Thursday, December 4, 2014

Sermon for November 30, 2014

Jesus said to his disciples, "In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see `the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake-- for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."
Mark 13:24-37
I can see it now: a church into which people with that satisfied glow of post-Thanksgiving feasting come to welcome Advent and trudge away with heavy hearts after hearing a sermon about the apocalypse. Hooray for Advent!

The reading begins ominously.  The sun stops shining.  The reflective light of the moon disappears.  Stars fall.  Right before the Savior returns, creation waits in perpetual, horrifying night.

As I prepare this meditation I’m mindful of recent events that have taken place under the cover of darkness.  A prosecutor choosing to make an announcement that a grand jury voted no indictment on a police officer who shot and killed a young African American man.  We don’t know all the details.  They are fuzzy.  The way the information was set out is meant to keep things fuzzy.  The choice of timing seems to be craven.  The verdict could have been just easily read at 8 AM as at 8 PM.  But the prosecutor chose to issue the report at night, when such a response could be predicted. The announcement stirred anger. Grief. Tears and Prayers. Some chose violence as a way to respond.  This is nothing new.  Violence is always an option. Others have chosen nonviolent protests. Why do we never learn? Why do we try to hide under the cover of night?  What is required of us instead?

The Gospel of Mark emerged out of similar feelings and questions. Mark writes around the time of the great Jewish War that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the demolition of the Temple walls. When Mark writes about great suffering, he knows what he’s saying. Can any hope be found in the midst of all of this destruction and death?

At some point, each of us has to face this question. Can hope be found in the face of death? For Mark, death isn't a threat. It's a challenge. He knows that the bad things that happen under cover of night will be exposed and overturned. The current social order will die. God’s new order will come.

Can hope be found in the face of death? You don't have to be religious to see the historical evidence that humans have a natural bent towards self-destruction. Those of us who are on the more liberal end of the spectrum have a hard time with this. We want to be part of a world that’s been created good and make it even better. We call it progress. But I think we do harm when we fail to take seriously the human capacity for destruction. I am uncomfortable with those who want us to learn our lessons from Ferguson and move on. We can’t just move on. There’s no moving on when a young black man, after a lifetime of living in fear of the police, makes a terrible choice and ends up dead.  There’s no moving on when a young white police officer who carries a gun for a living makes a terrible choice and kills that young black man. There’s no moving on when a grand jury, bound by imperfect laws, makes a decision that devastates the families and communities of the victim. There’s no moving on when a group of people get so fed up with the way things are, they take to the streets to exact vigilante justice that devastates community businesses.  There’s no moving on when hearts are broken again and again by bigotry, injustice, violence, and hatred. There’s no moving on until we finally  change cycles of demonization, anger, violence, and venom that perpetuate broken systems. There’s no moving on until we, as individuals and communities, finally learn what it means to be a force for justice, peace, and restoration and hope. Too often, in the emotional aftermath of an event like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, we in the Church forget this call. Justice, peace, and restoration and hope: This is our job. The Church’s job. And I know clergy who are putting their own safety on the line in Ferguson, especially some from the United Church of Christ who are on the streets trying to make it happen.

The cultural critic and dissident feminist, Camille Paglia, says that liberal societies put themselves at risk when they fail to teach the young about evil. A nation composed of innocents is more likely to be exploited by the guilty. She's absolutely right. The job of stories, like the text we read today, is to remind us that it is human nature to do evil and that we have to constantly keep watch against it. The greatest threat to justice and mercy is complacency.  We become immune to the cries of those suffering.  We might not even hear them or understand the nature of the cry.  We fall asleep.   

So keep watch! Listen to Jesus’ warning again: Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. He says we don’t know when the Master will return: evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn. In Jesus’ day, there were only two groups of people who had any business being out and about during the night: Roman soldiers who kept the watch, and shepherds who tended to their flocks. The most scrupulously kept regimen of the Roman Army was the night watch. Lack of courage in battle was a terrible offense, but it could be remedied. Lack of disciple on a night watch was unforgivable, and soldiers could be tortured for sleeping while on guard.

Jesus borrows from this tradition, telling followers to stay awake at all costs. Don’t let yourself slip back into a dream. Times of fear call for vigilance. Just as a Roman sentry keeps watch all night long, the follower of Christ should be just as vigilant in keeping watch for signs of hope. We all play in this apocalyptic drama. The final act is dependent on keeping awake.

We surly could use hope at the dawning of this Advent season. And we need a brand new truth!  We need something better than a grand jury truth, better than an assumption that real justice can be rendered in a setting where privilege and disadvantage go unremedied and unseen. We need something better than all the efforts to find someone to blame. There is great sorrow for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, but the greater sorrow is for the many young men who live today in hopelessness because their future is bleak in the cities of America. The greater sorrow is neighborhood businesses destroyed by a rage that is nurtured in people convinced that they have no place, and nothing to lose, within the economy of their urban setting. The greater sorrow includes those law enforcement officers who walk their beats with fear because they are assigned to patrol hostile streets where they do not live that are created by years of social neglect.

My heart breaks for the family of Michael Brown. My also heart breaks for Darren Wilson and his family. My heart breaks for every African American and any person of color who lives in fear of the police. My heart also breaks for any police officers who live in fear of every young black man they see. My heart breaks for Ferguson, and for every place where the Reign of God, where all are united to another and to God, has yet to be realized.

It has yet to be realized, but it’s coming. Yes, bad things happen in the night. Like that terrifying text from Mark’s Gospel, life is scary and dramatic and confusing. But Jesus promises a total remake of the world. Everything wrong will be set right. All of the powers that work in the night will be brought to justice in the day. Those who struggle will be lifted up. God’s Reign will replace the tyranny of the earthly authorities. Don’t we believe that the world needs God to turn it on its head? Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake.

I want to share a poem written in horrifying circumstances.  Its author, Miklós Radnóti, was a Hungarian Jew who, after working in a Nazi forced labor camp in 1944, was sent on a forced march with three thousand men. Only a few survived the Nazi’s cruel treatment. Radnóti himself died near the end of the march, shot by his captors and buried in a shallow mass grave. He was thirty-five years old. When the bodies were exhumed the following year, a notebook full of poems – some written within days of his death – were found in Radnóti’s coat. This one is entitled "Forced March":
A fool he is who, collapsed,       rises and walks again,
Ankles and knees moving          alone, like wandering pain,
Yet he, as if wings uplifted him,          sets out on his way,
And in vain the ditch calls him           back, who dares not stay.
And if asked why not, he might answer     - without leaving his path -
That his wife was awaiting him,         and a saner, more beautiful death.
Poor fool! He's out of his mind:          now, for a long time,
Only scorched winds have whirled       over the houses at home,
The wall has been laid low,                the plum tree is broken there,
The night of our native hearth             flutters, thick with fear.
Oh if only I could believe                   that everything of worth
Were not just in my heart -                 that I still had a home on earth;
If only I had! As before,                  jam made fresh from the plum
Would cool on the old verandah,        in peace the bee would hum
And an end-of-summer stillness        would bask in the drowsy garden,
Naked among the leaves                would sway the fruit-trees burden,
And Fanni would be waiting,             blonde, by the russet hedgerow,
As the slow morning painted            slow shadow over shadow -
Could it perhaps still be?               The moon tonight's so round!
Don't leave me friend, shout at me:                I'll get up off the ground!
15 September 1944         
Radnóti knows that all of the marching, step after exhausted step, is crazy. But if you were to ask why a man gets up after falling, he’ll tell you that his love is waiting for him at home, and a calmer death, a death of old age, is preferable to dying by the side of the road. He gets up and walks, even though he knows hope is crazy. The world is at war. Everything is wrecked, destroyed. But hope does not give up that easily. That’s how we are, we humans. We want to hope, to believe that a new and different reality can take hold. We want to hope that there is a safe place for us to return to. When we are tired and broken, when we fall in despair, we rise and walk again, ankles and knees moving on. In the dim light of night, the moon shouts, “Get up!” And when we hear voices calling out for justice, we also arise and walk with those who grieve, and mourn, and suffer.

Yes, bad things happen in the night. We live in turbulent times. So, to paraphrase another poet,
Let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Let evening come, and let us see whether we can choose to live as brightly and rightly as possible.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving and Ferguson

It’s my understanding that in India, one of God’s characteristics is that of a destroyer. The idea is that if God does not destroy you, God is not a good God. All of our problems – our suffering and our struggles in this world – happen because we have each been constructed by the world around us unconsciously. In many ways we are accidental creations, shaped by our culture, our parents, our education, our class, and our privilege (or lack thereof) If God does not help each of us to destroy the suffering associated with our unconscious assumptions – if God does not help us reconstruct our world with intention – then God is not good. So in Indian culture, God is not here to save us. God is here to destroy us. The ancient prayers were not, "O God, save me," or "O God, give me this or give me that." The prayer was "O God, destroy me! Please destroy me the way I am so that I do not have to exist in separation from you."

A similar theme emerges in stories told by the Dakota people. They say an evil person keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil.

I planned to write a lovely “Happy Thanksgiving” message to the church. But as I watched the grand jury verdict from Ferguson and listed to the prosecutor’s news conference, as I watched the President speak from the White House press room on a split screen next to images of police in riot gear dispersing angry mobs as they stood under a Season’s Greeting’s banner, I realized that our holy day of thanks is spoiled by destruction. I wonder if anything good, if anything redemptive, can come out of this. I wonder what actually needs to be destroyed.

If we want to address racism with prayerful action, we need to allow God to do a work of destruction in us and our institutions. We need to pray in the spirit of ancient India: “O God, destroy me. Destroy anything in me that wants to oppress another person. Destroy in me anything that wants to use my power to dominate or subjugate another. Destroy in me anything that works against the law of love.” If we want to confront racism on individual, systemic, and institutional levels, first we need to be open to brokenness. My hope for healing begins with listening for brokenness. Brokenness is a type of destruction, after all.

Can we offer good news to those who are broken, those who ache and grieve deeply? Speaking very personally – speaking just for me – I cannot until I do the difficult work of listening to my own brokenness in the events I wish to condemn. I know something about myself. I know that when I see somebody else do something wrong, I may self-righteously call on God for justice. But when I do something wrong, I self-righteously call on God for grace. How can I ask for justice and also be a grace-filled person? When it comes to awareness of discrimination, as a white person of privilege, the problem is not whether I love people who are different than me. The problem is whether I unknowingly participate in and benefit from systems of racism. I need to admit that when it comes to racism, I am an accidental creation. I've been conditioned, down to my synapses, to accept racism without thinking about it. I’ve inherited stereotypes and fears that need to be destroyed. If I denounce oppression without also using it as a mirror to see inside of myself, I’m just passing the problem off onto a societal scapegoat.

Sometimes our own Thanksgiving tables are microcosms of the need for positive destruction. Seen many posts on social media this week about how to survive Thanksgiving dinner with the proverbial “racist uncle.” Imagine this scenario: after all of the polite conversation is used up at the family dinner, someone brings up Ferguson. That relative who always says something terrible starts up with the racist ranting. Will you politely ignore it and change the subject? Do you shut it down? Do you give your relative a piece pile of turkey with a lot of bones in it and cross your fingers? Do you send your relative down to the basement to get more cranberry sauce and lock the door?

Whether it’s at the dinner table with the extended family or on the national stage, I urge each of us to find the courage to speak up and speak out when voices emerge that threaten to turn back the clock on civil rights and undo the work of those who came before us. Those of us who are white must especially develop new skills as allies in dismantling white privilege and fostering new dimensions of racial justice and equity.

This Thanksgiving, as I offer my gratitude and cook dinner for my family I will be taking some time to prayerfully connect with the pain of broken social, religious, and economic systems – places that may be secret and separate. I will be fostering awareness of how my actions affect others and thinking of ways that, in my own brokenness, I can be guided by deep intuition and openness, courage and creativity. With thanks and with awareness, I will be asking God to destroy my own damaging behaviors such as arrogance, self-centeredness, superiority, inferiority, doubt, worry, fear, and anxiety. I will ask God to help me develop compassionate awareness, tender love, wild generosity, and courage when evil abounds.

This thanksgiving, I will not just count my blessings, but count my privileges.

Yours on the journey,
Pastor Matt

Pastor Gloria and I will host an open conversation on Ferguson, racism, and our ongoing response on December 9 at 7 PM. We hope you can come and share your feelings, frustrations, and hopes as we seek to embody Christ’s love and live out our anti-racism commitments. Please mark your calendar and stay tuned for more details.

Sermon for November 21, 2014 / Thanksgiving Sunday

Thanksgiving: Turning Guilt to Gratitude
With attribution and thanks to "Gratitude Alleluias Becoming Reckless Generosity" (October 7, 2012) by Pastor Dawn Hutchings,
On your feet now—applaud God!
Bring a gift of laughter,
sing yourselves into God’s presence.
Know this: God is God.
God made us.
We’re God’s people, well-tended sheep.
Enter with the password: “Thank you!”
Make yourselves at home, talking praise.
Thank God. Worship God.
For God is sheer beauty,
all-generous in love,
loyal always and ever. Psalm 100
When I was a kid, the adults in my life were very fond of telling me how grateful I ought to be because things were so much harder back when they were kids. I’m sure some of us can remember being told by our elders just how tough times were when they were back in the day. The way they talked, my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and just about every adult I knew must have grown up poor.

Today, when I hear the words, “We were so poor that…”  I brace myself for outrageous, escalating claims. Someone says, “We were so poor that we couldn’t afford a loaf of bread.”

Another says, “Bread? You were lucky, we were so poor that we couldn’t afford dinner at all. All we had was a mug of cold coffee without milk or sugar.”

Someone else says, “We were so poor that we couldn’t afford mugs, we used to have to drink our coffee out of a rolled up newspaper.”

“That’s nothing! We were so poor that all we could we couldn’t afford newspapers so we had to suck our coffee from a damp cloth.”

Finally, someone always chimes in by saying, “Well we might have been poor, but you know we were happy in those days. That’s right money can’t buy happiness. We used to live in a tiny house, with holes in the roof, but we were happy.”  Of course, someone else picks up the comparisons again. It begins to sound like a lot like a Monty Python Skit.

“House? You were the lucky ones we were so poor that we had to live in one room, all 126 of us, with no furniture.  Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling!” 

“Ha!  You were lucky to have a room! We used to live in an old water tank.”

“Water tank? You were lucky. There were a 160 of us living in a small cardboard box in the middle of the road.”

The truth is, when I was a kid, money came and went. When I look back on it, I suppose we were poor at times. Sometimes we had money and sometimes we didn’t. Like most middle class Americans, there were times when money was tight. When Chris and I were first married, we had to learn how to stretch a dollar. We lived in a drafty apartment near Boston, and we used to not turn the heat on until Thanksgiving. I used to cook quarts and quarts of pea soup to keep us warm. One year, I burnt the soup. So we ate burnt pea soup for a few weeks until it was gone. I still can taste singed split peas whenever I think about it.

Thanksgiving is a time to counting blessings. Sometimes, when we look back into the past we see hard times, or lean times, and we tend to wax poetic about how great life was even though we didn’t have much money. We can become nostalgic about the good old days when we were younger and poorer and our lack of funds actually left us happier than we sometimes are now. Most of is only say that because we can look back and see that we are not in that situation anymore.  We have moved up the ladder and have more of the things that we once only dreamed of. There is danger in romanticizing poverty, when all too many people who are in poverty have no hope of ever escaping it. Moving up the ladder out of poverty is much more difficult today than it was a generation ago. Heck, it’s harder to move out of poverty than it was five years ago.

The truth is for most of us, the hard times we remember were just that: hard-times. Even when money was tight, we still expected the future would be bright. We might have had to walk miles and miles to school, up hills, backwards in the snow both ways, but we were going to school. We may have had to eat burnt pea soup day after day, but at least we were eating.

We are the wealthy ones on this planet. Our lives are blessed beyond the wildest dreams of 90% of the people who share this planet with us. We are wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of most of the generations who celebrated Thanksgivings before us. We have much to be thankful for! But, when I think about the poverty of the majority of the people on this planet, all too often I begin to feel something other than gratitude. It’s more like guilt.

Psalm 100 tells us to get on our feet and applaud God! Bring a gift of laughter, sing ourselves into God’s presence. It’s difficult to sing God’s praise for all the wealth and beauty that I enjoy when so many people have so little wealth and an almost no beauty in their lives. Most of us have experienced those pangs of guilt that come with the knowledge of our means and our neighbors’ poverty. Most of us have become accustomed to living with the guilt. Some deny the guilt. Others suppress it. All too many of us live in fear of becoming impoverished.

How do we hold privilege and poverty together in our prayers? Gratitude is the only hopeful response. Until we learn to sing ourselves into God’s presence, with awareness and gratitude, guilt will give way to fear and fear to greed.

We’ve been taught that we have earn as much as we can and save as much as we can or we’ll be doomed to an impoverished life, dependent upon the government for handouts. Our guilt and fears about wealth can cause us to entangle our well-being up with assets. In order to feel secure we need more money. How much is enough?  Well we never know, so prudence can turn to greed as we amass more and more, so that we don’t have to be afraid.  But imagine for a moment what might happen if we were to focus more on our gratitude than on our guilt or our fears. What might we become if we remembered to sing ourselves into God’s presence with awareness and gratitude for our wealth?

Thanksgiving is a great time to do this. Thanksgiving has always been a time for the advantaged to give praise to God for their material blessings. Think about all of our hymns about the abundant harvest and our many blessings. I have never heard a Thanksgiving hymn about crop failure, famine, and hopeless futures. That’s because there’s another side to all of this: the poor, the oppressed, and the socially marginalized simultaneously endure the pain of inequality and social misery. This has been the reality from the first Thanksgiving until now. Now, most of us who gather for the Thanksgiving holiday aren't the ones who make a living exploiting poor people. We may not be what you would call "poor," but we try to keep the poor in our sentimental thoughts. Given this reality, why should the underside of Thanksgiving matter to us?

The answer is simple. It matters because poor people matter. It matters because we are knit together in a web of mutuality that should make it difficult for us to have a day of thankfulness for what we have that doesn't include concern for those who have very little.

My intention here is not to create a feel bad situation or start a Cancel-Thanksgiving-Dinner movement. I want us to expand our view of the Thanksgiving holiday so that it becomes an opportunity to both give praise to God for our blessings and to give service to those in need. I want us to see the Thanksgiving holiday with compassionate eyes. Think back to the words of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard earlier. All that stuff about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the sick and visiting the prisoner; all that talk about when you serve the least it’s just like serving the Christ. If we take these words seriously, we might no longer be able to gather around food-filled tables and offer praise and prayers to God without also examining our hearts to discern what we can do better to live in community with those who are poor or socially marginalized.

Joan Chittister tells a story about how one might go about giving thanks for wealth while helping those in need. Sister Joan was attending an international conference in Asia on the status of women. Most of the participants were women she describes as “well-funded activist types or official observers.” They were all there to analyze all sorts of issues that keep women everywhere in some kind of bondage to a money-driven world.  At the gathering, these professional women called for more education for girls, more equality through government legislation, more birth control training, better health-care programs, and most importantly more participation of women at all levels of the political process. It was a good conference and every one was very sincere. But it was what happened on the margins of the conference that moved Sister Joan.

As the conference drew to a close, a leader of one of the small workshops passed a piece of paper around and asked that everyone write their e-mail address on the sheet so that they could all stay in contact and support one another in their work. One of the participants; a woman named Rose, was a Kenyan pastor of a Presbyterian church in Africa. When the sheet of paper came to her, she simply filled in her name and passed it on. The woman next to Rose passed the paper back to her and pointed out that she had neglected to put her email address on the form. Rose answered quietly: “I don’t have email where I am.  It is too expensive for us. And when I can use it, it is too slow to be reliable.”

When Sister Joan and her colleague were getting into a cab to leave, her colleague said that she couldn’t leave without first seeing Rose. She asked Sister Joan to wait and rushed back into the hotel saying that she had promised to give something to Rose. Later, as they were waiting to check in for their flight, Sister Joan asked her colleague what she had given to Rose. Her friend answered that she had given Rose her credit card.

“Your credit card?” Sister Joan gasped. “Why in heaven’s name would you give Rose your credit card?”

Her friend answered quietly, “So she can pay for her email every month.”

I can’t imagine myself doing that. It seems so irresponsible – trusting, to the point of naiveté. That kind of giving potentially puts me at risk. Sister Joan’s friend thought differently. We could decide that giving away a credit card does nothing to solve long-term problems of poverty, debt, and financial insecurity. Sister Joan’s friend knew something else, though. Giving thanks for our wealth – for our material blessings – has little or nothing to do with money at all. It has everything to do with how deal with money and how money deals with us – what we do with it and how we use it, and how it uses us.

Clearly, the purpose of wealth is not security. The purpose of wealth, from a biblical perspective, is wild generosity; the kind of generosity that sings of the lavish love of God; the kind of generosity that rekindles hope on dark days. Our songs of awareness and gratitude can free us from guilt and fear when they become embodied in us.

I know that each of us has the power to offer some wild generosity. It’s not about setting a financial bar for giving. Wild generosity is all about the attitude of thanksgiving. I truly believe that when each of us shares some, then there is enough for all. So let yourselves go. No matter what life brings, may you find a way to give thanks. Give thanks for your loves. Give thanks for your joys. Give thanks for your material blessings. Give thanks and for the continued courage to offer wild generosity. It goes farther than we can even imagine!

Let us become the wildly generous people we were created to be.
For we are Gods body, Christ’s hands and the Spirit’s breath.
Do not worry about your life.
Do not be afraid for the future.
Let us use our wealth to do what we can while we wait to do even more.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Sermon for October 26, 2014

Who would Jesus Shoot?

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. Mark 10:45

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.
Matthew 26:52
I don’t know about you, but I was captivated by the unfolding story of the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. Remember them, back in 2010? I remember seeing artifacts from the rescue at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. A single piece of rock fell while 33 miners worked underground, blocking the ramp to the surface. It was later estimated to weigh seven hundred thousand tons, twice the weight of the Empire State Building. The buried men were trapped 2,300 ft underground and 3 miles from the mine's entrance. The mixed crew of experienced miners and technical support personnel survived for a record 69 days deep underground before their rescue. The resources used to save these 33 men was truly awesome. The dedication, the creativity, the love, the sacrifice. All to save 33 human lives. There was no question — nothing else mattered. That’s how important 33 human lives are.

33 People. That’s about how many lives are lost to gun homicide in this country every day. Want more statistics?

80 people die every day from guns in the United States, 10 of these are children (National Center for Health Statistics).

According to the CDC, 32,000 Americans die from guns every year in the US.

According to US Department of Defense, more Americans have been killed through gun violence in "peacetime" than have been killed in all of our nation's wars since 1776.

The FBI claims the family handgun purchased for protection, is 22 times more likely to be used against a family member or friend than to stop an intruder.
70% of Americans, including NRA members, favor stricter laws and regulations on the sale and ownership of handguns and assault weapons by 2-1, (National Opinion Research Center, Univ. of Chicago)

Not one of us is immune to the impact of gun violence. It doesn’t matter what community you live in — affluent or poor; urban, suburban or rural; black, Hispanic or white. No community is saved from the wounding. No community is free from the heart-numbing trauma. No community is protected from the hopelessness. Gun violence may be concentrated in certain cities and neighborhoods, but it is everyone’s problem. It is a threat to the entire nation. And I think gun violence is a threat to our souls.

I'm not a gun owner but, if present sales data are to be believed, I'm not the target market either. The biggest target market is women. Increasingly women are purchasing guns and getting training, most typically handguns. The reasons aren't just for self-defense. Sure, women are buying guns for but sport and target shooting. Clearly, though, that's not how gun manufacturers are pitching them. Shooting clubs with names like A Girl and a Gun, Babes with Bullets and The Well Armed Woman, are growing all over the country. And a staunchly, proudly masculine industry is attempting to keep pace. Despite the best efforts of the firearms industry and its supporters to portray gun ownership as a guarantor of personal safety, reality presents quite a different picture. People rarely use guns to kill criminals or stop crimes. In fact, for every time a woman uses a handgun to justifiably kill a stranger in self-defense, about 240 female lives end in handgun homicides.

Again, I’m not a gun owner. I'm not a victim, either, although I know there are victims and survivors of gun violence in our church. Places like the Bureau for Justice Statistics and the American Psychological Association have documented the ongoing effects of trauma for gun violence survivors. The American College of Physicians recommends that Americans approach firearm safety as a public health issue. But I’m not a psychologist or a medical doctor. I’m also not a sociologist, so I can’t speak professionally about guns as tools of societal aggression. I’m not a lawyer so I cannot speak definitively about a well-regulated militia, although I have a hunch it does not mean folks should be open-carrying through Target. I’m not a historian, so I cannot speak to the importance of guns in our country’s past.

I am none of these things, but I am a minister in a Christian tradition, which claims a goal of shining light to God's world. Demographic data, historical precedent, legal interpretation, cultural mores and modern advertising are not supposed to influence me in matters of conscience and faith. When it comes to faith, I turn to the One whom my faith is named after. I look to the life and teachings of Jesus as it’s been interpreted to us in the Gospels. And when I read the gospels, it is hard for me to reconcile Jesus, this supreme gift of God's creation, with an instrument of utter destruction like a gun.

I find two episodes about Jesus condoning weapons. First is his use of a whip to drive money changers out of the temple courts. The second is an episode near the end of his ministry. Jesus knew that being one of his disciples had become a dangerous vocation. So he told them to carry a sword for self-protection while spreading the Gospel. If they didn't have a sword, they were to sell their cloak and buy one. One disciple excitedly told Jesus, "Look, I already have two!"

Jesus replied, "That's enough."

The evidence for peace far outweighs those two stories. Jesus says "Blessed are the peacemakers." He tells followers not to repay evil for evil, but to bless our enemies and turn the other cheek. At one point, as Jesus was being arrested, a disciple tried to protect him by cutting off a soldier's ear with his sword. Jesus healed the wounded soldier, then scolded the disciple saying that those who live by the sword will surely die by the sword. He saw himself as a one who dies as a ransom. Jesus’ death on a cross holds a mirror up to society’s lust for violence and humankind’s willingness to watch innocent people suffer.

So, to sum up, Jesus refused to carry weapons, he allowed his disciples to do so for protection, and he opposed stockpiling them.

After Jesus' execution, early Christians lived unarmed. We are told, both in Scripture and Christian tradition, that the apostles avoided weapons. All of them were beaten, arrested, and tortured and they offered little or no resistance. Since then, Christians from the Franciscans to the Quakers to the Mennonites to Martin Luther King Jr. have provided a strong, non-violent, non-weapons-bearing Christian witness.

Some tell me this belief is simply not practical — that there are "bad guys" who must be stopped and the best way they are stopped is at the end of a gun. I can understand the social ethic there. And yet I wonder if another way is yet possible.

In the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, there is a picture of a Polish priest. In the background is a freshly dug mass grave and just in front of it the bodies of those already killed. In the immediate foreground is the rifle of a Nazi officer, aimed directly at the head of Father Piotr Sosnowski. Father Piotr was not a Jew, and yet he was a threat to the state as he cared for those of the city. Those who rode with him to the execution field in Northern Poland reportedly suggested making an escape at one point, but Father Piotr discouraged it, saying that if they went resolutely perhaps they would spare others in town who might have time to escape.

We can only assume that the guard who took the picture wished to show the superiority of the gun and its power to take the very life of another human being. The picture tells a different story. Father Piotr stands not with bowed head or on bended knee, but staring down the rifle and into the eyes of its operator. His hands are at his side. His knees are relaxed. I think Father Piotr knew something about Jesus’ words: no one can take my life from me but I lay it down as a ransom for many. The forces and instruments that threaten to negate life must be challenged by courage. Our faith insists that life affirms itself;
that 33 human lives are invaluable,
that even one life is invaluable,
that when we work to save lives, we honor the divine spirit in each of us
that when we insist on the dignity of each and every one of us, we can hew a stone of hope from a mountain of despair.
This is the path of Christian life. This is what I am called to as a minister and a Christian. Does it make sense? No. Is it practical? No. But it is the only example that the living Christ gives us.

The United Church of Christ has taken an official stand on Gun since 1995. The resolution that came out of the 20th General Synod called on members of the UCC:
  • To engage in conversation to understand the roots of violence and consider the sources of our faith that call for an end to violence;
  • To negotiate with the NRA to secure help in limiting firearm violence;
    strengthen the licensing and registration of handgun transfers;
  • To restrict firearm possession by juveniles and those convicted of violent crimes;
  • To strengthen regulation of gun dealers;
  • To prohibit semi-automatic weapons, large capacity magazines and explosive ammunition;
  • To require gun safety devices; and
  • To require training in gun safety as a condition of licensing.
Honestly, we have not made much headway. The UCC's General Minister and President, Geoffrey Black, recently reaffirmed our resolution by adding his signature to a letter with 42 other faith leaders asking President Obama and members of Congress to, "do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of people who may harm themselves or others." The letter supports background checks for those who intend to buy a gun and demands legislation outlawing high capacity weapons and ammunition clips. The letter also declares that gun trafficking should be made a federal crime.

So, would Jesus agree with the stance of the UCC or with the National Rifle Association's approach that encourages more people, including school teachers, to wield guns for protection? It could be argued that Christianity is entirely consistent with possessing guns for hunting and self-defense. But being Christian also means resolving problems peacefully, to the point of willingly giving up possessions and obsessions for the welfare of others. Some have argued that there is no reason for a Christian to carry a gun. Should Christians be willing to limit, or even forgo, their access to guns, especially if it might reduce gun deaths?

Christians are called to be healers and peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to bless their enemies and to respond to evil with self-sacrifice and love, rather than violence. How do guns fit with these teachings? Do we love guns more than we love people?

These are questions with which Christians must struggle. No matter what, may we have the courage of our convictions to be peacemakers in a world full of guns, and to counter the night of violence with the starry light of hope.

recommendation to approach firearm safety as a public health issue

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sermon for October 12, 2014

The Secular World: Stealing Jesus
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him would not be lost but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world. God did not send him to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through him. People who believe in God’s Son are not judged guilty. But people who do not believe are already judged, because they have not believed in God’s only Son. They are judged by this fact: The light has come into the world. But they did not want light. They wanted darkness, because they were doing evil things. Everyone who does evil hates the light. They will not come to the light, because the light will show all the bad things they have done. But anyone who follows the true way comes to the light. Then the light will show that whatever they have done was done through God. John 3:16-21, ERV
"Are you a Christian?”

Mainline Protestants, especially many who tend to go to churches like ours have a hard time answering that question without some theological gymnastics. It's not as easy a question as it may sound. What is a Christian? What criteria do we use to decide who is or isn't one, and who does the deciding?

There is one version of the story out there that says real Christians see Jesus' death on the cross as a transaction by means of which Jesus paid for the sins of believers and won them eternal life. Using verses like the passage I just read from John’s Gospel, some believers say eternal life is a heavenly reward after death for "true Christians"—the "Elect," the "saved"— sinners who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior and follow all the correct beliefs of their church. The first type of Christian claims God loves only those who are “saved,” and that they alone are truly God’s children. Their version of Christian ethics warns that individuals should be wary of trusting their own minds and emotions, for these can be manipulated by Satan. Questions and doubts are to be resisted as the work of the Devil. All Truth is found in the Bible and known for sure by believers who have received correct interpretation from the Holy Spirit. They say true Christians read the Bible literally and consider it an accurate and flawless account of God’s will for humankind.

In America, when people talk about Christians, this version of the story gets the most coverage. The word Christian is often used by the media in a narrow way to include only this type of Christian, excluding pretty much everybody else. The increasing tendency to use the word Christian to mean only legalistic Protestants and ultra-traditional Catholics has given the word Christian an unpleasant flavor for many Americans — Christians included.

Other people tell another version of the Christian story.  This second version figures far less often in the mainstream media than do the legalists. Sometimes they seem virtually invisible. They worship a God of love and they envision the church, at its best, as a Church that changes the world by demonstrating God’s love in active ways. They tend to belong to churches like the United Church of Christ or the Presbyterian Church USA; American Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Some belong to groups like the Quakers or Unitarian Universalist. Some are voices within traditional groups like Catholics or Seventh-day Adventists.

These Christians see the work of Christ as a powerful and mysterious symbol of God's infinite love for suffering humankind and as the natural culmination of Jesus' self-giving love. They think that God loves all human beings and that all people belong to God, no matter what they believe or what religion they follow. Their version of Christian ethics teaches that the mind is a gift of God and that God wants us to think for ourselves, to follow our consciences, to ask questions, and to listen for the Spirit’s still, small voice. They see truth as something known wholly by God.  Religious creeds and belief statements can only attempt to point the way. So, they insist that the Bible must be read critically, intelligently, and with an understanding of historical and cultural contexts.

The second type of Christians think Jesus wasn’t interested in making a one’s personal faith the cornerstone for acceptance or rejection by God. Faith isn’t about following what someone tells us to believe. Belief has nothing to do with being scared that if we don’t say the right words, or show up at the right church, or live certain lifestyles, God will punish us. No, they nurture faith that can tolerate doubt. Faith that can grow and change. Take our tradition, for instance. Congregationalists believe there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the faith. We take the Bible seriously. We listen to the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies of faith, but not tests of the faith. In other words, our faith is founded on Scripture and personal experience. Our faith is informed by the Church of the past. But it can never stay frozen in the past. The United Church of Christ thinks we must continue to grow and evolve: to receive new insights, and, when necessary, to reject past ideas when they have been disproved. The United Church of Christ, in its original Constitution, affirmed:
“the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.”
Faith calls each new generation to listen to God and follow God’s breath. This means we need to be willing to let go of the tethers that can keep us from being pliable, versatile people of faith.

So, are you a Christian?

To some, this second version of Christian faith is threatening. By and large, the first type of Christian thinks the second type of Christian is not a real Christians at all — or at least a fallen Christian. They will use John’s Gospel as an absolute litmus test to prove their point. The second type are seen as those who reject the light and live in darkness.

There is another difference in the two types of Christians. It has to do with how they view the secular world. The first type of Christians have become steadily angrier to what they see as spreading secularism. They think that secular humanism is winning adherents by the millions and posing a serious and snowballing threat to Christian faith and democratic freedoms. They think secularism has warped Christianity into a parody that has little or nothing to do with love and fosters suspicion and conspiracy theories. In essence, they think secularism has stolen Jesus. The culture at large has yoked the name of Jesus and his church to ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that would have appalled him.
Consider this example for the magazine Christianity Today, a representative for the first type of Christianity. The article opens with a picture of Richard Dawkins, the poster child for everything that is wrong and threatening about a world that works intentionally and actively to destroy Christian Faith. The author says,
“Christians need  . . . to recognise the new secularism for what it is – an attempt to undermine and destroy Christianity. We need to stand against its fundamentalism and we need to stand up for the poor, the young, the disabled and the marginalised (who most need the Good News), by proclaiming the gospel of Christ against the elitism and intolerance of our new fundamentalist atheists. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail!”
It’s his way of saying, “They think we are the fundamentalists. Well, the secularists are the real fundamentalists. They think we are elitist and intolerant. Well the secularists are truly elitist and intolerant.”

I can’t argue with some of that. As I’ve pointed out over the past few sermons, we do live in a more secular, more humanistic world in which Americans care less and less about organized religion. We also live in a more pluralistic, multi-faith America. In terms of the American religious landscape, we can see that many people are pulling away from organized religion. Especially when it comes to Christianity, many people do not want to associate with a religion that is seen as elitist and intolerant. Americans are becoming a collection of individuals with individual experiences, individual perceptions, and individual constructions of reality. This means, if we want to make sense of our chaotic, harmful world, less people rely on outside forces like God. If the world is going to be ordered, we need to do it ourselves.

The second type of Christians see things a little differently. They don’t see secularization and pluralism as challenges. They are opportunities. To them, the world, the universe itself, belongs to God. Creation has been blessed and pronounced good. There is no difference between the sacred and the secular. All are one in God’s realm. Here’s the opportunity: Just because religious institutions are losing their authority does not mean that people are losing their quest for or desire for God.  Instead of the church, people are connecting with God through nature, through popular culture, through literature, films, and music. Whether one’s inspiration comes from Bach or Beyoncé, every note of creation is another reminder of God. Whether we watch an infant learning to walk or an elder aching to keep step, each footprint is another reminder of God. When we feel the touch of love, it is the fingerprint of God, a revelation of the mystery. So the whole distinction between sacred and secular just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not helpful. It’s not true. There is only one universe. It’s all sacred. It all reveals the divine. Since there are billions of us on this planet, if we can’t start honoring the divine presence in all people, all religions, and all things, then what hope there is for the world.

So, why haven't the “Type-2” Christians made more of an effort to rescue the word Christian from all the negative associations it has acquired in the minds of many Americans? Partly because we treat faith and religion as a private matter. Partly because we feel silenced by the aggressive, unapologetic manner in which “Type-1” Christians define true Christians from false ones. Partly, perhaps, because we sense the danger of seeming smug and self-congratulatory in our professions of faith.

The unfortunate result of silence is that one Christian point of view plays an invisible role in the discussions of issues that roil our society. We saw this with the marriage equality debate in Maryland. For the most part, people framed the faith concern as a clear-cut contest between "Christians" who supposedly upheld responsibility, values, and family, versus liberal secular humanists who supported tolerance and separation of church and state.

The time has come for a challenge to be made. It is time to take Jesus back. It’s time to take Jesus back to show the highest spiritual and moral aspirations for humanity. It’s time to take Jesus back to guide us along the path of transformation. It’s time to take Jesus back and invite others to receive his love in ways that do not mutilate or deny our humanity. It’s time to take Jesus back and to unshackle the word Christian, ¬and the living Christ itself, from the partialities and principles to which they have been captured.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we commit ourselves:
To praise God, confess our sin, and joyfully accept God's forgiveness;
To proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our suffering world;
To embody God's Love for all people;
To hear and give voice to creation's cry for justice and peace;
To name and confront the powers of evil within and among us;
To repent our silence and complicity with the forces of chaos and death;
To preach and teach with the power of the living Word;
To join oppressed and troubled people in the struggle for liberation;
To work for justice, healing, and wholeness of life;
To embrace the unity of Christ's church;
To discern and celebrate the present and coming reign of God.

It’s time to take Jesus back.

How (Not)to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, by James K.A. Smith.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Sermon for September 28, 2014

Singing in a Strange Land

Two poems . . .


By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a strange land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy. Psalm 137


The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round Earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
– from Matthew Arnold's “Dover Beach”

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times." He didn't mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, or the rise of electronics. He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

Last week, I presented the case that many feel a sense of loss and discouragement about the church. Our sanctuaries are not as full as they used to be. Some of our neighboring churches that used to be the bedrock of the town are closing their doors. Denominational identity can be unsatisfying. Church growth programs that once worked are now ineffective. The question I’ve been pondering is how did we get here? Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God, say, 500 years ago in Western society, while in 2014, many people find this not only easy, but even inescapable?  As one report from Trinity College in Hartford concludes, “The challenge to Christianity in the United States does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” How did American religion become a faith of humanists and skeptics?

We could say the Western Christian church is entering a time of exile. Many of you grew up in a world of American Christendom, a world where church and culture were interwoven in ways that we were mostly unaware of. For example, many of you can remember times when stores were closed on Sunday. No youth sports, no college sports, no shopping at the Mall. Definitely no liquor sales. Public schools opened each day with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer – sometimes even a reading from the Bible. These were central ways in which the culture and the Christian church supported each other. These days, the Christian story is much less known and Christians find themselves closer to the margins of society and competing for attention in the public square. Here is an example of our new America’s relationship with Christianity: According to Professor Stephen Prothero from Boston University, about 75 percent of adults mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” More than 10 percent think that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels. The American public knows even less about world religions like Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism than it does about Christianity and Judaism.

Like the psalmist of old, we find ourselves asking, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?”

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports that Americans are changing religious affiliations at a rising rate. The survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country. Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of membership changes. While traditional churches hemorrhage, we see other faiths growing. The Islamic Society of North America claims there are between 6 and 8 million Muslims in the United States today. The New York Times placed the number between 2 and 4 million. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, believes the correct figure is somewhere in between. Islam is one of the country’s top ten largest religious groups, not to mention the second largest religion in the world. And guess who the fastest growing faith group is, in terms of percentage of growth? The Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day reported 2 million new adherents and new congregations in 295 counties where no Mormons even lived a decade ago.

Let’s go back to that comment a made a moment ago -- the report from Trinity College in Hartford concludes --“The challenge to Christianity in the United States does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.” According to Pew and other studies, the group with the greatest net gain in the religious landscape is “unaffiliated.” In other words, more than 16 % of American adults say they are not part of any organized faith, which makes the unaffiliated the country’s fourth largest “religious group.”

Like it or not, it is well documented that the United States is the most religiously pluralistic country in the world. In this new ecology of faith, dealing with religious pluralism is not just a politically correct nicety. Religious diversity is now a fact of our existence, whether we fully recognize it or not. And as Christians, we will have to deal with it. Our compelling task is to figure out how we can sing our song in this new land. We need to think about what it means to follow the Living God in a culture that cares less and less of our faith language and religious metaphors.

When we were on top of the religious dog pile, we did not have to offer compelling reasons for our existence. We did not have to convince the world that we were relevant. Now, we find ourselves surprised by the reminder that we were always meant to be foreigners, pilgrims, or in the words of Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon, resident aliens

Let’s think back on the first poem I read ¬¬– Psalm 137. It was written by foreigners. They were prisoners — Jewish exiles living and working in Babylon. After the fall of Jerusalem, Jews were deported to Babylon and assimilated into the culture. Two or three generations later, some of the Jewish exiles still remembered the stories of home. They recalled the times when their people were in control of their own destinies. The warmth of community had all but disappeared. Their tormentors ask them to sing the songs of Jerusalem. I wonder if it was a way to test whether Babylon’s regime of exclusion through assimilation had worked. If the Jewish exiles can’t remember their songs, then their culture has been destroyed. The exiles hang up their harps. They pretend not to remember. But truth be told, remembering just hurts too much. They set aside their harps – harps that used to accompany their hymns in worship of God. Their harps, so useful and so right, their music so fitting in the Jewish Temple, could not be evoked in this repressive environment. They asked, “In the midst of our grief and loss, in the face of those who want us to forget who we are, why would we invoke songs of gratitude and joy? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

This is the question today’s churches need to ask itself: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Because, as far as the church is concerned, we do live in a strange land. The religious, cultural, political, economic, and sociological landscape has changed. What do we do? Let’s listen some more to the Psalmist.

1. Grieve

The Psalm opens with these words:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
We can’t just embrace the new world without grieving the loss of the old. Real grief is part of a process of transformation. Grief is hard. It takes us by surprise. In grief, we learn to let go and to move on and be changed. We grieve for the good old days, and those days weren’t so long ago. Only a generation ago, it was unusual for people not to go to church. Churches were built in neighborhoods for people in the neighborhood. Our church was built with that understanding. We grieve because aligning oneself with Christianity is no longer a popular stance. And if we do not grieve, we will not ask ourselves the tough questions that we need to ask. Maybe when we ask the right questions we will discover that the good old days weren’t very good after all.

2. Remember

The Psalmist also offers these words:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
As a church, we not only grieve. We remember. This last portion of this psalm speaks defiantly into the darkness that has enveloped the exiles. Taunted by enemies on all sides, seemingly helpless and hopeless, powerless to change their fate, laughed at, ridiculed, rejected, their country devastated, their temple in ruins, the exiles expressed a passionate, stubborn and resistant faith. Churches like CCC must continue to re-tell and remember our story: that forgiveness and new life is open to all who embrace it.

3. Engage

What will it mean to practice our faith in a country of religious diversity? I think it means that we have to learn humility, invite open dialogue with other faiths, and engage those who are “unaffiliated” as equals on our spiritual journey. We will have to resist the temptation to make absolute faith claims that cut off true dialogue. We will have to stand firm against the enticement to make negative judgments on other faith practices. We need to make the effort to get to know others — to learn what they think, what they believe, and what is at the heart of their understanding and commitment to God. Let’s call this stance “pluralism literacy” — becoming knowledgeable about other faiths. The culture is beginning to taking care of this for us.

As Christians, we do not know. We only trust. We do not own the truth, but we bear witness to the living Truth. We engage ourselves with those who belong to other faith traditions with the expectation that the other – another human being – has something vital to bring to our meeting. We want to know what God is doing in the lives of people within other faiths. Christian witness in a pluralistic world means opening our lives to others so that they may understand how we attend to our ultimate concerns, and so that we might listen to how God helps others address their ultimate concerns.

When we can do that, we might be surprised at what we learn. We might be shocked to hear God speaking to us. We might learn to talk intelligently about our own faith instead of assuming that people already know about Christianity. As we share and listen, as we do God’s work, hand-in-hand with people of faith who seek to make the world a better place, we might just become the church God intended us to be in the first place.

W. Eugene March, God’s Tapestry (Philadelphia: WMJK, 2008).

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

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