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

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 ...