Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ninety-five tweets

Joel 2: 23-32; Luke 18: 9-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 27, 2013 – Reformation/Reconciliation Sunday

Earlier this week, I was driving on Main St. with the intention of doing an errand. As I was trying to find parking, and driving around the block, I saw a young man holding a large sign, as big as a sail for a small boat. He was standing on the sidewalk near the green on Delaware Avenue. His sign read on one side, “Turn to Jesus, not ‘churches’”, with ‘churches’ in quotes; the other side read “Come to the Living Jesus – ‘churches’ are a joke”.

Now I have to admit my heart stung a bit at the words “‘churches’ are a joke”. It’s my first week on the job, and everything is new. I feel as though I am making my way out of a cocoon into the world. And I am a curious person. After all, maybe he could be part of some post-emergent group, a get-back-to-the-original-Jesus movement, ‘spiritual but not religious’. So I walked over to where he was standing.

Hardly anyone was stopping to engage him in conversation. Most people just walked on by or crossed the street. I greeted him and asked him what his message was. He told me that Jesus cannot be found in the church, that churches are corrupting the message of Jesus by instituting a system of salvation, and by that he meant the prayer by which we must admit that Jesus is our personal Lord and Savior. He told me that all that is necessary is to spend time alone reading the New Testament and the words of Jesus, that Jesus is alive, is real, and that Jesus wants our hearts.

Now some of that I could get with. Yes, the Church with a big ‘C’ has done much over the centuries to warp Jesus’ message of love, compassion, forgiveness, and justice. Many people have left church because they have been hurt or some would say because of the apparent hypocrisy of its members. But I also wanted to present another point of view to him, because like any human being who knows with all certainty that they are right, he was generalizing.

So I stuck my foot in it and introduced myself as “Reverend” Cynthia Robinson (something I rarely ever do), pastor at the New Ark United Church of Christ down on Main Street. Go ahead: shake your head and groan, put your face in your palms, roll your eyes. I told him that the church saved my life, a particular church that he knew nothing about; a group of people who showed me who Jesus is and that he loves not only me but everyone unconditionally.

Then he started in on me like any reformer would. The church cannot save you; only Jesus can. You have no authority over anyone. By your own words you have condemned yourself. Only Jesus can save. I tried to engage him around community, that the church is a community where we come to know the living Jesus. I asked him if he had community—friends, people he studied the Bible with. He shook his head ‘no’, telling me that there was no one who sponsored him, that he travels the country and the world, telling people about the living Jesus. After a time he at least shared his first name with me: Abraham.

After we had parted ways, and I was driving down S. College Ave. I saw another young man holding another similar large sign. Of course Abraham does not work alone. Like any good follower of Jesus, he has a compatriot, someone with whom to share the difficult yet joyful path of discipleship. And maybe a network of some kind printing the tracts he was handing out.

After some research on the internet, I learned that Abraham is part of a family of eight, the Woronieckis, who travel the world sharing their message of sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus and soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone. Though my friend Abraham would probably not use these terms, like Martin Luther before him, only these can save, only these have the power to transform a human life. And so thus began the Great Reformation roughly 500 years ago.


Many scholars are declaring that every five hundred years or so, not only Christianity but the western world goes through what Anglican bishop Mark Dyer calls a giant rummage sale—tectonic shifts in politics, culture, economics, society, and religious belief, practices, and organization. In 1517 it was the Great Reformation; 1051, the Great Schism between eastern and western Christianity; roughly 500 years before that, the Fall of Rome, the papacy of Gregory the Great and the Benedictine Rule of monastic life; and then the Great Transformation, when we moved from before Christ into the common era. The time we are living through now is being called by some as the Great Emergence.

Author and Anglican Phyllis Tickle writes that every time there has been a gigantic shift in thinking and organization of western Christianity and civilization, there has been a central question: by what authority do we live? At the heart of Luther’s reformation it was the Bible. The Bible, not the Church, not the priests, was the authority in a Christian’s life.

In today’s world the Bible no longer holds such pride of place. In fact there are accepted practices in the Bible that we now have deemed unacceptable: slavery, the inequality of women and children, the exclusion and denigration of love between same-gender persons. The dominant Christian, primarily white voice in this country will no longer be the majority in a few short decades. We are a nation, we are a world of many voices, many understandings of how to navigate this ocean of tremendous diversity in which we are all one. And most of the time, we tend to think our way, our view is right.

In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story to us, about us, who trust in ourselves more than we trust God’s saving grace. We cannot receive the over-abundant pouring-out from God that the prophet Joel describes if our heads are upright with solely our own sense of what is righteous. When we are bowed in humility, trusting not only our own understanding but relying on God’s grace, it is then that we are drenched in God’s love, soaked in God’s gift of self-acceptance, and we can be filled to overflowing with compassion for every sister and brother, every creature on this mystery-suffused earth. It may not be sola scriptura anymore, but we do not live solely for ourselves. If the only answer we have now to the question ‘By whose authority do we live?’ is “Not solely my own, not solely our own”, we may be, maybe, not far from the kingdom.

And so relying on God’s grace, what are your hopes and dreams for this church, for the Church, for the world, as we wait and see and work through this Great Emergence that we are living through? What about church do you want to see into the future? What do you think needs to be left on the table at the giant rummage sale? What do you celebrate about the church right now as it is? What would be the 95 tweets of the New Ark United Church of Christ? To put things into perspective, Luther’s 95 theses were actually a notice to the Church regarding what needed to be discussed, the beginning of a conversation that has lasted almost 500 years. So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

To get you started, I asked a few people these questions and I heard these responses:

• Should we grow larger?
• We need new energy.
• How can we be authentic and trust each other?
• More opportunities for outreach.
• How can we resolve the question and come to understand what is the role of children in church?
• Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to beg for CE teachers every week?

(The following is from the children and the congregation gathered this morning, 10/27/13):

Why do I love my church (from the children):

1. The people.
2.  God is here.
3.  Because my Mom loves to come here.
4.  Communion.
5.  Youth group.

And the congregation's responses to the questions above, including "Why do I love my church?"

1.  That we care for the Earth.
2.  We use inclusive language.
3.  Make sure our hearts are in the right place.
4.  We are not only for ourselves, but for our community.
5.  We are a voice for justice.
6.  Love our neighbors, which means everyone.
7.  Love that we share ideas.
8.  We need energy to do new things.
9.  Our church is a place for spiritual growth.
10.  Music is very important.
11.  We support each other and the youth.
12.  We explore questions, not always rushing to answers.
13.  We're a family.
14.  The congregation is the village in which we raise our children.
15.  We want to grow with young families.
16.  Build bridges with differences.
17.  Live God's extravagant welcome.
18.  We teach Our Whole Lives curriculum.
19.  God is still speaking.
20.  There have been times when we have not supported each other as we could have.  We can always improve.
21.  Walk the walk - we try to practice what we preach.
22.  Important that we communicate clearly with one another.
23.  Be authentic.
24.  People feel truly cared about.
25.  Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.  (Micah 6: 8)

Above all, let us remember that whatever we do, we do so in covenant with one another and with God. And so I’d like conclude with some words taken from scripture that are part of the United Church of Christ’s inclusive order for marriage: “Be merciful in all your ways, kind in heart, and humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another. Forgive as freely as God has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, remembering that as members of one body you are called to live in harmony, and never forget to be thankful for what God has done for you.”

And may God’s people say: Amen.

I saw her standing there

Today is my oldest daughter's 17th birthday!  I can't believe that seventeen years have passed since this awesome, beautiful creature came into my life.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Holding on and letting go

Genesis 32: 22-31; Luke 18: 1-8
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 20, 2013 
Jacob and the Angel, Anthony Armstrong

About three weeks ago, at the beginning of the government shutdown, Susan Thistlethwaite, former president of Chicago Theological Seminary, published an article in the Washington Post entitled “Why Republicans Long for a Debt Apocalypse”. In it she quotes a Washington Post/ABC poll in which 66% of Republicans want their representatives to cause an economic catastrophe. She writes that this is something more than just crazy talk. She goes on to remind us of Freud’s theory, that when human beings are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, the psyche, individual or collective, can induce a death wish, what the Greeks called thanatos.

The citizenry of the United States has been living with the “War on Terror” for 12 years, as well as wars we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and an economy in recession since 2008. All of this has been occurring during a period of immense social, climate, and technological changes, some of which happen faster than some of us can adapt to them. According to Thistlethwaite, all of this pent-up anxiety and fear has produced within our political culture a desire to ‘just crash the whole thing’.

As I was preparing to move here, I found it increasingly difficult to leave decisions open-ended, or I would wed myself passionately to a particular option. I have not lived alone for 20 years. I have not moved for 15 years, the longest I have ever gone without changing my address. As the anxiety escalated within me, I was frightened that living apart from my family could have the power to separate us for good. There were times I was crabby, tense, and difficult to live with. And when I read Susan Thistlethwaite’s article, I realized that I too was exhibiting my own version of the urge ‘to just crash the whole thing’.

Yet even when I became aware of this very human urge toward implosion, later that night I had a waking dream in which I rose out of bed, ready to fight some dark threat, my heart beating as if I were confronted by a burglar. It was as if my unconscious mind was saying, (pull out Darth Vader mask) “You don’t know the power of the dark side. You can’t end the turbulence within so easily. Hang in there, keep wrestling until you receive the blessing.”

Since humanity has been able to reflect on itself and human beings have perceived themselves as individuals and not just as a member of a group, the question of why do we move toward self-destruction, why do we act on our darker impulses has persisted. We have been wrestling with God on this point for millennia and we have not come any closer to an answer that gives us any peace. We have witnessed the power of prayer in times of inner and outward conflict and yet we have also experienced its apparent failure, when it seems the dark side has won.

How do we pray and not lose heart sometimes? We are all shades of light and dark, sunshine and shadow. Often, in the midst of change and transition, it can be daunting to trust the unknown, seeing only one step at a time. God never promised us a rose garden. God offers no guarantees; that’s why it’s called faith. And so, does the efficacy of our prayers depend on our faith or how frequently we pray? Is it how we word our prayers, how specific or general our requests? Would things have turned out the way they did anyway, regardless of our prayers?

In my experience, it seems to me that, in the American Christian experience of faith, too easily we grasp onto God and too easily we let go. The idea of God is something we should approach with fear and trembling as much as with comfort and release. The same could also be said about letting go of the idea of God. Too often, in the emptiness that our fear or anger or despair creates, we latch onto God as a cosmic cure-all, in a desperate attempt to assuage our very natural, very human dark side. We also tend to let go of God in that very same emptiness, when the God of our perceptions fails us.

There are two fundamental questions at the core of our human experience that as yet have no once-and-for-all, satisfactory answer: one, where did this existence we live in come from? How was energy transformed into matter? What started all of this? And two, where is all this headed? What is the purpose of the universe? To put it in terms of human experience, where did we come from, how did each of us unique persons come to be? And what will happen to us when we die? Any of those questions has the power to create an aching emptiness that often we can be so desperate to fill.

The majority of human beings have come to believe that there is some sort of higher power at work in this world, that there is something beyond what science and our five senses can tell us. There is a mystery beyond our present capacity to understand. Author Joseph Campbell wrote "We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what's important." But how do we encounter the mystery, the unanswerable, the ineffable?

Ironically, we generally avoid these existential questions at church. Ron Brown, one of my Connecticut colleagues, says that there’s not a great deal of wrestling in the church. There’s plenty of what he calls ‘rassling’: arguments over small details, tussles over relatively unimportant matters. But what the church needs is more wrestling. For instance, what about wrestling with the push and pull of the Holy Spirit and how we are called to be church not only today but in the future? What about wrestling with how to be like Jesus in our daily lives? What about wrestling with forgiveness and self-acceptance?

In these days it’s too easy to hang on to a feel-good faith or to let go of it when it runs empty. It’s hard hanging on to that mystery called God when what we’re wrestling with is the poverty or oppression of our neighbors or the cancer eating away at our life or an addiction compelling us to fill that emptiness inside us or the darkness seeping into our souls. It’s hard hanging on to God when we’re feeling spiritually hurt, especially when the church has been involved. And it is then that a lower power can take the place of our higher power.

Jacob had the nerve to hang on until the blessing came, and we are challenged to do the same. Yes, he came away with a limp, but God never promised us a struggle-free life and certainly not struggle-free community. God did promise to help us and to remain faithful and love us unconditionally—forever.

Jesus dares us to be persistent, even nagging, in our need for justice. God’s mercy is not of the quick-fix variety or a security blanket or a bulletproof shield protecting our bodies from all harm. Luke’s gospel was speaking to early followers of Jesus—Jews and Gentiles—around the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Few, if any, of Luke’s readers may have known Jesus; most did not. They were hopeful of his return but also despairing over their circumstances of persecution and what appeared to be permanent exile. In this parable, Jesus is telling his present disciples and those through the ages that God’s mercy will come quickly.

But how quickly, they and we wonder? People were perishing; communities of faith were growing weary, the power to transform seemingly ebbing away from them. Sounds familiar, yes? And so Jesus compels the disciples to engage in a spiritual discipline that is the same for disciples of the 21st century: to pray always and to not lose heart. And it is possible to pray always and not lose heart because prayer is a team sport.

Prayer that sustains us is more, though, than talking to God and a list of our requests. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that prayer is “to come into the presence of God in the hope that we will be changed by doing so.” In prayer we persevere with God, we wrestle with God, and we hang on until the blessing comes, until justice is done and mercy is granted. Prayer does not take us out of the world but brings us face to face with it and with God’s dream for the world: that blessed community of peace and righteousness for the whole of creation. In prayer we hang onto God for dear life and we let go of the outcome, trusting that God has not only our best interests, but the wholeness of all at heart.

The Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer are ones we can say through the day to help us not lose heart, to help us not let go of our hearts. I’d like to introduce you to another prayer to take with you, one that has power, like any other prayer, to bring change and healing: “Holy Spirit, if this direction or course of action is right for me (or for our church), let it become more firmly rooted and established in my life (or in our life together). If this is wrong for me (or for our church), let it become less important to me, and let it be increasingly removed from my life (or our life together).”

Are we ready to hang on for love and healing and understanding? Are we ready to let go of the schedule, the timeline, the expectation, the outcome and trust God? Are we ready for blessing, for justice, for mercy? Are we ready to be saved from ourselves? Are we ready to go deeper with God that we would be raised to new life? And may the people of God say, “Amen”.

[1] Flora Slosson Wuellner. Prayer, Stress and Our Inner Wounds. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1985, pg. 78.