Monday, September 30, 2013

Sermon for September 29, 2013

To Those who Abide in the Shadow of Grace
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
God will cover you with pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge;
God’s faithfulness will shield you.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Psalm 91, selected verses
I thought this was going to be an easy sermon to prepare.  Select a well-known psalm about trusting in God, throw in an inspiring story or two, and off we go. And, as so often happens when we allow scripture to speak to us, that’s not what happened. I really struggled with the text from Psalm 91 this week.

Psalm 91 is a song of trust and protection. In one scenario, the song is written by a king who has prayed to God and found shelter from his enemies. The king enjoys the protection of his god, from every kind of danger. No one will be able to sneak up and attack him at night; the archer’s arrows won’t reach him during the day. Thousands will die around him, but he will be just fine. The notion of a god that is on side of a particular political power does not give me any comfort or reassurance. In fact, it gives me theological hives.

So, let’s just ignore that scenario and imagine Psalm 91 is a song of personal trust.  The psalm has an insistent declaration that if we trust God then no harm will come. Unfortunately, experience teaches something quite different. People of faith do get cancer, or heart disease and die from any number of illnesses. People of faith are crushed in spirit by acrid verbal attacks, broken in body and mind by physical and emotional abuse. People of faith find themselves a hospital or die as a result of all forms of violence. People who trust in God are living with poverty, lack of food and clothing, and experience starvation.  What about little children who are afflicted with terminal cancer at age three? What about faithful Christians, Jews, Muslims, or others who lose their jobs in a bad economy and can’t find a decent job for decent pay anywhere? What about stalwarts of dedication to God who lose their homes in fires or floods or hurricanes or tornados? Where is God for people who dwell in the shadow of grace when and things like that happen?
Is the Psalmist correct here? How do any of us deal with the fierce curveballs which life hurls at us? Is it enough just to say, “God is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust”?

There’s another way to interpret Psalm 91. Ancient Rabbis encouraged the faithful to recite Psalm 91 over and over again in order to feel the presence of God. They called it an amulet psalm. Because we keep finding evil lurking around every corner, because diseases continue to plague those we love, because we can’t seem to stop stubbing our toes and tripping over the same problems and addictions, some people wrote the words of Psalm 91 on a tiny piece of parchment and  literally wore it around their necks like a protective charm. It’s almost as if the words became a magic talisman to ward off evil and bad luck.

Maybe these words do offer some “magic formula.” It’s clear that whoever wrote these words really did believe that no harm could come to those who called upon God’s name. And that’s nice. Sometimes I wish I had that kind of faith. I wish that I really believed that magic words were enough -- that these words expressed my own deepest faith. I wish they offered me the comfort I need each and every time I stumble, or every time I hear about another cancer diagnosis, or each time another young woman cradling a baby to the church office to ask for rent money. I wish that I could offer these magic words to protect them. I wish it were that easy.

I like to think that our religious thinking has evolved way past the faith of whoever wrote the words of Psalm 91. I don’t believe that God causes earthquakes, floods, diseases and whatever other evil might befall us. But here’s the downside -- we’re not really sure where to put our frustration. We haven’t found an adequate shelter for our anger and our fear. We don’t know how to make God our resting place. Most of us don’t really know what it means to believe that God is a resting place, a home, that protective shelter where our fear and anger become something else. We are too busy to put all of our trust in God. For some reason, we have convinced ourselves that we can do it on our own. We don’t need any help. We’ve got all we need.
Here is what I am learning. In a world of random violence and deep pain, I don’t blame God for the bad things, but I do want God to keep protect from them. I want a refuge.

There are all kinds of other refuges out there that lure us with promises of safety and security.  They look promising and secure. Remember the FEMA trailer debacle after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast? After the storm surge, residents of New Orleans and Mississippi had been living in their cars, tents, and partially gutted homes. FEMA came to the rescue with trailers. A shelter in times of trouble. Deliverance. After some time, residents of FEMA trailers began reporting breathing difficulties, persistent flu-like symptoms, eye irritation, and nosebleeds. Tests on a number of FEMA trailers by the Sierra Club showed some 83% had levels of formaldehyde in the indoor air at levels above the EPA recommended limit. Later, a federally-funded analysis reported that the toxic levels of formaldehyde in the trailers probably resulted from faulty construction practices and the use of substandard building materials.

It turns out some shelters don’t end up protecting us. It’s true of physical shelters, and it’s true of spiritual shelters as well. They might look good, but they are deadly refuges. Think of the places where we look for protection and security. The theologian Walter Breuggemann reminds us that the church in the U.S. exists in a market-driven, war-hungering, empire-thirsting environment. These are deadly refuges, and we in the church are tempted to turn to them all the time as ways to solve our need to feel safe.

What’s the alternative? God is our refuge, our true home, our best portion, our deep desire. The author of Psalm 91 wanted to convey something about how the life of faith works. To seek refuge in God is to place one's trust fully in God rather than self-procured means of security.  Living in the shadow of grace is not about asking God to warrant a particular political agenda. It’s not about asking God for personal blessing as the world around us unravels. It’s not about finding the magic words that will make everything better. Finding refuge in God means accepting the Divine Spirit’s offer to be an emotional and spiritual safe place that cannot be broken by the stresses and strains of life. We do not have to trust in ourselves.

We all listen God’s promise: I will deliver. I will protect. I will answer. I will show. I will rescue. These are the words of a love song, sung by God to a battered yet hopeful people. 

This week, I found some shelter in the poetic words of Hilary F. Marckx who has rewritten Psalm 91 for today. I close with this – let it be our prayer . . .
We have no concept
of the many dangers
from which we have been delivered.
We complain and whine
when things go wrong for us,
but have we ever thought of the
assortment of attacks,
onslaughts, crazy situations,
dumb choices, fool-hardy ideas
we have been delivered from
through God’s ongoing,
ever-present, steadfast grace?
We think we know troubles,
but I shudder to think about
the bullets I have unknowingly dodged,
the harm that I,
in blissful ignorance, walked through,
safe and secure, held and protected by God.
Oblivious, we constantly drink of God’s Salvation!
This is something to consider
the next time
we think that God
is slacking:
Maybe there are a few things
we need to experience for ourselves
to know the fullness
of the grace God gives us.
Otherwise, how will we know gratitude?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sermon for September 22, 2013

Is There No Balm in Gilead?
Listen Here
My grief is beyond healing;
    my heart is broken.
Listen to the weeping of my people;
    it can be heard all across the land.
“Has the Lord abandoned Jerusalem?” the people ask.
    “Is her King no longer there?
Oh, why have they provoked my anger with their carved idols
    and their worthless foreign gods?” says the Lord.

“The harvest is finished,
    and the summer is gone,” the people cry,
    “yet we are not saved!”
I hurt with the hurt of my people.
    I mourn and am overcome with grief.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why is there no healing
    for the wounds of my people?
If only my head were a pool of water
    and my eyes a fountain of tears,
I would weep day and night
    for all my people who have been slaughtered
.  – Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Thomas Wiggins, known as "Blind Tom," was born in 1849 in Columbus, GA.  Even though he was born blind, at the age of seven this enslaved African could flawlessly play spirituals and European classical music. He made his way into the plantation “Big House” where he listened to Beethoven and, it is alleged, he memorized over 8,000 compositions. One person stated he had never heard a person play with such skill and beauty. People said anytime Blind Tom played, his tears would begin to flow. Some could not understand how an untrained, blind black man could play this beautiful music. Others said Blind Tom had the Blues flowing in his spirit and it would touch the souls of people who did not see Blind Tom as a full person.

Black liberation theologian James Cone talks about being black in the South during the lynching era. How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? Violent self-defense was equivalent to suicide. Protest was out of the question. Cone says, African Americans learned to sing the Blues to express both despair and hope. Despair asks the questions, “Why this? Why me? Why now?” Despair asks, “What do you do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do?” African Americans played and sang the blues. As long as they could sing and play the blues, they had some hope that one day their humanity would be acknowledged. Sorrow will turn to joy. Despair will lead to hope. Violence will end and justice will reign. Those who are last will someday become the first.

How about you? What do you do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do you do? In today’s second reading, the prophet Jeremiah sings the blues. The prophecies in Jeremiah cover a few decades of Israel’s history. His words chronicle the nation’s movement from national hubris to national destruction.  From Jeremiah’s point of view, the devastating fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE is the result a gradual and accumulating failure at all levels of national life. It is a foreign policy failure. It is a failure of values and faith.  Jeremiah sees Israel like a tree rotting in its core.  From the outside the nation still looked like a strong oak, with branches spreading upwards and leaves providing a canopy of shade.  But when the armies of Babylon came like a storm, Israel turned out to be hollowed out and ready to be blown over.  Jeremiah knows that no matter what he says or does, the people of Jerusalem will not listen. They will not own up to their rotting condition. They will not seek healing. Jeremiah is sick about it. Sick with grief. Read Jeremiah’s words and it’s hard to know who is hurting more; Jeremiah or God.  It’s as if they ask, “What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do?” Jeremiah puts it another way: Is there no balm in Gilead?

The phrase “balm in Gilead” probably refers to a balsam wood resin used in medicine and perfumes.  Jeremiah uses this phrase twice in his prophetic writings. Both times the prophet says Israel looks for some soothing medicine to help with their problems, but in each case the cure lacks the power to bring about healing.  We might say Israel is trying to put a band aid on their problems. It’s like trying to rub lotion on the chest of a patient who needs a heart transplant.  We sing the old spiritual, “There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” Jeremiah’s says just the opposite: Beware of the balm in Gilead. It is not enough.  Don’t settle for snake-oil solutions when a radical transformation is needed.  There are no easy and painless answers to big problems. 

Lanford Wilson was a young playwright who had come to New York City from the Ozarks. He was fascinated by the people he overheard in all-night coffee shop on Manhattan's Upper West Side: dealers, junkies, hustlers, prostitutes, dreamers and runaways. He wrote a play based on these conversations and called it “Balm in Gilead: An Underworld Adventure.” The plot loosely centers on Joe and Darlene. Joe is a cynical drug dealer and Darlene is a naïve, simplistic and irritating new arrival to the big city. Darlene leaves the Midwest after a divorce and finds herself completely ill-equipped to handle life in New York’s underworld. She becomes increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of the various low-rent men who hang around the café looking for an easy target. Joe the drug dealer seduces Darlene hours after they meet.  When Joe looks at Darlene, he sees a chance for a fresh start. He considers giving up dealing, but he has a huge debt to a loan shark named Chuckles to take care of first.  Just as he is about to return Chuckles' money, Joe is killed by one of the dealer's thugs. The play ends with all the principal characters droning their lines from the first scene over and over again in a circle, suggesting that their lives are stuck in a demoralizing rut. I can just hear the prophet Jeremiah. “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? What do we do? A lot of us seek solutions that really don’t solve our problems.  In Wilson’s play, drugs and alcohol become the most dangerous form of comfort.  There is no balm in Gilead when, 45 years after than play was written, America spends billions of dollars combating terrorism while drunk drivers create more than four 9/11 scale tragedies per year. 

There is no balm in Gilead when hurting Americans take on punishing debt in the hopes of getting out of our financial problems.

There no balm in Gilead in the face of craven violence.  A majority of Americans can’t get our congress to pass basic gun owner background check legislation – even after the murder of 26 first graders and teachers at Sandy Hook. There is no comfort for thousands of Syrians killed in chemical weapon attacks, not to mention millions of refugees in that country’s civil war. There is no balm in Gilead for the despicable bloodshed we have seen just this past week – from killings of office workers in D.C., to gang warfare in a Chicago park, to terror in a mall in Nairobi.

And how about our current national political system? There is no balm in Gilead for food insecure families who are afraid of being taken off of food stamps because their future has been sequestered by rich obstructionists. Sometime I wonder, can God thrive in this kind of brokenness? We say, with the prophet Jeremiah,
“I hurt with the hurt of my people.
I mourn and am overcome with grief.”
We ask with Jeremiah,
“Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why is there no healing
for the wounds of my people?”
What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve? Like Jeremiah, we speak truth to power. We speak truth to suffering. We speak truth to weakness. We speak truth to the laziness that imposes ineffective solutions that exploit the weakest, most compromised among us. We speak truth to those who fail to take responsibility.  When there is nothing left but to grieve, what do we do? We love those who are suffering; we keep vigil with them. And we pray for their complete healing. It is a healing that comes from beyond exile, from beyond the grave.

What do we do when there’s nothing left but to grieve?  What do we do? We remember that we, as Christians, do actually offer a Balm in Gilead that can actually heal and transform of the world and ourselves. We offer the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” I believe the resurrected Christ is the answer for the wounds of the world and for my own wounds.  In my own life, I know of no other way, no other healing balm that helps me meet the daily challenges I face. And I have nothing else to offer except the One who heals me and calls me to love in return with all my heart, soul and mind, to extend love to my neighbor in gratitude.  So I listen to the words of that old spiritual and try to remember: Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work's in vain; but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.


James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Wedding Sermon

In honor of the Wedding of Tim Carrigan and Brian Frye
September 14, 2013
A reading from the first book of Samuel
Excerpted from 1 Samuel chapters 18 and 20 (NRSV)

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved. Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the Lord seek out the enemies of David.” Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.  Jonathan said to him . . . “The Lord is witness between you and me forever.” Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’”
Jonathan met David and loved him. We are talking about King David, of David and Goliath fame – the celebrated king and warlord of Hebrew Scripture. Jonathan is the Son of David’s predecessor – King Saul. Jonathan met David and loved him.  And David loved him back. Scripture says their souls were knit together. It was not simply a spiritual thing; it was physical as well. Jonathan loved David with body and spirit. The ancient Hebrews did not distinguish between body and soul like we do. Jonathan and David loved each other completely.

The scripture reading Tim and Brian picked tells us that that Jonathan and David make a covenant. As a sign of his commitment, Jonathan takes off everything he’s wearing and gives it all to David. He takes off his sword and bow and offers them to David, signifying that he intends to protect David. But it goes further than that. Jonathan takes off all of his clothes, which honors a much deeper and more intense relationship. It’s a sign of vulnerability. A signal of trust. A symbol of intimacy. A covenant of union. Jonathan met David and loved him. Completely.

Weddings are all about symbols of complete union and love. We know, however, that this has not always been an equal opportunity celebration. The silencing of gay and lesbian Christians has been the norm in church worship and civil law for most of our history. To silence others, to call someone unworthy of God’s love and grace is a breach of the baptismal covenant. As one author has said, the Church, in silencing gay and lesbian children of God makes the waters of baptism a whirlpool of death because it sends gays and lesbians out of the Church believing they are less than children of God.

We are about something else here today. We are claiming for Tim and Brian, and anyone and everyone who comes through these doors, that there is wholeness, belonging, and honor for all God’s people. Baptism is a sacrament of equality and a mark of acceptance. Baptism is a means of grace, hope, and justice that starts our journeys of faith. We are co-creating a safe place for all people to celebrate their love, their vulnerability, their intimacy . . . their union. Our church is not offering a patronizing kindness. It’s a commitment made on mutuality and equality, humility and respect, the desire for truth telling and justice seeking. We celebrate a baptismal vision of radical equality.

Baptism is a declaration. In this congregation’s baptism liturgy, I ask that parents teach their children to follow the ways of Christ in concert with an appreciation for religious diversity. In baptism, we declare that God loves you. We declare that because of God’s love, we want to express love in return. In baptism, we share life together in Christ. In some ways, marriage is an extension of the promises made at one’s baptism. Today, Tim and Brian declare that, before all the people, they celebrate a covenant of love and union with each other. Today we are reminded that God’s love is seen in the love Tim and Brian share. Their union with Christ is witnessed in their union with one another. The care God promises is seen in the care that Tim and Brian show to each other.

Like Jonathan and David in days of old, Tim and Brian will share symbols of their covenant. In the sacred tradition of marriage, they will exchange rings -- symbols of eternal love and endless union of body, of mind, and of the spirit. Tim and Brian, whenever you look at those rings, I hope that you remember that your souls are knit together with trust and protection; vulnerability and intimacy; love and union.

As Anna and Caitlyn Carrigan offer music, we will present Tim and Brian’s rings to the baptismal font. Mary Carrigan, Tim’s Mom, and Beverly Taylor, Brian’s Mom, will pour water into the baptismal font. Then Tim and Brian will then come forward and present their rings. The baptismal promises made by their parents when they were babies find new expression in the rings Tim and Brian will wear. They are symbols of justice and equality. Symbols of mutuality and respect. Symbols of union, love, and care.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sermon for September 15, 2013

Hot Winds from Barren Heights
with gratitude to Dr. John Holbert at for clarifying some of my thoughts on Jeremiah! Much of the language of this sermon belongs to him.
I only had one couple walk out during the sermon this week . . . 

Few confrontations in sports are as personal and dramatic as a batter standing in against a pitcher with a baseball game on the line. The batter adjusts his helmet, tightens his batting gloves, digs into the batter's box and looks toward the mound. The pitcher fingers a rosin bag and drops it, stares at the catcher for a sign, then grips the ball in his glove and begins his windup. If the pitch is a Major League fastball, it will reach the plate in less than half a second.

How do you even begin to think of hitting that ball? I played baseball . . . once. The ball hit me more than I hit it. It turns out, elite MLB hitters have an average visual acuity of 20/12. That means they can see from 20 feet away what I would have to stand at 12 feet away to see. Elite players are born with a higher density of cones in their eyes. If their eyes were like a digital camera, they see with more mega pixels than the average person. For instance, Reggie Jackson said he could see the actual rotation of a pitch coming out of a pitcher's hand by looking at those tiny red threads in the ball. A professional baseball slugger simply sees more than most of us.

Some people see in ways that the average person just can’t. The Prophets of Israel are like that. They do not see as we see. Their sight is deeper. Expanded. Heightened. Sharpened. They observe more profoundly than our overly literal eyes are capable of seeing.  Most of us are like newspaper reporters, asking the straightforward questions: where, when, what, who, just gimme the facts. The prophets help reveal deep structures that affect the ways we need to see and live. Because they see life in all its glory and all its terror, they are able to describe it to us and help us move beyond the obvious, the simple facts of things.

The Prophet Jeremiah calls people to experience life on this deeper level. In some ways, history portrays Jeremiah as a failure. He is best remembered as the sorrowing prophet who mourns the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon. Today, I want to remember him as one who sees in ways that we cannot.  Listen for a word from God as told through the Prophet Jeremiah . . .
The time is coming when the LORD will say
    to the people of Jerusalem,
“My dear people, a burning wind is blowing in from the desert,
    and it’s not a gentle breeze useful for winnowing grain.
 It is a roaring blast sent by me!
My people are foolish
    and do not know me,” says the LORD.
“They are stupid children
    who have no understanding.
They are clever enough at doing wrong,
    but they have no idea how to do right!”
 I looked at the earth, and it was empty and formless.
    I looked at the heavens, and there was no light.
I looked at the mountains and hills,
    and they trembled and shook.
I looked, and all the people were gone.
    All the birds of the sky had flown away.
 I looked, and the fertile fields had become a wilderness.
    The towns lay in ruins,
    crushed by the LORD’s fierce anger.
This is what the LORD says:
“The whole land will be ruined,
    but I will not destroy it completely.
The earth will mourn
    and the heavens will be draped in black
because of my decree against my people.
    I have made up my mind and will not change it.”
I will pronounce your destruction!”  Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Jeremiah speaks during dark days of Jerusalem's collapsing life. He does much of his writing during the reign of an Israelite King named Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim’s father was a well-loved religious reformer. But the son is a bumbling, self-indulgent novice. Jeremiah can see what’s really going on. He sees the beginning of the end of the people of Israel. The bloodthirsty nation of Assyria has been overthrown by the Babylonians. Egyptian allies in the south are useless against the threat. The Babylonian King threatens to make Israel a vassal state with a puppet ruler. King Jehoiakim seems to be better at building massive palaces than taking care of the real work of a king – like matter of justice and righteousness.

As a result of Jerusalem's foolish leadership, Jeremiah reaches for some dangerous and frightening metaphors to suggest what God is about to do. Jeremiah calls it "A burning wind from the desert . . . a roaring blast.” One translation calls it “A hot wind from barren heights.” It is a tempest straight from God, and its intent is pure destruction.

Why? Why would God destroy the people? This is just playing into the perception that the God of Hebrew Scripture is a prickly and impatient God of wrath. What would provoke God to such an extent? According to Jeremiah, God says, "My people are ridiculous; they do not know me . . .  they have no perception. They are wise in evil-doing, but know nothing of doing good.”  Scorching desert heat is a sign that God's anger burns against a people who have forgotten how to act with justice and loving-kindness. Jeremiah, the prophet with his heightened sense of reality, can see the spin on the baseball, so to speak. He can see the fastball pitch coming. He feels the scorching heat of God’s anger before anyone else. And he calls people to open their eyes to what is coming.

I cannot read the words of Jeremiah without thinking of the hot winds from barren places that blow and burn in our own times. The world is, beyond doubt, getting warmer due to our 150-year love affair with fossil fuels. The atmosphere above us is laden with slightly more than 400 million parts of CO2 gas, insuring a temperature rise over the next decades of somewhere between two to five degrees.  Some see this catastrophe more clearly than the average person and they have sounded the alarm. The earth is in for massive changes. Ice melt. Ocean rise. Coastal flooding and population dispersion will result. That’s the best-case scenario.

Listen again to Jeremiah in the light of that scenario: "I looked on the earth, and look! It was without light. I looked at the mountains, and look! Quaking! And at the hills, reeling and rolling! I looked and look! No one at all! All the birds of the skies had fled! I looked and look! All the cities were smashed before God's awesome anger!" It sounds terrifyingly relevant to our own situation. Prophets calls us to understand. To take responsibility. To change.

Jeremiah uses a Hebrew phrase to describe all this. Tohu wabohu. This phrase is used only two times in Hebrew Scripture. It means “waste and void” or “chaotic and empty,” or “lack of balance and order.” Do you know where else the phrase appears? It’s in opening words of the Bible -- from Genesis 1:2: In the beginning, the earth was tohu wabohu -- formless and empty -- and darkness covered the deep waters. Tohu wabohu. The words sound mysterious and eerie.  In the beginning, the earth is dark and chaotic, with a howling wind roaring over the endless waters of the vast deep. Into that monstrous place, God brings light and the world begins to form.

Tohu wabohu. Jeremiah uses the exact same phrase from the story of creation. The behavior of God’s people is so terrible that the earth is reversing itself and returning to empty chaos. It is a world that does not know God. A world with no light. A world where the skies are only shadows, the birds have disappeared, and human beings are gone. Human sin leads to cosmic cataclysm where the whole earth is compromised.

Jeremiah isn’t talking about the ecological catastrophes of our time, but the implications are the same. Where are the great and eloquent prophets who warn us of the consequences of our wanton actions? Without doubt, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, along with all humans are under threat from the certain heating of the planet. It is time for us to act. We need massive changes in our behaviors if we all are to live on this blue ball of earth. We all need prophets to help us as we sharpen our eyes and find conversion in our hearts. We need people who can help us to the love and serve of our earth, rather than profit from its unimpeded exploitation.

Jeremiah has a prophetic idea that other prophets before him did not see. Jeremiah insists that human action is the way to redeem the world. All is no not hopeless. Now is not the time to wait for some Holy Other to intervene. The message of Jeremiah is as urgent today as it was twenty-six centuries ago. Even when it feels like the opportunity has passed, even when it feels like we are doomed, it’s never too late to act. Do people take action against all that is wrong in today’s world? The answer is mixed at best. The world is still struggling to become compassionate and truly humane. It’s is up to people, it’s up to us, to effect change.

I get restless when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world. It’s not just the environment. It’s about poverty. It’s about racism and exclusion. It’s about just government. It’s about fair economic life. We ask the Spirit of God to expand our vision and transforms our priorities.  We do not eat alone; everyone needs to eat. Empowered by God, we can act, pray, and hope that we can build the sufficient, sustainable world that God wants for people.

Many months ago, I shared this poem by Drew Dellinger, called “hieroglyphic stairway.” I’d like to read it again:
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
I think God uses the prophets to ask the same questions to us.
What did we do when our economic household was being plundered?
What did we do when our democracy unravelled?
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 make it happen. This new dream foresees a world where hot winds from barren heights are taken over by the cool springs of grace. It’s a world where our love for getting and spending is tempered by the growth of human solidarity and devotion to the public good; a world where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; a world where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; a world where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate.

Surely we did something when the seasons started failing. Surely we saw the anger of God. Surely we heard the plaintive cry of God’s world. Surely we took some responsibility. Surely we can do some good. Surely we are not made for chaos and emptiness. Surely, God has more light to shine into our chaotic days. Surely it’s never too late to act.


Sermon for September 1, 2013

Good News That Connects: Creating
Acts 17:16-31

Paul slinks into Athens, and he’s in a rotten mood. He’s having a bad week. Earlier in the week, he got himself kicked out of the city Thessalonica by an angry mob of troublemakers. Then he met up with some buddies in the neighboring city of Berea, and all their preaching and Jesus-talk got them kicked evicted from there, too. By the time Paul arrives in Athens, he’s ready to pick a fight. Paul is spitting mad – revolted –  because of all the idols in the ancient city. You could call 1st century Athens the “god capital of the world,” a place so full of deities to worship that the Athenians must have needed something like the Yellow Pages just to keep track of them all. Paul’s first move is to argue. He finds some philosopher types, some Stoics and Epicureans, and he has at them. They are confused, to say the least. They wonder, “What is this babbler saying?” These philosopher types take Paul to a place called The Areopagus, or “Mars Hill.” There are more philosopher types there, and they begin to question Paul, firmly but politely. At this point in the story, the narrator decides to give us a crucial piece of information: “Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Athens is the place for philosophers and thinkers. It’s the home of Socrates! And that should ring at least one little bell of caution, because Socrates was put to death for “corrupting Athens with strange new gods”— and that’s precisely what the Athenians think Paul is doing.

Paul calms himself down and begins to speak. But instead of criticizing the Athenians for their many, many shrines to many, many gods, Paul focuses on just one—an altar that bears an inscription, “to an unknown god.”  It’s almost as if Paul realizes that his priority is to share the gospel in a way that allows people to open their hearts to it. He comes to understand that in order to offer Good News that connects, he needs to control his impulse to criticize, fight and focus on differences. He needs to create trust from a place of humility. And I have a feeling that the humility part was hard for Paul.

How do we respond to those whose faith is different from ours? We create trust with humility. Good News that connects must help us deal with the biases we have about people of other faiths. I’m talking about unassuming conversations and open ears when it comes to learning from Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, and atheists. There’s another group we need to pay listen to. It’s the fastest growing faith affinity group is in America: Those who have no preference. They are called “unaffiliated.” Some call them “Nones.” Let’s call them the “spiritual-but-not-religious group.” Most of these people believe in God, or in a universal spirit, but they are not confined to understanding God through any particular religion’s version of who that God is.  They tend not to get involved in religious institutions. They think we are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

The spiritual-but-not-religious folks cause some church people very uncomfortable. A fairly well known UCC minister just wrote a book entitled, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough. As you can imagine by the title, the author does not think much of this new trend. In a recent interview, she described the spiritual-but-not-religious trend as a “shallow combination of exercise and caffeine, coffee shops as spiritual community, hikes as pilgrimages, The New York Times as sacred text, and sunsets—don’t ever forget the sunsets. These people are always informing you that they find God in the sunsets. Well, excuse me, as if people who go to church didn’t see God in a sunset. You know, my take is that any idiot can find God in the sunset. What is remarkable is finding God in the context of flawed human community.” In her book she asks, “Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain e-mails about sweet friends? Who are you, cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and the physically fit? Who are you, God of the spiritual but not religious . . . Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me?”

Mental note: Whenever someone says words like “These people . . .” or “Those people . . .” it’s the beginning set up for us-versus-them dynamic. As I’ve said before, when we allow ourselves to take part in an us-versus-them system, then we run the risk of denying our participation in brokenness. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with some of the author's points. But in this instance, I don’t think she’s offering the fullness of our Good News in words that can connect – in ways that create trust through humility.

I’m reminded of a story about a cowboy who went to an up-scale church wearing jeans, ragged boots and a worn out old hat. As the cowboy took his seat, people moved away from him. No one welcomed him. As the cowboy was leaving the church, the minister approached him and asked the cowboy to do him a favor. “Before you come back in here again, have a talk with God and ask what God thinks would be appropriate attire for worship.” The old cowboy assured the preacher he would. The next Sunday, he showed back up for the services wearing the same ragged jeans, boots, and hat. Once again he was completely shunned and ignored. The minister approached the man and said, “I thought I asked you to speak to God before you came back to our church.”

“I did,” replied the old cowboy.

“If you spoke to God, what did he tell you the proper attire should be for worshiping in here?” asked the preacher.

“Well, sir, God told me that He didn’t have a clue what I should wear, seeing as He’d never been in this church.”

There are lots of people, both inside and outside the church, who say “I’m a spiritual and moral person. I try to live as well as I can, and do the right thing by others. And yet I’ve been in churches where I feel like a second class citizen because I don’t know the ritual or the lingo or the dress code.” The whole purpose of religion is to bring together. That’s what the word means. Religion comes from the same Latin word as ligament. It’s a connection. Good News – good religion -- connects us with one another, connects us to God and connects us in community. A connecting faith must be the opposite of exclusive and judgmental. Religion’s prime concern must be bringing together head and heart, past and present, beliefs and values, people and neighbors, tribe and nation, spirituality and institution, individual and environment.

Imagine a religious system where we encourage all people to think and explore ideas for themselves. Imagine a religious system where we encourage all people to wake up to the spark of divinity within, as system where we see the spark of God’s delight in others. Imagine a religion where treating people right was more important than being right. Imagine a religion where compassion was more important than creeds and rituals.

Imagine a holy place ringed with stained glass windows. Imagine bright light from outside, through stained-glass windows into the holy place. Sit with that image for a moment . . . In this image, the light is the truth, the windows are religion and the holy place is the world. As light shines from outside through the windows into the holy places of the world, in the same way religions are a medium – a filter -- by which truth comes into the world. Here’s the thing . . . The window is not the light. The window is not the light. And religions need to be distinguished from the truth that they let into the world. The Church is one place into which the light shines, but it’s not the only place. For many people, it doesn’t happen because some of our theology has become so dilapidated, we easily confuse ideas about God with the truth about God.

Here is what I want . . . I want The Apostle Paul and ministers, and churches, and myself to remember: Religion is the window, not the light. We who get angry with those who want to only see God in the sunset – for we who think being spiritual but not religious is a cop-out, I close offer the words of Maya Angelou from her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning.”
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers -- desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours -- your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
In some ways, Acts 17 is about recognizing ourselves as one people -- God’s people. It’s a reminder about how anger can cause us to stumble and fall into judgment and manipulating. When we can calm down, take a few deep breathes, when we become aware of the divine radiance all around us, we can sense God’s deep, abiding hope for us.

Paul understood something on that day on Mars Hill as he swallowed his anger and talked with those philosophizing, spiritual-but-not-religious Athenians. God is not the window. God is the light. God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Here on the pulse of this new day, we receive the grace to look up and out and into the eyes of our sister, into the face of our brother, into our crumbling world that cries for the breaking dawn of a new day. We look up and help give birth to new dream of connection – of trust and humility.


Lillian Daniel, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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