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.



Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The mercy seat

Isaiah 65: 17-25
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 17, 2013
Naive drawing in the style of of an ancient map of Jerusalem
to communicate Christian brotherhood and peace among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism,
in essence these three becoming a new Ark

            Many of you may already know this story.  But like any good story, it bears repeating, and in its retelling, the story becomes not only more cherished, but also more a part of us and of our shared history as a church.  Not unlike reading scripture.


            It’s the story of this ark.  The story begins with its creator, Norma Longhauser, Storm’s mother.  Norma was a very creative person.  She could have attended art school, paid for by her family, but that was not done by many women in her day.  Late in her life she took up woodcarving.  She had bad arthritis in her hands.  There was something about holding a piece of wood and a knife or chisel that helped ease the aches.


            Norma was not a member of this church.  In fact, Storm said his mother had some differing views in comparison to those of the New Ark.  But when Storm launched a fundraiser for a sound system for the sanctuary, Norma took up knife and chisel and wood out of love and support.


            Most of Norma’s other projects were larger:  carousel horses a third of size, decoy ducks, and such.  The ark and its passengers was the smallest scale item she had made, requiring many hours of slow, patient carving.  And most of you know how the story ends.  Bev Wieland won the bid on the ark and then donated it to the church, to the New Ark.



            Not so long ago in the history of the wider church, in the early 1800s, the ark and its purpose was a metaphor for the Church; that the Church was a refuge in troubled times and that those within this ark, the Church, would be spared from the wrath to come when Christ returns in judgment.


            Listen to these lyrics from a hymn entitled “The Hiding Place”, written by John Newton in 1803:

            You have only to repose
            On my wisdom, love, and care;
            When my wrath consumed my foes,
            Mercy shall my children spare;
            While they perish in the flood,
            You that bear my holy mark,
            Sprinkled with atoning blood,
            Shall be safe within the ark.


This was written the same composer who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace”.  Grace saved John Newton but it seems he could not extend the same grace to the rest of creation.  To him, the Church was seen as a hiding place from the storms of life, and those outside the Church were damned.  Some of us may have worshipped in a church where the rafters on the ceiling resembled the upside down frame of a boat or ark.  But we in the New Ark strive to live out that the Church is called not to be a shelter or refuge that keeps us from pain or from those in pain, but to be the nexus where we meet the storms of life, the storms of the world and the new thing that God is doing head on.

            That ark thrashing about in an earth-covering flood held the promise of life and a second chance for creation.  Then, after God had brought Israel out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, God did a new thing in the Ark of the Covenant that held the promise of community life wherever God’s people roamed, contained in God’s law written on stone tablets.

            The Ark was carried from place to place, never intended to be permanently settled in one place.  It was carried on poles and set inside an enclosure, a tabernacle or tent, only to be encountered by the high priest. On the lid of the Ark were two winged creatures, two cherubim, and their folded wings faced the center of the Ark, creating an empty space.  This empty space was called the mercy seat, the throne of the creator of the heavens and the earth, upon which the high priest would make a blood sacrifice on behalf of himself and all of God’s people; the seat from whence was given God’s mercy and grace.

            God was seen as doing a new thing with the mercy seat.  No more would God wipe out the sins of humanity by destroying human beings and all of creation.  Now the priest would atone on behalf of the people and mercy would be granted.  From this empty place, God’s people were given a second chance.

            In Eugene Peterson’s memoir entitled The Pastor, some young adults in his Presbyterian new church start wondered if the empty tomb wasn’t another ark, another empty space, another mercy seat from whence God’s grace was given for all time.  An angel sitting where once there was a body, asking Mary why she was seeking the living among the dead.  Again, in the Easter story, God is doing a new thing, is recreating new heavens and a new earth.  The former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  This is not just something God does once but again and again, not only for God’s people but for all of creation.
DESCRIPTION: The ark is for sale.  Sign out front advertising CAPTION:

            And so today this ark becomes our mercy seat, the empty space from whence shall come God’s grace, the new thing that God is doing in our midst, for the former things shall not be remembered or called to mind.  I have been reading the transcripts from the listening circles and what you had learned as a congregation from a time of great loss and pain and conflict.  And as I was reading I could hear all those things, but I also heard honesty, bravery, deep love, and a longing for healing and transformation.

            It was as if for some of this congregation there was a painful arthritis, an inflammation where two bones meet, between pastor and person, between one person and another.  And in order to deal with this pain, you took up wood and knife and chisel, and you began the long, slow, painful process of carving yet another new ark, by speaking and listening and praying some truly beautiful prayers.  God then won the highest bid for this ark, this new mercy seat, would ransom any price for you, and then gave you back to yourselves.


            And then into this empty space, where once there had been hurts and resentments but then became filled with a waiting for God’s new thing, you began to welcome the future, the unknown, the possibilities of the Holy Spirit working in your midst.  What do you think?  Are you now ready to release the former things and realize God’s joy and delight in what God is creating within you and amongst you?  Are you ready to build a future and live in it?  Are you ready to plant vineyards of justice and compassion and to share its fruits?  Are you ready to enjoy the work of your hands?  Are you ready for God’s mercy?


            And so into this empty ark on the communion table I invite you to bring your pledges next week and in the following weeks of Advent.  God’s mercy is already yours.  There is nothing you need to do to deserve it—only that you accept it.  So fill this ark with your hopes and dreams, with your faith that God will indeed and is already creating new heavens and a new earth here at the New Ark and through you and your life together.


            Mary Luti, a former professor at Andover Newton, said that sometimes the longest and most difficult journey is not from place to place but from the past to the future, from pain to forgiveness, from doubt to trust, from emptiness to new life.  So honor this journey you are on.  Honor it with not only your pledges of money, but with precious time to be spent, and numerous talents to be shared.  Let’s see what the Spirit has in store for us.  And may God’s people say, Amen.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Church is not for you

Psalm 145
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 10, 2013

Downtown Newark, DE
            I am convinced that God lives in downtown Newark because she keeps finding me whenever I happen to be taking a walk down Main St.  Earlier this week I was in the National 5 & 10 looking for a University of Delaware sweatshirt.  I had already been in a couple of times before and had looked in Barnes and Noble, scoping out all the options.  I was about ready to make my decision when I noticed two students, a boy and a girl, also shopping for sweatshirts.

            “Pick one,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”
            “The cheapest,” she said.  She turned and walked to another part of the store with him on her heels.

            I shook my head.  Really, I thought.  Young women are still playing that game?  The one where it’s not about how much a guy loves them but how much they value themselves.
I was standing on the right of that middle display; they were on the left.
            When I had finally decided on a bright blue one, complete with a little Blue Hen on it, the two of them were back, standing on the other side of a wide display of soft piles of sweatshirts.  She was still dithering over her choices.  I couldn’t take it anymore and said something.

            “Let me get this straight.  You can choose any sweatshirt?”


            “Yup,” he said. 


            “And you want to pick out the cheapest one?”  She shrugged in response.

            To him I said, “And you’re doing this because you love her.”  I left it at that, and went up to the cash register.  I do wonder, though, how that date ended.

            It was then that God brushed past me in the National 5 & 10, nudged my ego, and winked at me.  We do the same thing in our relationship with God.  God is ready to love us with an everlasting love, to accept us as we are, to forgive every hurtful thing we’ve ever done and redeem that which we’ve left undone.  And yet we’re willing to get by on what we’re willing to receive rather than live abundantly with what God is willing to give.

            NPR’s Scott Simon tweeted earlier this week:  “Priest came in and asked if he could pray for me.  Told him I was fine.  He said, ‘So a prayer won’t hurt, will it?’  We prayed.”

            And yet we’re willing to get by on what we’re willing to receive rather than live abundantly with what God is willing to give.

            Earlier in September I heard these words from author Kirk Byron Jones:  “What if Jesus really meant it?”  What if Jesus really meant that there is no end to God’s love for us?  Jesus would have grown up with, been steeped in the psalms.  Over and again he would’ve heard, just as we do, that God is kind and compassionate, slow to anger and endless in love, that God’s goodness is everywhere, and that God’s compassion extends to all of God’s works.  Jesus knew down deep in his bones that God’s love for him was infinite.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I well pleased.”  And it was from this knowledge, from this place of God-given, irrevocable acceptance, that Jesus was able to not only do but be what God called him to be—a vessel, a vehicle for that infinite, no-strings-attached love.

            There is nothing, absolutely nothing that we can do to separate ourselves from God’s love.  To be sure, there’s plenty we can do to cut ourselves off from it but we can’t stop God from loving us.  It would be like telling the sun to go away and shine someplace else.  Or sending the mighty Mississippi River back the other way.  Or leaning away from the best hug of your life.  All we need do is to wake up to this, every morning, and lean in.
Savage Chickens - Unconditional Love

            But it seems as though we register this knowledge solely in our brains.  We know God loves us, but in an intellectual sort of way.  I think what holds us up is that God accepts us and calls us as we are—warts, mess, and all.  And that’s something that needs to take root not only in our hearts and in our gut but in the very fiber of our being.  That’s what it means to be created in the image of God.  And I think that once we truly realize this, when we know that we don’t have to become acceptable, that we already are and so is everyone else, we’ll understand that church is not for us.

            Now I don’t mean that we won’t need church anymore once we know deep down that all the love we ever thought we should’ve had and needed, God will give us.  We still need church—a community in which we can know that holy, irrevocable love in one another.  We need people with whom we know that love is not always easy; that sometimes it’s downright hard and painful to love and we need help doing it.  And we need people who’ve always got our backs.  I know I’ll always need church for that.  But the church is not for me or for us.

            God loves us the same way and for the same reasons that God loves Jesus.  God loves us not only for ourselves but so that we would be a vessel, a vehicle for the very same infinite, unconditional love.  We are fully and completely loved so that we might share that same love with others.  We are church not only so we can be here for each other but also for those outside these walls who do not know their worth, that they might know themselves as beloved.  We are more than family.  We are the body—arms, feet, hands, legs, heart and mind—of Christ.

            Earlier this week I saw a news story about a middle school football team in Olivet,Michigan that made one of the best sacrifice plays I’ve ever seen.  The team orchestrated a play so that they would intentionally not score a touchdown.  In fact, the player with the ball went down on one knee at the one yard line.  Then the team called in Keith, a boy with special needs, to take the ball.  The team surrounded Keith, keeping him from all harm until he was able to cross into the end zone and score for his team.  This group of boys realized that their team was not solely for them but that they could be a conduit of radical acceptance for someone else.

            And yet we’re willing to get by on what we’re willing to receive rather than live abundantly with what God is willing to give.

            Last week we read these words by Ted Loder as our prayer of thanksgiving:

“As we have been drawn to this table and to you, O Lord, make us aware not so much of what we’ve given as of all we have received and so have yet to share.  Send us forth in power and gladness and with great courage to live out in the world what we pray and profess, that in sharing, we may do justice, make peace, and grow in love.” 

Make us aware of all we have received and so have yet to share.  What we have and continue to receive is nothing short of the fullness of God’s extravagant love.  And before we rush off to share it, let’s first soak ourselves in it, bask in its glow, delight in God’s sheer joy to greet us each day.  For it is then, with our God-soaked spirits, we can shower others with that same love, we can do justice, and make peace.

            We can love because God first loved us.  And it is a perfect love, a complete love that shows us the way; revealed through Jesus and now through us how it can be done.  And so we need to hear these words of love and praise again and again, because oftentimes we allow life to get in the way of this life-giving love.  Which is why God lives on Main St.  Because church is not for us.

            “Pick one,” he said.  “Which one do you want?”

            “How about this one?” she said, holding up one of the softest ones, not looking at the price.
            “Perfect,” he said, smiling.  “It matches your blue eyes.”

            “Do you think it’ll keep me warm enough?” she asked.

            “If it doesn’t, don’t worry.  I’ll be right beside you.”

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Children of Abraham

Luke 19: 1-10; 2 Thessalonians 1: 1-4, 11-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
November 3, 2013

Story of Zacchaeus, circa 1275,
Keldby Kirche,
from Art in the Christian Tradition,
a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.


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

Long story short, DNA from Jefferson’s descendants and those of Sally Hemings were compared.  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.  A lot of it 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.  Some 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.  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.
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 have the appearance of 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.  Was one 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.
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.  Yes, he admits he sometimes cheats; essentially he’s admitting he’s human.  Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ household not because of anything Zacchaeus has done but because Jesus chose to lift up one who’s honest about his flaws but who doesn’t brag about his generous nature, who is also a child of Abraham.
Last week our Muslim brothers and sisters at the Islamic Society of Delaware suffered an act of vandalism on their property.  Fenceposts and a sign were torn down and their electronic sign was pelted with rocks.  What may have made this most hurtful of all was that the vandals fashioned a crude cross out of two of the fenceposts.  Eventually it was discovered that three juveniles were behind this and it was chalked up to criminal mischief.  But to our friends it was yet another hurtful wound in a family feud that has lasted, on and off, for more than a thousand years.
 We know that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham.  But there are those who, by their actions, try to deny that Abraham was the father of nations, promised by God who is the God of all nations.  Abraham was an immigrant, an alien in the land of Canaan, 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.
And though we may not be the ones hurling rocks, 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’, even the vandal, 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.
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 this nation acknowledging our safe distance from the poor and others who live on the margin.  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.  Ultimately, the story of Zacchaeus is about not only inclusiveness but about the expansive love of God.
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.  And may God’s people say, Amen.

When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down.
Today is my day to be a guest in your home.”