Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Jesus way of getting even

Matthew 5: 38 – 48
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 23, 2014

Every night Julio Diaz, a 31-year-old social worker, ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.  One brisk night, as Diaz stepped off the train and onto a nearly empty platform, he was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy came up to him and pulled out a knife.

            The kid wanted his wallet, so Diaz just handed it over.  As the boy began to walk away, Diaz said to him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The kid looked at Diaz, “like what's going on here?”  He asked Diaz, “Why are you doing this?”

Diaz replied, “If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.  I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.”  Being a social worker, Diaz thought he could help the guy.  They went into the diner and sat in a booth.

Since Diaz is a regular, pretty soon the manager, the dishwashers, the waiters all come by to say hi.  The kid said to Diaz, “You know everybody here. Do you own this place?”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told him.   The kid replied, “But you're even nice to the dishwasher.”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

“Yeah, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way,” the boy said. Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. The kid sat there with almost a sad face.  He couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz said to his would-be robber, “Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this.  So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you.”

The kid didn’t think twice and returned the wallet to Diaz, who gave the boy $20, figuring who knows?   Maybe it would help.  Diaz then asked for something in return — the young man’s knife —and he gave it to Diaz.

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You're the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”  The way Diaz figures it, “if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right.  It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” [1]

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them, he’s not really saying anything new.  Though swift justice may satisfy our immediate need for it (“an eye for an eye”, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy”), the justice of God has a longer arc and thus, we must go deeper and further that God’s justice may serve everyone and not just ourselves.  This isn’t about balancing the scales but about creating the beloved community, the kingdom of God, which is not just inclusive but expansive.  Jesus may have been remembering a quote from the book of Proverbs (25: 21-22):  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Burning coals is a metaphor for purification; when Isaiah answered God’s call to be a prophet, one of God’s servants touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal that he could then speak God’s truth with clean lips.  When we offer the stranger, the outcast, the enemy the extravagant outpouring of ourselves, the burning coals we heap upon heads is the help of removing the barriers between them and God’s grace and by doing so, between us and God’s grace.  To love one’s enemy is to desire right relationship between them and God, for that is how we will have right relationship with God.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Strength to Love called it a “double victory”.  In his quest for equal rights for black Americans he was not satisfied with pressuring white Americans into giving in; he wanted more than mere retribution.  He wrote,

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.  Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave half dead, and we will still love you.  But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

“Wear you down by our capacity to suffer.”  Isn’t it the other way around?  Doesn’t our capacity for suffering wear us down, let alone anyone else?  But it’s not a martyrdom of suffering that’s called for.  It isn’t “woe is me, notice me, and how you’re hurting me”, hoping they’ll quit whatever hurtful thing they’re doing.  Nor is it tolerating abuse or torture, injustice or oppressive systems.

Our capacity to love is linked to our capacity to suffer.  It all comes from the same heart.  Who hasn’t suffered for someone we love?  Sometimes, for our own survival and sanity, we let go of a hurtful relationship.  But we can still love that person or family or group or even church from a distance.  Love in the sense that we want healing for them, for their life to be made whole.  Love that helps us to forgive and sets all of us free.

Gandhi once said that the only devils running around are the ones in our own hearts and that is where all our battles ought to be fought.  We all have our own demons; we are all our own worst enemy.  Imagine the devils running around inside those who create hurtful, exclusionary policies (Arizona, Kansas), who inflict pain and violence on others (Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Central African Republic), who subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the poor, who traffic in human lives, who continue to make a profit while sacrificing the environment.  

These and many others are the most wretched, for they do not know true joy or love.  They are part of the old order of domination, and it is from within that old order that Jesus not only invites us but demands from us a generous life.  A generous life that can transform the old order into fresh, new, interconnected community; community where there are no neighbors or enemies, for all are one.  Community where there is no competition or manipulation or struggle for power, for all is shared.  Community where all are liberated, where none are slaves or prisoners, for all are free, even the enemy.

Remember that the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”, was written by a former slaveholder, John Newton.  If grace is to be amazing, it must be extended to the most wretched, to the ones blinded by hate and bound by evil, even to those we think lost to God and humankind.

In the words of another hymn, “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

This is the Jesus way of getting even.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A change of heart

Deuteronomy 30: 15-20; Matthew 5: 31-37 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
February 16, 2014 

Wednesday afternoon, as I was driving home, I heard on NPR highlights of the upcoming stories that would be covered on All Things Considered. The one that caught my attention was an interview with author Elizabeth Kolbert and her new book entitled The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. I remembered that more than ten years ago I had read a book with a similar title, The Sixth Extinction: Patterns of Life and the Future of Humankind, by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin. Given the duplication of the title, I was eager to hear if the earlier book would be mentioned. 

There was not even a hint that an earlier book on the subject had been published. You would think this was the first time we had heard anything about living through a mass extinction of plants, birds, and mammals. In 1979 Oxford University ecologist Norman Myers published a book entitled The Sinking Ark, entailing the catastrophic effects of deforestation, stating that by the year 2000 we would lose one quarter of the earth’s species if we continued on our current path. In 1986 at a biodiversity conference held in Washington D.C., there was a consensus amongst mainstream biologists that the earth is living through a sixth crisis of biodiversity, this time caused by human beings. 

To see this graphic full-size, click here.

As early as 1859 it was theorized that a concentration of certain gases could produce climate change. In 1896 the first calculation of global warming from human emissions of CO2 was published. Yet even with all the scientific evidence illustrating that humanity is the major cause, there are still those who believe that climate change is a natural phenomenon. 

Apparently, it takes a long time for truth to sink into the human consciousness, because truth is often inconvenient and disturbs the status quo. Author Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “The truth will indeed set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”

Moses knew all too well that following God’s truth would shatter his life. He had been a man on the run the length of his days, after killing an abusive Egyptian, to hearing God’s voice in the flames of a fiery bush, to becoming God’s megaphone to a people hard of hearing. He’d finally herded God’s people within viewing distance of the promised land, but he would be staying behind to die. So he makes the grandest of last speeches by putting God’s truth in plain language: Choose life and good times or death and hard times. Follow God’s law and things will go well for you. If you don’t, you’ll be on the fast track to a short life. Don’t do it just for yourselves but for your children and grandchildren—the generations that will come after you.

He makes it sound so easy: bright and shiny door number one or doom and gloom door number two—which will it be? But even when life is chosen, what kind of life is it that God is offering to a people prone to wandering? God knows the truth about us; that left to our own devices, we’re more likely to take the path of least resistance. Ted Koppel once said in a commencement speech that they aren’t referred to as the Ten Suggestions. 

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it was said…”, he is calling upon an ancient memory of God’s law, stuff the people of God have heard over and over, time and again, over centuries. But he’s not just repeating what has already been said. Obviously following the letter of the law has not made much of a dent in changing hearts, aligning human behavior with kingdom living. We can’t skim the surface and be a disciple of Jesus. Rather, Jesus goes deeper, to the heart of why we do what we do: attitude and intention.

Many of us joke about our New Year’s resolutions: that they won’t last long, that we break them just in time to give up something for Lent, which only lasts forty days, not including Sundays. Change is hard and incredibly slow, especially initiating it ourselves. 

Even when we are presented with a choice, like life or death, we may look like we’re choosing life but on our terms. There have been recent studies that show when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they don’t change their habits, only one in seven will follow through successfully. One in seven will live. 

For the last 25 years, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, researchers and educators at Harvard University, have been working with individuals and organizations to assist them in overcoming our universal immunity to change. In their work they have observed that when human beings want to make substantive, systemic change, we create a list of goals and behaviors that support those goals. But underlying our well-laid plans are hidden commitments and assumptions that compete with the goals and behaviors we say we want, even need, to change.

For example, a branch of the National Forest Service, whose job it is to start fires to clear underbrush, was committed to reducing the number of fatalities of these fire-starters. When they examined their behaviors, they found that they were not conducting rigorous debriefs, that they did not publicize their errors either internally or publicly, and that they were not looking hard at their mistakes. Hidden below the collective surface was a conflicting commitment to not facing the possibility of losing personnel and a fear that they may not be able to do anything about it. Unconsciously they assumed that if they did face their helplessness that they would be overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.

Over time this group of fire-starters was able to share with one another their worst fears and the paralyzing shame that accompanied them, thus allowing them to change the defeating behaviors that conflicted with their goal of saving lives.

I think often we read this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and get stuck in the rather important details (anger, lust, divorce) rather than see our own selves and our own immunity to change. I diligently and eagerly read Kegan and Laskow’s book but stopped when I got to the chapters about diagnosing and overcoming my own immunity to change. We may be willing to change but often find ourselves going back to where we started. Or the changes we make take us only so far. 

You may have heard it said, use compact fluorescent bulbs, use public transportation, ride a bike, unplug appliances when you’re not using them. But we have also heard it said, we are addicted to oil and cheap energy, and much of our economy is systemically supported by the oil and gas industry. We know this system needs to change, not just for ourselves but for generations after us. Yet the idea of systemic change feels like such a behemoth that we feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. 

(Photo: NASA) Jakobshavn Isbrae, Greenland

If the gospel has not changed our lives, then we have not heard the gospel. Indeed, God loves us, accepts us, and calls us as we are. But if this good news does not shatter the safe, sweet way we live, if it does not disturb the status quo, then that is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

What are the hidden commitments and assumptions that thwart the mission of this church? How is the Holy Spirit calling for not just this church but for the entire Church to change? What is it about the way the world is changing that frightens us? Excites us? How can the church help shape these changes? Are we an 8-track, VHS church that will continue to appeal but in a vintage sort of way or are we part of a movement that can help find the sacred in an ever-changing world?

Our building directly impacts the mission of this church, a great deal of which is hospitality, safe shelter, and extravagant welcome. How might we still be nimble and light on our feet, a “church without walls” even though we have four of them? 

We talk about change sometimes moving at the pace of glaciers, yet they are melting at an ever-increasing rate. 1500 years after the birth of the church, through the needs of the world, the Holy Spirit was calling for another way to do and be church. Here we are again 500 years later, the Church going through another climate change, the words of Jesus still disturbing our status quo, still calling for us to go deeper, to the heart of it all. It seems that the future is now calling us to truly be the church in the world. O God, grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change; grant us the courage to change the things that should be changed, and grant us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.



Sunday, February 09, 2014


Isaiah 58: 1-12; Matthew 5: 13-20
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 9, 2014


From when my girls were about 5 or 6 years old to even now, every so often, when we’re eating out at a restaurant, they like to sprinkle a little salt from the shaker into their hands and lick it off. How many of us did that when we were young? Most of us like the taste of salt on our food, but we all know the warnings about too much. We tell ourselves and our children to ‘go easy on the salt’.

Another basic element that Jesus uses in his lengthy sermon in Matthew is light. Our parents would tell us not to look at the sun too long or it would damage our eyes. We have to be careful when we’re out in the sun, making sure we use sunscreen and a hat, perhaps limiting our time outside. And yet we love light: how it causes living things to grow, the way it creates long shadows and colors and warmth. Many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder because of the decreased amount of daylight during the winter months.

Both salt and light are necessary for a good life. Too much or too little of either one can be harmful. Sometimes we wonder how much salt or light is enough. However, in this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus isn’t talking about balance. Jesus is telling the crowd that they can never be too salty or too much light.

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, puts it this way:

“Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. “Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father/Mother in heaven.” 

‘Be generous with your lives.’ That can sound daunting on some days. How often do we feel less than equal to our lives, let alone have what it takes to be generous with them? Time and again we feel we’re not enough, that our days are more apt to take the stuff out of us, leaving our lives bland and gray. Salt and light? We wish.

And yet wouldn’t it make sense that God created us with what is not only necessary for our lives but fill us to overflowing? God is extravagant with grace; it’s we who can be cautious with it sometimes. God’s love is unconditional; it’s we who set limits on how far our love and compassion can go.

In her book The Soul of Money, author Lynne Twist speaks to the myth of scarcity that we repeat to ourselves every day. When we wake up in the morning, what are the first thoughts we have? For many of us it goes something like this: “I didn’t get enough sleep. I don’t have enough energy or time to do everything that has to be done today.” She writes that the thought ‘not enough’ occurs to us automatically, without little or no critical thought as to whether it’s true. We tell ourselves things like “I don’t get enough exercise, I don’t have enough work, my company is not making enough profits, I’m not organized enough, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough time off”.

Then it gets personal: “I’m not thin enough, pretty, handsome, successful, smart, educated”—add your own to that ever-growing list. Before the day even begins we’re found wanting, unable to rise to whatever challenge that has been set before us. We’re living always behind the 8-ball, like Sisyphus pushing that mighty boulder to nowhere. All this does is lead directly and quickly to burnout.

For quite some time we’ve been telling ourselves the same message in our churches: we’re not big enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough members, we don’t have enough time to do everything. Hence we can’t be generous with the life of the church, the Body of Christ, because we’ve convinced ourselves we don’t have enough to give, let alone have enough for ourselves.

What would happen if the church operated from a place of sufficiency, that is to say, what if instead of a mindset of scarcity, we came from a place of faith that declares we are enough? Do we really believe that God could be so cruel as to give us purpose and mission and yet not give us power equal to our tasks? Of course not! Yet there are times we focus on what we lack rather than on the abundant life God has given us.

Author Marianne Williamson says that “[joy] is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.” Some might think of that as a Pollyanna way to live, but I think Pollyanna has gotten an undeserved bad rap. Joy and gratitude are what make it possible for us to live through the tough times, to have faith that God does have our best interests at heart, and yes, that things are actually going to be okay.

Lalo Gutierrez - Now you are the light of the world and salt of the earth
"Now you are the light of the world and salt of the earth."

You are a salty church, full of flavor and zest. You are generous with your lives and your money and your talents. You don’t hide your light under a bucket. But like a combination of salt and sunlight on snow, there are times you come close to burning up dry.

What adds flavor to your life? What lights your lights, especially in the life of this church? What has been your best experience at this church, when you felt most alive, most involved, spiritually inspired, excited about what was going on? What do you enjoy the most about the New Ark? Churches have been known to take Sabbath rest from committee meetings and other church work, pare down to only the essentials, and then for a time do only those things which make people come alive.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that God isn’t interested in our wasted spirits, our drawn faces, our souls empty from always being busy. God desires to see our lights come on from within and stay on.

Yes, we are called to be salt and light, and the world is in desperate need of salty, zesty people and nimble, light-filled, light-hearted community. But we can only do so much, we say. Indeed. God works through human efforts but the saving of the world is not solely dependent on us. We do what we can and then we let God do the rest.

I think that is the hardest part of the journey of faith, to let go and let God do what God will do. We can be such rational creatures, aware of the processes of science, realistic about what is possible, our eyes wide open to the perils of this world. And through these means we think we have a grasp on the way the world works. Yet there is a mystery in which we live and move and have our being. There is a Source of this salt and light, beyond reason, something beyond our best work and imperfect attempts.

Again, Eugene Peterson, from the prophet Isaiah:

 “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people's sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. I will always show you where to go. I'll give you a full life in the emptiest of places— firm muscles, strong bones. You'll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You'll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You'll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”

Earlier this week the Internet was rife with opinions about the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman due to an overdose of heroin. It was open season on the victim. Gossip was high on other people’s sins. Not many could understand that addiction is a disease that only has a day-at-a-time cure; that addiction is a prison with a warden who only lets you out with a one-day pass. And perhaps our communal sense of compassion and tolerance is low because our society, our culture runs on its own addictive substances and behaviors, legal and acceptable to most of us. We can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees.

We live in a plugged-in world that does not regularly plug into the Source of All Being. I’m not necessarily talking about church or worship or prayer, though by our presence here we acknowledge their vital importance. I’m talking about investing ourselves, our lives in that which gives us joy: deep connection to other human beings, to animals, to the environment, music, creativity, play, the pursuit of knowledge and justice and applying them to better living. Are not these and many other endeavors a form of church, worship, prayer—the acknowledgement that there is a Source that gives not just life but abundantly?

As it was sung in “Godspell”, “You are the salt of the earth, you are the salt of the earth, but if that salt has lost its flavor, it hasn’t got much in its favor.” As we approach the season of Lent, let’s be thinking of ways we can add flavor back into our lives and in our life together as a church. Let’s be thinking of what drains away our salt and light and whether we can take some rest, some time away from those areas.

Even so, we are enough, we are equal to the call God has given us, just the way we are. We can be generous with our lives. God desires that we go ahead and shine! Jesus goes before us to show us the way. The Holy Spirit is moving within us and amongst us, to inspire and energize us. Let’s tap into that.



Thursday, February 06, 2014

Our focus determines our reality

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Blessing = Resilience

1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 2, 2014


Earlier this week on Facebook and Twitter, I posed some questions about blessing and resilience. “What does it mean to you to be blessed? How do you experience blessing?” Many folks counted family and friends as their most precious blessings. One person responded “good healthcare”. A friend in Connecticut answered with his singular wit, “just after I’ve sneezed”. Others said words like gratitude, connecting with nature, being able to give, that each moment is a blessing.

I didn’t get any response on Twitter, but when I searched for #blessing, the number of tweets about blessing was overwhelming! Go look on Twitter if for no other reason than to search for hashtagged words of encouragement. In 30 minutes there were almost 300 new tweets about blessing. “Thanking God for perspective and the ability to let past hurts go. We can't embrace the now if we are holding on to yesterday!” “Don't place limits on what you can do! One open door usually leads to another!” “Sometimes I have to remind myself that on my worst day I live like somebody on their greatest.” “You have more to be thankful for than to be worried about.” Someone on a daddy/daughter date. A few marijuana smokers feeling blessed for not getting caught. Young adults giving thanks for their parents. Parents giving thanks for their children. Students feeling blessed for a good grade, a friend, a teacher. And on it went.

What does it mean to you to be blessed? How do you experience blessing?

 (Put your response in the comments.)

Wednesday evening we hosted yet another Code Purple [1], the tenth one called in a span of 13 days, 21 in all since the cold weather began. When I asked one gentleman how he was doing that evening, he said, “I’m blessed.” I knew needed to hear more about that.

After folks had served themselves some dinner, I approached this blessed man whom I’ll call Dylan. I said to him, “When you came in, you said that you are blessed. What made you say that?” He replied, “I woke up this morning. That makes me blessed.” You can’t get any simpler than that.

I saw a lot of that on Twitter as well: I woke up this morning; God gave me another day; I’m alive and paid. When Jesus says that the poor in spirit are blessed, they still have another day to experience the kingdom of God, right now. When Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed, they still have another day to be comforted by those who love them and by the deep love of God. When Jesus says that the meek or humble are blessed, they still have another day to come into all the goodness of this earth.

We’re all blessed for the essential reason that we are here, right now. And that has the power to build resilience in us: the ability to see our way, to help another see their way through to another day. That was the second question I asked on Facebook and Twitter: “Do you think of yourself as a resilient person? What do you think helps you sustain a sense of resilience?” Many Facebook friends equated resilience with possessing a stubborn streak. Others cited keeping one’s life and experiences in perspective, surviving the hard times, knowing that things will change eventually, being flexible in all circumstances, excitement about the possibilities. Some folks said that practices like prayer, meditation, worship, service to others, and Communion helped keep them resilient.

(Put your response in the comments.)

For me, it demands more than stubbornness; resilience requires joy, if it is to last. Not happiness, which is fleeting, but joy, which is foolishness to the world. Joy is what has the power to sustain us in a stubbornly loving way, like God. Author Father Gregory Boyle calls it “no-matter-whatness”, that God loves us, no matter what, God’s stubborn refusal to let us out of God’s everlasting love. And it is out of this love, this sense of blessedness, that our joy is sustained, that we are able to remain buoyant and resilient.

I said to my friend Dylan that it appeared he was a resilient person. Where did his resilience come from, I wondered. He said it came from his mother. Even though he is a grown man, she still gets on his case, he said. From her strength, he draws strength.

None of this we do alone. Even as we approach this table, we do so with a God whose love for us is stubborn and foolish and joyful and resilient. And so we can approach this table as we are and know we are blessed—because here we are, with each other, ready to do and be this foolish business called church, the Body of Christ. Which gives us the power, the strength, the resilience to love each other, to love those whom we serve, to love ourselves, to love anyone with the same bull-headed, no-matter-whatness love that God showers on us each day.

Every Sunday I try to remember to say “I’m glad you’re here” because I AM glad you’re here. What if we all woke up every day and said, “I’m glad I’m here”? What if we behaved with everyone we encounter as if we are glad they are here too, even if we don’t think or they don’t’ think they deserve it? Blessed equals resilience. Sounds pretty foolish, doesn’t it?  Good!   Amen.

[1] Code Purple is an initiative of the Newark Empowerment Center and Friendship House of Wilmington. Eight (8) Newark churches rotate through hosting homeless folks for the night when temperatures fall below 20⁰F.