Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gravity = Incarnation

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
Christmas Eve 2013
Earthrise from the Apollo 8 mission
December 24, 1968


Keep surprising us God.

 Keep coming in ways and people

we don’t expect.




            “In the beginning was the Word”.  And what was that Word?  The word logos, Greek for ‘word’, can also be translated as message, theory, motive, reason, wisdom, and probably the best one of all—story.  In the beginning there was a message, a theory, a motive or reason, there was wisdom, there was a story, and this story was with God, and the story was God.  All things came into being through this story.  Without this story not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4through this story was life, and the life was the light of all people.[i]


            In order to accomplish this story, to write this story, to have this story in the flesh, certain ingredients were necessary.  One of them was gravity,  a necessity for not only life on earth but for the existence of this universe.  I’ve been reading Col. Christopher Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.  One of the characters in the Christmas story is a star, and I thought it would be interesting to read about someone whose job it is to live amongst the stars and to explore space.


            It was also 45 years ago tonight that the Apollo 8 crew broadcast greetings from their orbit around the moon, the first ever.  As the crew took turns reading from the first chapter of Genesis, there were perhaps some who remembered Yuri Gagarin’s infamous statement that he didn’t see any God in space.


            It’s true, there’s not a lot of room for God or faith in the unknown in space.  Chris Hadfield writes of the numerous simulations and multiple years’ worth of training that he went through before he would go into space.  There’s no room for mistakes in zero gravity and zero atmosphere outside a wall that’s only 10 cm thick.  In space, prayer just might be the last refuge of an astronaut.


            There’s not a lot of room for the Holy Spirit in space: that unpredictable dance between us and God.  There’s not a lot of room for grace, if most mistakes are accounted for before even leaving Earth’s gravity.  The incarnation, God’s story in human flesh, needs gravity, that force which also brings stars into being.


            Almost all of us will never be in space.  All of what we do and feel and experience is here on Earth.  We are grounded.  Most of what we do and feel and experience is not life or death, like it is in space.  We don’t need to control the human factor not nearly as much, try as we might most days.  We need to leave room, indeed, a wide spaciousness for the Holy Spirit.  There is not only room but a great need for grace and forgiveness, because we can’t foresee or simulate all the mistakes we might make from now until we leave this Earth.


            But in space the view is one of wonder and awe at the expansiveness of God’s creation that includes tiny, insignificant, precious, and rare little us.[ii]  Each of us is a story enfleshed within a cosmic story of grace and love, justice and peace.  Each of us is made of the same stuff as stars, and through our lives light can shine.  And tonight we celebrate the One who came to show us the way.


            The incarnation is earthy, with a gravitational pull that pries us off of ourselves and puts the outcast, the poor, and the forgotten at the center of the universe.  Holy Jesus, may the force of love draw us to your lowly birth, to your life lived for others, to your cross, to your story of justice and peace for all creation.  Amen.



[i] Many thanks to Kate Braestrup for her words on this in her book Here If You Need Me, Little, Brown Co., New York: 2007.
[ii]“…tiny, insignificant…”: Eleanor Arroway, played by Jodie Foster in the movie Contact.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Great Emergence

Matthew 1: 18-25
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 22, 2013

             For the last 50 years or so, off and on, we have begun the process of breaking with convention.  We see it in everything from art to style of dress to types of worship to parenting to lifestyle.  And since the advent of the Internet and social media these changes have increased not only in speed, but also our ability to adapt to them.  Sometimes it seems as though everything is up for grabs, that the very ground is shifting under our feet, and there are times we don’t know when we need to stand and stand firm.


            Theologian Paul Tillich wrote in his book The Shaking of the Foundations that there were spans of time when we could listen to the prophets’ words of the mountains trembling, of the earth breaking into pieces and not take them so seriously.  But I think we’ve known for some time now that those days are gone. 


            And thankfully so, because in order for true change to occur, there needs to be some shaking up.  Breaking with convention in big and small ways helps pave the way for true liberation, so that those who have lived in hiding can come safely into the light.


            Convention told us that if you have a mental illness, suffer from depression, or if you have an addiction, you should keep it to yourself or at least within your family.  Convention told us if you had autism or Asperger’s, that you wouldn’t be able to relate us or us to you.  Convention told us that if you were being bullied, that it was part of growing up.  Convention told us that if you didn’t want to have children, it would be hard for your parents to not have grandchildren, that you were being selfish.  If you love someone of the same gender, convention said we don’t want to see you; don’t expect to enjoy the same rights or receive the same treatment as heterosexual couples.  Convention told us that there was an “us” and a “them”.


            It was not only convention but Jewish law that told Joseph that he shouldn’t go through with his betrothal to Mary.  In fact, the law called for Mary to be stoned to death, since she was found pregnant before being legally married.  When Jesus said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”, he could have been reminded of his own mother.


            We read, though, that Joseph is not one to throw stones.  He is a righteous man, a man of noble virtues, and does not want to publicly disgrace Mary.  This is one strong man.  Joseph was within his rights.  He could have had his pound of flesh for what appeared to be a betrayal of his trust.  Instead he planned to dismiss Mary quietly—a private divorce.  Which would have been more than enough for anyone else.


            But God says it’s not enough to be righteous and do the right thing quietly.  “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Though Joseph knows the truth about this child, no one else will.  From all appearances Joseph will be judged as the father of this child conceived before marriage.  He too will bear the sting of humiliation.


            It wasn’t enough for United Methodist pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer to perform the marriage ceremony for his gay son.  “Do not be afraid, Frank, to stand firm against bigotry couched as Christian doctrine.  For what you are doing is conceived of the Holy Spirit.”  Now he has vowed to continue to serve the LGBT community regardless of the decision by church officials to defrock him.  "I am actively committing to having those discriminatory laws changed and banished from our Book of Discipline," Schaefer said. "That's the only way I can reconcile being a United Methodist at this point."


            It’s not enough to say ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here’ and then get antsy about who might walk through the door or worry about children making noise.  It’s not enough to break with convention, to invite those who are in hiding into the light but then we must stand with them where they are, until it becomes so crowded that the walls begin to crack and the light streams in.


            This Great Emergence that we’re living through, this time of what seems like anything is up for grabs, this time of breaking with convention, this time of upheaval, what if what is emerging is us, our true humanity?  What if this is the time to bring all of who we are into the light?  That finally it is acceptable to be human in all our myriad incarnations, none of us the same, all of us beautiful and flawed, imperfect yet perfectly ourselves, authentic and real. 


What if what is being revealed, what if what is emerging, is the image of God within all of us?   “Do not be afraid to love, to be just, to have courage, to stand with those in hiding, for what you are doing has been conceived of the Holy Spirit.”


Recall if you will that two months ago I first mentioned this Great Emergence and that the pressing question that humanity must answer as part of this upheaval is “By what authority do we live?”  We know that for Western Christianity it is no longer the Bible.  We know that slavery is wrong, that women are not property nor should they be silent in church, that every person should be able to marry the person they love.  This knowledge contradicts the Bible and its ultimate authority.  So by what authority do we live?  What if, though, the answer could be universal for all human beings, no matter what their creed or belief?


I think the answer is another question:  In anything that we say or do, will we do so with fear or with love?  I think it is as simple as that.  Will love be our authority or fear?  Joseph was willing to do act with love but only so far as his fear would let him.  “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”


Where in our own lives or in our life together is God speaking to us, telling us to not be afraid to be loving, to be just, to be our true self, to have courage to do the hard thing?  When do we wear the outer armor of fear rather than the inner armor of love?  What are the hiding places and prisons in our lives and in our human culture that need to be brought into the light?  What do we really mean when we say and celebrate that God is with us?


Do not be afraid, Cynthia, to move away from the familiar, to start all over, to upend your family and to wed yourself to this church and this community, for this has all been conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And God is with you.


Do not be afraid, New Ark United Church of Christ, to be exactly who you are—flawed and fabulous—for you have been conceived by the Holy Spirit to be the Body of Christ, to be fearlessly loving, to be just, to have courage to do the hard thing, to stand with those still in hiding until the walls crack and the light streams in.  And God is with you.




Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Room for everyone

"Fling wide the portals of your heart; make it a temple, set apart from earthly use for heaven's employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy."

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Not what we expected

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
December 8, 2013

Week 1 of Advent - The Cycle of Light
The Cycle of Light (2011)

              When I was in college, I marched against South Africa’s apartheid.  It was my first protest march.  “What do we want?  Divestment!  When do we want it?  Now!”  Friends and classmates from Westfield State College, along with hundreds of others from various schools and walks of life converged on the steps of the city hall in Springfield, MA on a sunny, spring day to declare our hopes for a peaceful end to apartheid.


            Whenever we march and make protest, we do so with hopes rather than expectations.  For we know that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”, as Paul says to the church in Ephesus.  And so we temper our expectations with a dose of reality, recognizing that a good and lasting peace takes a long time to achieve.


            It did take a long time for apartheid to come to an end, for the people of South Africa to be one nation, for Nelson Mandela to be released from prison.  27 years.  I doubt that anyone in the apartheid regime expected Mandela to survive prison, let alone be released.  He was 71 years old when he walked out of his cell at Victor Verster Prison.  He then went on to become the first black president of South Africa, enlisting his predecessor, F.W. de Klerk, as one of his deputies.  He formed a Government of National Unity, blending an administration of white and black South Africans.  He initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, bringing to light human rights abuses on both sides, so that the process of healing and potential forgiveness could begin.


            I doubt anyone expected any of this to work.  The memories of violence, fear, and overwhelming death were still fresh and visceral.  Some did not expect Mandela to survive his presidency, that he would be assassinated not only for his radical initiatives but for simply being black.  Then to live to the age of 95; a black South African man living 9 ½ decades!  Who would have expected that?  From all appearances, the odds were stacked against him.

Madiba, father of a nation

            It’s not that people didn’t have faith.  Millions around the world believed in the rightness, the justice of his cause.  We human beings always seem to be caught between what is and what could be.  So we have hopes, that we may not risk our expectations to despair.


            The people of the southern kingdom of Judah may have even given up hope in their Babylonian captivity.  After approximately 50 years of exile, who would think that they would be able to return home?  And if so, what was left of not only their homeland but of their faith and God’s desire to be in covenant with them?  Hindsight isn’t really 20/20.  When bad stuff happens, our judgment and memory are clouded with emotion.  We look for who is to blame, sometimes holding ourselves not just accountable but worthy of shame.  And so God’s people blamed themselves for their exile, believing that because of their sin, God had abandoned them to the whims of their captors.


            The book of Isaiah is believed to have three authors, writing at different points in Judah’s history.  Isaiah 11 is believed to have been written while Judah was still in exile in Babylon.  These words surely spoke to the people’s hopes but this prophecy was not what was expected.  A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”  Out of something strong and established yet cut down shall come forth something vulnerable, something growing where nothing should.  God judging not with what the eyes can see or what the ears can hear (as we do) but with righteousness, with integrity and equity.  And then all those predators and prey shacking up like old friends, with a child at the front of God’s parade.  Not what was expected but certainly a dream worth longing for.


            But we know that receiving not what was expected is not always a good surprise.  We don’t expect cancer.  Or a stillbirth.  Or a gunman in an elementary school.   Or a natural disaster taking away a slew of homes.  Or the well-meaning but insensitive comments of others when we are hurting.  Or the rich getting ever richer and insulated and the poor continuing to get even poorer.  God upends our expectations of despair with utopian dreams when we have lost hope but what of God when it goes the other way?


            Certainly the people of Judah and Israel did not expect the Greeks and the Romans to be an occupying force in their country.  It was one thing to be carried off into exile; it was quite another to be rendered to a police state in one’s own land.  John the Baptizer was preaching a baptism of repentance, demanding that God’s people turn their lives toward God’s righteousness; that they turn in their ‘old lives for a kingdom life’.   In John’s hopes for the expected Messiah we can hear intimations of a longing for a zealot: someone who will clean not only the spiritual house of the Lord but also the land of Judah and Israel from foreign occupation.

The peaceable kingdom

            And though Jesus said that he had come not to bring peace but a sword, he also said that those who live by the sword, die by the sword.  He was given a bandit’s, a zealot’s death but he went to it willingly, even offering forgiveness from the cross.  Jesus hoped that there would be peace between God and human beings, but it would take longer than his lifetime.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “For Jesus, peace seems not to have meant the absence of struggle but the presence of love.” 


            To make peace with a world full of beauty and brutality can take a long time.  And to make peace with the God, the power, the mystery that created it can take even longer.  Oftentimes, we ascribe to God, that power greater than ourselves, the evil that we did not expect, that gave us unimaginable grief, for we do not want to make peace with that which does not give peace.  Though we would exile ourselves from God, God welcomes us home anyway.  Though we do not even know the way home, God sends us Jesus, a fiery, fierce yet peace-filled savior.  Though we do not know whether we can love or forgive or make peace yet again, God waits for us.


            And maybe that’s what Advent is all about:  God waiting for us while we’re coming to peace with what this whole existence is about.  Where does life come from and where does consciousness go when life is over?  Who are you?  Who am I?  Who are we?  How can I live peacefully with myself and with other human beings?


            Here are some signs that we might be experiencing inner peace:


·         Tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fear based on past experiences;

·         Ability to enjoy each moment;

·         Loss of interest in judging others;

·         Loss of interest in judging self;

·         Loss of interest in interpreting the actions of others;

·         Loss of interest in pursuing conflict; 

·         Loss of ability to worry;

·         Frequent periods of appreciation;

·         Feelings of connectedness with others and with nature;

·         Increased susceptibility to acts of kindness extended by others;

·         An increased tendency to let things happen rather than make them happen;

·         Uncontrollable urge to extend kindness;

·         Gaining the ability to love without expecting anything in return.

Not what you’d expect, these signs of inner peace.  And I think before we can make peace with God or with our neighbor, we have to make peace with ourselves.  Accept ourselves, all of it, our flaws and our unique capabilities, our sins and how we can be such a blessing, our hurtful ways and our ability to love, be courageous and humble in heart.


            For in this way the wolf and the lamb can lie down within us.  For in this way a child can lead us.


            Peace be with you.



Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Live the way we're made

This past Sunday we didn't have a typical sermon.  I had arrived the night before by train from visiting my family for Thanksgiving.  Happily, this is a church that cares more about the integrity of message rather than its form.

So I gave some introductory comments to set the tone.

I reminded folks of a classic Star Trek episode, entitled "Wink of an Eye", about a species of humanoids whose metabolism is so accelerated that they are rendered invisible to the human eye.

This video contains time-lapse photography in which we see the blooming of flowers, the sunrise and sunset in a span of seconds.  Imagine if our lives were filmed with time-lapse photography.  Would we be rendered to a blur by all of our activity?

Advent is a time to slow down, to allow ourselves to see the way God works, so we can live the way we we're made.

Text:  Isaiah 2: 5-10

Monday, November 25, 2013

Not our own

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 24, 2013

           As John Williams and Dennis Christie and I were planning worship this week, we were struggling with the last verse from this morning’s reading:  “…all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.”  How does the universe get fixed by the death of Jesus on the cross?  How can anything harmonious come from a horrible death?


I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky


            None of us could get with Paul’s interpretation of the crucifixion: that God sacrificed his own son to atone for our sins.  We were having none of it.  No divine child abuse.  No Abraham and Isaac.  No bloodthirsty God.  So how does Jesus save from the cross?


            I remember when I was a teenager this story captured my imagination, the idea that someone could love so much, could inhabit love and make it manifest in their very being, that they would be willing to suffer and die for that love.  At that time in my life I needed a love like that.  My parents were divorced, my father had moved to North Carolina and remarried, and my mother’s boyfriend moved in.  We had moved to a new town a few years before, and I had just started high school.  A crashing case of acne was the crowning touch to feelings of isolation, anger, and despair.


            It was through the community of church that Jesus saved me.  I found people who loved me unconditionally and who showed me the blessed yet risky business of following Jesus.  Though nothing in my life changed, everything changed.  I stopped blaming God for my life and started thanking God for my life and for my church.  And the beginnings of a call to ministry stirred within my young frame.  I thought that if I could be a part of exhibiting that same love to another person, someone else who was in need of that saving love, then I would give my life to that love.


            At my ordination service I chose these words from the gospel of Matthew:


 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?’”


Jesus on the cross reminds me that my life is not my own.  Not because he ransomed me from death as punishment for sin, as is the classical interpretation, which many Christians have left behind but what, if anything else, is in its place?  Jesus spending his life for the sake of the kingdom, a kingdom that values every person, regardless of life circumstance, reminds me that not everyone is free, which means that I am not free.  Because I believe that Jesus is God’s love incarnate, in human flesh, I am bound to not only all human beings but to the very creation itself.


            Jesus chose to side against empire and join with the poor and outcast and live as one of them.  He came from a small, coarse, working-class village, from whence no good thing could come, some thought.  He rebelled against the powers that would keep wealth for a few at the expense of the many.  He had a habit of building up people by breaking the rules.  Some think he may have been a zealot, one who wanted to throw out the Romans and establish God’s kingdom on earth.  But when he entered Jerusalem on the back of a work animal, greeted by those who wanted to make him king, he would have none of it. 


If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God's angels in heav'n for to sing,
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.


His life was not his own.


            So how does a life laid down for friends knit together all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe?  Something about this story calls us out of our own life and into the lives of others.  Not only so we can fix a problem or right a wrong but so that we can learn how to love one who does not know their worth.  Most of us do not know our worth; we do not realize the impact we have on other lives.  I’m not sure we’re meant to, for then we might settle into complacency.


            As it is, we are discontent for the kingdom of God and ever striving for it.  And in this discontent we often increase our expectations; we bump and struggle with one another, sometimes adding to the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe.  Yet from that cross, from that place of unabated suffering, Jesus forgives us, for most of the time we know not what we do.  It is that forgiveness, that grace given, which turns our story inside out and into the world; a grace that overflows out of you and me, connecting us to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and for justice.


            Yesterday we witnessed some of the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe coming together in the marriage of Don Crary and Ed Robinson.  In marriage, in the covenant promises made, we understand in our love for another that our lives are not our own but rather something to be shared.  On Tuesday we will bear witness to the multitudinous promises that Wally McCurdy made throughout his lifetime.  Many broken and dislocated pieces of the universe were reunited through his life.  And it is in death that we ultimately realize that our lives are not our own.


            If it is still difficult to wrap your heart and mind around the cross and how from there the universe is being fixed, listen to these words from author James Alison, a Jesuit priest:


"...the only way I can get it across to you that I like you, is by occupying the very worst space that any of you can come up with, a place which you typically think I like to put people in. I don’t. It’s you who put people there, you at your very worst. I’ll occupy that space to show you that I’m not out to get you, that I really do like you. The moment you see that, then you can relax, and trust my goodness. Then you need no longer engage in that awful business of making yourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other. Instead you can relax about being good, and as you relax you will find yourselves becoming something much better, much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine.”  We can relax and be ready to give our lives away.


            Today we make covenant promises with one another, that over the course of a year, we will not only give but share what we have and what we are with one another, with this community, with our beloved United Church of Christ, and with the world.  For in this way we bear witness to the love that saved us and continues to save us from repeating the past so that God’s future may come.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.