Thursday, December 8, 2016

Sermon for December 5, 216 | Advent 2

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him-
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord-
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of
the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
Isaiah 11:1-10

Isaiah’s people know what it means to be hunted. Ruthless and territory-famished Assyrian invaders have Israel in their sights, and nothing can stop their attack. A century later, the Babylonians will pounce with the same hunger. A prophet named Jeremiah will see the circling armies and write:
Israel is a scattered flock,
hunted down by lions.
The king of Assyria started the carnage.
The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar,
has completed the job,
gnawing the bones clean.
v. 50:17
Predators and prey. Isaiah has this in mind, too – not just the food chain, but the web of human relationships. Before the nations unleashed their viciousness on Israel, predators were already at work on the inside. Isaiah pictures God looking at the nation of Israel and hears God say:
Your leaders are rebels,
the companions of thieves.
All of them love bribes
and demand payoffs,
but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans
or fight for the rights of widows.
v. 1:23

Predators devour prey. The powerful turn their backs on cries for fairness or compassion. Anyone who is vulnerable can be exploited. The frail are fair game. The defenseless are doomed.
Predators and prey. They are all around us. Think about predators in human relationships. In our myths and stories, the predator is an opportunist. I think about the wolf in the Red Riding Hood story. Usually a male, but not always, the predator watches women and he waits. He sees women not as complete human beings, but as human-objects, as trophies, as a vehicle to boost his own sense of self. Biologists tell us that intelligent predators will hunt for fun, even if they aren't hungry. A predator wants you to think that a wolf who wants to give you directions to grandma’s house is normal, and he sounds believable even though everyone has said that wolf is devious and dangerous. The predator wants you to see the grass and the trees, but not the monster that's looking back at you. If you need a friend, he's a friend. If you need a shoulder, she's got two. If you need money, he'll go borrow it from somebody so he can give it to you. If you want a brute he'll be a brute. If you want a gentleman, he'll be that too. But don't ignore the fact that a predator always has intentions for you. He’ll set the stage just right and set you up for him to make his move. And once he gets what he wants, he will hate you.
When will we get it through our heads that everybody smiling at us does not love us?

Predator and prey. We sure got a lesson on it during the election cycle. In chilling and angry style, we heard the case that America is on the verge of catastrophe and dissolution. We heard about a country where crime is wildly out of control, mobs rule the street, and America is the laughing stock of the world. But, fear not, someone was coming to take care of us. Someone with plans. A tough-talking billionaire entrepreneur, flying around the country in a fleet of loudly branded jets and helicopters suggested that experience intellectual expertise are a detriment to governing. Our voting system validated someone who sold us a savior of a sad state, the lustrous leader of a lurching and crumbling country -- a deeply-flawed and outrageous hero who must always remind us that we love him.
Isaiah watched his nation crumble, but the disaster was not one that could be fixed by ultimate power. Israel was failing God because the powerful were not living up to their responsibilities to the poor, weak, marginalized, and fearful residents. Isaiah succinctly states God’s aims for Israel:
Do good.
Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
Defend the cause of orphans.
Fight for the rights of widows.
v. 1:17

We do not need messianic heroes of any party or ideology to invent problems and then fix them for us. When we extend ourselves to others in love, when we give aid to those who cannot easily aid themselves, when we open the borders of our hearts who seek to live in our safety, that’s when we shine.

Lest this sermon become another rant about the election, I need to remind us that predator and prey are not just out there around us. The wolf and the lamb, the cobra and the little child live within us. You and I each have some measure of both, triggered by fear. The ecology of fear has deep roots. Sometimes fear makes us aggressive. If we are afraid that our hungers will not be fed, we might seek to dominate and manipulate others. Sometimes fear takes the reigns of our personality, preying on the weaknesses of other people.

Sometimes fear makes us the prey seduces us into a false sense of security, letting us stray into perilous situations. Or, it makes us vigilant to the point of paranoia. If you want to escape from a scary creatures with sharp teeth and claws, then your survival depends on being in a constant state of alert. All your time can spent with your head up, on alert for threats. If you are spending all your time waiting for predators to pounce, then what are you not doing? You are not looking for food. You are not nurturing the young. You are always stressed, always defensive, always waiting for an attack.
Let me be clear. This is not an either/or situation. Both the lion and the lamb live in us. We don’t choose one or the other. Our spiritual growth depends on our awareness of both impulses. Stalk yourself. Discover what you have been hiding from yourself. Let Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom begin in your own soul. Let your inner wolf live with the inner lamb. Let your inner child play near the nest of your inner viper. What might happen when you imagine an inner world where neither are harmed or destroyed, where the ecology of fear is filled with the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea?

Isaiah offers an invitation to dream of a world where predator and prey is no longer the defining relationship of our time. A time when the governments of our outer worlds and our inner worlds, become the banners of liberation and hope. We defy the power of the predator by confronting it with the truth of what it’s done and what it’s taken. We hold the predator accountable. We refuse to play its game. We achieve liberation not by taking revenge, but by taking back the freedom that the predator holds hostage.

A peaceable kingdom. I guess that’s what Advent is all about – not predator or prey, but peace. We look for peace; we watch for peace; we wait for peace; we prepare for peace we remind each other of peace; we train our imagination to dwell in peace.

A peaceable kingdom – that’s also what our communion table is about. When learned how to set a dinner table, someone taught me that when you put the knife down, you always turn the knife edge in, toward the plate. That simple action turns the knife from a weapon to a tool. It turns predator and prey into community. That simple symbolic action creates a table of peace.
Whether you are hunted or haunted, or feeling the need to lash out, or feeling afraid, you are welcome here. Be fed with fairness, and drink in hope. At this Table:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them…
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy…

At this Table, we watch, we wait, and we work for peace.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Sermon for November 27, 2016 | Advent 1

The Unexpected Hour

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. Matthew 24:36-44
When I was growing up in the 1970's and 80's, I was sure I was going to die a slow death from the fallout of a nuclear war. There were two superpowers: the Soviet Union and the United States. Both had nuclear weapons. Each nation held back from launching a nuclear holocaust because of the certain knowledge that the other superpower would launch its warheads in retaliation . . . but we feared that such restraint could not last forever. By mistake or intention, a foreign government would launch its weapons, we would strike back, and the world would end -- fire, followed by ice and the likely extinction of life on earth. My friends and I asked ourselves whether it would be better to try to survive a nuclear blast, or just be at ground zero during the attack. We decided it would be better to be near the blast, so we wouldn’t live to see the aftermath. Anxiety over the end of the world provided the backdrop to much of my childhood and adolescence.

In my college years, my fears of the end of the world paired with a fervent, Evangelical Christianity, which taught Jesus was coming again, and very soon. The narrative was fairly straightforward: We live in the End Times. Soon, on a day when the world situation is so terrible it will explode at any moment, Jesus will appear in the sky, visible only to true-believing Christians who, in an instant, will get beamed up to be with him. If you are not a true-believing Christian, you will get left behind to watch the world disintegrate. After seven years of Tribulation, with earthquakes, plagues, famines, wars and the rise of a charismatic, power-happy, and murderous Antichrist, Christ will return a second time, defeat the Antichrist, and reign over the earth for 1,000 years.

Between my fear of nuclear annihilation, and the extreme Christianity that formed my worldview, I really freaked out when I read a book that predicted the actual date of Jesus’ return. It didn't matter that people had been predicting this date, incorrectly, for centuries. This book was called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is Coming in 1988, and it literally scared me like no tomorrow. I was 17 years old, in my first week at a small Christian college. Many students were talking about this book, which presented clear evidence that Jesus would return in October of 1988. The book sold 300,000 copies when it came out. The Trinity Broadcast Network took the author so seriously, the cable channel interrupted its regular programming to give viewers instructions on how to survive the coming tribulations. For whatever reason, I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the end times. If the book was correct, I only had a month to get my act together before the return of Jesus. And even if I was faithful enough, I was worried about friends and family whom I thought were not following God and would spend eternity treading lava in the lake of fire mentioned in the Bible. Of course, 1988 came and went with no end times. Another Doomsday of Yesteryear for the history books. However, all these years later, I still get cold sweats when someone predicts a new deadline for the return of Christ.

What about you? What worries overwhelm you? Do you ever feel lost in a past that haunts your life; lost in the present concerns that this moment brings when we are struggling to live one day at a time – when we are trying to be all things to all people; lost in worries of a future over which we have no control? Do you ever get that gut-tightening sense of anxiety when you watch the news or read the paper and realize that senseless horrors continue in our world, in our nation – even in our own backyards; that crime, and starvation, and terrorism, and war, and natural disasters abound and seem to be increasing? Has your life ever been taken over by one worry or another so that you can’t appreciate the wonderful things happening around you?

I know myself well enough to be aware when I’m 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? What floods you with worry and causes your stomach to twist in knots and your mind to lose perspective on the big picture?

The audience of Matthew’s Gospel had some similar struggles. When The Gospel according to Matthew was written, around 80 CE, the situation was dire. Christianity was small and fragile. There were just a few thousand Jewish citizens who identified themselves as followers of Jesus. They were overwhelmed. On one side, the Roman Government oppressed them. On the other side, the Jewish majority no longer wanted anything to do with them. On top of that, most people live in poverty under the domination of Rome, who had recently devastated the country during the Roman-Jewish War and destroyed the Temple.  People knew all about upheaval. They lived it every day.  It must have brought Jesus believers some hope to think that he would return soon, vanquish oppressors, and rescue the suffering faithful.

I think his followers began to lose heart as decades rolled by without the promised return of Jesus. They wondered, “Will Christ ever come back and save the faithful?” Could they dare to hope for an end to injustice borne of violence? Would there ever be a renewed earth where everyone has enough, where children survive, where the oppressed are set free, and the grip of evil is finally defeated? When would the poor and needy have enough? When would those on the margins of society be cared for with dignity and respect? When would foreigners and immigrants be welcomed?

Sound familiar? Sound familiar you dreamers among us, you who can see a renewed world in your mind’s eye – a word where beauty is restored, tears wiped away, and thirst satisfied at the waters of life? Sound familiar you prophets among us, you who demand that we build societies based on fairness and equality where people hunger no more? Sound familiar you fearless champions for peace among us, you who renounce violence with the embrace of love? Sound familiar you servants among us, you who put hands and feet to work to soothe and heal the pain of injustice? Sound familiar, you who are tired and weary and worn – you who are sucked down in a quicksand-world where the rich get richer, the middle class gets poorer and the poorest among us are forgotten? We are deluged with dire predictions, our imaginations stoked with images of disaster, and our minds inundated with this-or-that appeal to save ourselves from this-or-that catastrophe. We live daily in situations of "quiet apocalypse"--domestic violence, job loss, disease, addictions.  The unravelling of the world spoken about in apocalyptic texts matches the unravelling that people feel in their own lives. 

Before these predictions of the end times, Jesus tells a story – we call it the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is a description of two worlds. Jesus says, "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him … he will gather all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep represent a world order where the hungry are fed and those who fed them are happy. There is clean water to drink, strangers are welcomed instead of mistrusted, people share clothing so all can be warm, and prisoners treated as human beings instead of commodities. Those who work for a more compassionate, humane world are ushered into an era of peace. Then there are the goats – those who fail to address the real needs of the least fortunate -- those who buy into the "rich get richer and the poor get poorer" system of the ruthless present order. Rome perfected the technique of using violence to accomplish peace. Violence is redemptive, the citizens were told. Violence saves. The goats are left in the darkness in which they left others.

Jesus puts a choice out there for those who call themselves believers: Follow Caesar, who conquers others and forces them to behave through brutal military and political power, or follow Jesus who invites believers to forge a better world through loving acts of compassion and generosity.

First Jesus asks people to choose. Only then does he talk about what it will be like when he returns like a thief in the night. In God’s new order, the ruthless masters do NOT get the last word; love gets the last word.

I choose the Jesus way. But honestly, it’s easy for me. 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 resources 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 affirm Jesus is coming, it means Jesus is coming to be with those who need to know that their lives can be better.

Jesus comes to march with Black Lives Matter protesters who refuse to watch their sons being killed for the crime of being African American.

Jesus comes to walk alongside 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 comes to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, and go behind bars with prisoners who serve decades of jail sentences for petty crimes in a for-profit prison system that treats human beings like capital.

Actually, Jesus is not 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 a new world –anyone who works of compassionate justice to make our communities healthier.

Can peace really come to the earth? Can Jesus Christ come 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 comes to us, and Christ works 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. We stand together, blessed and broken, working hard and partnering with God to be shepherds of peace. You dreamers and prophets, you servants and peacemakers, you wounded healers, go now, dry the tears and nourish the bodies of those who live in this beautiful, terrible, wonderful world.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Sermon for November 20, 2016

Cardio Conditioning

Now you can have sincere love for each other as brothers and sisters because you were cleansed from your sins when you accepted the truth of the Good News. So see to it that you really do love each other intensely with all your hearts. 1 Peter 1:22, NLT
Tom was the general manager of a propeller repair shop in South Boston. The building smelled like hot metal and grease. Tom was smeared in dirt. His face was ragged. An inch of ashes clung impossibly to a cigarette that seemed permanently attached to the corner of his mouth. “What do you want?” He growled. “I’m here to apply for the job.” He looked me up and down, and walked away, shaking his head as if in disgust. The shop owner came out with desperate apologies. I wanted to run away at that moment, but we needed the money. So I took the job. The months ahead proved Tom to be the angriest, most foul-mouthed, insulting person I ever met. I was put in charge of grinding the welds of off newly-repaired inboard propellers. Mind you, I never touched a power tool in my life, and I was being trained to make $500.00 propellers look like new. Tom was always looking over my shoulder. My successes were not celebrated, but every failure, and there were many, was talked about for days. “How could you be so stupid? Were you born screwing things up or is it an acquired ability? Give me that grinder you moron and watch me do it again.” I spent hours looking over his shoulder in utter boredom, wondering when he would strike next. I found little consolation in the fact that he treated everyone this way. Every time Tom opened his mouth, I stood frozen like a mouse hoping to be invisible to a prowling cat. Except for one thing: I smiled. Tom would get ready for another verbal volley, and I would look him in the eyes and grin, letting his words burst upon me. I would return home at the end of the day demoralized, smeared with shaft grease and bronze dust and adding a few new phrases to my lexicon of “Profanities I Hope Never to Hear Again.”

And it wasn’t just that Tom was the meanest person I had ever met. He was sad. Empty. And his sadness was infectious. Those early days at the propeller shop broke me down.

We all know people who are, ummm … challenging. It could be a critical parent, a bossy supervisor, a relative who has you walking on eggshells, a nice-but-flaky friend, a co-worker who just doesn’t like you, a partner who won’t keep his or her agreements, or a politician you dislike. This past week, I’ve being challenged by people in Silver Spring and beyond who are committing horrible acts of hatred. I’m also upset by what’s inside of me -- my anxiety and fear, my reactivity, my willingness to label people as adversaries.

Let me share with you what happens in me during times of high stress. I get angry and I become a fixer. When I see acts of racism, sexism, homophobia and religious hatred, I’m tempted to the feel as if God has fallen asleep on the job. If no supernatural help is coming, then I’ll make it better myself. I’ll try desperately to change people and situations over which I have no control. We know how that goes, right? Anytime we try to control or persuade indifferent people, we end up failing. The more we struggle against unmanageable circumstances, the further we are from the peace we seek.

I had a great conversation with one of our church members that put me back on track -- a reminder of how much my own hurts and disappointments come from my reactions to the people in my life. She helped me remember that the past is gone and the future is not set, and we only have this moment, which always offers a gift.

I want to take a step back today and rethink our new national landscape. How can we open our hearts during these strange and anxious times? When the Bible talks about the heart, it’s often used as a symbol. We tend to think of the heart as the home base of love, but in the Bible, the heart refers to our emotions, thoughts, or will. The heart is the seat of moral responsibility. If we are not careful our heart, our emotions and will, can get sick. Think of it like spiritual heart disease. Sometimes our hearts close off to others and to God. The heart can become polluted. We talk about broken hearts, fearful hearts, and angry hearts. The most common spiritual heart disease is a hard heart. Like a stone, a hard heart is dead. You can find no feeling in it. There is no consciousness in it. The problem with a hard, stony heart is that the condition can lead to a sense of brokenness and despair. A hard hard can mask itself in hatred.

People will hold on to negative emotions like hatred for such a long time. We don’t want to deal with our pain. We will hold on to hatred so that we don’t have to deal with the real pain that caused the hatred to come out.

Some of us have the habit of setting up a stone-cold barrier between ourselves and those who cause us pain. What if the people and situations on the other side do not need to be avoided or removed?  The further we push them away the more power we give them.  Our cold hearted habit may  have helped us persevere in difficult times. The more we become aware when we are closing off, the more we can practice a more heart-healthy cardio routine. At these times, I imagine God singing to me like Hank Williams Sr.:
“You’ll never know how much it hurts to see you sad and cry.
You know you need and want my love, yet you’re afraid to try.
Why do you run and hide from life, to try it just ain’t smart.
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart.”
God wants to open our hearts and awaken us to the reality of other beating hearts around us – hearts that suffer pain, just like mine; hearts who want to be happy, just like mine; hearts that want peace, just like mine; hearts that want friendship, just like mine. We tend to our hearts by opening them to others -- especially those with whom we disagree. We could call it open-heartedness, or whole-heartedness.

I don’t know if you have heard of Brene Brown. If you haven’t, you need to. Brene Brown teaches social work at the University of Houston. She began her research trying to understand what makes certain people more resilient, a quality she calls “whole-heartedness.” She concluded that what blocks whole-heartedness is shame. Shame, at its heart, is a fear that if you know the truth about me, you will reject me. Shame whispers “You are not good enough.” So we hide who we really are.

Our new cardio conditioning begins when we learn to embrace vulnerability.  It takes a lot of courage. Specifically, courage to be imperfect. Whole-hearted people believe we are more beautiful for being broken. They are kind to themselves, because they knew that we can’t be compassionate to others if we can’t treat ourselves with compassion. They are willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they are. In their vulnerability, they are willing to do things where there are no guaranteed positive outcomes. They were willing to invest in relationships that may not work out. Whole-hearted people have a strong sense of love and belonging. Brene Brown found the one variable that separated people who have a strong sense of love and belonging from people who struggle for it, was that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.

Brown says the challenge is we cannot selectively numb emotions. Here are her words: “We cannot say, ‘Here’s the bad stuff. Here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. I don’t want to feel these.’ You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning. And then we feel vulnerable so we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.” When we numb ourselves to our vulnerability, when we numb ourselves to grief, and shame, and disappointment, we also numb ourselves to joy, and gratitude, and happiness.

There are other ways that we numb ourselves besides our addictive behaviors. We can numb ourselves by believing everything that is uncertain is certain: “I’m right, you’re wrong, shut up.” That’s part of the cycle of fear and shame and vulnerability. It begins with fear. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, and then the more afraid we are. It’s not just true in our personal relationships.  It’s true in the church. It’s true in our politics. I wonder if a lot of what is going on right now in our national political landscape is a struggle between power, vulnerability, and fear.

What might happen if we at CCC commit ourselves to whole-heartedness? We might step beyond our stone-cold walls and learn the language of vulnerability. We might connect with others across differences. Connection and relationship is the nature of our universe.

The events in our community and our nation may fall outside our experience and our understanding of how things are supposed to work. It's easy to convince ourselves that these things cannot be true so we don't have to deal with them. We can ignore them to avoid discomfort. We stop listening altogether. Whole-heartedness does the opposite. If we really want to address the pain in our community, we have to accept there are some uncomfortable truths out there. If we are going to make things better, we need to listen to these truths and accept the reality that the world if often different than we like it to be. They occur within a system of conditions and causes that can be changed. As we join together with a diverse community of people who are working actively to make the world a better place.

The antidote to numb, stony hearts is warm connection with other people. Let our open hearts notice all the ways that we build walls of hate, or arrogance, or envy within ourselves.

Let our open hearts create something new -- something made with honesty, humility, acceptance, forgiveness, self-responsibility, compassion, understanding, co-operation, service, and patience.

Let the power of our open hearts open other hearts that are afraid of losing something.

Let us be open to a more peaceful and enjoyable way to be.

Let us come together as a whole broken-hearted nation to create connections. Let us dance those connections – and sing those connections – and pray those connections – and march those connections – and legislate those connections.  Let us speak those connections – and teach those connections – and write those connections – and paint those connections – and yes, let us fund those connections!

Let us notice and admire the beauty of those connections in each other as we express them and lift each other up.

I have a postscript to the boat propeller repair shop story. Tom and I became friends. All I can say is I never followed through on my revenge fantasies. I just kept smiling that silly smile of mine. Every morning I would go to work and say, “Hi, how are ya’?” After a year or so, Tom’s defenses began to fall. He even began to smile back as he called me a moron.

One could say that to live a life of faithfulness to Christ is to experience the hurt and pain of our connections; to lament in grief and sorrow over the world’s sad state of affairs. Out of that vulnerability comes an openness to building others up. When we see a world that rejects and denies the power of love, we can be living reminders of what it looks like to believe we are worthy. Do you know whom God loves? The rejected and despised, the prejudiced and those who challenge our prejudices, the disappointed, the insecure and the lonely, the violent and the hate-filled people of the world. Do you know whom God loves? Us – every one of us. We all belong to God. We find ways to encourage and build others up because God’s love never gives up. Not on you. Not on anybody

So, here’s the new cardio plan for an open heart: smile upon others, and encourage others, and love the person who is a pain in the neck. Remember that the people who are causing pain and destruction might be wounded at their very core. You never know. Your smile, your kind words, your acts of compassionate justice, might bring some healing. And you might find that as you show compassion, even as you seek to confront the world’s evils and right the world’s wrongs, your heart will remember that all are worthy. All are worthy.

Sermon for November 13, 2016

Sometimes I wonder what God is up to.

Leading up to the general election on Nov. 8, I heard people calling it the “hate election” because so many voters claimed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election because of the hatefulness of the electorate. Now, in less than a week, many of us are bracing ourselves for violence and anger. We are already seeing public racism, sexism, suspicion of immigrants, and the targeting of Muslims. We are experiencing the As columnist Neal Gabler wrote, we are bracing ourselves for, “the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.”

Five and half years ago, when my family and I moved to Montgomery County, we were so impressed with the diversity and inclusion we saw. I remember when I was being interviewed to be your Sr, Minister. We were sitting by the fountain in downtown Silver Spring on a sunny October morning, watching diverse people of all ages, races, cultures, and physical abilities interacting with each other. Smiling. Playing. Helping each other out. It seemed so unreal to us, we jokingly accused the search committee of staging the whole event. Since then, we have seen it to be mostly true. Our strength as a community is in our diversity, and I am blessed to stand here each week to rehearse and remind us that we, as a faith community, welcome people of all races, cultures, ages, abilities, and sexual orientations.

This week I saw another side of our community, and in our country. It was there the whole time. Just under the surface. It took some scratching to find it. And it turns out, we did not have to scratch too deeply. In this past week, I heard about swastikas being drawn on the walls of a county Middle School. Right before the election, I heard another report that swastikas were burned into a football field in Potomac. In a third story, just before the election another Middle School had swastikas painted on a banner.

I’m told that the number of calls to suicide hot lines from gay and trans youth is up. By Thursday afternoon, one San Francisco hotline received 542 calls. Only 187 of those calls could be answered due to the volume and lack of staff. Trans people are worried about discrimination and violence, not being able to change identity documents to reflect their gender, and concerns about affordable health care under a new administration. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw two-and-a-half times as many calls from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, when the outcome of the presidential election seemed clear.

I'm hearing reports such as: a Muslim woman on the street had her hijab ripped off, and was told to strangle herself with it; dozens of boys reportedly grabbed girls' between the legs at schools, saying, "If the President can do it, so can I;" students and adults, in many different parts of the country, yelled at Latinos to "go home to Mexico, we're getting that wall now."

I read a story from a network of adoptive parents, someone Chris Braddock is connected with. This comes from a mother, who is white, with a Black child. The mother wrote, “I picked [my child] up from school early her asthma was acting up. We were at a stop light when we saw many officers chasing a man with their guns/tasers drawn. It was surreal. Cars stopped everywhere. I pulled through a gas station to get around the stopped traffic. There was a man standing outside his car watching. About 70 maybe. Nice car, dressed well. I rolled down my window and said sir do you know what happened? He said, ‘Well the cops were chasing some N*****." I saw red. [My child] is in the back seat. I yelled, ‘Excuse me!!! My black child is sitting in the back and that is not ok. AT ALL.’ He said, ‘Well you asked what happened.’ I started to drive off as [my child] burst into tears in the back. I stopped, held her hand and circled around to his car. I rolled the window down and said, ‘You look at my baby right now and apologize. You should be ashamed of yourself.’  He looked at her sobbing and said, ‘I'm sorry. I am sorry.’”The mother then wrote, “How am I going to do this? How?”

If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power?

The desecration of our Black Lives Banner is so emblematic of this behavior to me. When I was notified on Wednesday morning that the banner had been destroyed yet again, my heart sank. I hoped it was just the wind from the night before. It was definitely intentional. The word “Black” was cut out of the banner. Again. We expect the vandalism at this point. It’s not a question of whether the banner gets destroyed, but how long it stays up before someone destroys it. This time, the banner was up for about 5 or 6 weeks. For me, to see it destroyed on election night, though, was so emblematic of the lack of civility, the racism, and the anger simmering around us.

We should have known. We should have known these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. It’s too easy to fool ourselves that because we live in a place like Silver Spring, these things don’t happen. But scratch the surface, and hatred was there the whole time, just waiting for the opening to come out. The cavity and respect we thought we had is eroding. Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.
I wonder what God is up to. Are human flourishing and liberation all but impossible? Will the forces inertia and apathy prevail over our struggles for justice?

I wonder what God is up to. I don’t think God controls elections. I don’t think God ordained the current President-Elect for us.  I don’t think God validates violence. In fact, I think God is up to something else.

In the past, I;ve told people that id you want to know what God is up to, look for the places God is at work, and go there. I have believed God is working among the poor, among those who are in pain, among people who feel lost and alone, among those who have lost their voice and their power. I have told people that if we want to know God, then we need to know those who are among the least. The assumption is that if you can see Christ in the very least of these, you can better experience God.

This week I’m beginning to realize that we need to do more than that. Just seeing Christ in others still keeps us at a safe distance. We feel sympathy for the experience of those who are on the margins, but we still don’t become aware that we may have some responsibility for their marginalization. If we want to heal the expressions of hatred around us, we need to begin by holding ourselves accountable. I think the most significant healing begins with white America’s benign neglect of racial problems. White America, what, in the name of God, have we done? We spend millions on anti-poverty programs and billions on prisons. In fact, we haven’t even apologized. It’s much easier for someone to forgive you when you’ve had the courtesy to apologize, and much easier for them to get over it if you’ve had the decency to fix the problem. It’s interesting that we even use the phrase “race relations.” The relationship between blacks and whites as groups in America is dysfunctional, to say the least.  Until this is dealt with on the level of the cause and not just effects, we will continue to play out over and over again the cycle of violence at its core.

This is all to say, I’m feeling a little less proud of getting to play the role of hero and savior, and I’m spending more time recognizing the times I have played persecutor.  

I wonder what God is up to, and I hear a question back, coming from the depths of my spirit. “Are you willing to risk opening yourself up to the possibility of receiving grace and love from the very people you have marginalized?”

Let’s talk about safety pins for a moment. By fastening a safety pin to their clothing, people are declaring themselves allies to groups who have been maligned by the President-elect, to show that they stand in solidarity with anyone who might be afraid. I like the idea. A lot. So do others. I read that on Saturday, local hardware stores and several craft stores across the country began selling out of safety pin packs. And we want to hand out safety pins today for those who would like to make a statement. But these safety pins come with some warnings.

Let’s not wear safety pins if it means we get to feel good about being allies in the struggle for justice, but do absolutely nothing to help. The first thing we have to do is make it clear that racism, discrimination, and intolerance will not be tolerated. That means confronting people for behaving in ways that do harm. Wearing that safety pin means you will be asked to stand up against friends, relatives, and even strangers when you hear them saying things that denigrate others.

If you wear that safety pin, you are going to encounter some opinions that will upset you. They will come from people who have been hurt by good intentions with no action. They will be suspicious of your willingness to put ourselves on the line. If we wear that pin, then we must lean into our discomfort and resist the urge to feel offended if someone questions our motives.  If we are going to be allies, we have to recognize we are all capable of actions that marginalize others.

If we wear this pin, we signal that we are safe people and a safe church. It is a visible, tangible announcement of your commitment to defend the rights and dignity of your fellow human. By wearing the safety pin, we make a public pledge to be a walking, talking safe space for the marginalized. All of the marginalized. We don’t get to pick and choose. We can’t protect Jewish people but ignore the Muslim woman who needs help. You can’t stand for Black people who are dealing with racial slurs but ignore the disabled person who is dealing with a physical attack. This is all or nothing. If we aren’t willing or able to stand up for everyone, then let’s not wear the pin. There is no shame in not taking a safety pin.

I want to be able say to those in our community that we at CCC wear that safety pin because we are a safe place. We’ve got your back.

To the African American community who feels attacked and upset when a Black Lives Matter banner is destroyed, we’ve got your back. We are going to confront racism when we see it. We are going to dismantle racist structures. We are going to keep exploring our own complicity in racism, and work to root it out.

To our Muslim neighbors, and other non-Christians who feel unsafe right now, we’ve got your back. We will work for religious freedom and tolerance, lending our voice and position to make sure you get to enjoy the religious freedom that we do.

To women who feel denigrated and objectified, we’ve got your back. We take a stand against misogyny and rape culture, and we will do the work to dismantle organizational sexism, starting with us. We will be involved in Women’s March on Washington in January to demand womens’ safety and health in a time when our country is making sexual assault an electable and forgiveable norm.

To immigrants and dreamers who don’t know what the future holds, we’ve got your back.
I am working with someone to have CCC host a panel of immigration lawyers who will give advice to immigrants who need to know their rights, and the legal resources available to them.

To the LBGBTQ? Community, we’ve got your back. Especially to students, and to those who were coming out of the closet and feel forced back in, there are some real challenges ahead. We are here to keep advocating. We will go to pride parades and trans celebrations. But more than that, we will keep providing space where you get to worship in full community and know experience the reality that God loves you and you are created in God’s image.

That’s what God is doing – reminding us to activate. I like how Annie Dillard puts it. “There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth --- only us … unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There has never been.” Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness that sought to destroy us. They will need to know there were people in our faith communities who kept our common values alive – values like respect, love, inclusion, dignity, diversity, and compassion. They will need to know that while there was not much to hope for, that hope did not die.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon for October 16, 3016

Relinquishment: Tending Our Traumas
Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7
A little over a week ago, a video surfaced showing a candidate for President of the United States bragging about how and where he could touch women. Those of us watching the debate last Sunday night heard him dismiss his vulgar and violent behavior as locker room talk. Since then, I’ve amazed and inspired by the number of people who have come forward to talk about their own experiences of sexual assault. I’m not just talking about the women who came forward last week to talk publically about how this candidate abused them. I’m also talking about the many women, and some men, who heard these vile comments and found the quiet courage to tell their stories of rape and sexual assault; people who are releasing their shame; people asking for prayer; people who convinced themselves that it wasn’t that bad or that it could have been worse; people who have been kissed and groped in ways that have betrayed their worth and violated their wonder; people who were told it was their fault and have blamed themselves for their own sexual assault. Thankfully, a mighty chorus of faith voices, including many on the Christian Right, are reminding us all that this this candidate’s words cannot be dismissed as ordinary locker room banter. His attitude is indefensible in a country where 1 out of every 6 American women has been the object of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and about 3% of American men as well. Bragging or joking about sexual violence is offensive and unacceptable. Perpetrators of violence, whether in action or in speech, do not recognize their victims as unique and worthy of respect. With such deep disregard and dehumanization comes shame: the internal sense of being “less than human.”

Today I’m talking about how we, as people of faith, and faith communities, can respond to emotional traumas -- not just sexual violence, but all of our losses and tragedies. We all bear the pain of those traumas within us. We all have had moments when a harmful life event takes us by surprise and overwhelms our physical, emotional, and spiritual coping mechanisms. Traumatic events are like earthquakes that fracture our core beliefs, our bedrock values, and our ways of coping. The more life- and self-threatening the shockwave, the greater the likelihood of trauma for individuals as well as for families and communities.

Spiritual practices provide ways for trauma survivors to counteract life-limiting spiritual beliefs that trauma may generate or reinforce. Whether we know it or not, we all have a theology about trauma. We all have a set of values, beliefs, and practices that inform what we think about God and how God responds to our suffering. Sometimes, our beliefs, values, and practices are life-limiting because they don’t bring freedom or justice to those who suffer. Life-limiting theology uses God to blame, shame, and cut-off survivors from healing. Unfortunately, some religious beliefs and faith communities reinforce self-blame and shame. Shame is an overall feeling that one is a bad or unworthy person. Shame is one of the emotional reactions to violence that comes with the dehumanizing dynamics of violence, an experience in which a trauma survivor’s basic dignity as a human being is violated. Sometimes, religious authorities are abusers themselves. They use religion-sanctioned shame to silence those whom they have wounded and make them feel responsible for traumatic experiences. Sometimes, people who experience trauma-related faith struggles believe in and experience God as punitive and abandoning. Trauma can cause us to question God’s love and humanity’s goodness.

On the other hand, survivors of trauma may be able to practice life-giving beliefs, values, and practices that connect them with God, with goodness, and with healing support systems. Life-giving theology can decreases anxiety and depression and increases emotional and spiritual growth after a traumatic event. Life-giving theology can help care seekers resist violence and compassionately accept the traumatic aftermath of violence in whatever ways possible. Life-giving theologies believe that God holds perpetrators accountable while taking into account the ways persons and families easily become caught in systems and cultures that often condone or ignore violence. The more we can learn to integrate life-giving theologies into our everyday lives, the more we can create spiritual practices that enact compassionate justice and wholeness into our personal lives, our families, and our cultural lives.

In church, we talk about the idea of wholeness quite a bit. Wholeness refers to a sense of completeness -- not leaving anything of significance out of the picture. In faith terms, we say human beings can become what we are created to be: being made whole in the image and likeness of God. If we strive to know God and the good, and to love God and the good, and to live God’s loving will, and if we work to integrate these three human powers in our minds, hearts and behavior, then we can become whole in the image and likeness of God.

How many of us can say that we have that kind of wholeness? That sense of completeness? That kind of integration? It’s not too difficult to see that we live in fearful and painful times. And in response many become tired, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength? What will it take to survive our times? What is required of those of us who feel called to enter fully into the agony of our times to speak a word of hope?

One of the spiritual practices I want to introduce is the idea of relinquishment. The Medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by any kind of addition, but by a process of subtraction.” All great spirituality is about letting go. I am not saying just get over it. That’s just irresponsible and cruel. I’m talking about a spiritual process where we become aware of our needs, empowered for change, and able to hand over shame, blame, and life-limiting theologies. Another word for it is detachment. The monk Thomas Merton put it this way: “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are.” Spiritual relinquishment says, “I willingly yield my care about what other people might think of me. I allow myself to keep an open mind to other interpretations of my religion and my personal spirituality. I let go of my attachment to the material things that surround me—I can take these or leave them; it is all the same. I release the negative emotions that have created a comfort zone for me—they no longer serve me. I give up the need to judge others’ thoughts and beliefs.”

Relinquishment has to do with giving -- giving all your worries and cares to God because God cares about you. Relinquishment has to do with forgiveness -- deciding not to hold on to the ways that coping with trauma makes us want to hold on to our pain, get revenge, or reinforces our role as victims. Life-giving theology, and life-giving spiritual practices speak truth to power with compassion and love. They are formed not from denial and repression, but from struggle and prayer. When we forgive we don’t forget the harm someone caused. We don’t ignore the pain or say it does not matter. I’m talking about how each of us can release bitterness and hatred, how each of us can free ourselves to move on and make choices grounded in our strength rather than victimization. Forgiveness opens our closed hearts to give and receive love fully.

Let me be very clear: Relinquishment, detachment, letting go -- these are all ways to open the heart to someone who has caused you tremendous pain. This is a practice not a test. Forgiveness is not a test of your spirituality. Many people put themselves in company with family and “friends” who are profoundly painful to be with because they feel they “should.” If your heart's not ready, then pushing harder does not create more compassion. This is not like getting through a grueling Zumba class at the gym where you feel a sense of accomplishment by being able to make it through without collapsing or fleeing. The choice to exclude a person or experience from your life can be the more compassionate choice for yourself. When your heart opens to your own suffering, and your own well-being, that compassion for yourself can open wide enough to include even the one who caused you suffering. But this is something that your heart will tell you — not something that your mind can decide or force.

Let me say it again: Spirituality is not a test. If you feel toxic when you are in the company of someone who has hurt you, then you earn no points by forcing yourself to be there and enduring the pain. Deciding to not be with someone who makes you feel terrible, even if that person is your family or “friend,” is an act of courage — honoring yourself and the truth being spiritual means we stop “trying” to be a more spiritual. It’s about practicing ways to open your heart without judgment to who you are and how you are. Trust your heart; if it is ready to embrace someone who has harmed you, it will open, without force.

Jack Kornfield offers a meditation for those who seek to offer forgiveness for those who have hurt or harmed us. Recite: “There are many ways that I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word, or deed.” Let yourself picture and remember these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release this burden of pain by extending forgiveness whenever your heart is ready. Now say to yourself: “I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.” Let yourself gently repeat these directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release but only the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving-kindness.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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