Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon for December 24, 2017 | Advent 4

It’s not the burden that weighs us down …

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” ~ Matthew 11:28-30

There is an old legend about three men and their sacks. Each man had two sacks, one tied in front of his neck and the other tied on his back. When the first man was asked what was in his sacks, he said, "In the sack on my back are all the good things friends and family have done. That way they're hidden from view. In the front sack are all the bad things that have happened to me. Every now and then I stop, open the front sack, take the things out, examine them, and think about them." Because he stopped so much to concentrate on all the bad stuff, he really didn't make much progress in life.

The second man was asked about his sacks. He replied, "In the front sack are all the good things I've done. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The sack in the back? I keep all my mistakes in there and carry them all the time. Sure they're heavy. They slow me down, but you know, for some reason I can't put them down."

When the third man was asked about his sacks, he said, "The sack in front is great. I keep all the positive thoughts I have about people, all the blessings I've experienced, all the great things other people have done for me. The weight isn't a problem. The sack is like sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward. The sack on my back is empty. There's nothing in it. I cut a big hole in its bottom. I put all the bad things that I can think about myself or hear about others in there. They go in one end and out the other, so I'm not carrying around any extra weight at all."

What are you carrying in your sacks?

My grandfather used to say, “It’s not the load that weighs you down, but the way you carry it.” That phrase always reminds me of Jesus’ offer to carry our burdens.

It’s easy to feel weighed down during the holidays. Of all the times of the year, this one seems to magnify our emotional burdens by its repeated calls to rejoice! Be happy! Be merry. Those around us seem to enter the season’s festivities wholeheartedly, while some of us wonder why we cannot. While families gather, many feel alone, separated by distance, or estrangement, or loss. We might begin to feel as if our burdens unique. We might be tempted to think we must bear those burdens alone. As we think about sacks that weigh us down, let’s imagine the burdens that different characters in the Christmas story carried. The ways they carried their loads may not be so different from our own.

The first to appear in the Christmas story are the priest Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was old, and far past the age of childbearing. She lived at life’s edges, marginalized by being a priest’s wife but nobody’s mother. She had no place when neighbors congregated and chatted while indulgently watching children play, or when mothers complained about a child’s behavior. Before her stretched an old age unsupported by husband or children. Both faced a life of dwindling possibilities, all bleak. Both wondered what sin might have caused them not to have children, and whether the sin lay with self or spouse. Both faced the infirmities that age brings. Both faced a crisis of faith. Then they get news that Elizabeth is pregnant. Her son will be named John. We call him John the Baptist. We know him to be a reclusive desert preacher, the cousin of Jesus and the enemy of Herod’s court. I tried to imagine his parent’s burden. Here is a miracle baby, born to elderly parents, who lives in caves and eats locusts and honey for his meals. Have you ever seen your children turning down a reckless path, and worried yourself sick? Have you ever seen a child not live up to the potential and aspirations you dreamed about? Imagine the disappointment. Perhaps, in their advanced age, Elizabeth and Zacharias died before they had to watch their son John get arrested and murdered by Herod.

The second couple we meet is much younger. Joseph and Mary were part-way through the traditional year-long engagement prior to marriage. Mary might have been no more than a child herself, forced to grow up very quickly with a surprise announcement from an angel; she was going to give birth to God’s son. Mary faced the burden of being an unwed, pregnant, teenage mother in a small-town. She carried the burden of not being able tell her story. A virgin carrying God’s child? Who would believe her. She would be shunned. She might even be killed. Mary did not even tell Joseph right away. Imagine rehearsing exactly what to should say when faced with the necessity of revealing a virgin pregnancy. Months later, Mary faced the physical burden of carrying a child, and journeying to Bethlehem very shortly before delivery. Mary accepts her circumstances with grace, but I wonder if she ever felt like life was unfair.  She had a harsh wake-up call to reality when she should have been filled with the dreams and idealism of youth.

Joseph had burdens as well. A good man facing an impossible choice, Joseph is caught in a dilemma. Does he stay faithful to a woman who looks like she has been cheating on him, or follow religious law and call of the wedding? He is torn between his family duty to Mary and his religious duty to the law. Does he ignore the law and show mercy, or follow the law and lose his fiancĂ©e? Joseph decides to let her go quietly, not make a big deal over this pregnancy, so she doesn’t have to face the punishments for pregnant unmarried women.

Imagine the burdens of parenting Jesus. Imagine as the child grows, Joseph tells Jesus stories about the Romans. We can almost hear him muttering about the way the Romans treat the Israelites — the heavy taxes, the hillsides crowded with crosses, the arrogance of Rome’s unlimited power. Imagine Mary planting in Jesus a passion for justice. Imagine his parents sharing their longing for peace with their child. These are the burdens and responsibilities of raising the next generation.

How about those shepherds? The first ones to hear this message are sheep herders, a marginalized peasant class who experienced the oppression and exploitation of the Empire. Once the angels appeared, they faced the burden of choice: should they leave their sheep and seek the Child? Should they the listen to the angels and risk irresponsibility for a great reward. Should they ignore the angels? Instead of following a summons to Bethlehem, should they follow the worn yet predictable routine of their lives?

We can’t have a Christmas scene without the Magi, even though they were not technically there at the manger, despite what all our nativity scenes depict. In an era when travel was more chancy and time-consuming, they faced a considerable investment of time in their journey, time away from families and their usual pursuits on a quest that would eventually take at least four years. They were burdened with the journey’s cost, with carrying enough money to supply their needs over time. They were alo burdened with finding, carrying, and safeguarding the perfect gift — a gift fit for royalty.

Then there’s King Herod, sitting in his castle, making sure government runs. His job is to ensure that life runs smoothly for the Empire. The Roman empire was about peace through war, division, and oppression. Unfortunately, Herod is also paranoid and maniacal. Into his world come three magi who turn it all upside down with the news that a new King has been born. There goes order. The world was already filled with religious fanatics and people who look to saviors to solve their problems. When confronted with the strange and unsettling possibility of revolt, Herod strike back with murder.

Then there’s the Innkeeper, the owner of the motel who opens the door to see a bedraggled man, a pregnant wife, and no place to house them. I sometimes wonder if the innkeeper gave Mary and Joseph room in the cattle barn because he was compassionate or greedy. Both are burdens in their own way. He either pitied the young travelers and did what he could to provide them shelter, or he rented out a barn to make a few extra bucks from a desperate couple.

There is one more who carries a burden. The donkey. A literal beast of burden who, at the birth of Jesus, probably just stands around and chews on hay. The Christmas donkey did his work. The donkey delivered Jesus, so Jesus could be delivered. The donkey didn’t gallop or giddy-up. The donkey did what donkeys do. Plodded. The donkey steadily stepped in the direction of the journey. And, upon arrival, the donkey stepped to the side. It demanded no recognition, expected no compensation. It did the job and let Jesus have all the attention. The donkey isn’t even mentioned in the Bible. But, as we insist here at CCC, there is a place in God’s story for everyone, even for the one who plods along, expecting no applause, bearing up under the weight of the long haul, and bearing the load the Christ who will carry us all.

What burdens do you carry today? What load is weighing you down? What are you carrying in your sacks? How could you carry them differently? You don’t need to carry around heavy burdens of doubt, or self-contempt-or inadequacy. Jesus says drop them and take the burden of love upon your shoulders instead.

We are not meant to carry our loads alone. We are not meant to walk alone, to dance alone, to mourn alone.  We don’t walk this journey alone. Christ walks with us, often in the appearance of a friend, a neighbor, a fellow church member, the one who offers to stay with us, listen to us, pray with us, hold us, bring us a cup of cold water.  I like to imagine that right now Jesus looks at you and me, and sees our pain. He knows the weight of our family problems. He knows what it’s like when we feel no good. Jesus understands loneliness and feeling like nobody really cares about or understands. He experienced it all himself. And through that Jesus says, “Just leave it behind for a while. All your striving to find love and acceptance is just a distraction. They are detours which lead you farther away from God’s love.” Jesus says, “I’ll carry all those burdens and distractions for you. That’s how much I love you.”

12-2001 Christmas: The Burdened Season S. Ray Granade Ouachita Baptist University

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon for December 10, 2017 | Advent 2

Rest and Resistance

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
Mark 6:3-13

Today is Human Rights Day – the day the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration proclaims the inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political opinion, national origin, or status. It establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person. We could all use a reminder of Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, as she helped draft the Declaration in 1948. Asking where human rights began, she said, “In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world …Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

Well, for those of us who call the Washington D.C. area home, there has been a lot of concerned citizen action lately. If active political resistance is your thing, then this was a busy week for you. You could have attended a large public action at the Supreme Court, Congress, or the White House every day this past week. I’m especially grateful to the members of our church who attended the DACA rally on Wednesday.

At this moment in our national life when the political landscape appears to crumble into authoritarianism, citizens are called to action more than ever. When hard-fought civil rights are on the line – rights we hoped were set in cement – we get angry. We resist. We march, we protest, we demonstrate, we call our representatives, and we raise our voices in solidarity with those whose power is diminished. This is what democracy looks like!

I am all for acts of public action against those who seek to solidify their authority by obstructing the human rights of others. We must speak truth to power. I must confess something, though. I’m tired out. It all feels like too much … too much violence, too much fear; too much of wars and slums and dying; too much of greed and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth; too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference. It’s just too much; too, bruising, battered much.

What do we do when we can’t find the energy to go to another public meeting, or when we begin to feel like contacting representatives is useless? What do we do when we fear our activism will have negative consequences, when our safety is at risk, or when we are invited to civil disobedience and don’t want to be arrested? What do we do when there are so many rallies, demonstrations, and actions to choose from, we just want to take a nap or go shopping instead?

When we see the full magnitude of the problems of the world, that’s when our decisions have critical significance. Not everybody has the luxury of giving up.  An ethicist and Black feminist named Sharon Welch says that caving in to cynicism and despair in the face of unsolvable problems is a temptation specific to the middle class. She says, “The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present – when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one's family... Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs"

When I feel discouraged, I’m tempted to watch from the sidelines and let someone else do the work. Feeling discouraged in the face of despair is a privilege. Discouragement is a privilege for those who, like me, have a political system that responds to our needs. We in the mainstream, White, middle class were taught that if we work hard enough, if we can persevere through the tough times and stand up for ourselves, life will get better.

Others have life experiences that tell a different story. Many of us know the name Zora Neal Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. At a young age, Zora was passed from relative to relative and had to make her own way in the world, in a lifelong battle against what has been called the triple oppression of black women: economic, racial, and gender. She became one of the most prominent black women writers of the Harlem Literary Renaissance between the World Wars. Throughout her career, Zora’s male literary colleagues devalued her work. White publishers unjustly accused her of molesting a young boy. Her life and career went into free fall. She moved back to Florida where she eked out a living as a maid, library clerk, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. Poor, discouraged, and weary of rejection letters, she wrote to her agent, “Just inching along like a stepped-on worm from day to day. Borrowing a little here and there … The humiliation is getting too much for my self-respect, speaking from inside my soul. I have tried to keep it to myself and just wait. To look and look at the magnificent sweep of the Everglade, birds included, and keep a smile on my face …” The story of Zora Neale Hurston is not a “see you at the top!” story of how persistence brings success. In 1959, Hurston suffered a severe stroke and entered a County Welfare Home, where she died three months later, on January 28, 1960.

African-American thinkers and writers offer a sharp critique of those of us who think hard work and perseverance lead to positive social change. The mainstream, middle class mindset does not work for them. Over centuries, African Americans have resisted multiple oppressions that stifle human life. Sharon Welch calls us to a different mindset. She calls it an “ethic of risk.” Learning from the African American experience in this country, we must all keep caring and keep resisting, even though there are no guarantees of success. To stop resisting, even when it seems like nothing is getting better; even when it may, in fact, be getting worse; even success seems unimaginable; to stop resisting is to die.

Novelist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, remembered how her mother used to say, “Make a way out of no way.” Teaching Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in a literature course in the early 1970s, she learned that Zora was buried in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery in Fort Pierce, Florida. Outraged at this insult, Alice Walker headed south, determined to find Zora's grave. Making her way through waist-high weeds, she located the grave and placed a marker inscribed with the words: “Zora Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist, 1901-1960.” Thanks to the grace and grit of Alice Walker and others, Zora Neale Hurston is now the most widely taught Black woman writer in the canon of American literature. She met the triple oppression of Black women with a threesome of resisting qualities shared by Black women throughout their history of suppression: invisible dignity, quiet grace, and un-shouted courage.

If only we could all sustain those qualities. If only we all had the strength to remain take the heat enough to continually love, and continually resist.

A resistor is a device designed to limit the flow of electricity in a circuit. When electricity meets a resistor, the resistor takes the heat and disperses it through the surrounding air. Resistors are designed to operate under specific voltages. Under a normal voltage load, the resistor feels cool to warm by touch. However, resistors can get worn out. When overloaded with voltage exceeding its power rating, the resistor will become hot to touch. At this point, the resistor is unable to resist the flow of current and it breaks down.

Could the same be true in our spiritual activism. What happens when the voltage around us becomes to much, when we can no longer take the heat, when we lose our cool, when further resistance means risk burning up and breaking down?

Or, to use another metaphor, If I want to get stronger and transform my body, I can go to the gym and lift heavy weights like a crazy man. But heavy weight under tension for a long time puts too much strain on my body. Too much resistance risks the opposite of my goal. In my quest for transformation, I can hurt myself. Sometimes, I need to step back and lift some lighter weights for a brief time. Growth comes in rest.

Here is where we need to be careful. Rest can lead to inertia. I know that in my own life, if I rest to long, I don’t want to get back into the resistance. We no longer have that privilege. Our world needs us to be like those first followers of Jesus who went two-by-two into towns and villages, proclaiming Good News, healing the sick, loving the outcasts, and confronting the evil. When forcing peace felt like a waste of time and energy, they learned when to shake the dust from our feet and move on.

We resist, we rest, we prepare to face the heat again, and we get back to work. We will get tired. We will grow weary. We will face our pains and fears. Before we burn out, we retreat, we pray and listen for the Spirit’s summons. We evaluate our strategies. We take time to sing, laugh, and heal. Then we act again. This is the rhythm of spiritual activism. Resistance and rest, resistance and rest, resistance and rest, following the tempo of God’s heartbeat.

All is not hopeless. Do not give into despair. Do not give up. Do not give in. New life begins today. O God, give us power to lift the people. O God, give us power because we need it. Justice will be done, evil will be beaten, and God will set all things right through our prayers and through our actions. When people are discouraged we pray, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been victimized can’t fathom the horror of life, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been treated like garbage can only respond with apathy and resignation, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When victims of oppression take the blame for oppression and lose their trust in humanity, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those yearning some peace in a fallen world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who think that justice means injuring those who injure us, that error can be corrected by error, that evil can be vanquished by evil, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those who believe God still has something wonderful to do in our lives and in our world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

God give us more power to tear down the walls that keep us from one another, God, move humanity with humanity for the protection of good. Thrust back the evil of violence and set virtue on her seat again (Bhagavad Gita). God give us power to lift the people.

·        No Justice, No Peace--a sermon given by Tara Stephenson at the UUCLV on September 29, 2013
·        Robert Neal Henenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, 116. Quoted at
·        (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15).


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon for November 19, 2017

Perseverance and Plateaus

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised. James 1:12
When I was younger, I used to go camping. Whenever we were ready to leave our campsite, we were always told, “Remember to leave the campsite better than when you found it.” It’s a good metaphor for life. If my life is a campsite, how do I want to leave it? To answer that, I must be aware of what my campsite looked like when I took over? What does your campsite look like? Many campsites are left with the legacy of alcoholism and addiction; disconnected and neglectful parents; and families filled with blame shifting, volatile arguments, and confrontation with no conflict resolution skills. We inherit buried burdens from the generations before us who could not deal with the harm that had been done to them. In other words, those who came before us lived in trashed campsites, and they left us with trashed campsites. Emotional and spiritual refuse reveals itself in feelings of unworthiness, self-condemnation, shame, despair, anxiety, and addictive behaviors, intense pain, loneliness and fear.

What are we going to do with our trashed campsites?

One choice is to continue to live in the trash, add to it, and dump even more disorder for the next camper. Imagine a campsite that’s been left by previous generations of campers who have not taken the responsibility of picking up their garbage. The following generations of campers then have the burden of picking up not only the trash they generate themselves, but of cleaning up piles of rubbish that were left for them as well. What a tremendous burden. It’s difficult enough to live life dealing with your own issues. How much harder it is when your issues are multiplied with generations of unhealthy emotional and spiritual problems left piled up untouched.

Another choice is to pick up the trash. My garbage, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not, affects others. It will become their legacy too if I don’t do something about it.

About two years ago, I made a conscious decision to start sorting through my trash and leave my campsite better than how I found it. I won’t get into all the details here, although I’m willing to talk with you individually about my journey. I will say, after some health scares, I realized that I did not want to live the second half of my life like the first. I hit a low point where I felt defeated, helpless, and unhappy. I no longer wanted to feel like I was a victim to other people’s poor decisions. I felt physically unhealthy. My coping mechanisms were not good. My spiritual life felt dry. I was dissatisfied with feeling dissatisfied. So, I decided to change – and approached it with a different strategy than I had previously. I found people who could support me and give me the tools to help me achieve my goals: a physical therapist, a mental therapist, a personal trainer, and a spiritual companion. I sought guidance on my nutrition. At first, the changes hurt. The progress was slow. I had a lot of trash to sort through.

In my journey, I found that progress through life’s garbage is not a linear, upward progression. It starts slow. After practice, I made a lot of initial progress. I got excited and built momentum for change. I threw lots of old trash away and began seeing the possibilities. I enjoyed living in my tidy, new campsite.

Imagine being in a campsite you enjoy. Everything is set up perfectly, just how you want it. One day you see the tip of a garbage bag coming out of the pristine ground you’ve improved. You tug on the bag to dislodge it, and realize there’s more garbage buried underground. No problem, you can get a shovel and dig it out, fill in the hole, and go back to enjoying your experience. But, when you start digging, you realize there is more than one bag. You are living on a landfill. Now what? You worked so hard to clean up your life, and now you find there’s even more work to be done. After all the expense, all the sacrifice, all the sweat you’ve poured into this project, just when you thought you were done, you realize it was just the beginning of the process.

Maybe you thought you had built your campsite on a high vista and could enjoy the view forever. Now, you realize you are living on a plateau. It’s not the exhilarating high point. It’s not the miserable low point. What you thought was the destination is really a mid-point – the levelling-off place in the journey.

Maybe you decide to start clearing the campsite of your life, and realize there are multiple levels of trash to sift through. You are now an archaeologist, excavating the past. For some, the thought of going through multiple layers of historical emotional garbage can feel discouraging – maybe even paralyzing. For others, it may be an opportunity to uncover some valuable hidden artifacts.

Before I put this campsite metaphor to rest, let me say one more thing. As we dig into the trash others have left for us and seek to leave our campsite better than we found it, we may be building more hills to climb in the process.

Any journey of improvement is not a linear progression where one success builds upon the next. Growth is more like a series of plateaus. We can experience radical improvement up to a certain plateau. Suddenly, we feel stalled. When we’re stalled on a plateau, we’re in a state of suspended animation—or even regression—for an indefinite time. It may feel like everyone else keeps climbing higher and higher, leaving us behind. How we handle those plateaus will determine whether we remain stalled there forever. It’s emotionally trying, and we’ll want to give up.

Here is the hardest part. When the work of self-improvement get’s tough, the temptation to go back to old habits and worn-out coping strategies comes right back. That nagging voice will seemingly come from out of nowhere and say, “This is not goings fast enough. For all this hard work, you feel a little worse than when you started. You do not have the humility and patience to hang in there. Just give up.”

Or, sometimes I will be tempted to overcome my discontent by sheer force of work. Certainly, if I focus obsessively on my goal and work even harder, I will feel better. But, then I overdo it and injure myself. Pretty soon I’m messed up with injuries, hobbling around but still obsessively overworking.

For me, the hardest temptation comes when I’ve experienced radical improvement, I reach a plateau, and I get comfortable there.  I’ll talk myself into being content. That tempting voice will say, “You’ve worked so hard and come so far. You have finally arrived. Make a campsite and enjoy. Oh, and just forget about that little plastic bag sticking out of the ground over there. It’s nothing.” I will spend time clutching to and preserving what I have achieved. Life now becomes more about being afraid of losing what I’ve worked for.

Call them what you want, plateaus, temptations, trials, obstacles or opportunities … let’s realize that change by any name is difficult. Perseverance is difficult. Endurance is difficult. Yet, our New Testament scriptures consistently remind us to face trials with endurance, and to face temptation with stamina. “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised (James 1:12). J. B. Phillips understood this as he paraphrased James 1:2-4: "When all kinds of trials crowd into your lives, my brothers (and sisters), don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they have come to test your endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men (and women) of mature character."

There are three things that prevent us from experiencing truth - our desires, our fears, and our opinions. I call it the voice of the tempter. No matter where we live, what we believe, or what period we are living in, we experience the same vexing limitations of the mind and spirit. The voice of the tempter I keep talking about – that’s not some external voice of evil. The tempter lives within us – our lusts, our fears, and our sense of the way things should be. It’s the voice of the patterns of behavior that long for security. It’s the part of us that longs for a world that’s real and permanent when life feels insecure and all too short. The voice of the tempter is the expression of the turbulent longings and fears that whisper to us, and the views and opinions that confine us.

The truth I’m continually learning is, we cannot always have what we want when we want it. And … that is not a bad thing. Just imagine everything we set out to do was completed right away. We would have nothing to aim for, no goals, and no reason to wake up in the morning. If we have something big and important that we want in our lives, we will have to be patient. And we will also need to be persistent.

One thing to remember here is to enjoy the journey, if you think a certain goal will bring you happiness and you struggle to find anything to be grateful for on the way, chances are when you finally get there you will still not feel satisfied. Only when a trend is followed continuously do the results of single actions gradually accumulate in such a way that they become good fortune or misfortune.

A path through a forest, worn by centuries of use, will grow over and return to the forest when nobody walks along it any more. A path becomes permanent with perseverance, whether for good or for bad.

Celebrate every small victory on route to your big goals. Be patient and persistent and you will get there in the end! And if you don’t get where you want, you’ve still accomplished something wonderful. You will leave a path for others to follow – hopefully one that reaches an enjoyable destination. You will leave a campsite that is better than how you left it. And those who come after you will be better off. After a lifetime of emotional endurance and hard work, their campsite will be even better than how you left it. And their children, after another generation of perseverance and courage, will leave it even better. This is how we make progress, and grow in maturity, and forge peaceful, compassionate people and societies. “When trials crowd into your lives, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! They have come to test your endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men (and women) of mature character."

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon for November 4, 2017

I Sing a Song of the Saints of God

Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” Matthew 9:35-38

Another Halloween has come and gone. For those who gave out candy, or went trick or treating with family, did you notice the little ones with smiley faces gave cheery greetings as their hands greedily dove into bowls of candy? Beyond the joy of giving out candy, did any of you keep track of the kinds of costumes the children wore? It depends on the fads of the year, of course, but you can always count on scary characters: murderers from horror movies, Grim Reapers, vampires, skeletons, ghosts, and monsters. There are bound to be warriors of one sort or another: Power Rangers, ninjas, and superheroes, as well as football players, soldiers, and pirates. And don’t forget the animals: a dog, a rabbit, a lion, a giraffe, and a few black cats. There are always happy characters, too: fairies, princesses, cheerleaders, clowns, ladybugs, pumpkins, ballerinas, and brides. Sometimes there are costumes of real people – I didn’t see any of them on the streets, but I’m sure plenty of Trump masks were sold this year.

How many children come dressed as something we would identify as religious? Angels, maybe, but that’s about it. After all, wouldn’t it be naive to expect our children to dress up as famous Christians of times gone by. And besides, where would you buy a saint costume? Would we have to resort to designing flowing robes and halos or something that looks like the way we think people dressed in Jesus’ day? Here are some ideas from saints who have inspired me:

How about dressing as a monk in black robes and a wide-brimmed black hat, with a Hawaiian lei and bandaged hands? The man who became known as Damien the Leper was the only priest willing to minister to the 800 lost souls and crushed bodies in the leper colony on the island of Molokai in Hawaii in the 19th Century. His love for the Gospel was so great, his desire for the worth and dignity of all people was so passionate, he stayed on the remote and forgotten Island for eleven years. He dressed residents' ulcers, built a reservoir, made coffins and dug graves, and provided both medical and emotional support. Eventually Damien acquired Hanson’s Disease and became one with his afflicted flock.

How about wearing a long, stiff, brown hooded robe, a long white beard, and round hippy glasses? You would be a favorite saint of mine. His real name was Barney, but the people of Detroit knew him by the name he took when he joined a monastery: Solanus Casey. When he joined the priesthood in 1904, church officials didn’t think he had what it took to be a full priest. Officials realized he had high moral character, so they ordained him to perform menial duties in a monastery. Even though he was a priest, Solanus Casey was never allowed to preach or hear confessions. After seminary, he took a job as a porter, first in NYC and then in Detroit. That means his job was to open the door of the monastery to visitors. Guests to the monastery soon realized that Solanus Casey was the best person to visit. People waited in lines just to speak to Father Solanus. He shared in their concerns and worries. He prayed for them, and inspired them, and spread the message of God’s love. All could sense his wisdom and his special gift of prayer. Throughout his life, Father Solanus kept extending God’s welcome, showing generosity, and being God’s doorkeeper.

Here’s a costume idea: A woman in khakis and a t-shirt, with blond hair pulled into a tight pony tail, carrying keys to a bus and a bag of toys. It’s a costume of Kathryn Martin from Evansville, Indiana. We've seen the pictures on the news or maybe even lived the scenes ourselves: A natural disaster strikes and suddenly people who only minutes ago were living their normal lives are left with just the clothes on their backs, and a feeling of despair. But sometimes all it takes is one person to give us the help we need to make it through. When a tornado ripped through a small Indiana town in 2006, Kathryn Martin couldn't get the news of it out of her mind. She knew firsthand what they were going through. Six months earlier, a tornado had struck her town, taking the lives of her 2-year-old son, her mother-in-law and her grandmother-in-law. Kathryn, her three other children and her husband survived. Kathryn loaded her car with juice boxes, snacks and toys and drove 60 miles to the victims of the latest tornado. After the drop off, on her drive home, Kathryn came up with an idea to help more kids. She spent the next few months organizing homegrown fundraisers: carnivals, car washes, walk/runs. Finally, she unveiled C.J.'s Bus, a 35-foot school bus-turned-mobile-playroom. Stocked with bins of video games and DVD s, toys, crafts, books and much more, the bus traveled for five years to disaster-torn towns, giving children a safe place to play while parents picked up their lives.

You could dress in an oversized jacket that covers multiple layers of sweaters and shirts. Walk with a defeated hunch in your shoulders and hastate to make eye contact through the large glasses sitting on your nose, held together with a safety pin. Even if you carry a pen and a notebook, you’ll have to explain to people that your name is David Harris. David Harris speaks softly and eloquently, each word chosen with the care of a true poet. David’s intelligence and kindness are never realized by most of the world because for much of his life, David has struggled with homelessness. David grew up in a middle-class home in Maryland, complete with middle-class American values. He would go to work in DC every day, uncomfortably passing by homeless people on his way to work. David eventually had a stroke that left him unable to speak for a while. Since he had no health insurance, the enormous medical bills were too much for him to pay. He decided to move to the streets of D.C. Even if he got two 40-hour/week minimum wage jobs, David probably would not have enough money to afford housing in D.C. and pay for insurance. He told me about the people who helped him along the way, from a homeless woman he used to look down on, to a caring social worker at a shelter. David was a poet in his previous life in the working world. He writes:
This drunken bum
Looked into my eyes
Into a place inside me …
No words passed between us,
Only a steely glare.
Just five words burned
Along the edges of my mind:
“I am not like you.”

How about dressing as a woman with dark circles under her eyes and rough hands from being up nights caring for a sick child and working days at her job to put food the table -- a single, working mother giving herself away to make a better life for her family.

How about a man who was just been fired from his job. He doesn’t know how he will pay bills or feed his family. He has lost everything. But he still finds joy in going to his kids games, connecting to the community, and finding ways to live out his faith in the most desperate of times.

Maybe a trick-or-treater could dress up like an elderly person who has touched our lives – someone who may not even be related to you but she has prayed for you and with you for years, given you wisdom, told you her courageous stories, and inspired you with her deep and simple love for God.

Maybe a trick-or-treater could just go dressed as a regular child, such as the boy I read about who went to a scouting contest for homemade pine racing cars. It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much. At one of these toy car derbies, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands. The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations. Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until, defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer. Before the championship race, the boy asked the director to wait so he could pray. The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving. After the boy won the race and was given a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it is a good thing you prayed, so you could win.” “Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood. “I didn’t pray to win. That would have been wrong. The other scout had as much right to win as I did. I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose. I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

There is, of course, something more important than how children or adults dress up for Halloween. We don’t just imitate the saints. We are the saints of God. Each and every one of us. Those who have gone before us just show us the way. That’s why we remember the saints. Some of them are publicly known and recognized in the light of history. Others hide in the obscurity of ordinary struggles. All Saints’ Day celebrates what we can be at our best. The stories of their lives remind us of who we are, what we believe, and what we can become. They remind us how closely a human being can follow the example of Jesus. They draw us forward, give us courage, strengthen us to do God’s will, and lead the way. Their good examples remind us that God reaches out to us with grace and love and care. They have gone on before us to the nearer presence of God, but they are also connected to us. Those who know rest from their labors help keep us from growing weary on our, often difficult, Christian pilgrimages.

Saints remind us that the fields are ready for harvest, and the workers are few. But what a difference those few workers make!

They inspire us not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: Jesus’ command to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. They remind us of the qualities that make a godly worker – workers who present themselves to God as those who correctly handle the word of truth. They are people whose words we can rely on.

All Saints’ Day is a time to think beyond our limitations and to believe that we have the potential to respond to God’s gracious love with active love for others -- with commitment and caring and giving. The saints remind us of the fullness of life that God intends for us all.

The Protestant reformation put the saints got rid of the idea of Saints, especially the idea of venerating Mary the Mother of Jesus. At the dawn of the Reformation, Catholic devotion to Mary was seen as a form of idolatry. Maybe there is some room to bring the saints back into our protestant lives. I don’t pray to Mary or Saints. I don’t ask them to intervene on my behalf. BUT – if somehow Mary and the saints are in a heaven somewhere and they want to pray for me as my friends do here on earth, then wonderful. I will never turn anyone’s prayers away! There’s an old hymn that says, “A world without saints forgets how to pray.” You know we live in difficult times just as those saints did. And often we feel threatened or discouraged by the troubles we face. So, we pray to Jesus to come and deliver us and encourage us and give us faith. I can almost hear Jesus responding, “Where are the approved workers I gave you? Where are the witnesses and heroes I gave to inspire and encourage you? Where are the stories of lives lived in faith that I gave to strengthen your faith?” Who are the saints in your life? What have they taught you? How do their examples give you wisdom for today? How do they help you dream of a different world? And what are we going to do about it?

Sermon for October 29, 2017

Easy is Earned

For I am about to do something new.
See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19

“God is about to do something new.” When I hear people say that phrase, I think they mean it to be an encouragement. Amid life’s trials and tribulations, a minister says God is about to do something new and now relationships blossom into bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is a winner. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing. God is about to do something new. No more pain. No more tears. No more death. No more death. We will be changed.

“God is about to do something new.” If you’ve been listening to me for a while, you can probably guess I have a contrary thought about this. When I hear someone say, “God is about to do something new,” I say to myself, “Really? Then watch out!” Because, when God does something new, life does not get easier. When God does something new, life can actually get a lot harder. When God does something new, that’s when the heavy lifting begins.

Do you know what I mean by heavy lifting? I go to the gym every week day and throw heavy weights around. My goal is to build some muscle, so I need to lift heavy things. I want something new to happen in my body, but the change has not come without some effort and occasional pain. Heavy lifting stretches and tears muscles. Only over time, lifting heavy things day after day after day, does one see growth. In the gym, we say “easy is earned.” It means that what feel effortless today used to feel excruciatingly painful. Payoff doesn’t come without some hard work and sacrifice. So, when I hear someone say God is about to do something new, it’s a signal to me that change will come, but sustained change will take effort … and perseverance … and engaging in actions that feel awkward and we don’t want to do … and some heavy lifting.

Think about the people of Israel. IN today’s brief reading, God talks to them through the prophet Isaiah. God says, “I’m about to do something new. I’m going to make a pathway through the wilderness.” It sounds so lovely, like a stroll down a comfortable, flowering path along a bubbling stream. I don’t think that’s the intention. The wilderness in the Middle East is a craggy desert. When God speaks these words, the people of Israel are captives in a foreign land, their homeland is a distant pile of rubble. God offers a word of hope, “I am about to do something new.” Yes, God will make a road from captivity back home. Yes, a brighter day is coming. But the people still must walk through a barren, hot, unpredictable wilderness to get home. They will face hard days and sleepless nights.

At any point on their way through the wilderness, the people of Israel could have given up. They could have turned back. They could have stopped and made a settlement somewhere before they got home. They did not stop because the way was hard, challenging or uncomfortable. They travelled through the wilderness, step by step, mile by mile, day by day. The promise took decades to come true. And once they got home, rebuilding the nation was daunting and terrifying work. God is about to do something new. Watch out!

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I think of God using people like Martin Luther to do something new. Luther’s life was no picnic in the park. Through Luther, God did something new in the Church. What we forget is Luther was labelled a heretic and excommunicated from the church by the Pope. Church leaders slandered him. His books were burned in Rome. He was put on trial numerous times, and even called before the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his views. At the most infamous trial, the litigator asked Luther to disavow the writings in his books. The prosecutor pointed to a pile of books and asked Luther, “Are these yours?” Luther replied, “I have to think about it.” The next day, the prosecutor asked Luther whether the books on display were his. Instead of offering a simple yes or no, Luther launched into a long sermon, but didn’t really answer the question. Finding Luther evasive, the litigator asked once more, "Martin -- answer candidly and without horns -- do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?" Speaking before the Emperor and Lords of the court, church officials, and witnesses, Luther replied, "'Since then your imperial majesty and your lordships demand a simple answer, I will give you one without teeth and without horns. Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture or by manifest evidence...I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience … Here I stand. God help me! Amen!" Luther was released to await a verdict. Arriving back in his lodging after the two-hour hearing, Luther downed found a can of beer that had been left for him there by a friend, and he downed it in one gulp.

When the court announced the final verdict a month later, the edict called Luther, “A reviver of the old and condemned heresies" and an "inventor of new ones." It called for the burning of his books and for confiscation of his property. It cut him off from the church, called for his arrest, and forbid anyone from harboring or sustaining him. Luther had already fled to Wartburg Castle, where he spent the next year hiding translating the Bible into German. When Luther eventually emerged from the Wartburg, the emperor, distracted with other matters, did not press for Luther's arrest. Much of the remainder of Luther's career was devoted to building a new Church based on his interpretation of Scripture and his guiding principle of salvation through faith and the grace of God. Talk about heavy lifting! God is about to do something new. Watch out!

At any point, Martin Luther could have recanted. He could have decided that the pain of persecution was more than he could bear. He did not stop because the way was new, challenging, or uncomfortable. God did something new through him, and his life and work eventually marked the transition from medieval to modern time.

God is about to do something new. Watch out! I am not comfortable with being made uncomfortable. I am not comfortable with being wrong. I am not comfortable with witnessing human suffering first-hand. I am not comfortable with learning that the world really isn’t the fair and friendly place I want it to be. I am not comfortable with encountering the legitimacy and sincerity of those I’ve labeled as enemies.

So for me, the way through the wilderness begins with my willingness to be uncomfortable – or at least a willingness not to turn away from the discomfort. Too often, our discomfort with having our heart-strings pulled by another person’s suffering makes us build ideological walls against it. We come up with a story or a rationale about why we can dismiss people whose encounters make us feel uncomfortable. For example, think about the “bootstraps” story we tell about poverty in our country. When a person struggling with homelessness asks us for money, we reassure ourselves that he’s entirely to blame for his predicament because he’s an addict, or just a stubborn, lazy person. If only he would pull himself up by his bootstraps, his life would be better.

Christians can be quite sneaky in our tactics for evading the discomfort of facing our own wrongdoing. In order to avoid feeling “uncomfortable” about our own wrongdoing, we will point to another person or group and try to fix them. For instance, conservative Christians distract themselves from their lack of love by fixating on sex and regulating women’s bodies. Liberals do the same thing with different content. We distract ourselves from our lack of love by talk about racism but never do anything to change it. Obsessing over other people’s behavior get us off the hook for our own personal wrongdoings. If God is about to do something new in our midst, then part of our daily, heavy lifting is taking responsibility for our wrongdoing, to admit mistakes without defensiveness, to listen carefully for find truths we can affirm from our enemies, and to sit with those who suffer without any quick-fix solutions.

So, yes -- I don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Which is precisely what God is doing in my life right now. To most people, discomfort says “Stop what you’re doing! This is hard!” But for people who are dedicated to finding a way to improve in small daily changes, discomfort says “Ok – this is hard now, but if you keep at it, it can become easy.”

There is a basic principle of physical adaptation. It’s called super-compensation. All it means is this: When you put your body under training stress, say you do heavier squats at the gym or run 5km as hard as you can, you cause some breakdown in the muscle tissues and you stress the central nervous system. Because we are very adaptable creatures, when the body heals itself, it doesn’t just repair itself to the state it was before. The body over-compensates by making stronger muscles and neural connections.

The same is true for anything we engage in. When we are uncomfortable either emotionally or spiritually, that’s a signal to adapt and get better. It’s a signal that we are about to get stretched. If we give up, we stop adapting. If we stop adapting, we stop growing. But if we create and withstand even mild discomfort, that’s when we can start to make some progress. Whether it’s building a body, building a relationship, or building the best version of who we can be as a church, the secret sauce is always the same: there is no something for nothing. Do a handful of things today. Put a bit of effort in today.

Sometimes I think we at CCC are in our own wilderness. We see the road ahead. We sense some fresh blessing in the distance. We want to believe God is about to do something new. At our church, at times we have been open-hearted, following of our instincts in order in gain the experience and self-awareness to which we are committed. Sometimes we make it through with shear grit and determination. Sometimes we wonder how we made it through some possibly devastating mistakes. While the experiences we needed and sacrificed for are now part of our church history, there’s a lingering anxiety that still haunts us. I think God is about to do something new. But, to get there, we must find God’s path through the wilderness and journey together in that new direction. Once we set off, we will be faced with difficult decisions about how to use our time and money. If we don’t start because it is hard, or challenging, or uncomfortable, it will never be easy. But life will be much worse if we do nothing. What might happen if we start off? If we practice consistently? I wonder, will life at CCC continue to get easier each day because easy is earned? I think about this as we figure out how to move ahead with our decision to renovate our Retreat House after ten years of preparation. If we were willing to accept the pleasure and excitement of recent decisions, we must be equally willing to recognize the depth and meaning behind our actions. Now is the time for learning and growth.

My experience is that the people and groups who can adapt and grow by small gains for the long haul are the ones who succeed. Those who realize it takes a long time to build anything worthwhile are the ones making it look easy. Those who persevere when everyone else is looking for shortcuts are the ones who make lasting change. Fall in love with the process and you will get there. And you’ll know you’ve really arrived when arrival is no longer the goal.

Sermon for October 22, 2017

Jesus the Failure

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. Mark 6:1-6

It is almost a joke, certainly a clichĂ©, that people and congregations don’t like change. As matter of fact, here’s a joke … Q:How many Congregationalists does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Ch-ch-ch-change!?

No really, how many Congregationalists does it take to change a light bulb? Thirteen – one to change the bulb and 12 to sit around talking about how the old bulb was better.

By the way, talk to Jim Conklin if you are interested in being part of the led lightbulb replacement party. No joke. We could use some volunteers.

Some things are just basic to what it means to be human. Change is one of those things. Getting knocked down is another. Life just does this to us.  Leaders of faith communities spend a lot of time and money, and put a lot of effort into dealing with change, managing change, and pro-actively planning for change. We also think a lot about failure – how to avoid pain and keep ourselves from getting knocked down.
Jesus failed. The story of Jesus’ visit to his home town contains a striking admission of failure. We are told he could do no mighty work there, except to cure a few sick people. Why, because of the sarcastic unbelief of the people he grew up with. Mark’s Gospel preserves a testimony to failure … a demonstration of incapacity. Jesus experienced failure.

Think of an issue in your life right now that feels terrifying. Or something you worry about. What’s the issue that’s been keeping you up at night? Imagine that issue, that person, that memory, that emotion, whatever it is, imagine it is a sleeping tiger with a long tail. The tiger has the power to destroy you in a moment. Everything rides on your ability to get past this ferocious obstacle, but to get past the problem, you must get close.  If you are like me, you consider every move you might possibly make. Awkward or unnecessary moves must be avoided. You will only survive with grace. In this scenario, what is success and failure? Nothing teaches more about resilience than failure. Our society hates failure, it sees it as a sign of weakness. However, some of the most iconic people in recent memory have failed at some point or another. The difference is that they saw failure as a way to grow, get better, fix some wrongs, and come back stronger than ever. What if success means approaching our capacity for failure? What if the Tiger of emotion or fear only bites when we run from it or try to cage it? What happens when we treat worrisome entanglements with good will instead of avoidance?

Sometimes we spend so much time worrying about failing we never try to move ahead. If we cannot move ahead, then we cannot become aware of our potential. If we can view life as treading the tiger's tail, yet still experience the unexpected subtleties all around with a feeling of quiet joy and freshness, there will be no need to be dragged down by the guilt, frustration, and failure of others. However, there is no guarantee that we will pass the tiger without waking it up.

I do not think people or congregations fear change as much as we fear failure. And I think we fear failure because we are afraid of loss. When life changes, some things will be gained, and other things will also be lost. We lose people. We lose relationships. And when they are lost, we are afraid they will be forgotten.  I don’t know about all of you, but my fear of loss is one of my tigers. Fear of loss gets me feeling anxious. Fear of loss takes away my sense of safety and security. Safety and security are what I really want in the end. I want to know that my decisions and actions will put a safety zone around myself and those I love. Nothing will hurt us. Nothing will harm us. Not a thing, not a person I cherish will be taken from me. We go to great lengths as a society to ensure safety. In this way of thinking, loss is failure. All too often we are risk averse and do not try new things because we fear failure, loss, and defeat.

What makes the difference between the person who can tread the tail of the tiger and the one who will avoid it at all costs? Resilience. Resiliency gives us the ability to change and bounce back and thrive. A resilient person knows there is no such thing as failure. There is only learning.

Have you ever seen a glassblower at work? The artist takes melted glass, and using a tube, blows air into it.  A glassblower knows that when the glass is till a white-hot blob of molten material, any shape is possible. Once hardened, the only way to change is to break. Churches are no different. Neither are individuals. If we can stay malleable and shapeable, we can adapt and maneuver the ups and downs of life. Once we get set in our ways, the only way to move forward is to shatter what is already in existence. Hardened glass may be beautiful or functional or both, but it’s not resilient. Once it cools and hardens, smashing it is the only way to change its shape.

Resilience allows for change without breaking the glass. Resilience keeps us supple. A resilient church learns that becoming too set in its ways is the way to decline and stagnation.  Remaining flexible and continuing to evolve bring life and growth.

A lot is being written on resilience right now. You can go online and look at the research. I want us to think about two qualities as they apply to CCC. Two qualities of resilience as we tread the tails of the tigers we face: Repentance and Righteousness.

In church, many of us think of repentance as atoning for sin. Repentance really means to change course, to come back to center, to reconcile. Repentance is about mending relationships and re-aligning priorities. Repentance is about coming to terms with who we really are. It means we claim our own mistakes, instead of running from or hiding from them. Running from our mistakes is the natural thing to do. “I did something wrong, I cheated someone, I told a lie about something, I took credit for something I shouldn’t have” — whatever it was, however small or large, our immediate instinct, often, is to run away from it. Or to hide it. Or to lie about what we did wrong so that nobody will find out about it. We do not want to admit failure because we fear the loss – loss of respect, loss of reputation, loss of freedom. If we run or hide, we’re actually in bondage to the thing that we’ve done. We let unwise decisions and unhealthy behaviors dictate our next move and the move after that. Repentance frees us from that. When we own our failures and losses, when we turn and change and run toward our moral lapses and wrongdoings rather than away from them, that’s when we actually become free of them.

The other quality of resilience is called righteousness. I’m not talking about mug self-righteousness. That’s obnoxious, not resilient. In the Hebrew Bible, the is a word used for righteousness that is more about pursuing justice and acting from a fountain of generosity. It has to do with restoring the world through acts of justice – but only if the justice flows from compassion. I want to get back to the story of Jesus, the failure, in his hometown. It strikes me that Jesus could not perform miracles because the people he grew up with decided not to participate in what God was doing. In their smug scoffing, they can’t experience how God wants to transform and liberate people. Mark says Jesus is amazed at their unbelief. It suggests that we all have an essential role to play in God’s efforts to bring peace, well-being, and flourishing. Forging a more just and humane world requires cooperation by us for at least some of God’s aims to be fulfilled. God invites us to partner in making the world a better place. Love can win, if we cooperate. We can bounce back from our fears and failures together.

All of this connects me to a poem I once read. It come from the Elders of the Hopi Nation. I offer it as my prayer.

Here is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid, who will try to hold on to the shore. They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly.

Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore. Push off into the middle of the river, and keep our heads above water. And I say see who is there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary.

All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration. For we are the ones we have been waiting for.

Suffering and loss is part of life, not a sign of personal wrong-doing. Failure is not a moral or character flaw. It’s just life. And when it happens we will need to let go of the shore, together. I know we are afraid the current will tear us apart. I know. But we need to let go of the shore and move to the middle of the river. I cannot promise it will be safe and secure. All I can say is take time to look around and see who is here with you. Celebrate. Take a deep breath and try to be thankful. We can survive. We can bounce back. We have the strength to change courses and the compassion to cooperate. Yes, we are the ones we have been waiting for.


Sermon for October 15, 2017

Unforgiveable Sin

Genesis 45:1-28

Is there a sin that’s so bad that it’s unforgivable? Is there be a betrayal so treacherous that God would refuse to pardon it? Murder? Suicide? Adultery? Abuse? Will God forgive the perpetrators? Has anyone ever done something to you that was unforgivable? Has anyone ever shown such deep disloyalty to you that the very thought of that person makes you sick?

If anyone could have felt that way, it could have been Martin Luther King Jr. One night, his home was burned down by a group of white men who hated his message about racial equality and the black voter initiative in the south. Under the leadership of Dr. King, African-Americans grew more confident of themselves, less willing to be oppressed and neglected by society. And they were angry -- angry about their treatment by white society. They were particularly angry on the night that their leader’s home was destroyed. A crowd of Dr. King’s friends and supporters gathered. Some talked about getting guns. Others talked about getting gasoline and setting fire to the homes of all the white people in the area so that they could suffer as the black people had suffered. The crowd wanted to hurt those who had hurt them. They wanted to destroy their enemies.

It’s a common human reaction. We instinctively seek revenge. We convince ourselves that evil deeds deserve instant repayment. We’ve all witnessed the well-known threat tactic of upping the ante -- letting an opponent know that if they so much as sneeze on someone you love, it will cost them a limb. If you have tried an eye for an eye and it really didn't do anything except help sell eyepatches, the only way to stay alive is to be drastic. Pay back any offense tenfold, or even a hundredfold if necessary. We teach this to children at an early age. Do any of you remember this nursery rhyme?
Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs

What a drastic response to avoiding one’s nightly prayers! Some people think the poem had to do with the feud between Catholics and Protestants under Henry VIII, when Catholic priests went into hiding and were persecuted if discovered. The poem might have been part of a propaganda campaign against the Catholic Church. It starts young, doesn’t it? Violence escalates revenge, and revenge escalates violence.

I wonder if Joseph felt caught up in this cycle of revenge. If anyone had the right to hold a grudge and get some hundredfold revenge, it was Joseph. Joseph’s brothers hated him so much that they dumped him in a hole in the ground when he was a young boy. They left him alone there for days as they decided whether to kill him. When they returned, Joseph was gone and given up for dead. It turned out, he was kidnapped and sold as a slave to Egypt. Decades later, Joe is now the second-in-command in Egypt. While the rest of the world suffers from a sever famine, Egypt has plenty of food due to his shrewd agricultural practices. Now people from all nations come to Egypt to buy grain, including 10 of Joseph’s brothers who are now older men. Joseph sees his brothers and he recognizes them immediately, but they don’t know him. The text says, “He spoke harshly to them.” In an explosion of anger, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. Finally, Joseph’s sees his chance for revenge. Taking the role of the cruel ruler, he will hear none of his brother’s excuses. He demands that they be locked up, and that only one return home to get Benjamin, the youngest brother who stayed behind as an insurance policy to carry on the family name in case anything bad goes down. Then Joseph changes his mind, imprisoning one brother while the rest go home to fetch Benjamin. His inconsistency reminds me of the psychological warfare we see today – constant mind games designed to create fear and uncertainty in the minds of opponents.

Our faith teaches us not to get caught up in the endless spiral of vengeance. The gospel says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus often makes statements like this – expectations that are impractical and impossible to live out. How do we do it? How can we do good to people who have gossiped about us, or cheated us, or violated us? How do we love the abusive parent, or the teacher who embarrasses students, or the ex-spouse who tries to destroy relationships? How can we love our enemies when our impulse is to hurt them back even more then they hurt us? How can I love someone I distrust? How can I bless those who curse me?

The night Martin Luther King Jr.’s house burned did not end in violence -- the way that feels so natural. Instead, the crowd left their enemies in peace and they went home determined to win the victory with votes instead of with guns, with politics instead of with fire, with love instead of hate. Dr. King calmed down the crowd by channeling Gandhi as he said, “When you live by the rule, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, you end up with a nation of blind and toothless people.” Dr. King believed that a new society could not be built by violent means. He believed that one could only defeat the enemy with love, that the way of violence only leads to more violence, that hate only fosters more hate. He would not allow others to seek revenge when his house was burned. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.

We can claim the role of victim to someone else’s sin, and then pay them back with revenge. We can allow hatred to grow and infest our souls with its hellish tendency towards exclusion. Just know when we do this, forgiveness flounders. When we believe our enemy commits unforgivable sin, it somehow justifies a response of violence, exclusion, or elimination. It can lead us to think it’s OK to take on the role of punishers – God’s instruments of vengeance, even when God never asks us to accept that job in the first place.

Forgiveness happens when we stop trying to justify our hatred by pointing out the wrongdoing we’ve suffered. Liberation comes through confession. Real forgiveness is not about revenge, but about repentance. Only those who can forgive will be capable of pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to turn justice into revenge. Love is a choice. Love is the decision to do right even when wronged, to do good even when bad is done, to bless even when you are cursed, to forgive even when you are condemned, to care even when you are not cared for.

In June 1992, Serbian paramilitaries invaded the Franciscan Theological School in Sarajevo, holding everyone inside prisoner. There were sixteen Catholic priests and brothers, and eight nuns. The soldiers were amped up, some buzzing on cocaine. They went through the school destroying everything: shooting up the chapel, ripping paintings off walls, burning the library, and hitting the priests with rifle butts. The captives were certain that they would be killed any minute.
During horrific chaos, Sister Isadora, a nun in her eighties, addressed the young militants with love like they were her grandsons. One man, barely in his twenties, had blood spattered on his shirt. He was trying to ignore it, but it clearly bothered him, and he kept trying to wipe it off. Sister Isadora approached him saying, “My boy, your shirt is stained. Let me get some water and clean it.” She took a damp rag and began to clean the blood from his collar. When she finished, she asked to go to the bathroom to clean the rag. The young man and one of the priests accompanied her. When they returned, the young man had his gun pressed hard into the priest’s side. Sister Isadora touched the man’s arm and waved the gun away. “Move out of the way,” she said. “Come with me and let us go into the kitchen and make some tea.” And he did. When the soldier’s superiors found out, they were angry, but that young soldier never harmed the captives. After several days, a prisoner exchange was negotiated and all the captives were released. That is the power of love.

Let’s get back to the story of Joseph. When his brothers finally return to Egypt with their youngest brother, Joseph throws his arms around Benjamin and reveals his identity to his family. Now the brothers are really afraid. Realizing what they had done, knowing who this powerful man really is, they expect revenge. Their guilt outweighs the possibility of Joseph’s forgiveness. But Joseph breaks the cycle. In untypical human fashion, he doesn’t repay his brothers for their evil deeds. He no longer carries the baggage of bitterness that burdens an unforgiving heart. Joseph’s brothers expected nothing better than retribution. Joseph offers forgiveness – a reminder of the kind of forgiveness that God shows to us.

Jesus sums up this ethic by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is truly a golden rule. The golden rule is balanced by another spiritual idea: “The judgment you give, is the judgment you will receive. What you sow is what you will reap.” I think about this a lot when I’m dealing with people whom I would rather not be around - those whom I feel like harming rather than healing. I try to tell myself, “Count to ten Matt - and at every count remember that what you do right now, for better or worse, will come back to you in abundance. Forgive - because you need lots of forgiveness. Bless, because you need lots of blessing.”

How would you have others treat you? What measure of forgiveness do you want to receive. Imagine if the pain we carry inspired us to take on the difficult work of creating a more compassionate world, and making the necessary emotional investments so violence and needless suffering do not prevail.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.
Heather Zydek, ed., The Revolution
The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible: Genesis

Sermon for October 8, 2017

Missions and the Multiverse

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. ~1 John 4:2-8

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
“Love the sin but hate the sinner.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“When God closes a door, a window opens.”

I hear these phrases all the time. People tell me they are in the Bible. I don’t think they are. They sound so good, as if they have wisdom and authority. They sound good, but the theology is bad. When I think about what it means to be a Christian, I think there are a lot of good ideas with bad theology. Let’s think about three ideas that have crept into Christian thought and practice … three ideas that sound good, but are bad theology: Determinism, Mechanism and Reductionism. They sound academic, so let’s break the ideas down. Buckle up.

Determinism means everything in the universe is pre-determined by God. God maps out each moment and every second of our lives. God plans everything, down to the tiniest decision. Some of my Evangelical sisters and brothers put it this way: “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” If God knows all and sees all, then God must plan all. It sounds so good. I really want to believe it. But it’s bad theology. Why? Because God never shares the entire plan with us, so we are left trying to figure God’s pre-determined plan on the fly. If we stumble upon the right move, we get blessed. If we stray from the pre-determined design of our lives, we get labeled as sinners and face God’s wrath and punishment until we get back on the path, even though we don’t really know where the path is, or how we got onto this side path in the first place. Determinism is bad theology because it doesn't consider our free will and creativity.

I think it’s better theology to say God has aims for the world. Don’t worry about falling out of step with God’s exact plan. Instead, build God’s reign of wholeness and peace. Invite and welcome all to take part in God’s banquet. Defy evil structures with self-giving love. How you do this involves freedom, risk, failure, prayer, and action. We all do it differently, but work towards to same common aims.

Here’s another good idea but bad theology: it’s called Mechanism. It means God brings order out of chaos. To prove this, people will quote a verse from 1 Corinthians, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (14:33). Sounds good, doesn’t it? But that proof text is only half the verse and taken out of context. No matter. I’m told God wants to make the word predictable, like a machine. If something breaks, we can find a replacement part and get it back running again. This is bad science. There are too many things going on in the universe to make it orderly and predictable. Predictions only work if there are ideal circumstances, but it turns out there are no ideals. For example, let’s assume space is empty. Nope, can’t do that. There are little bits of virtual particles flying all over the place. So, let’s just assume we have particles. Wait, we can’t do that. Those aren’t really particles after all. They are waves. So, let’s assume we have waves. Yeah waves. Nope! The waves are acting like particles, except when you want then to act like particles, and then they look like waves.

Uugh! Can we skip this and just talk about the weather? Sure, but the weather might be the single greatest example of unpredictability, especially due to climate change. There are far too many variables for scientists to predict anything more than 3-5 days out with any real accuracy.

The idea of a God who created a mechanized world just is not true. God is wildly unpredictable. We say God is love. We want some order and predictability to our lives, and then these unpredictable attacks happen, and then we want to know why a loving God allows bad things to happen. Growing up, well-meaning church folk taught me that the reason for human suffering is sin. Humans looked at God and said, “I don’t need You, God. I can build my world without You.” God said, “If you take that position, you will suffer and die.” Humanity took that position anyway and began to suffer, and we’ve been dying ever since. I was taught that active rebellion against God is the reason that we have so much pain. All of it – hurricanes, mass shootings, tyrannical public leaders – all of it is a consequence of human sin. It sounds so good because it’s so tidy and predictable. Now we have someone to blame. We can label a group of people as defective and then blame them for bringing misfortune upon themselves. We never have to lift a finger to help relieve the world’s pain when we can just blame victims. Good idea? Maybe not good, but convenient. It’s also bad theology.

To think God is going to tame the chaos of violence with a predictable set of rules might be a good idea, but it’s not good theology because God is not a machine. Here is the best theology for why chaos happens in a world where we want order: “I don’t know.” God is not a machine. God is love and machines do not love. I want to know the mind of God. I want to know how God is going to bring some order and meaning into my story. But it’s not my story. It’s not your story. It’s God’s story and we are not God.

The third good idea with bad theology is called Reductionism. Reductionism means taking a complex idea and boiling it down to one over-simplified statement. We hear reductionism when someone says, “We are more similar than we are different. At the end of the day, we are one big human family.” That’s true. We are a big human family … that speaks 6900 distinct languages, organizes into over 10,000 distinct religions coming from more than 5000 ethnic groups. That’s actually a lot of diversity.

Sometimes we try to boil down complex ideas about God into a simplified set of steps. Have you ever heard of the plan of salvation? Some people called it the Four Spiritual Laws. In four steps, you can know for sure that your soul will be right and you will be in heaven with God when you die. If you repent of your sin and say a quick prayer to accept Jesus into your heart, you are good with God and off the hook for eternal punishment. It sounds so good, but it’s a thin and counter-productive heresy. Reductionism can lead to fanaticism and narrowness of vision.

There is a hypothesis making its way around the halls of physics called the multiverse. Some physicists speculate that there exist an enormous, possibly infinite, number of universes like ours, each of which has slightly different values for the constants that appear fine-tuned in our own universe. In this vast ensemble of universes, some universes will have a range of conditions that permit life to flourish. Others will not. We have no know way of seeing any of these universes. We can only observe a universe if we are alive in it, so we find ourselves living in this life-permitting universe rather than one of the life-prohibiting ones. Even so, we are told, elegant mathematical equations can predict the existence of two, twenty, or a trillion other whole universes.

For fun, let’s assume the multiverse hypothesis is true. Life just got even more complex, not simpler. In a complex universe of universes, what can we claim as true? What if God is a network of networks? What if God is a multiverse always influencing and being influenced? I affirm that God is active in every moment of life, gently guiding the universe of universes toward the possibility of greater complexity and beauty. That long before the emergence of humankind, God formed the interplay of creative wisdom and creaturely decision-making. That God always calls us toward creative transformation. That as inheritors of grace, we can grow in wisdom, embrace our whole selves, flaws and all, and contribute to the flourishing of our world by healing our communities and the planet.

What if God is a network of networks, always influencing and being influenced? In this way of thinking, God is so complex, there can be no one single mission that controls God’s actions. Instead, God’s missions, God’s actions, are controlled by God’s values and vision. When we say, “God is love,” love becomes the connective tissue that holds an infinitely complex set of systems together.  Everything is in process; nothing ever stays the same; all things are interconnected; no human is an island; things are present in one another even as they have their autonomy.

The same can be true for an organization like CCC. For a medium sized church, we are complex. What we do here takes a lot of volunteer time and resources. Sometimes when we feel disorganized, I wonder if it’s because we are trying to define ourselves with one mission when we really have many missions. We are supposed to have succinct mission statement that says what we do. We follow this with a larger vision statement that describes how we will do it. It sounds good. We want a pre-determined plan, rational predictability and simple answers. It sounds good, but what if it’s bad theology? I’m just asking the question. What if we are so focused on the what and how, we forget to ask, “Who are we?” What if, instead of trying to make ourselves orderly and predictable, we recognize we are a community of creativity, paradox, competing resources, and complexity? Ok, I know I just sent all of the Myers-Briggs “Js” into orbit right now. Bear with me.

We are facing some difficult decisions as a church. What do we do with our retreat house? How do we face status quo budgets and membership? How to we pass our legacy of faith and activism on to the next generation? Can we prime ourselves for meaningful outreach in the community?  Experts will tell us that we must focus on our mission and make sure our programs express our overall purpose. I hear people at CCC will say, “We don’t have a mission.” They are probably right. Because we have missions. So I’m wondering out loud, instead of a mission statement, is there something else that holds us together at CCC, something that can sustain our multiverse of missions, some values like love, compassion, inclusion, radical hospitality, and spiritual activism?

What happens when we make key decisions based on our values? I want us to try this over the next few weeks. When difficult conversations come up, let’s ask, “What are our values?” Not, “What do we hold to be true?” Not, “What are we going to do?” First, let’s ask, “Who are we?” We keep asking the values question until we reach consensus, or acceptance. Values guide behavior.

Unless we take time to explore the values that are important and meaningful to us, there won’t be a shared sense of understanding, trust, and candor.  It’s not enough to simply parrot the published values of the church.  We need the courage of continued dialog that explores, uncovers, and articulates values, and also areas of mistrust or fear.  Only then can we begin to sort out our missions and decide what to do and how we act.

Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Bruce G. Epperly

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...