Monday, November 29, 2010

Red alert!

Swords and Plowshares, Phillip Ratner, 1998, from the Safad Bible.

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 28, 2010 – Advent 1

I must confess to you that I procrastinated in the writing of this sermon, which can happen when God’s word is disruptive. After reading the gospel lesson numerous times, after praying, thinking, reading other sources and then reflecting on all of this, I was still quaking in my shoes. You heard the Matthew text. It sounds like a terrorist alert. “Warning, red alert! A dam has been destroyed due a terrorist bomb and a flood is coming. Warning! There have been random kidnappings in the area. Stay alert for further messages. Warning! There have been numerous break-ins in the area. Keep watch in your neighborhood.” We heard images of God coming into the world not as a cute, cuddly infant, but God as a flood, a kidnapper, a thief who comes into our lives with disturbing surprise and upheaval. What a way to begin Advent.

Did you know that in order to guard against a terrorist attack, our government established a website called It was launched in 2003 by the Department for Homeland Security. The website educated citizens on how to prepare for a terrorist attack, whether it be a chemical or biological threat, an explosion, a nuclear blast, or a radiation threat. Since Obama was elected in 2008 it is now sponsored by FEMA and Citizen Corps and is geared to prepare businesses, families, kids and military families for any natural or man-made disaster. The website exists so that we will be “better prepared for the unexpected.” During the Bush administration it used to display the different colors of the alert system. Since Sept. 11 we have been at a yellow alert and at various times that alert has been upgraded to orange. Red is reserved for an imminent threat of attack.

That color-code alert system reminds me of the 1970’s and ‘80’s when we educated ourselves about nuclear proliferation and worried that our Soviet neighbors would start the next world war. Those were anxious times.

And then there are the bomb shelters of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. And the air raid sirens of the 1940’s. It seems we have always lived in fear of our imminent destruction, especially since our technology has outstretched our ability to control it and use it for constructive purposes rather than destructive ones.

With the advent of ever-more revealing screening technologies and airport pat-downs, it seems we are more fearful of a terrorist attack than of God coming into the world. We are more ready to destroy ourselves than we are for God to disturb our lives with the message of Jesus.

Isaiah has a different vision of our future. In the future that Isaiah imagines, all nations come to God’s holy mountain. God judges between the nations and puts things right between them. And it is not God who beats the swords into plowshares but the people. It is we who turn our spears into pruning hooks, our weapons of mass destruction into tools for harvesting food, our bullets and bombs into grain to feed the hungry.

There is a monument in Washington, D.C. that illustrates this passage poignantly. Artist Esther Augsburger worked for two and a half years with the Metro Police Department to construct it. The sculpture, entitled “Guns into Plowshares”, measures 16 feet high, consisting of 3,000 handguns welded together to form the steel blade of a plowshare. The handguns were ones that had been surrendered by local residents.

It is this future that God wants us to be prepared for, this future of peace, this future of passing down knowledge to our children of how to feed people rather than how to kill them.

But sometimes it appears that this future, this vision of peace, is scarier to us than a future terrorist attack. When we prepare out of fear, we think we can hold onto what we have. We afford ourselves the illusion that we can control the outcome, that we can fight and be triumphant or that we can run away and hide if necessary.

When God warns us to prepare out of love, love for the kingdom, love for everyone including our enemies, including those whom we consider outsiders or we disagree with, we then have to let go. We have to let go of what we think we know, let go of our treasured opinions and way of living, let go of all that we think keeps us safe in the eyes of the world. We have to let go of our fear and embrace the way of love. Sadly, we humans seem to find it easier to base a life on fear than on love. And those in power find it easier to govern those who fear than those who love in Jesus’ radical way.

God comes into our lives and interrupts the order we have so carefully surrounded ourselves with. It is our reluctance to follow God’s way that gives Advent its sense of urgency. If we kept alive Isaiah’s vision even for just a few minutes each day, we think, we wouldn’t have to wake up to such a disturbing alarm. We wouldn’t have to listen to these Advent texts that drag us away from the manger and its warm scene. We could go about our orderly way.

But no. Jesus pulls up our eyelids and jolts us awake with the words, “Keep awake. You do not know when God is coming.” I have a sticker someone gave me that says, “Jesus is coming. Look busy.” We smile ruefully because we know that we have been too busy with things other than those which lead to the kingdom of God.

Jesus tells us that if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming, he would’ve kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. Hindsight is always 20/20, so we are cautioned to stay awake in the present moment, to not be lulled asleep by our comforts, to not numb ourselves from our fears.

If we had known that war only leads to death, destruction, and disease among nations and that the death of an enemy is no different than the death of a loved one in the eyes of God, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with our adversaries until God had led us to another way?

If we had known that deep water oil drilling is not failsafe, that an accident could be catastrophic—both to human and aquatic life, would we have stayed awake until we found another way to provide energy? We would have seen all people and not just some, all the earth and not just where we live, as one creation, made by God for all people.

If we had known that a child would grow into an adult in the wink of an eye, a spouse would change and grow over the years, a parent would get older and not as able, would we have stayed awake and kept watch with them until we found a way to keep our temper, give thanks for their love, accept them as they are, and take it all one day at a time?

If we had known that we were only given so many years on this earth to give, to love, to see, to smell, to touch, to hear, to taste, to know, would we have stayed awake and kept watch, watching for God in each moment, ready for God to break in at any time? We would have known our life here is far too precious to waste on business as usual.

Our God is the One who is always coming into the world. The waiting of Advent is not to wait for God to come but for us to prepare, to get ready. God is always ready to come into the life of this world and into our lives at any given moment, if only we stay awake and keep watch. If we are mindful of the holiness of each moment, of each breath, of each person, of each gift of creation, God is there, ready to break us out of our complacent ways of living and believing and transform us. We truly can be “better prepared for the unexpected”. Though we do not know when God will come, we do know God will. Of that we can be certain. What a way to begin Advent! Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bird by bird

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem A.D. 70, Roberts (1850)

Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 14, 2010 – Stewardship Sunday

As the passage from Luke was read, was not the description of events eerily like those we are experiencing now? Certainly we have wars and nations rising up against other nations. We have had plenty of natural disasters—earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, New Zealand and Indonesia, tornados, mudslides, cholera, famine, drought, forest fires—to herald this alleged end of times.

And then there is our popular culture that at times reeks with depravity. Play Station 3 game series like “Call of Duty”, some that are rated T for teen, where war is glorified in a virtual reality and war’s greatest pain is anesthetized. In our recent election we had pundits and politicians going to war with each other rather than engaging in serious debate about what needs to be done and how it could be accomplished. And then on a lighter note: neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees was in the World Series. Surely now we know that the day of the Lord is near.

But these supposed signs of the end do not happen only to nations, cities, or groups of fans. All of these are composed of individuals and families: individuals who have been laid off from their jobs; individuals who are poor and sick and cannot get adequate health insurance or quality of care; individuals who are in danger of losing their homes; individuals who are teachers, underpaid and overworked, and their students in schools with slim to no resources; individuals who struggle to get an education, to keep their family under one roof, to hold onto hope that things will get better. Surely these are also signs that God is coming to judge the living and the dead.

Let us also remember some other words of Jesus, that we cannot know the day and the hour when God will come. That is only for God to know. Even from our own experience we can say that when we think we know something is going to happen, the fact that we think we know is proof that we don’t know anything.

We live in a culture of fear, some of it due to outside forces, all of it due to our own human weakness. Thinking we know what is going to happen is our own defense mechanism of dealing with our fear. Jesus says to us in other passages in his gospel that our fear, our anxiety will only drive us away from God and away from each other. Jesus has more important work for us to do rather than managing our fear.

Jesus tells those around him that before the end comes, they will be witnessing to the truth of the gospel as they are living it out in their lives and for this they will be arrested and persecuted. This isn’t very comforting or reassuring. For the author of Luke this was already happening to the early Christians. They were convinced the end was near because the temple and all of Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. Being a Christian was not only unpopular, it was downright dangerous. Some Jews like Saul were bringing followers of the Way bound to Jerusalem as offenders of the Jewish faith. Believers were being tortured for worshiping Christ as their King rather than Caesar. These early Christians believed that their life in the flesh was nothing. The integrity of one’s soul was more important. As Martin Luther wrote in his famous hymn: “The body they may kill; God’s truth shall triumph still; God’s reign endures forever.”

But what is it that we can witness about? To what social concern shall we apply the truth of the gospel? Almost every one of them, from gay marriage to abortion to immigration to Islamophobia, creates conflict and divides the Church. If we are to witness, shouldn’t we be doing it together as a united front, as a Church, as the Body of Christ? Isn’t there one thing all Christians can agree on?

Often it is helpful to look at the passages that frame the lectionary text as a way of providing context for the message at hand. Before this morning’s text we have the story of the poor widow and her offering. Jesus said that out of her poverty she gave all she had to live on. The author of Luke immediately goes on to contrast this scene with other folk observing the almost royal beauty and splendor of the Temple, yet Jesus says it will be destroyed completely. And then after the text ending with “By your endurance you will gain your souls”, we are told the city of Jerusalem will fall. The “city set on a hill for all to see” will be no more.

Here is where the Church’s witness can focus in agreement. Poverty is a biblical priority. I read recently that one out of 16 verses of scripture is about poverty—one out of nine in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. James Forbes, a former pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, said, “According to Matthew 25, nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.”

All of these other supposedly “nonnegotiable issues” that the Church is in conflict over can sometimes be distractions from the one moral issue, poverty, that one that outweighs and informs every other issue. Abortion does not directly compel us to examine what everyday choices we make with our money, how we behave as consumers. Same-sex marriage does not demand that we change how we live our lives for the sake of others. Immigration and Islamophobia beg how do we treat the outcast in our midst yet they have not necessitated a transformation of individual and collective, corporate values. To be sure, these issues are important and deserve our attention, our best efforts, our faith, and our prayer. But surely not at the cost of our fellow citizens who live in squalor or who struggle just above the poverty line.

In this bountiful land there are 43.6 million people who are poor—the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates have been published; 50.7 million are without health insurance and 37 million are hungry. 3.5 million U.S. citizens are homeless—39% of them children. If our witness to the truth of the gospel is needed anywhere, certainly it is desperately needed by the poor.

“But,” we say, “What can I do? Am I to sell all that I have and give it to the poor? Surely Jesus did not mean that I am to trade places with the poor? What can I do? The problems of our world are so huge, they are seemingly insurmountable.” Sometimes we can let the problem and all its complexities overwhelm us to the point of being paralyzed.

Author Anne Lamott tells the story of her older brother who, when he was ten years old, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. She writes, “We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, CA, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Jesus does not expect us to save the world. I suspect he does not expect our nation to save the world either. As for how the story of the world is going to end, we leave that in God’s capable hands. All anyone can do is to give what they can on a daily basis to those in need. Of course, to those who can give much, Jesus said more will be asked of them. And if we think we are doing enough for the poor, if we think we are doing our share, the very fact that we think so is proof that we could be doing a whole lot more.

But we don’t have to have some grandiose plan, some lofty goal that just might kill our efforts and our spirits. One kindness, one intervention, one increase on a pledge card, one local food drive, one hour of literacy volunteering, one church tag sale, one Saturday at Habitat for Humanity, one time when we say what we really think, just taking it bird by bird. God calls us not to manage our fear but to be stewards of our love; our money, our time, our lives are the means by which we are able to be generous and extravagant with our love. It is all anyone can really do but with perseverance. Truly it is what Jesus did in his lifetime; it is his legacy to us.

We are not meant to preserve that city set on the hill for all to see. All that we do to protect the splendor and beauty that we have created will come to an end someday. But what we do for each other, for the poor, for our neighbors—whether they be next door or 10,000 miles away or somewhere in between—what we do one person at a time, as we give witness to the truth of the gospel as it is revealed in the living of our lives, by enduring in this way will we gain our souls, which are forever. Thanks be to God.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Kingdom migration

Moses leading the Israelites by a pillar of cloud

Psalm 98; Job 19: 23-27a; 2 Thess. 2: 1-5, 13-17
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
November 7, 2010 – All Saints Sunday

November is a season of migration. Flocks of Canada geese and sand hill cranes, millions of monarch butterflies, herds of bison and pronghorn, even rattlesnakes and bats, are making their way from their summer homes to their winter camps. In this month’s National Geographic magazine I read that “animal migration is far grander and more patterned than animal movement. It represents travel with long-deferred rewards. It suggests premeditation and epic willfulness, codified as inherited instinct.”

Evolutionary biologist Hugh Dingle has identified five characteristics that apply to all migrations: a prolonged voyage that conveys animals outside their familiar habitats; a tendency to move in a straight path rather than a roundabout way; special behaviors in preparation for migration, such as overfeeding; an extraordinary distribution of energy; lastly and most importantly, an undeterred and focused attention to the journey to the exclusion of all else. You might say that animals that migrate have a higher sense of purpose.

Sand hill cranes

We who journey with God are also on a migration of sorts—a spiritual voyage spanning millennia, bearing the same five qualities, though in differing forms. In the wilderness God’s people were led by pillars of cloud and fire. Through the centuries we’ve traveled by the wisdom of prophets and the inspiration of ordinary individuals. We who call ourselves Christian look to Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. We strive to follow the Holy Spirit who continually urges us onward to the unfamiliar territory of the kingdom. Special behaviors are required of us in preparation, such as being fed through study, prayer, giving, service and worship. As we all know in the Church vast reserves of energy are demanded of us as God’s hands and feet in the world, hence, the need to be fed. All of this is channeled into our higher sense of purpose, the kingdom of God’s grace, compassion, justice and peace.

A life of faith is a migratory path. There is no standing still, there is no status quo, despite the efforts of some to fashion the Church into an unchanging monolith. So often it is easy for us to be distracted. We hear the culture warmongering against the way of peace and justice; our spirits rise and fall with the financial market and our checking account; we are often tempted to measure our faithfulness in terms of what we do rather than by the softness of our hearts.

Monarch butterflies

The infant church in Thessalonica had been temporarily thrown off-course by reports that Jesus had returned without their knowledge, that the kingdom had arrived and they had missed it. Paul, or someone close to him writing in his name, encourages this small congregation to remain steadfast, to remember that they were chosen by God for faith and they are witnesses to the fruits of this faith. He reminds this fledgling church of the tradition that has been handed down to them by those trustworthy in the faith.

We too have a source of those trustworthy in the faith: those saints who have passed on before us, who entrusted us with the tradition of following the Holy Spirit wherever she goes. Migratory paths are taught from parent to offspring, from one generation to the next. We follow in the path of folks like Diane and Carlos, Charlie and Eleanor, Hal and Herb, Marjorie and Cecil. They knew that the path of faith is one of long-deferred rewards; that it requires reflection, planning and an epic willfulness, codified as inherited instinct—inherited from those who came before them.

Sometimes in the Church we inherit dysfunctional patterns—self-defeating habits that perpetuate unhealthy congregational behaviors which can take us off-course. It is up to every generation, as in every family, to decide what we’re going to hold onto and what we need to let go of. What was handed down to us may no longer work. It doesn’t mean we are disloyal to their memory. Rather we honor them when we remember that the greater mission is the kingdom of God, which does not change.


But our migratory path toward the kingdom is not linear nor is it spiral or zigzag: it does not even exist in time. In truth, at any given moment the kingdom can come to us. It comes when justice is lived, when we are at peace with ourselves and our neighbor, when mercy is done, resources shared, forgiveness spoken, when bread is broken and the cup poured out. The kingdom is eternally now, entering into our journey with God, when the invisible becomes visible in us and through us.

All of this we do step by step, one day at a time, feeling our way on this great migration. Our guidance system, our homing beacon is a mystery that tells us that God is very real, made known to us through the creation in which we live out our faith; for it is God who first showed us the way and continues to lead us home. And sometimes the only way we can articulate this faith, what we know to be true, is in song:

“Who taught the sun where to stand in the morning?
And who told the ocean you can only come this far?
And who showed the moon where to hide 'til evening?
Whose words alone can catch a falling star?

“Well, I know my Redeemer lives.
I know my Redeemer lives:
Let all creation testify;
Let this life within me cry
I know my Redeemer lives.”

"Redeemer"©Nicole C. Mullen

Friday, November 05, 2010

The stillspeaking church speaks again

As a friend and colleague of mine said, this is the church I love and love to serve.

Uniquely UCC from United Church of Christ on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Children of Abraham

Jesus and Zacchaeus

Psalm 119: 137-144; Luke 19: 1-10
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
October 31, 2010 – Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday

One of the most publicized family feuds was in 1998. It was the controversy over whether or not Thomas Jefferson fathered one or perhaps all seven of Sally Hemings’ children. Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia landowner and owned hundreds of slaves, Sally Hemings being one of them. For over two hundred years questions have been raised about their relationship and whether or not it produced children.

Technology caught up with those questions in the person of Dr. Eugene Foster, a retired medical professor from the University of Virginia. He compared the blood from five descendants of Field Jefferson, Thomas's paternal uncle, with the blood of the descendants of Sally Hemings, Thomas Woodson—whose family claims Jefferson as an ancestor, and the Carr brothers, Jefferson’s nephews—who were long thought to have fathered Sally Hemings’ children. Though the findings were not conclusive, they provided strong support to the supposition that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings’ children.

Thought it ranks high on the list, this quarrel is not entirely about racism, as we might assume. It also has to do with privilege: being buried at Monticello, not far from where Thomas Jefferson was laid to rest; open and accepted membership in a prestigious founding family. As a child, Shannon Lanier, a descendant of Madison Hemings, stood in front of his first grade class, stating that Thomas Jefferson was his great- great- great- great- great- great-grandfather. His teacher told him to sit down and stop telling lies. Ultimately this dispute is about inclusion, reconciliation and a sense of legitimate belonging in this nation’s history.


So you can imagine what a family reunion it must have been. Every year hundreds of Jefferson descendants, who comprise the Monticello Association, gather at the historical landmark after hours. And after an invite from one of the association members, dozens of Sally Hemings’ descendants began attending, not as family but as guests, and with them, hoards of reporters and photographers.

But as we in the church well know, an invitation can be a far cry from a warm and hospitable welcome. Many association members were in favor of the Hemings being in attendance but most were not. Eventually a vote was taken to deny them full membership and to restrict their numbers at the annual reunion. Attempting to form a human wall between the Hemings descendants and Thomas Jefferson, the association tried to deny them access to the Monticello cemetery. Since 2004 not one of the Hemings has attended the reunion; now they hold their own gathering at Monticello—at sunrise in a recently discovered slave cemetery. It’s not much of a stretch to say that, in order to get a clear glimpse of Jefferson, Hemings’ descendants may have to climb a tree, the family tree, limb by limb.

"Virginia Luxuries," by an unknown artist, around 1800. Courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

Zacchaeus knew what it was like to be excluded because of who he was. From the text we read that he was rich, he was short in stature and he was not only a tax collector but the chief of them all. These all look like many strikes against him.

And yet, according to the Jewish wisdom tradition, being rich was not an evil thing; in fact, it was a sign of God’s blessing and favor, that one must be wise and righteous in the eyes of God. Wealth was not an end in and of itself; it was vehicle for expressing one’s faithfulness to God and to neighbor. Are you generous or greedy, giving or withholding? And as for short of stature, the Greek words for this phrase translate as ‘small in maturity’, that is, the crowd was treating him like a child. They had formed a human wall between Zacchaeus and Jesus, deciding who had access to Jesus and who did not. A tax collector who worked for the Romans and the chief one at that? According to the crowd, Zacchaeus was definitely out.

In last week’s lectionary reading from Luke, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee who when he prays, extols his own righteous behavior and thanks God that he is not like ‘that tax collector over there’. Jesus, though, lifts up the humble faith of the tax collector beating his chest, praying “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Jesus also said that prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of heaven before the righteous. He was known to sit at table with sinners and tax collectors, even calling one to be part of his inner circle of disciples. And in today’s lectionary reading Jesus says he not only will but must come to Zacchaeus’ house.

This story has usually been read and interpreted as a man who once cheated folks but for having received Jesus into his home now repents and changes his ways. But according to biblical commentators wiser than I, there’s more to this story about Zacchaeus than meets the eye.

In verse 8 the Greek verb “to give”, didōmi, has been translated in the New Revised Standard Version in the future tense: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” But in the Greek and in other translations it is in the present active tense: “I give…”, “I repay…”, implying that Zacchaeus is already giving to the poor and repaying any fraudulent transactions. If citizens could produce the receipt given to them, tax collectors, by law, were required to repay the defrauded amount plus 20%. A faithful Jew was also required to give to the poor. Zacchaeus is not only faithful but goes beyond the law, giving half to the poor and repaying any debt plus four times as much. In fact, the name ‘Zacchaeus’ in Hebrew means “pure” or “innocent”.

Zacchaeus is a rich man in the classic Jewish tradition, in that he is more than faithful, but because he is the chief tax collector working for the treacherous Romans, the crowd grumbles and assumes Zacchaeus is a crook. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ household not because of anything Zacchaeus has done but because Jesus chose to lift up one who is humble and righteous, who is also a child of Abraham.

We human beings have a long-standing tradition of building walls between “us” and “them”, based on judgments, assumptions and half-truths. On Oct. 20 NPR political analyst Juan Williams was fired because of comments he made on the Fox network show “The O’Reilly Factor”. Here are his exact words: "I mean, look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." He also tempered that remark by saying that blaming all Muslims for the actions of extremists would be akin to blaming all Christians for the actions of Timothy McVeigh.

And yet Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all children of Abraham. He was the father of nations, promised by God who is the God of all nations. Abraham was not native to the land of Canaan but originally from Ur, a city-state in ancient Sumer that would later come under the control of the Babylonian empire, the empire that would one day destroy the temple in Jerusalem and send Israel into exile.

None of us can claim legitimacy for ourselves. Just as Jesus insisted on coming to the home of Zacchaeus, legitimacy is a gift we bestow on one another. It is when we reach out to ‘the other’ and say “You are my sister, my brother, I claim you as family, and this whole earth is our home.” When we are able to do this, then we will have reconciliation; then we will have peace.

Notice the Star of David and the blossom of light around Zacchaeus.

But peace and reconciliation require that we become small and pure in heart, like Zacchaeus. If salvation is to come to this house we call Earth, and it must come, it begins with each of us acknowledging our safe distance from the poor. It begins with taking inventory of ourselves and if we have cheated anyone of forgiveness, compassion, or justice, we restore to them not only what is due but even four times as much. We are to emulate Jesus’ accounting of grace, that we are to forgive not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven, that if someone takes our coat, we are to give our cloak as well, to go the second mile, to give to anyone who begs of us.

We cannot claim any greatness except that of God working through us, and even that is a dubious claim when one examines our track record with God. Yet God’s merciful cup overflows. God’s passion for us is a stubborn love and God remains steadfast. God claims all of us as children, as one family, that none would be lost, that all would be sought and found. Thanks be to God.