Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Meditation for December 20, 2015 / Advent 4

When I first came to CCC about 4 ½ years ago, the church gave me a gift – a fir tree. I planted it in our yard. This time of year, it is the one of the few reminders of life. When skies grow dark, and leafy trees stand barren, that fir tree insists that light and life will return. I’m reminded of a story from the Cherokee tradition called Why Some Trees are Ever Green. When the plants and trees were first created, the Great Mystery decided to give a gift to each different species. But first, there was a contest to see which gift would be the most useful to whom. "I want all of you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights," the Great Mystery told the plants and trees. The young plants and trees were so excited to be trusted with watching over the earth that they had no trouble staying awake the first night. The second night was not so easy and a few of them fell asleep as dawn approached. On the third night, they tried to whisper to each other in order to stay awake but many fell asleep. On the fourth night, even more slept. By the seventh night, even the beautiful larch had fallen asleep. The only plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel. The Great Mystery exclaimed to them, "What wonderful endurance you have!" "You shall have the very special gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the dead of winter, your brother and sister creatures will find that life is protected in your branches."

So it is, down to this day. In the dead of this season, when all the other trees lose their leaves, the evergreens stay verdant and awake. While other trees sleep, evergreens give us a sense of life. The evergreens are defiant.

I think Christian should be more like evergreens. Because there is a lot darkness, emptiness, and inhospitality in our lives, and at Christmas time, we have a chance to defy them. We have plenty to resist. Perhaps our health is not good. Maybe the ones you love and care for are failing. Perhaps you are waiting for test results over the holidays. Perhaps our finances are not where they should be. Maybe some of our relationships are difficult and needing repair. Perhaps a job is not secure. Perhaps you panic when the news comes on and you face the fact that fear and hatred seem to claim more authority than compassion and peacebuilding.

This year, I want a defiant Christmas. In the midst of the shadows, I want to be an evergreen, offering a perpetual reminder that life can return to the fallow areas of our world. As much as I want to wait until all light, and fertile, and promising once again, Christmas invites us to celebrate in the midst of the darkness, bleakness, and lack of hospitality in our world. How about you? What might you do to defy fear? What might you do to defy hopelessness? What might you do to defy hatred? What can we do to defy all that tries to tear us down and destroy us when our lives are not completely where we want them to be?

I leave you with a blessing this Christmas -- one that was written in 1513 by Fra Giovanni. “I salute you and there is nothing I can give which you have not, but there is much while I cannot give it, you may take it. No heaven can come to us unless we find it in our hearts today. So take heaven. No joy can come to us, unless it comes to us in this present moment. Take joy. No peace can come to us, unless we find it right now. Take peace.”

As we await the return of the light, I greet you with the prayer that for you, now and forever, your spirit is evergreen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Sermon for December 13, 2015

When Men Dance and Women Sing

Mary got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,

You’re so blessed among women,
    and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
    the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
    greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
    skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
    believed every word would come true!

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now. Luke 1:39-55
I saw a video on Facebook that was the best thing I had seen all week. In a green field, standing in an open semi, circle stand 5 older Greek men – perhaps in their 70s and 80s. A drum and accordion begin to play, and, one at a time, the men step into the circle and begin to dance. Like an ancient riddle, every step seems to have meaning and purpose. Each man has a fire in his eyes, and even if their limbs are tired or frail, the dance renews them. I love watching that video. I made my kids watch it –twice. The caption had these words – part of a song by Maria Broom:

When the men dance ... the wolves stop howling.
When the men dance ... the dogs stop barking.
When the men dance ... the ladies start screaming.
When the men dance ... people stop fighting, stop fussing, stop killing, stop cussing!

I love it! What a great message for these time of violence, fear, and division. Imagine a world where instead of using public hate speech as a way to garner votes, people like Donald Trump danced with Nihad Awad, the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – no cameras or reporters allowed. If we danced some more, maybe we would not have as much time to fear each other and get caught up in our divisions. When the men dance, people stop fighting.

I saw another video that reminded me of the difference between good and bad policing in our communities. In the video, a white, female Washington D.C. police officer arrives on the scene of a fight to break it up.  When she gets to K St SW, the officer sees a 17-year-old, African-American student dancing to the popular song “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)”. The officer reportedly told the girl she could dance better, and one of the teens challenged the cop to a dance-off, which the officer accepted.  The officer brings her A-game. Slightly hindered by her police gear, she keeps up with the teen, who gyrates effortlessly to the Nae Nae dance. The officer seems to be doing a little bit more of a freestyle dance, but she keeps pace with the teen. In the end, the students walk off without a fight and the officer leaves without escalating the violence.

When the women dance... the earth stops trembling.
When the women dance... the babies stop crying.
When the women dance... the men start listening.
When the women dance... the angels and ancestors sing!

When the children dance... the winds stop blowing.
When the children dance... the oceans stop rolling.
When the children dance... the people start smiling.
When the children dance... we all sing together!
 What a world we would live in with more dancing and less shooting!

The same goes for singing. Today’s scripture reading is all about listening to women sing. It starts off with us listening in as Elizabeth croons to Mary about the blessings of women who hear and respond to God’s activity in the world. She sings, “Blessed woman who believes what God said…” Blessed woman?

When God announces this most important moment in history, the message comes to the world through … two women!?  Women were considered to be inferior to men, and under the authority of men. In the eyes of the world, Elizabeth and Mary are of little to no consequence. Elizabeth is too old to be pregnant. Mary is young and not married enough to be pregnant. And the first to receive God’s message of the coming kingdom are these two pregnant women. God doesn’t give the news to the Roman Emperor. God doesn’t give the news to a governor, or to one of the temple’s high priests. God doesn’t put up billboards or go on CNN. God goes to two ordinary, women on the margins of society. Elizabeth carries the messenger, and Mary carries the Message. They are not forgotten, anonymous pawns. They are women and they are blessed!

After Elizabeth sings, Mary also bursts into song. We begin to get the idea that Mary and Elizabeth aren’t just singing songs of praise but songs of subversion.  Mary sings about God who scatters the proud, who lowers powerful rulers, who raises up the lowly, who feeds the hungry, and who turns away those who allow their fellow human beings to go hungry when they have plenty. Mary sings a song with the power to turn the world upside down. The high are brought low and the low are brought high, the first will be last and the last will be first.

If I’m remembering right, I think her son said something very similar.

Mary’s song is the cry of a young, pregnant, unwed mother living among a people oppressed by an occupying force. Her song is so dangerous, the Guatemalan president banned the reading of it in the 1980s because it was seen as encouraging rebellion against his genocidal military junta. The song of a young, pregnant, unwed mother was a danger to the state!  Mary’s song was also banned in Argentina when mothers rose up to cry for justice for their missing children in the 1970’s. During the British rule of India, Mary’s song was banned from being sung in churches. In Nicaragua, Mary’s song was often kept as an amulet, worn by poor peasants.

Mary’s song is a song of subversion. Mary’s song insists that oppression of the poor is not the will of God and that when God’s kingdom arrives fully, the tyrant will have no power.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the minister who plotted to overthrow Hitler and was executed by the Nazis, said this:  “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Can you imagine what might happen if, instead of schmaltzy and cloying hymns, our Christmas carols were songs of subversion?

Imagine if, when we sing, “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” it’s not just an opening hymn on Christmas Eve, but a summons to gather in courage and faith, beckoning us to revolt against the pains and upheavals of the world! Imagine when we sing, “Joy to the World,” which, by the way was originally an Easter hymn, our greatest joy is found in working with Christ to knock tyrants off their high horses, pull victims out of the mud, and invite the starving poor to sit at our banquets! When we sing “What child is this” about the baby sleeping on Mary’s lap, imagine what happens when we remember a child who was:
Helpless and hungry, lowly, afraid
Wrapped in the chill of midwinter;
Comes now among us, born into poverty’s embrace,
new life for the world.
 When we sing about the baby, tucked safely away in the manger, imagine we also remember that humility is put in service to the least of God’s people …
To lowliest manger, where animals feed,
Comes Jesus, redeemer of all human need.
May we bear the Christ Child to all whom we meet
By living God's justice and washing their feet.
Imagine when we sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we could also sing …
When lives of humble service preach
The Good News to the poor,
When troubled minds or bodies find
A welcome at our door,
When healing hearts and hands lift
The lowly from the dust,
Then ring the bells and sing Noels:
For Christ is born in us.
Imagine our most peaceful Christmas song, “Silent Night,” as our cry for hope in life’s shadows …
Silent night, holy night!
When will peace conquer might?
Pray that justice will set victims free,
Those who are shackled to bleak poverty.
Christ be born in each heart,
Christ be born in each heart.
May our songs call for justice, and resistance, and trust in God who uses the most unlikely of us to turn the world upside down.
When the men sing and dance... the wolves stop howling.
When the men sing and dance... the dogs stop barking.
When the men sing and dance... the ladies start screaming.
When the men sing and dance... people stop fighting, stop fussing, stop killing, stop cussing!

When the women sing and dance... the earth stops trembling.
When the women sing and dance... the babies stop crying.
When the women sing and dance... the men start listening.
When the women sing and dance... the angels and ancestors sing!

When the children sing and dance... the winds stop blowing.
When the children sing and dance... the oceans stop rolling.
When the children sing and dance... the people start smiling.
When the children sing and dance... we all sing together!

So let the women sing and dance!
And let the men sing and dance!
Let the children sing and dance!
Let's all dance together! 


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sermon for November 29, 2015 / Advent 1

The Days are Coming

Christian Century magazine published a commentary on the secularization of Christmas in 1986. The author asked, “What if most of what people knew of Christmas was what they heard in Christmas songs and in fables told to children? Worst of all, what if all they knew about the Christmas celebration was how we actually live it?” What might the Christmas story sound like if it were told incorporating all the various myths, misunderstandings and attitudes that in fact saturate our celebration?
“Once upon a time, a decree went out from Caesar in August that everyone should be taxed so that the deficit would not get too big. Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem. Mary rode on a donkey named Rudolph, who was embarrassed to be seen carrying an unwed mother. He blushed so at the thought that his nose glowed red. Upon arriving at Bethlehem, they could not find a place to stay (It was, after all, the Christmas season, and the press of tourists was crushing). As they knocked at the door of the last inn in town, the innkeeper pushed back the shutter and threw up the sash. His figure appeared so nimble and quick. They knew in a moment his name must be Nick. Meanwhile in a field nearby, seven dwarfs who were shepherds were startled to hear a group of angels singing Handel's Messiah. At the end of the concert, they were told to stand up and to go to Bethlehem. So off they marched to the beat of their friend, the little drummer boy. When they arrived at the stable, they met Joseph, Mary, the child and a man made famous in song, Round John Virgin.”

Christian Century suggested that we mistake the true meaning of Christmas with the "Celebration of Santa Christ," the "Sweet Baby Syndrome," and the "Mercantile Messiah Motif."

Santa Christ is the jolly god who lives far, far away. He only gets mentioned once a year. Santa Christ a convenient excuse for celebration.

The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone. He just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene supplies. But, once a year, we get him out, dust him off and say, “What a sweet baby.” Of course, we always put him back in the closet when the New Year begins.

The Mercantile Messiah proclaims that Christmas is all about buying stuff. “Christmas is all about giving, so let us sell you something that you can give to somebody else,” say the advertisements.

The problem with Santa Christ, Sweet Baby and the Mercantile Messiah is that they come and go but they never change anyone. They don’t reveal anything about God. They don’t make demands. They never ask followers to inventory their lives and get rid of everything that masks true nature of God.

I invite you to listen to another Scripture reading – This from the mouth of Jesus as told by Luke. His followers ask him about future time of destruction. They want to know what to look for when the end is near. Jesus says:

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

What do these promises about the future mean when we are caught up in trying to do all we can do right here and now in the present? What do they mean when we are struggling to live one day at a time – when we are trying to be all things to all people? What do they mean when we watch the news or read the paper and discover that senseless horrors continue in our world, in our nation – even in our own backyards; that crime, and starvation, and terrorism, and war, and earthquakes, and floods abound and seem to be increasing?

How dare we rejoice? How do we stand, watch and pray, when the world around us calls out for so much more?

I know myself well enough to be aware when I am focusing so much on what’s wrong in this world, I lose my sense of context. Sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by all the anger and fear. How about you? Are there one or two things that you tend to focus on that cause you to lose your context? What types of situations flood you with worry and cause your stomach to twist in knots, and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

If I’m being honest with myself, sometimes my global, apocalyptic worries are distractions that keep me from digging too deeply into my own personal areas of growth that need attention. It’s difficult to live every day believing that there may be no tomorrow.

“Be on guard,” says Jesus,  so you don’t get weighed down with constructing anxieties and the amusements we use to relieve them. Be on guard against that paralyzing self-absorption that holds us in place and keeps us from mending up the shredded fabric of our communities. Jesus says, “Take care! Stay alert! Stand up and raise your heads because the Kingdom is coming.”

Jesus’ offers an antidote to our worldly cynicism. He offers a new perspective on our anxieties. His words are meant to raise the heads and lift the hopes of those who don’t get justice.

I want us to realize that this passage was not written for most of us. These scary texts – we call them apocalyptic texts – were written for those who had no hope. They were written for people who had been put down by the Roman Empire – people from whom all had been taken. People who lived in poverty. People who lived under oppressive military occupation. These words were written for those whose poverty-stricken lives were seen as nothing more than a tax revenue stream for greedy political elites.

These words were not written with a person like me in mind. I’m a person of privilege. I have the luxury to hope when times are hard, and rely on self-sufficiency when times are good. I can choose when to use my privilege to leverage social change and when to invoke my privilege for my own comfort.  In our country, people who are victimized, or persecuted; those who are treated as less because they are not white, or Christian, or heterosexual, or male, or able-bodied, or able-minded, or living below the poverty level; they don’t get a choice about how they will be treated today. I think of African American friends who tell me about the fear they have just walking out the door each day, wondering what types of aggressions or threats they may encounter and what the appearance the face of racism will take – and that’s here in Montgomery County.

If we believe Jesus is coming, then we affirm that Jesus is coming to be with those who need hope that their lives can be better.

I think Jesus comes to march with Black Lives Matter protesters in Chicago and Baltimore.

I think Jesus comes to walk along side Syrian Muslim refugees.

Jesus comes to stand with victims of gun violence and the families who cannot get the most basic safety regulations put in place.

Jesus feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and goes behind bars with prisoners who serve decades of jail sentences for petty crimes.

In fact, Jesus is not just coming. Jesus is already here. Jesus us here in you and me, in the hands, feet, and hearts of anyone who reaches out to offer even the faintest glimmer of hope with works of compassionate justice that can make our communities healthier.

Can justice really come to the earth? Can husbands quit beating up their wives, and can wives quit blaming themselves? Can Arabs and Israelis look into each other’s eyes and see a brother or a sister? Can some who struggle with addictions, or with diseases that trap us, can we be liberated by God, and start to walk tall in the Kingdom of God? Can Jesus Christ appear among us in some way that our minds can never imagine in a scenario that would simply erase our smug confidence about where the lines of reality are drawn?

The answer is yes, because Christ is coming to us, and Christ is working through us. We pray for those who cannot pray anymore. We hope for those without much hope left. And one more thing, one more tough thing. We work in the same direction as we hope, drawn forward by the magnet force of the Kingdom of God.

A story is told -- Two hundred twenty years ago the Connecticut House of Representatives was in session on a bright day in May, and the delegates were able to do their work by natural light. But then something happened that nobody expected. Right in the middle of debate, the day turned to night. Clouds obliterated the sun, and everything turned to darkness. Some legislators thought it was the Second Coming. So a clamor arose. People wanted to adjourn. People wanted to pray. People wanted to prepare for the coming of the Lord. But the speaker of the House had a different idea. He was a Christian believer, and he rose to the occasion with good logic and faith. “We are all upset by the darkness,” he said, “and some of us are afraid. But, the Day of the Lord is either approaching or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. And if the Lord is returning, I, for one, choose to be found doing my duty. I therefore ask that candles be brought.” And those who expected Jesus went back to their desks and resumed their debate.

That’s how I want to be found – doing my duty as one who professes to follow Christ.

The world is filled with so many problems, both global and personal. There will always be something that challenges our faith. But in all the waiting, I don’t want us to miss a chance to know the true nature of God. I don’t want us to miss seeing what God is doing. I don’t want us to miss out on participating in what God is doing. I don’t want us to be so distracted with the pain around us – and inside of us – that we fail to recognize the presence of Christ. And I don’t want us to be so distracted by the allure of the mercantile Messiah or lulled by the Sweet Baby in the Manger that we forget a Savior who fully immerses God’s self in all of the world’s pains through the coming of the Christ.

Today, we have an opportunity to think about how each of us is can shine the light of and can put our core faith values into practice. We have a chance to listen for God, in our times of grief and our moments of gratitude, to seek God’s highest aims for the world, to think about our connections and interconnections. And think about making some commitments.

  •  Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to destroy the life or spirit of     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to take what is not given.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to engage in abusive     relationships
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak falsely or deceptively.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harm self or others through     poisonous thoughts or deeds
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to dwell on past errors.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to speak of self separate from     others.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to possess any form of life selfishly.
  • Knowing how deeply our lives intertwine, I vow not to harbor ill-will toward any human being.

When we can work on these things, we will begin to understand the true nature of God, always coming to us, always at work in us, around us, and through us this season.

Sermon for November 22, 2015 / Thanksgiving Sunday

Remember the Past, Trust the Future

Click HERE to listen. Sermon begins at 24:30

So, this was supposed to be a Thanksgiving message, but I’m still riled up about terrorist attacks, the mounting fear of Syrian refugees, and what I think are some nasty reactions by some of our leaders. So, go on my blog and type in “Thanksgiving” in the search box, and read one of the sermons that pop up. I checked them out – they are still good.

Today, as I end my sermon series on Deuteronomy, I want us to wrestle with the parts of Deuteronomy that I’ve been avoiding – the parts that many of you have asked me about. I’ve mentioned that Deuteronomy is the beginning of a sweeping history of Israel, written by Jewish sages who face exile and conquest by invading armies. The history begins by telling the story of Moses, who reviews the law with the Israelites who stand with their toes on the border of the Promised Land. After 40 years of wilderness wanderings, they are about to claim God’s promise. Many of you have asked, “Weren’t there already people living in the Promised Land?” The answer is yes, and here is one of the texts we’ve been worried about. It has everything we hate to see in scripture: genocide, wrath, insult, anger, and punishment. Let’s listen…

Moses went on and addressed these words to all Israel. He said, “I’m 120 years old today. I can’t get about as I used to. And God told me, ‘You’re not going to cross this Jordan River.’

“God, your God, will cross the river ahead of you and destroy the nations in your path so that you may dispossess them … God will destroy them. God will hand the nations over to you, and you’ll treat them exactly as I have commanded you …

God spoke to Moses: “You’re about to die and be buried with your ancestors. You’ll no sooner be in the grave than this people will be chasing after the foreign gods of this country that they are entering.  … Copy down this song and teach the People of Israel to sing it by heart. They’ll have it then as my witness against them. When I bring them into the land that I promised to their ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they eat and become full and get fat and then begin fooling around with other gods and worshiping them, and then things start falling apart, many terrible things happening, this song will be there with them as a witness to who they are and what went wrong. Their children won’t forget this song; they’ll be singing it. Don’t think I don’t know what they are already scheming to do, and they’re not even in the land yet, this land I promised them.” … So Moses wrote down this song that very day and taught it to the People of Israel … After Moses had finished writing down the words of this Revelation in a book, right down to the last word, he ordered the Levites who were responsible for carrying the Chest of the Covenant of God, saying, “Take this Book of Revelation and place it alongside the Chest of the Covenant of God, your God. Keep it there as a witness” … So with everyone in Israel gathered and listening, Moses taught them the words of this song, from start to finish.

What a hard passage. The song Moses teaches in the next chapter is difficult, too.  In our scriptures, we hear a command to commit genocide. And it’s not the only terrifying text. Read the Bible closely and you will see stories that sanction punishing the children and grandchildren of a sinner (Exodus 20:5-6), torturing captives (2 Samuel 12:26-31), legal rape of female prisoners of war (Numbers 31:1-18; Deuteronomy 21:11-14), slavery (Deuteronomy 23:15-16, Colossians 4:1), religious intolerance, and transferring punishment of sin from the guilty to the innocent (Gen. 3:5-6, Gen. 6:5-13; Leviticus 16:8-34). I’m going to call these “texts of terror” ¬-- profoundly violent, immoral and unethical passages in our canon of Scripture. In a world where there are those who read texts of terror and commit acts of terror in their name, we must be explicit about how we interpret passages of scripture like the one we read today. How does one argue with a divine command to wipe out a nation?

The fact is some people don’t argue at all. They think their religious texts give them permission to do evil and call it good. Many Americans have come to believe Islam is this kind of religion, especially after 9/11. The most distressing feature of terrorism by Islamic extremists is that that the perpetrators believe that they have the right to murder people in order to achieve religious and political goals. In the wake of the latest killings in Egypt, Beirut, and Paris; Kenya, Nigeria and Mali; religion-sanctioned bombings and attacks by terrorists who are Muslim are too numerous to be listed.

Americans’ perceptions of Islam have actually turned more negative over the past few years. Today, a majority of Americans, 56%, agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. Right after 9/11, the number was 47% of Americans who agreed with that statement.

Some people think that violent Islam represents the entire religion. One survey, polled 1000 American Christian Senior Ministers about their attitudes toward Islam. Nearly half of senior Protestant pastors said the Islamic State terrorist group offers a true representation of Islamic society. 76 % of those pastors said airstrikes against the Islamic State are needed to protect Christians in Iraq and Syria. On one news site, a commentator suggested that destroying the Islamic terrorist group ISIS isn’t enough, and that Mecca, the center of the Islamic world, needs to be destroyed in order to let, “the [world’s 1.6 billion] Muslims know once and for all that our God is far more powerful and, yes, vengeful than their own puny deity.”

So, perhaps Islam is not the only religion in which some adherents use religious bellicosity to promote violence. Christians do it, too. While religion-motivated terrorist actions by Christians are rare in the West, blustery expressions of intolerance are far more widespread. Look no further than recent statements from some current presidential candidates.

Maybe we need to edit our Bibles and eliminate texts of terror. Or, maybe we just decide that God is not speaking through those texts. Maybe religion itself is dangerous. Here’s where I’m at … Religion itself is not bad. Religion is not evil. Religion is not dangerous. However, humans can be bad, evil and dangerous. We can use religion as a way to justify what we want to do. Any Muslim who cites the Qur’an or Hadith to support a view that Islam should forcibly convert the world to Islam, stands in direct opposition to every scholarly tradition of Islam. Most Muslim scholars say that violent jihad is confined to the defense of Islam against unjust attack.

Any Jew who calls for the conquest and destruction Egypt, Syria and Iraq by Israel would be regarded as irrational by most Rabbis. The biblical command to take care of foreigners and refugees who live in the Holy Land far outweighs any texts about holy war or conquest.

The vast majority of Christian churches regret Crusades and pogroms. Most of us interpret these as misunderstandings of Jesus’ command to love enemies and seek reconciliation instead of vengeance.

Religious scriptures can be misused. When we do that, we ignore the bigger matters of our Holy Books –love of God and care of one another; the search for compassion and mercy; the call to be peacebuilders. Yes, there are violent texts that can be found and used by those who are filled with rage, hatred, and revenge. By choosing selective texts that support their aims, evil people choose hatred and intolerance over debate and dialogue. Religion does not cause intolerance. I think it’s quite the opposite. Intolerance uses religion to give alleged “moral support” to hatred.

Religion-sanctioned terror is almost bound up with other causes (social, historical, economic, cultural, political, etc). But at the end of the day, we must admit that there is far too much violence in the world that is justified with a specifically religious rationale. We must commit ourselves to do whatever we can to stop it. Here are some ideas …

#1: We need to learn the warning signs of when religion has become evil and evil has become religious.
  • Look out for fixated claims of absolute truth, including:Blind obedience to autocratic, charismatic, and authoritarian leaders who undermine personal freedom, individual responsibility, and intellectual inquiry.
  • Scaring people with “end times” scenarios in the name of religion.
  • Any and all forms of dehumanization, from openly declaring war on your enemy to suggestions about rounding up feared groups of people, like Muslims (or Jews, or the Japanese) and making them carry ID cards.
  •  Those who set up “us versus them” scenarios; those who demonize people who differ from us; those who construct our neighbor as “Other” while claiming God is on our side alone.

#2: We begin to remove our protective armor — ego, self-deception, rationalization, external and internal “makeup,” posturing—anything that keeps us from seeing ourselves and others as we really are. At their best, our scriptures call us to embrace human vulnerability as the true source of human strength.

I love the story in the news last week about 7-year-old Jack Swanson from a town near Austin, Texas. He heard that a local mosque had been splattered with feces and desecrated with torn pages of the Quran after the Paris attacks. Jack went home, emptied $20 he had saved from his piggy bank, and donated it to the Mosque. One of the Board members of the Mosque said, “It's 20 bucks, but coming from Jack collecting his pennies it's worth 20 million bucks to me and to our community.” Texas, by the way, is one of states whose governors declared their desire to reject the resettling of Syrian refugees within their borders (and so we’re not just picking on Texas, Maryland’s executive is among the same group of governors).

A little child shall lead them.

Our sacred traditions call us to locate a place of generosity and tenderness. Removing our armor is frightening and painful; we put it on for a reason—to avoid getting hurt. Peeling it off it is like pulling off a scab from a fight or an injury and baring the tender skin underneath. But that skin is both our vulnerability and the true source of our strength. Just watch what happens when we open ourselves to grace and kindness.

#3: We hold each other accountable. We speak up when members of our own religions dehumanize and marginalize others. We act up when leaders of our own religions target people for exclusion. We journey for justice when governments suppress religious activity through harassment or detention. We pray for religions to follow the generous spirits of their founders.

#4: We dialogue and explore our differences, respectfully and courageously. We dialogue about how we can form a loving, compassionate, just and generous world in which religion brings out the best of who we are, not the worst.

A Prayer:
God, we pray for our world, a world in need of paths to peace. We pray for a world in which we might learn that differences of faith, of race, of nation, need not separate us. We pray that this world, divided by war and terror, can become one where there is less hatred and more understanding. There is only one destiny on this small blue planet, and there are no other hands but ours. So let us, as one people, seek the courage and the wisdom to find a path that leads to both peace and justice.

Is Religion Dangerous, 36-38.
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thomson. WJP:2014

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sermon for November 15, 2015

Who are the Broken?

If a man marries a woman and then it happens that he no longer likes her because he has found something wrong with her, he may give her divorce papers, put them in her hand, and send her off. After she leaves, if she becomes another man’s wife and he also comes to hate her and this second husband also gives her divorce papers, puts them in her hand, and sends her off, or if he should die, then the first husband who divorced her can’t marry her again.
When a man takes a new wife, he is not to go out with the army or be given any business or work duties. He gets one year off simply to be at home making his wife happy.
Don’t seize a handmill or an upper millstone as collateral for a loan. You’d be seizing someone’s very life.
If a man is caught kidnapping one of his kinsmen, someone of the People of Israel, to enslave or sell him, the kidnapper must die. Purge that evil from among you.
Warning! If a serious skin disease breaks out, follow exactly the rules set down by the Levitical priests. Follow them precisely as I commanded them.  
When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, don’t enter his house to claim his pledge. Wait outside. Let the man to whom you made the pledge bring the pledge to you outside. And if he is destitute, don’t use his cloak as a bedroll; return it to him at nightfall so that he can sleep in his cloak and bless you. In the sight of God, your God, that will be viewed as a righteous act.
Don’t abuse a laborer who is destitute and needy, whether he is a fellow Israelite living in your land and in your city. Pay him at the end of each workday; he’s living from hand to mouth and needs it now. If you hold back his pay, he’ll protest to God and you’ll have sin on your books.
Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor children for their parents. Each person shall be put to death for his own sin.
Make sure foreigners and orphans get their just rights. Don’t take the cloak of a widow as security for a loan. Don’t ever forget that you were once slaves in Egypt and God, your God, got you out of there. I command you: Do what I’m telling you.
When you harvest your grain and forget a sheaf back in the field, don’t go back and get it; leave it for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow so that God, your God, will bless you in all your work. When you shake the olives off your trees, don’t go back over the branches and strip them bare—what’s left is for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. And when you cut the grapes in your vineyard, don’t take every last grape—leave a few for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Deuteronomy 24, selected verses.

After the events of the past week, from the bombing of a Russian airliner, to craven killings in Beirut and Paris, there can be no doubt we live in a broken world. It feels like the fabric of the world is coming apart at the seams. We mourn as we try to figure out just how many steps away we are from destroying ourselves with our warring ways.

Our ecology is broken. Our economies are broken. Our social and class structures are broken. I feel afraid when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world.

Our churches are broken. Even life in our congregation can feel broken, sometimes. We disappoint and hurt each other and wonder how we move on together. We live in the gap between what we want to do and what we can afford.

The people we know and love are broken.
Lives around us are falling apart.
Marriages are broken.
Health is broken.
Hearts are broken.
Personal relationships are broken.
Our children are broken.

And as an individual, I imagine there are parts of your life that feel broken.
Hidden hurts.
Secret wounds.
Personal problems.
The fear that it will always be this way.

So, here’s a personal question. It’s rhetorical – just think about the answer in your own head. What’s one broken thing in your life no one knows about – that one particular area in your heart that you spend almost all your energy trying to hide?

If you would indulge me for a moment, I’m going to let you in on one of the things I try to hide. I have spent a lot of time striving for a flawless life. You could say I’m a recovering perfectionist.  Somewhere along the line, I learned that mistakes are bad. I learned to equate success with acceptance and mistakes as an invitation for others to express their critical disapproval of me. I want people to like me. I want people to think I’m great at everything. Maintaining that level of perfectionism can be really lonely.  In the name of perfection I hold my tongue, swallow my emotions, silence my truth, hide my heart, and protect myself from getting hurt. Perfection is my deflection tactic – a shield to protect myself from the judgmental eyes of critics who might think less of me if they knew what happens beneath the veneer of excellence.

And what happens when I can’t keep the act going? I run away. I will isolate myself in order to avoid what might be the judging eyes of others. My running looks more like emotional withdraw: put on the stone face, become impervious, don’t let my guard down, and maintain a thin covering of control.
That’s me. How about you? Most of us are hiding something and we’re afraid; afraid of exposure and embarrassment; afraid of rejection; afraid if people find discover who the real person is lurking behind our carefully-constructed public personalities, they will think we are frauds; afraid that we’ve denied ourselves some happiness and we don’t know how to find it. Most of us hide something, and then live in our personal hells as we try to manage our fears.

Some people think about hell as a place of fire and punishment – eternal darkness with a door locked from the outside. I think the doors of our hells are locked from the inside. C.S. Lewis depicted an image of hell as being a place where every person lives in complete isolation from others, thousands of miles away from the nearest neighboring individual. And they all chose it to be that way. No community. No vulnerability with others. Stripped of our humanity. Separation. Isolation. Living in hell is not something we need to wait for. We can experience that right here and now. And many people do.

What if it could be different? What if we realized that we are not locked into fear? What if we realized that we have the key to unlock the doors of our personal hells?

I began this sermon by reading a list of laws from the Book of Deuteronomy.  Many centuries after the death of Moses, the people of Israel faced conquest by foreign armies. That time in Israel’s life is called the Exile. Think about that word for a moment. Could there be a more lonely word? It means banishment. Separation. Hell. Many centuries after the death of Moses, a group of wise teachers see that the people of Israel are on the brink of exile because they have not been distinctive in their faithfulness. Their history book, beginning with what we call “Deuteronomy,” calls a broken nation to remember their past, to remember the law of God, and to remember the promises Israel made. The writers say, “The only way to find healing is through obedience to God.”

In today’s reading, we get a sense of God’s expectations. Some of these laws sound harsh or odd to us. For instance, “It is wrong to take a set of millstones as security for a loan.” It’s a way of saying, “It is wrong to deprive a family of providing for its basic needs.” The law protects the welfare of the community.

Other laws we have no problem understanding. Kidnapping is wrong. Respect the central dignity of your neighbor when you need to collect on a loan. Pay your laborers on time. Show compassionate justice to people who live on the edge of existence: refugees, children with no parents, citizens who have lost their security, wives who face divorce from disapproving husbands who control the household. The law protected vulnerable people and guarded Israel’s faithfulness to God.
I think vulnerable people on the margins of society suffer because other people in power are afraid. Fear takes people away from the covenant. We see it today. Some people are afraid that accepting refugees into our country will mean we are targeting ourselves for internal terrorism. I’ve seen some people claim that the Black Lives Matter movement is a foil for domestic terrorism. I think it’s because supremacists are afraid of a Black America. Those with all the wealth are afraid of what happens when those in poverty get access to resources like health care and living wages and are no longer dependent on the rich. Those in political power in our country are afraid of what happens when non-whites use their voting rights to disestablish them, so they devise gerrymandered voting districts and a cradle-to-grave prison system to strips voting rights away.

That’s hell. That’s not what God wants for those who are created in God’s image. Biblical law offered a vision for what it means for people to be connected in community and experience deep peace together. No islands. No self-made hells. We are made for healthy connection with God, with one another, and with our Selves. Wholeness comes through faithfulness to our covenants. Wholeness comes through obedience to love. Wholeness comes through a commitment to not only be healed, but to be healers – to never allow those on the margins of life to suffer at the expense of our fears. Wholeness is possible. By Wholeness, I mean facing the separations among and within the nations. I mean fixing the injustices and imbalances in our communities. I mean being transparent and vulnerable about our personal shortcomings. I mean not hiding our scars and scratches.

A king once owned a large, beautiful, pure diamond of which he was justifiably proud.  It had no equal anywhere. One day the diamond sustained a deep scratch. The king called in the most skilled diamond cutters and offered them a great reward if they could remove the imperfection from the treasured jewel. No one could repair the imperfection. The king was very distressed.  After some time, a gifted diamond cutter came to the king and promised to make the rare diamond even more beautiful than before. The king was impressed with his confidence and entrusted the precious stone to his care. The diamond cutter kept his word.  With superb artistry he engraved a lovely rosebud around the imperfection and he used the scratch to make the stem.

Each and every one of us is a scratched diamond and we are living in a scratched diamond world. It is beautiful and precious, yet blemished by the painful experiences of our lives. 
When life bruises and wounds our body, heart and soul, our scratches can become beautiful portraits of love. 
When pain and sickness touches our families and friends, our scars can be transformed into living memories of loving faithfulness and support.

When pain shocks our church and community, the fractures are not obstacles to keep us apart. They are opportunities to build bridges of reconciliation.

When violence rips our world apart, the wounds turn into reminders to unite and remember that love can be engraved over fear as engage in the hard work of peacebuilding.

What if we realized that we are not locked into fear? What if we realized that we have the key to unlock the doors of our personal hells? What if we really, really believed that we are more beautiful for being broken?

Healing is possible in our world, through obedient love.
Healing is possible in our nation, through faithful love.
Healing is possible in our church and community, through reconciling love.
Healing is possible in our families, through devoted love.
Healing is possible in your life, through authentic self-love.
To love is to be vulnerable. Our broken, scratched, fractured, bruised, bombed places unite us.

Today, we take the time as a community to pray for healing. It’s a chance to stand and say, “I am safe. I am supported. I am loved. I am enough. This is my covenant.”

It’s a chance to stand and say, “We are more human when we are incomplete. We are more beautiful for being broken. To be ourselves, to be human, to be faithful in our compassionate and just connections with each other, that is how we journey towards wholeness.”

Creach, Jeroma F.D. Violence in Scripture. WJK: 2013.
Thompson, Deanna. Deuteronomy. WJK: 2014.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Sermon for October 25, 2015

In Plenty, Do Not Forget

“Keep and live out the entire commandment that I’m commanding you today so that you’ll live and prosper and enter and own the land that God promised to your ancestors. Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that God would know what you were made of, whether you would keep the commandments or not. God put you through hard times. God made you go hungry. Then God fed you … so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread alone; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth … It’s paramount that you keep the commandments of God, your God. God is about to bring you into a good land, a land with brooks and rivers, springs and lakes, streams out of the hills and through the valleys. It’s a land of wheat and barley, of vines and figs and pomegranates, of olives, oil, and honey. It’s a land where you’ll never go hungry … It’s a land where you’ll get iron out of rocks and mine copper from the hills. After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land God has given you. Make sure you don’t forget God, your God … Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget God, your God”
Deuteronomy 8, selected verses

I have to admit a guilty pleasure: I love junk mail. And I love those live demos at the home show where they sell overpriced vegetable peelers and miracle window cleaning fluid. And I love NPR fundraising. Actually it’s worse than that. I love the infomercials that air during the late night hours when sleepless television watchers are most vulnerable to being talked into buying questionable goods from the friendly-looking hucksters. I want to be as excited as the customers on the infomercial who are about to find out all the versatile uses for the No!No! Home Hair Removal System instead of sleeping peacefully (Or Magic Bullet. Or Shake Weight. Or Pajama Jeans). The hosts of infomercials are hilarious … and terrifying … due to their Silly Putty grins and their desperation to unleash the shoddiest products in the universe upon the compromised late-night consumers of the world.

A read a story of a Seattle mom who has spent thousands of dollars buying more than 50 infomercial products in the last year alone. Her stash includes the Ninja Blender, the George Foreman Grill, and the Snuggie. Her infomercial infatuation began while working the overnight shift as a home care aide. Watching infomercials helped her stay awake. They promised a better and easier life. Trapped in a tough job, she was hungry to buy in to that dream, always wondering if the product could match its promise.

There is actually a term for people who cannot stop buying stuff. It’s called Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD and it affects 15-30 million people in the United States.  Like any addictive behavior, it can be so easy for us to pursue and accumulate more of what we don't really want. Whether it’s infomercials, alcohol, drugs, sex, food, prestige, career achievement, power, wealth – whatever – as long as we are never satisfied, we will continue to seek more, while our real needs are never fully met.

I think addiction, in one form or another, characterizes every aspect of our society. And, I think consumerism is a bit of an addiction. The desire to accumulate and use reflects a culture that does not always support deeper forms of meaning and purpose in our lives. We fill our empty, lonely, vulnerable places by consuming more. Consuming puts a buffer between us and the awareness of our emotions. Consuming numbs us so that we are out of touch with what we feel. The evidence is overwhelming that people who are characterized by materialistic attitudes and values actually experience lower well-being, lower happiness, more depression, more anxiety, and more anger than people who aren't materialistic.

By the way, our country’s market economy backs up our tendency to numb life through consumption. Market Ideology is dead set against the practice of transformation. Market Ideology insists on stinginess towards others (no free lunch); self-centeredness (you are entitled); vengeance against those who disrupt our privilege; anxiety over scarcity; and the compulsion to hoard resources. Market ideology can cause us to treat other people as competitors, or threats, or rivals.

From the spiritual side, there is one glaring issue with consumerism: where abundance prevails, when faced with the intoxicating allure of economic prosperity, we may forget God. It’s hard to be grateful when we are tempted to create classes of haves and have-nots through building warehouses of abundance at the expense of those who suffer.

Consider the warnings in our reading from Deuteronomy. Centuries after the death of Moses, let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC, a group of wise teachers see that the people of Israel have not been distinctive in their faithfulness.  The people of Israel face conquest and demise by foreign armies. The political system is corrupt. The rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor. Resources have been plundered. The people are about to be banished from the Promised Land. The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel. They indict the current political and social order by pointing to Moses and using his story as a way to comment on current crises. Their history book calls a fractured nation to remember their past, to remember the promises of God, and to remember the promises Israel made.

The teachers want people to remember what it was like for their ancestors who stood on the brink of the Promised Land. It was a land rich with resources. There was plenty of food for everyone. No one was be hungry. Everyone had a roof over their families’ heads. Everyone was satisfied. It was a time to give thanks. In today’s story from Deuteronomy, Moses says, “After a meal, satisfied, bless God, your God, for the good land God has given you.” In a place of plenty, do not forget.

If you say a table blessing at your home, when do you do it? In our home, we say grace before the meal. Here, Moses says to give thanks after eating. Why? Because it is often easier to turn to God when we are hungry rather than after finishing an abundant meal. In many ways, we have a much greater need for a reminder about God after eating than before the meal.  In a place of plenty, do not forget.

The ancient Sages knew that life in covenant with God alters one’s heart, mind, and spirit. Let’s call it Covenantal Economics. Covenantal Economics wants us to think in terms of a neighborhood, in terms of being in solidarity with other people, sharing our resources, and living for more than just ourselves. It’s a system that contradicts the Market Ideology, which encourage self-protection and self-sufficiency at the loss of the common good.  One of the most dangerous times for us to ignore our covenants is when we live in times of plenty. Do you know what makes it worse? When we live in times of plenty and privilege and feel like we are the have-nots; when we have so much, but feel upset because we don’t have so much more; when we see what others have and fail to be grateful because we envy them. In a place of plenty, do not forget.

Covenantal Economics provides a vantage point for critiquing every system of this world that falls short of what God intends. God stands in judgment of human impoverishment, excessive accumulation and consumerism driven by greed, and gross economic exploitation. When we keep resources to ourselves, when we hoard, when we take at the expense of another’s survival, we keep from God. And what we give to the least of those among us, we give to God.

I get restless when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world.  As people of faith, we realize that what human beings want is not necessarily what they need for the sake of life.

Covenant Economics acknowledges that what is in our interest must be placed in the context of what is good for our neighbor.

Covenant Economics recognizes that consumerism can destroy relationships and work against the mutual support God desires among people.

Covenant Economics affirms that God promises a world where there is enough for everyone, if only we would learn how to use and share what God has given for the sake of all.

Covenant Economics is based on the idea that in plenty, we do not forget. We provide counsel, food, clothing, shelter, and money for people in need. We respect human dignity. We advocate for public and private policies that address the causes of poverty. And we support organizations that help low-income people to obtain more sufficient, sustainable livelihoods.

Self absorption can really get in the way of gratitude. When we fill our emptiness and loneliness by consuming more, we can become preoccupied with meeting our personal needs. When people feel grateful, they begin to focus at least some of their attention on the needs of other people.

I think about this when it comes to our life together at CCC. As some of you know, we are in a period of financial concern. Our income is down. We have run deficit budgets for years, and it’s caught up to us. Our Trustees have asked Boards to cut their spending, which also affects our mission giving to the UCC. I am glad the Trustees take our budget seriously, and I really appreciate their prayerful work. They are being good Trustees.  And I want to remind us, we are also a rich church. I was at the Potomac Association Fall meeting yesterday and I saw the annual budgets and giving levels of all of the UCC churches in the D.C. Metro area. Let me just say, 4/5 of those churches would love to have our budget. There are faithful congregations doing God’s work with a lot, lot less than what we have. CCC has a robust budget, sound investments, a great building, generous givers, dedicated volunteers, a loving community, and a committed staff of ministers and professionals. Thank God! Praise God! In a place of plenty, do not forget!

We have so much to be grateful for. Gratitude is a response to joy. We have a God who loves us enough to send us a Savior. We are nurtured by God and given a place in God’s family. We give thanks because no purchase from an infomercial will ever be as good as what God has already given.

If you don’t know how to be grateful, here are a few ideas: Give thanks for your parents – for giving birth to you, because if there is no them, there would not be you. Give thanks for your family, your friends, and your companions in this life. Give thanks when you are able to see the colors of life, for each time you can hear the trickle of rain, for the voices of your loved ones, for the harmonious chords of music. Give thanks each time you can feel the texture of your clothes, the breeze of the wind, and the hands of your loved ones. Give thanks when you smell scented candles and beautiful flowers in your garden. Give thanks when you can savor the sweetness of fruits, the saltiness of seawater, the bitterness of a lemon, or the spiciness of chili. Give thanks for your heart that pumps blood to all the parts of your body every second since you were born. Give thanks for the ability to think, to store memories, and to create new solutions. Give thanks for the teachers in your life who passed down knowledge and wisdom to you. Give thanks for the tears that help express your deepest emotions. Give thanks for the disappointment that help you know the things that matter to you most. Give thanks for your fears that expose opportunities for growth. Give thanks for certain pains that help you become stronger. Give thanks for sadness that helps you appreciate the spectrum of human emotions. Give thanks for happiness when you can soak in the beauty of life. Give thanks for the sunrise. Give thanks for rain that waters and nurtures the earth. Give thanks for pets who love us unconditionally. Give thanks for the Internet – for connecting you and others despite the physical space between you. Give thanks for D.C. traffic, because you still have an easy commute compared to others in our world. Give thanks for mobile phones, and computers, and blogs, and iTunes.  Give thanks for your home, and your bed, and your soul mate who understands everything you are going through right now. Give thanks for your best friends for being there whenever you need them, and your enemies for helping you uncover your growing edges so you can become a better person. Give thanks for your mistakes, and your heartbreaks, for your laughter and for love, for life’s challenges, and for life itself – for giving you the chance to experience all that you’re experiencing, and will be experiencing in times to come.

And last but not least don’t forget to give thanks for the most important thing.

Give thanks for … you.

Give thanks because God loves you with an everlasting love and promises to never leave you and never forsake you.

Give thanks because absolutely nothing, not even death itself, can keep you from the love of God.

Give thanks.

In a place of plenty, do not forget.

The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Volume 1, by Walter Brueggemann, p. 322.
Deuteronomy by Deanna Thompson.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sermon for October 11, 2015

Let’s Review
I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a house of slaves.

No other gods, only me.

No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God. I hold parents responsible for any sins they pass on to their children to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation. But I’m lovingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments.

No using the name of God, your God, in curses or silly banter; God won’t put up with the irreverent use of his name.

No working on the Sabbath; keep it holy just as God, your God, commanded you. Work six days, doing everything you have to do, but the seventh day is a Sabbath, a Rest Day—no work: not you, your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey (or any of your animals), and not even the foreigner visiting your town. That way your servants and maids will get the same rest as you. Don’t ever forget that you were slaves in Egypt and God, your God, got you out of there in a powerful show of strength. That’s why God, your God, commands you to observe the day of Sabbath rest.

Respect your father and mother—God, your God, commands it! You’ll have a long life; the land that God is giving you will treat you well.

No murder.

No adultery.

No stealing.

No lies about your neighbor.

No coveting your neighbor’s wife. And no lusting for his house, field, servant, maid, ox, or donkey either—nothing that belongs to your neighbor! ~ Deuteronomy 5:6-21
Judge Roy Moore is often known as the “10 Commandments Judge.” He’s become known as a devout Christian who relies on biblical scripture in his rulings. Judge Moore began his judicial career as an Alabama circuit court judge in the 1990s. He placed a hand-carved tablet of the 10 Commandments behind his courtroom bench and began jury selection with prayer. Soon enough, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Moore for violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In 1996, an Alabama circuit judge ruled that prayer in the courtroom was unconstitutional and later ordered that the 10 Commandments display either be removed or placed alongside secular documents like the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Moore responded, saying: “I will not surround the 10 Commandments with other items to secularize them. That’s putting man above God.” Moore eventually won out. In 1998, the Alabama Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuits, and the commandments stayed. Judge Moore’s popularity, thanks to his defiance, skyrocketed. Two years later, he was elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Moore resurrected the debate when he commissioned a 5,200-lb. granite 10 Commandments monument and placed it inside the Alabama State Judicial Building. By August 2003, a federal judge ordered the monument removed. Again, Moore refused, forcing his fellow justices to remove it instead and sparking thousands of protesters to rally in support of Moore outside the state judicial building. But they weren’t able to save his job. Later that year, a state judicial panel removed Moore from his post as chief justice. In 2012, Moore won election back to the office of Alabama Chief Justice.

In the latest round of debate over the 10 Commandments, just last week, a granite monument of the 10 Commandments installed on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds was removed and transported to a private conservative think tank for storage. The Oklahoma Supreme ruled that the display violates a state constitutional prohibition on the use of public property to support, "any sect, church, denomination or system of religion." In other cases, the City of Bloomfield, NM has been ordered to remove a 10 Commandments statue in front of City Hall. Meanwhile, a circuit court agreed that a 10 Commandments monument on the Civic Plaza in Fargo, ND could remain.

Some would think that 10 Commandments would not create such a storm. Telling people not to kill and steal seems like a moral code that almost all civilized people can embrace. To some, the 10 Commandments seem to be as much a part of America as baseball and apple pie. Disputes over the 10 Commandments are nothing new. Today, the challenges to posting them government facilities and public schools focus on the church-state issue. However, our Christian and Jewish family trees had their own challenges with the 10 Commandments over many hundreds of years. In the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the 10 Commandments were always proclaimed in worship. However, outside the Temple, the recitation was banned. Some ancient Rabbis taught that too much emphasis on just 10 statements might lead people to believe that these were the only commandments, or the most important commandments of the 613 commandments that were given to Moses. Christians debate their use in worship, too. The Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin both insisted on the public reading of the 10 Commandments. They thought that keeping God’s commandments showed gratitude for our salvation. Other Christians claim there’s no need for the commandments anymore, because if we are in Christ we have a new law to follow.

Let’s think about the 10 Commandments as Ancient Israel’s mission statement. God and Moses both knew that the people of Israel needed a document pointed them toward their destiny. It had to be a statement broad enough to encompass a variety of interpretations, yet compelling enough to be shared by everyone. The 10 Commandments formed the Israelite people into a unified nation with a shared purpose.

I’ve been reminding us, as we work our way through the book of Deuteronomy, that it wasn’t actually written by Moses. Let’s say somewhere between 800 to 500 BC,  many centuries after the death of Moses, a group of wise teachers face a fractured political system in which the rich get wealthy at the expense of the poor, worship of God has been forgotten, and Israel is about to be evicted from the Promised Land.  The wise teachers begin to write a sweeping history of Israel, calling on a fractured nation to remember their history, to remember the promises of God, and to remember what God has done for them. The writers are saying, “Like Israel of old, disobedience to God will bring calamity. The only way to find renewal is through the commandment.” In other words, they remind the people of their mission, their covenant, their reason for existence.

Having a shared purpose defines community. In today’s reading, Moses reminds generations of Israelites, bonded together over centuries, of their shared mission: to learn and to do God’s will. As they stand on the brink of the Promised Land, they need to be review of their shared purpose so that they become one nation.

In Hebrew, the 10 commandments are not actually called commandments at all. They are called the 10 Sayings, the 10 Statements, the 10 Words, even the 10 Things, but not the 10 Commandments. I like that. What if we thought of the 10 commandments more as 10 sayings? Instead of trying to get us to walk in line to receive God’s favor, what if the Sayings are really teaching people how to live in covenantal relationship with God and community? What if, instead of prohibitions, these 10 Words convey positive aspirations about how to respect one another deeply? What if instead of laws of the court, they become laws of the heart, intended to lead to fullness of life and freedom within the bounds of faithfulness to a liberating God?

I agree with Luther and Calvin on this point: simply obeying commandments will not save you or make God love you more. God already loves you. But what impoverished people we would be if we never took the opportunities to behave in ways which are intended to please our beloved. The enjoyment of our relationships would be tragically weakened if we had no idea how to express your love in return. And for that, these 10 Words are a precious and positive gift. Israel sustains one side of the covenant by loving God and by not putting any other value in place of God.

It takes a lot of trust, doesn’t it? The fundamental condition that Israel had to meet in order to enjoy God's blessing was trust in God’s best intentions for the people. The only way to receive forgiveness is by trusting the forgiver. And the only way to benefit from the promises is to trust the promiser.

The act of placing trust in someone or something else is a basic human experience. Without trust, fear rules. Every day we make choices about whom and how much to trust, and sometimes we are more willing to trust than at other times. That’s a good thing; a total lack of mistrust would indicate a serious psychological problem. Judgments about when and whom to trust help keep us safe and alive!

During the 1930s, 250 men were holding the ropes to a dirigible (an airship similar to a blimp) to keep it from floating away. Suddenly a gust of wind caught one end of the dirigible, lifting it high off the ground. Some of the men immediately let go of their ropes and fell safely to the ground. Others panicked, clinging firmly to the end of their ropes as the nose of the dirigible rose to greater heights. Several men who couldn’t keep holding on fell and were seriously injured. One man, however, continued to dangle high in the air for forty-five minutes until he was rescued. Reporters later asked him how he was able to hold on to the rope for so long.  “I didn’t hold on to the rope,” he replied. “I just tied it around my waist, and the rope held on to me.”

Some people think that commandments tie them down or put them in a bind. But, what if the ropes of God’s Words are there to hold on to us when life is tough, and dangerous, and scary? Trust means seeing, and hearing, and feeling sure signs of God’s presence during life’s pain.

What would it means for Christ Congregational Church to cultivate a place of trust in a perilous world?

What would it mean for us to encourage a place of faith where we are reminded that God can be trusted?

What would it mean for us to foster a place of refuge where we feel safe with each other?

What would it mean for us to support an open place where we freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength?

What would it mean for us to sustain a forbearing place where we recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys?

What would it mean for us to nurture a responsible place where we hold one another accountable for our individual acts while we promote justice, inclusion and peace as a community?

What would it mean for us to provide an honest place where we deal with disagreements constructively, and communicate with others in direct, caring, supportive, and responsible ways?

What would it mean for us to continue on as an inspiring place where the quality of our worship and the deepness of our caring renew our trust?

At CCC, we’ve been talking about reconciliation over the past few months.  Our Congregational Support Team reminded us that there are times when we all fail one another, often unintentionally. We all have shortcomings and failures, and nowhere is that more apparent than when we disappoint each other in our church home. Each and every one of us is called to repentance and forgiveness – to support each other with open minds and loving hearts.

Churches use the reconciliation a lot. I don’t think you can have reconciliation without two ingredients: covenant and trust. First, the community has to establish some new norms. Like Moses and the people of Israel on the brink of the promise, we review the covenant expectations that brought it together in the first place. After times of conflict, sometimes we move to quickly to the forgive-and-make-up phase, but we skip a step. As a conflict ends, we need structures in place that can help those who feel wounded to deal with the new realities of living together. We rehearse and review our covenant all the time. It helps remind us of the values and visions that nurture our community and form our identity.

We also learn to trust those structures. Good structures are like the rope on that blimp – they hold us safely when we need help. We need to live with our structures for a while, we talk about how they are working for us, and we make sure they are not oppressive or manipulative. We learn to trust the good intentions of others. We remember that most people want peace and forgiveness. We trust that life together in God can give us a sense of newness, a strengthened mission, and the assurance that we can heal together.

In this spirit, we are trying something new here at CCC.  All church-sponsored events that happen off site will have an opportunity to rehearse our covenant together. At each event, like Beach Weekend, or the Homecoming Day at the Retreat House, we are carving out intentional time to review who we are and who God calls us to be. We remind ourselves that we are all valuable, worthy, loveable people. We remind ourselves that our love and care for one another is made known in how we treat each other. We remind ourselves that we are committed to following community rules in order to make a safe, nurturing space for people of all races, colors, ages, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities. We review the values and visions that nurture the community and give it identity. And we commit to holding each other accountable. It’s OK to let people know when we are not meeting the expectations we agreed to. It’s OK to have conversations about how we can propel each other to behave better. It’s hard, but it’s OK.

I believe this is our time. It is time for us at CCC to reclaim our place as the church known for its compassionate, prayerful response to the world around us. It’s time to move forward with trust and faithfulness, humility and hope, engaging in the urgent tasks of support and transformation, both within our own lives and in the life of our congregation. It’s time to review the covenant the brought us together and, again, be pointed towards our destiny.


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 ...