when we are at our lowest, beaten, bruised and battered, we are God’s partners. We preach and teach and demonstrate the message of God’s love restlessly. We don’t do it out of pride. We don’t do it to swell our membership rolls or bank accounts. We do it because God partners with us and entrusts us to be the change God wants to see in the world.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Amy gave words to who we can be as God’s partners. I want to repeat her powerful vision. She asked us to imagine how CCC’s history would be written, looking back on this decade. Imagine this:
 In the 2010’s the parishioners of Christ Congregational Church boldly did the unexpected in their time. Churches were declining in membership, concepts of inclusion and grace were heatedly debated in religion and the public square and this body of Christ, this church, proclaimed that God is still speaking! They opened their hearts, their doors, their imaginations, their conversations, and they prayed without ceasing and they practiced listening.With God as their guide, they worked for just laws for all, they ministered to the captives, cared for the sick and dying, made room for the displaced and lonely and offered shelter and food to those who were hungry and without a place to call home. They were a conscientious people. They knew they were privileged and often blind to themselves. They put systems in place to challenge their biases and they were serious about their lifelong commitment to grow and learn into more whole people. They got to know people who were on the margins well. So well, that in time, the people on the margins were coming to their aid at the ends of their lives, and they each served the other with a true sense of love and respect for one another. They experienced the kingdom of God on earth! They joined hands with people of all races, sexual orientations, ages, religious traditions, political beliefs, socioeconomic places, education status, family structures . . . and they came together to bring equality and justice to their community. And the world at that time was different and better because they listened to God’s [wisdom] -- a voice that speaks up for good!
Our holy one, Jesus, is revealed as the physician who brings newness, forgiveness of sins, and wholeness all people. He only draws one line, one boundry. Either you believe in what he is doing, or you don’t. Today we declare, we believe. We believe that a world of compassion, healing, inclusion, and spirit is possible. We believe that we can be partners with God in making it happen. We believe and we must not stop trying to finish the world.

The Idea of Purity in Mark’s Gospel by Jerome H. Neyre
Rev. Amy Lewis. “Wisdom Lines,” a sermon preached August 19, 2012 at CCC.
Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the Very First Time.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strongman.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Likrat Shabbat

So . . . I accidentally just deleted last Sunday's sermon on prayer, study and service. Many of you asked about the prayer I used to close the sermon. It is entitled Likrat Shabbat. The original  text is below. I altered it to make it more gender inclusive in worship.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God,
     to end war;
For we know that You have made the world
     in a way
That man must find his own path to peace.
Within himself and with his neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
     to end starvation;
For You have already given us the
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
     to root out prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all men,
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
     to end despair,
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God,
     to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we would only use them constructively.

Therefore we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination and will power,
To do instead of just pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

Sermon for August 26, 2012

Do We Need Any More Heroes?

This is the account of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. But Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his birth, while his father, Terah, was still living. Meanwhile, Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. (Milcah and her sister Iscah were daughters of Nahor’s brother Haran.) But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter-in-law Sarai (his son Abram’s wife), and his grandson Lot (his son Haran’s child) and moved away from Ur of the Chaldeans. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there. Terah lived for 205 years and died while still in Haran. The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram departed as the LORD had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Genesis 11:27-12:4

Ever since I was a child, I have loved the automated carwash. I don’t go there often, but I love it. Not those places that make you get out of the car, either. Or those places where you pull into a bay and the machine spits soap around the car one side at a time. It has to be the one where you pull up to the track, put your car in neutral, take your hands off the wheel, and get pulled through a tunnel of spraying foam, slapping spaghetti, whirring brushes, and air blowers. I think it’s exciting – an outside force pulling me closer to a clean car.

Pulled along and out of control. It’s fun in the carwash. Or if you are waterskiing.  But not so much if you are a fish. For a fish, the experience of being pulled out of your control must be a different sensation. Imagine, you are a fish, minding your own business, living your prescribed life, searching for a bite to eat, when you see the tastiest looking worm in the world. You swim towards it. You take a quick, guarded nibble and swim away. All is well. You swim back to the worm, take another bite, and all of the sudden an irresistible force is yanking you to the surface with some kind of metal hook contraption in your lip. The more you struggle, the worse it gets. But struggle you must! Utterly beyond your control, the force of a fishing reel pulls you to the open air, not knowing what kind of adventure or horror awaits once you leave your aquatic home.

Have you ever felt like that? Can you remember times when life pulled you along and you could not stop it? Sometimes life just feels better with a safe and predictable routines: wake up, brush teeth, read the paper, work, eat, watch TV, go to bed.  Some of us don’t like to admit that we live rather conventional lives. Some people decide they are bored. They find want to escape feeling trapped by a life that pulls them into a monotonous future. They try to break out of their ordinary routines, but not always in the healthiest ways. Consider the following accounts of couples who think their relationships are pulled along by life:

A man named Bob writes, “It depresses me to think that I’ll never have romance again. I’m happily married, but the romance is gone between us and sometimes I think about having an affair. Is this it? Love without romance for the rest of my life?”

Carla describes a similar concern. She says, “I Love my partner and we get along well. But sometimes I think, is this it? Most nights I get home from work first and fix dinner. Then she comes home, we eat, she gets the kids ready for bed while I clean up. We watch a little TV together and go to bed. Saturday we take care of chores. Sunday we do something as a family . . .  I know we have a better relationship than a lot of our friends, but it’s all so routine. I keep feeling something’s wrong with me for wanting more. I’m bored. I love Sheila, but she’s like a comfortable shoe. Am I being childish to think there should be more than this?”

Some people feel that same way about their faith. In High School, I felt that the UCC congregation I grew up in was full of boring hypocrites. I looked around and asked, “Is this it?” Eventually, I wandered away from that church and worshipped with some fundamentalist Baptists. Their faith seemed more alive. Their services seemed to focus more on relationships than tradition. They had a worship band at worship and sang simple choruses with smiles on their faces. Of course, after a while I felt like they were in a rut, too. I asked, “Is this it?” and looked for another new faith family.
Sometimes we are restless wanderers, looking to find a home. We want more out of life. We want adventure and comfort, freshness and familiarity, and we want them all at once.

I wonder if Abraham and Sarah ever felt this way. In just a few lines of text from Genesis, I hear our story. When we first meet Abraham, or Abram as he is introduced to us, he lives his prescribed life. Like other nomads of the time, he takes a partner, he migrates from place to place, he buys and sells goods.  But Abraham and Sarah are not really wanderers and they’re not really settled, either. They are the perpetual strangers in a strange land, the outsiders who longs to be the insiders, people of trust who yearn for God to soothe their monotonous lives.

One day, life changes. Maybe it started out like any other day for Abram. He and Sarai are childless, stuck near the city of Haran, watching sheep, bartering goods, and pulled along by life. One ordinary day after another. The same old, same old.  Maybe his life wasn’t just dull – maybe it was worse. Maybe his life was oppressive, constrained, or hemmed in. Maybe he felt so confined that sometimes he couldn’t even breathe. Or perhaps his life was filled with yearning, with an ache for something more; another land, another way of being. Maybe he had that feeling we get of being full but still hungry, satisfied but still thirsty.

Abraham’s life is impotent. For a story that’s consumed with men, lineage, and power, Abraham looks helpless. He comes from line of wanderers who can trace their ancestry back to Noah, but he can’t father children of his own to carry on his lineage. He has lived nearly half his life, and nothing exciting or legacy-shaping has happened to him. Sounds like a recipe for mid-life crisis to me!
Abram is seventy-five years old when life changes. God has to offer. God needs someone who needs God – someone who will rise to lofty standards. God needs Abraham and Sarah. God summons them to adventure. Honestly, I’m surprised. They are not particularly righteous or special people. They aren’t godly people. Later in Genesis, we learn that Abraham and Sarah can be cheaters and liars. They are restless and unsure. Their life seems suspended with no child. In a story where God is obsessed with creation, Abraham and Sarah cannot reproduce. They exert no control over their own lives. They are so utterly human.

And maybe that’s the point.

When we read about the call of mythic heroes, they share some common elements. Usually, the hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. The hero encounters tremendous forces and wins a battle over them. They hero returns from this adventure and shares his newfound power with his fellow humans. Think about mortal Prometheus ascending to the heavens to steal fire from the gods, or Jason sailing through the Clashing Rocks, stealing the golden fleece, and taking the throne back from the usurper. Sometimes the mythic hero is a reject from society who overcomes a symbolic deficiency to fulfill a task from God. Think about the story of Exodus in which stuttering Moses scales Mount Sinai. As Moses climbs the mountain, flashes of lightening and peals of thunder shake the world. God bends the heavens, and moves the earth. In the midst of this holy storm, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments. Moses, in turn, gives them to the people of Israel.

Abraham is not that kind of hero. Abraham is not really a hero at all. Abraham, is the nomad who hears God and follows. God is the real hero of the story, not Abraham. Out of nowhere, God invites Abraham to relate to the world differently. God says, “Abraham, I choose you and Sarah to be the Parents of Blessing to the entire world.” Now Abraham has a choice. Live the same, mundane existence, or live into a new calling that reframes his ordinary life as a life of obedience to God.
There are going to be times when we are faced with the shear ordinariness of life. We want some excitement. We may say, “I like my life, but is this it?” We will be tempted to slake our thirst for adventure in poisoned streams. Have an affair . . . drown the boredom with booze . . . buy an overpriced sports car and relive the fantasy of our youth . . . over-focus on our careers at the expense of relationships . . . become withdrawn and self-sufficient and alienate our friends and family.
Looking at the tedium that lies ahead, we may choose to avoid it by consuming material pleasures. As I see it, the problem with slaking our thirst for adventure in these ways is that what seemed shiny and alluring can eventually become another part of the boring routine; except the new “normal” now includes a deeper rut of addictive behavior. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much life I waste. How many hours have a wasted watching “reality” TV, when real experiences were happening all around me?  How much time have I squandered being angry at people who hurt me? How often have I brooded over the hypocrisy of others and done nothing to change the pretense in my own life? How many times have I followed unhealthy habits to distract myself from a wounded spirit?
Is this the adventure God wants for us?

Sarah and Abraham remind us that God seeks people who have the bravery and compassion to journey into the wilderness in their own lives.

One ways of defining faith is to say faith is a way of seeing the whole. The great American theologian H. Richard Neibuhr pointed out that there are three different ways to see the whole. One way to experience reality is to see the whole as gracious, as nourishing, as supportive of life -- to see reality as that which has brought us into existence, nourishes us. If we can see God and others as supportive, gracious and nourishing, then we have the possibility of responding to life in a posture of trust and gratitude.  God invites us to THAT adventure, that journey of faith, in which we learn to trust God and learn to see life in a new way. If this is not what life is about, namely, growth and wonder and compassion, then I don’t know what life is about.

The story of Abraham and Sarah leads us to that marvelous question asked by the poet Mary Oliver: What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life? Are we going to remain in the world of the dull, the repetitive, the addictive, the same old same old? Or are we, like Abraham and Sarah, going to respond to invitation to leave our old way of being and enter a life beyond convention and our domestications of reality? The voice of invitation still speaks the promise to us: “I will show you a better way, a new country.”

Can we respond to the call that invites us enter a life of wholeness? We begin our search with God as our hero – a hero whose quest leads to ordinary, hearts like ours -- restless wanderers who find a way to listen, trust, and leap to God in faith.

Stories paraphrased from We Love Each Other But . . . by Ellen Wachtel (New York: St. Martine, 1999), 187-188.
Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (New York: William Morrow, 2002), 21-24.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 30-37.
Marcus Borg, “Faith: A Journey of Trust,”

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...