Monday, July 18, 2016

Sermon for July 17, 2016

UCC Beliefs: God Is Still Speaking
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 2 Timothy 3:16 (NLT)
Do you ever wonder if God still speaks to people? I once had a friend who heard the voice of God. His name was Willie. Willie always made me a little nervous because the things God told him were not very pleasant. God told Willie a lot about judgment and death, plagues, and deadly diseases. No, Willie’s God was not a happy God, and Willie let us know it. For the most part, the messages he shared made me nervous for selfish reasons. I was afraid God was going to tell Willie some secret detail of my past, and I didn’t want to be around if the voice of God was going to embarrass me, with Willie as God’s mouthpiece. Let’s just say I haven’t always been the angel I am today.

Now, when people say God spoke to them, I wonder if they just heard what they wanted to hear, or whether those voices and visions were the product of all that spicy food the night before. We walk a fine line when trying to figure out whether God speaks. If someone claims to hear the voice of God directly, we usually consider the person to be a fanatic or demented. The other side of the line is that we want to hear from God. In our age of competing spiritualities, we want to know that the God we worship is real and involved in our lives. We desire God to communicate a message of love directly to our hearts.

T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist trained in psychology had the same questions. She wondered: How is it that otherwise rational and logical people are convinced they hear from an invisible being—in the face of profound and vast evidence to the contrary? Luhrmann took her research into the field. She attended services and various small group meetings at a local charismatic church. She interviewed worshippers, sat through prayer vigils, watched people do bizarre things in attempts to communicate with God, and walked away with a profound sense of mystery and awe in people’s experience of the divine. About a third of the people she interviewed reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring. After her experience, Luhrmann said she was impressed with the thoughtfulness with which people talked about hearing from God. They were acutely aware they might be wrong. In her research, there was a sense of discerning God's voice, which meant that people were not to take what could be hurtful to other people or to oneself as a word of God.

In the UCC, we have a slogan that sums up how we think about God’s willingness to communicate with us. We say, “God is still speaking,” Now, there’s a punctuation mark in our motto. God is still speaking {comma} … not {.} … not {!} … not {?} … but {,}. In grammar, a comma places a badly needed pause between parts of sentence.  It’s a moment of brief suspense, a quick rest to prepare for the next clause. In the UCC, that comma summarize how we listen for God’s action in the world.

Many of us were taught that God stopped speaking to us when the Bible was closed to any additions around 390 CE. We were taught God placed a firm period on any new revelation. Everything we need to know about God’s will is found in the Bible. Period. In the UCC, we say, “Everything we need to know about God’s will is found in the Bible, comma ... but there is still more light and truth to break forth from God’s word.” When we think that God only ends sentences with periods, we get ourselves into the old Christian habit of excluding people.  The continuing witness to Jesus Christ that we proclaim today is that the old prejudices that functioned to deny God’s grace for some people are false and sinful, even when they find some isolated, flimsy textual support in the Bible. We proclaim that love overcomes legalism every single time. God’s love is universal and unconditional.  All are welcome at God’s table regardless of gender, race, sexual identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or any other feature of a person’s particular humanity. Once we shift how we punctuate our faith, we have hope and inclusion instead of an immovable boundary. Have there been times when you punctuated your faith with a period rather than a comma? I’m sure we are all guilty of that….many times guilty of that. The UCC believes we should never put a period where God has put a comma, because God is still speaking.

Here are three quick reasons why I think God still speaks to us today. First, God is not done with you yet. There's more good news to be heard in your life!
  • No matter how old you are, God is not done with you yet
  • No matter how insignificant you think your problems are, God cares about them and is working within you to work them out. God is not done with you yet.
  • No matter what your limitations, there is a way for you to participate in fulfilling God’s aims for the world. God is not done with you yet.
  •  No matter how uncertain you are about what comes next, God knows there is hope for your future. God is not done with you yet.
  • On those days when you think you are a lost cause, even if you have given up on God, that’s when God does her best work. God is working in the waiting, in the silence, when it seems that nothing is happening. God is not done with you yet.
Second, God is not done with the church yet. There's more good news to be heard in our life together! There are no perfect churches and no perfect pastors. But God who is love, God who is good, is not done with us yet. God’s love is changing our lives and building us into a community of love and faith. It’s the example of Jesus that keeps us going. It’s the Spirit who stretches us and empowers us to be lovers of all, healers of hearts, channels of peace, seekers of truth, and laborers for justice. Each of us here – we are imperfect people who’ve experienced God’s love and chosen to follow God’s way through Jesus. We’ve seen God’s love and work in our own lives and in our church, and we can’t wait to see what she will do next. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminded us, “ … trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — and that it may take a very long time.” In other words, be patient. Have hope. God is not done with us yet.

So, God is not done with you. God is not done with us. Lastly, here is an important, wonderful, confusing reason why God still speaks today. God is not even done with God yet. God has more good news for God’s self.

Some of our Christian ancestors handed us an untenable orthodoxy. They taught us that God is omniscient, omnipresent,  and omnipotent. In other words, God is all-knowing and all-powerful, everywhere, at all times. When we use words like almighty and omnipotent, we almost always connect that with controlling everything. We start confusing God’s power with the power of force rather than the power of love. At best, we experience god like an over-functioning parent who never leaves a child alone, but constantly hovers, over-protects, guides, and counsels. The intimacy of this omnipresent god is stifling, as this god plans every detail of our lives without our input. That’s the best scenario.

At worst, the all powerful, all knowing, every-present god we’ve been taught to fear is silent to tears of injustice and the venom of violence that poisons our world.  If god is all-powerful, then god sees injustice and chooses to ignore it. How could there be suffering if god really does care about us and has the power to make it better?  When I see someone I love suffering I want to make it better and will do what is in my power to help.  Why doesn’t god? I think the all-powerful god failed us. It’s time for us to abandon the adolescent belief that god gives good to the good and sends the plague upon the wicked.  An omnipotent deity is not capable of genuine relationships or love.  Loving relationships require mutual openness, shared vulnerability, and shared risk.  The god of unlimited power always asks us to yield our selves, but doesn’t seem to give much in return for our unwavering obedience.

The God I worship is a God of relationship –a God who shares power with us instead of using power to punish us. My God is present in all things, but God’s presence leaves room for growth, creativity, freedom.  In my experience God is that creative and transforming power in my life, ever new, ever leading me to put my faith and trust in the beckoning future.  And if our relationship is truly mutual, then God grows as I grow, as you grow, as we all grow into a more compassionate, peace-building humanity.

As people of the still-speaking God, we affirm the ways that God still moves through our world, even through us—opening new possibilities, bringing healing to places of violence and despair. With God we can transform the dominating culture of death into a life-sustaining community of grace and peace. God still leads us to places where hope, faith, forgiveness and justice have been abandoned.

In other words, God is not done with you yet. God is not done with us yet. God is not even done with God yet. We are, together as God and humanity, still listening, still growing, still changing, still speaking.



Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sermon for July 10, 2016

Anti-Opression Values

“Today, we are the most frightening people on this planet.”

Those are the words of Arthur Schlesinger, the American historian, social critic, and public intellectual. He spoke them in 1968. Hundreds of urban riots had wracked the country, the war in Vietnam was grinding up lives. The country has witnessed the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had just been murdered within two months of one another
Many people wondered about America and its character, about what kind of country – and people – we were. As New York Mayor John Lindsay said at the time, “This is a drifting, angry America that needs to find its way again.” His words, like Schlesinger’s, feel regrettably relevant to this era, almost 50 years down the line.
Columnist Leonard Pitts writes,
“There is a sickness afoot in our country, a disintegration of the soul, rottenness in the spirit. Consider our politics. Consider the way we talk about one another – and to one another. Consider those two dead black men. Consider those five massacred cops. Deny it if you can. I sure can’t. Something is wrong with us. And I don’t mind telling you that I fear for my country.”
I can’t say I disagree.

Maybe what I’m feeling isn’t fear. Maybe it’s more like despair – the feeling that hope has been divided and scattered into a million fragments.

I’m a pastor. I tend to see people and situations through a pastoral lens. Pastors teach and counsel. We plant and nurture. We mend the rifts and wipe the tears. We are the kind of people who see good in others. We listen, and we desire to see the people in our care grow and flourish. We are people who keep hope alive. Sometimes, that outlook can be skewed. It’s not a bad way to see the world. But it’s also not complete. I’m learning to balance my pastoral perspective with another perspective.
Sometimes I put on my oppression glasses and imagine the stories of both victims and oppressors. I try to understand people who are locked in patterns of being silencers, or racists, or abusers -- and those who are silenced and abused. I try to think about those who have internalized a sense of inferiority and those who have internalized a sense of racial superiority. How did they get there? With whom do I resonate and by whom am I repelled?  If it’s true that the Gospel of Christ brings liberation for all people, both the oppressed and the oppressor need consistent, strong and graceful work to find freedom. My faith surges, freeing me to see my connection to each and every story, each person, each quiet call for help or hope of healing.

So, I try to wear my pastoral lens and my anti-oppression lens together. When I do that, I can be even more effective in helping groups humanize, care for, and commit to learn from one another. These lenses help us to see Christ in each other and call us to be Christ for the other. I wonder what your lenses are? How do you see the world? What would happen if you pair your worldview with an anti-oppression outlook on life?

Of course, it’s not enough just to see the world anew. As part of my commitment to Christ, I commit to living anti-oppressive values in the communities I am a part of. It takes not just new lenses, but new patterns; a new set of ongoing, habitual reactions when I see oppression. You see, I know myself. I know when I’m faced with the news of the murder of Black men by police, and the murder of police by a sniper, I want to shut out the violence. When faced with the killing of 49 gay men in a bar in Orlando, or the gunman and hostage situation in Bangladesh, or the death of 200 innocent people in Iraq by a suicide bomber, or the bombs going off in the airport in Istanbul, I want to give in to the despair. That’s fear at work.

Fear does not get to define my values. If my behavior is not in line with my values, I need to do something different. I think giving in to fear can be a luxury – an indulgence – a privilege.
Living anti-oppression values means when we witness, experience, or commit an abuse of power or oppression, we address it as proactively, either one-on-one or with a few allies, keeping in mind that the goal is to encourage positive change.

Living anti-oppression values means challenge oppressive behaviors, not the people themselves.
Living anti-oppression values means when someone offers us criticism, we treat it as a gift rather than an attack. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

Living anti-oppression values means understanding that we will feel discomfort as we face our part in oppression. Be brave. It is a necessary part of the process. Being part of the problem doesn’t mean you can’t be an active part of the solution.

Living anti-oppression values means contributing time and energy to building healthy relationships, both personal and political, both one-on-one and in the community.

Living anti-oppression values means challenging ourselves to be courageously honest and open, willing to take risks and make ourselves vulnerable in order to address racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other repressive dynamics head-on.

I want to close by saying two more things. First, racism is processed in the brain as trauma. Race-based trauma literally leaves bruised spots on the brain.  So, when people of color are exposed to repetitive acts of racism a kind of post traumatic stress syndrome can develop. Race-based trauma can come in several forms: Witnessing ethno-violence or discrimination of another person, historical or personal memory of racism, institutional racism, micro aggressions, and the constant threat of racial discrimination.

Like and traumatic event, racism can be marked by an acute state of fear, anxiety, and hopelessness. If the trauma is not addressed, or is not diffused within a reasonable time frame, it can develop into post traumatic stress disorder. To our African American members and friends, please take good self-care during this time. Make sure to connect with people who are empathetic and supportive and process your feelings with them. And if you find yourself unable to cope, let’s find a trauma-competent therapist or group to help you out.

In times of trauma, we all can hold space for one another. Holding space means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for people, we open our hearts, we offer unconditional support, and we let go of judgment and control.

Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom.
Don’t take their power away.
And keep your own ego out of it.

When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they can feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Holding space means you allow others to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make.

In all of this, I remember the words of the Apostle Paul: 
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12 NLT).   All is not lost. All is not hopeless. With resilience, hard word, hand-in-hand, and heart-to-heart, the sickness around us can be made whole.

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 ...