Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The road is made by walking

Romans 14: 1-12

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

September 14, 2014

When David and I first got married, we made an effort not to fall into the typical gender roles.  We took turns mowing the lawn.  We paid the bills together.  We both like to cook.  The laundry got done one way or the other.  When we had Andrea, David would get up with me when I would nurse her in the middle of the night.

            But after I stopped working, and even more so after we had Olivia, he was paying the bills and mowing the lawn, and I was cooking dinner and doing the laundry.  It was just so easy because it also played to our skills.  I wanted to rebel and yet it was oh so comfortable.

            I once saw a set of cocktail napkins with two different images.  One had an image of a man, 1950’s style, with the words “Don’t assume I fix things”.  The other had an image of woman in similar style with the words “Don’t assume I cook”.   As much as the last century of social movements has done to liberate us from stereotypes and prejudice, it still takes a considerable amount of conscious effort to approach a human being as just that: another human being.

            Jennifer Finney Boylan, in her transgender memoir entitled “She’s Not There”, writes about how she struggled with her eating habits once she began presenting as female.  She would order diet soda and a spinach salad when what she really wanted was barbequed ribs and a beer—you know, real food.  She writes that she realized she had bought into the madness that she had spent years imploring her students to fight against.  As she began to own her true identity as a woman, she found that what she was really after was to belong.  But in the end Jennifer saw that at times she was trying to prove she was truly female by oppressing herself.

            As egalitarian as I think I am, I have found myself sorting people into neat little categories; in effect, oppressing their ability to surprise me, their birthright to be themselves.  A few years ago, in my role as a floating pastor, I was visiting a woman in her home in Redding, CT.  Redding is an upper-middle class town in what some Connecticut folks call a rural area, which really means the zoning per home is more than an acre. 

            Arlene lived at the end of a small lane.  Her house was sizable but she was confined to one level; she couldn’t manage even a single step up or down.  Her living space was the size of a great room.  She had a handicapped bathroom installed and a small kitchen space for a fridge, sink, a small oven, and a few cupboards.  The rest of the room was filled by her bed, a small fireplace, and a sitting area where she could watch TV and have a visitor.

            We talked about faith and what it means to be a human being.  Like some New Englanders in the Congregational church, Arlene was more of a Unitarian Universalist in her beliefs about God.  She was also very progressive in her views about homosexuality.  She was a feminist.

            At some point I asked her if I could use her powder room.  Rather than use her personal bathroom, she directed me to another bathroom in another part of the house.  On my way there I passed a beautiful grand piano; I made a mental note to ask her if she was a musician.  But then I stopped in my tracks: on top of the piano was a bust of former president Ronald Reagan.  It was all black and stood about a foot high.  Arlene was more than just a fan; she was GOP tried and true.

            Later in our visit, as I was still trying to put her Republican passion with her progressive theology and social views, Arlene then told me that she was having her living space redecorated—to look like an Egyptian tomb.  She described in great detail wall sconces, furnishings, paintings, statues, even hieroglyphics on the wall.

            It was then that I realized in my bones that I could no longer assume anything about anyone.  The longer I live the more I am of the opinion that there is no universal human experience, save that we’re born, we live, and we die.  That though we all live in these fragile cases of skin and bone, blood and flesh, each experience of life is unique.

            When I was about six years old, I can remember looking into the mirror and thinking that I was the only person who had to look into a mirror to see themselves; as if this whole existence was a play on a cosmic stage with me as an audience of one.  It wasn’t long before that illusion was shattered.  Then when we have our first “you too?” experience, we feel the joy of not being alone but we also begin to surround ourselves with people similar to us.  Pleasure-seeking, pain-avoidant creatures that we are, we’re a long way from going boldly where no one has been before, let alone making camp with a stranger so very different from us.

            The miracle of church that Paul is describing to the Romans is that we can be church, we can be community for each other, and we can be different from one another.  What makes this possible is when we acknowledge that God is in the driver’s seat:  “Every knee shall bow to me and every tongue shall give praise to God.”  As Anne Lamott puts it, “I surrendered.  I lay down my weapons and went over to the winning side.  I am a recovering Higher Power.”

            When we size up another human being and find them lacking in some way, we have put ourselves in the driver’s seat.  But what about our expectations, we say?  Our expectations often say more about us than they do about what we hope to get out of someone else.  What expectations do we have of a God who willingly became weak and suffered for the sake of love?  We have no idea what it is like to be someone else until we put aside all our experience as a human and listen to theirs.  It’s too easy to sum up a person with shorthand, see them through our imperfect lenses. It takes hard work to discover layer after layer of suffering and scars, of living and loving until we see that tender soul that lives within all of us.

            That tender soul is an image of God, an imprint of holiness, a unique expression of the divine trying to know itself, and not only know itself through its own experience but also through the lives of others.  Imagine the interconnectedness: me knowing myself, you knowing yourself, my experience of you, your experience of me, our shared experience of our connection, and then they told two friends, and so on.  The divine looking out through your eyes into mine, the divine in me looking through my eyes into yours, and it makes all the difference in the world whether we are looking with compassion, love, and forgiveness or with fear, judgment, or with just plain old assumptions.

            This is why I think looking into the eyes of another is one of the highest forms of prayer:  because what we see and how we see each other has the power to change us and to change the life of another.  Jesus looked into the eyes of those he healed and spoke to and called and saw someone who wanted to know that they belonged, that their journey on this earth mattered, that they were worthy of love and care.

            Remember that Joan Osborne song?  “What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us?  Just a stranger on the bus trying to make their way home?  Like holy rolling stone.”  We’re all just trying to make our way home, all just trying to find our way, all of us transgressors, travelers, testing God’s patience.  None of us are experts.  We’re all a work in progress, for God is still speaking.  In the words of the poet Antonio Machado, “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road; the road is made by walking.”  Thank God we don’t have to walk it by ourselves.


Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Change moments

Exodus 12: 1-14
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 7, 2014


            The lectionary has been relentless of late.  Nothing easy or comfortable, no hand-holding, no simple choice between the readings.  So why this one?  In choosing this passage, I was reminded of the movie “Good Will Hunting”, when Will and his therapist, Sean, are comparing notes about abusive fathers, something God has often been accused of.  Will says that his foster father would put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the table and say “Choose”.  Will always went for the wrench.  Why?  Because the heck with him, that’s why.  Why this scripture?  Because the heck with it, that’s why.  Sometimes scripture can be a wrench.  But it’s not abusive.  It’s not easy, sometimes it’s downright difficult, even painful, but so is faith and life and loving someone sometimes.

            Too often what we call “the Old Testament God” gets a bad rap, especially when it comes to passages like this one, when God is striking against a whole nation and killing the innocent among them.  And so we feel justified in writing off the God of the Old Testament, perhaps writing off God and scripture altogether, when it seems to us that God is behaving no better than a tyrant, no better than the worst a human being has to offer. 

            And yet we know through other stories in the Bible, even stories in the Hebrew scriptures, that God is love, that God loves people we would have trouble with, like those nasty Ninevites that Jonah wouldn’t go near.  What we have in this story from Exodus is God dealing with evil, not in the abstract, but up close and personal in Pharaoh and his empire, and so God’s response to these oppressed children of Israel is also very personal.  These were not scientific, rational times but ones of the supernatural and the mythical.  I think that what we are also witnessing is God being vulnerable, God in pain over God’s people, God displaying not only strength but also weakness.  God had intended us for paradise yet God was also willing to let us choose and God would work with us no matter what we chose.  Let us remember that this is a story of liberation, that God is striking against empire for the sake of the enslaved.

Also, to a large extent, it is not our story to remember; it is not one that we return to every year.  It belongs to our Jewish sisters and brothers who have a race memory of persecution, captivity, and violence spanning millennia that we as Christians do not.  But it is also the story that Jesus went to on his last night with the disciples, our story of God being vulnerable.  It was Passover, that high holy feast given to remember when God saved God’s people, when God’s people went from slavery to freedom, from suffering to healing, from a land of captivity on a journey to a land flowing with milk and honey.  Jesus wanted his disciples to remember to him, the salvation story of his life and death, his strength and his weakness, his pain and his hope:  whenever you break bread and drink the cup, remember me; not just at Passover but whenever.  To remember not as a means of cherishing the past or holding on to hurts but as the way to move forward.

Rally Sunday is an event in the life of the church that is full of memories, of remembering and re-membering, bringing the Body of Christ together again.  It’s a time of returning, looking back, and moving forward, a new year in the life of the church, to begin again with a renewed sense of mission and ministry.  It’s a time to remember our DNA, the spirit in which this community was formed, where we came from, this church on the move.  It’s a time to remember to keep moving, keep liberating, keep journeying and healing, keep changing, keep hoping, keep wrestling with what it means to be loving and forgiving.

What are some of the change moments in the life of this church, when this community of faith moved from one way of being to a new way of being?  What are the change moments in your own life, painful or hopeful or both, the memories you return to that help you move forward in your own life?

(Congregation shares.)

            Every week we gather to remember who God is, how God continues to move in and through our lives and our life together, and to remember who we are as faithful individuals and as a faith community.  We remember our life and our death, our strength and our weakness, our pain and our hope, and that in everything, God is with us.  In our remembering we see that we are part of not only a long history but we are also moving toward God’s future.  Too often we forget that we can change.  We can be forgiving; not only forgiving but merciful; not only merciful but just; not only just but loving; not only loving but all of us fully God’s daughters and sons.  Remember me whenever you do this.  Amen.

Core values of the New Ark UCC, May 2014

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Catching fire

Exodus 3: 1-15 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
August 31, 2014

Normally we think of ‘thin places’—places where the line between heaven and earth is liminal—as beautiful, awe-inspiring, peaceful places. Places like the Isle of Iona off the western coast of Scotland, the Grand Canyon, Montmartre in Paris, the tomb of the poet Rumi in Konya, Turkey, and the whole of the Himalayan nation, Bhutan, are some of the many thin places on earth.

But then there are the rarified few who have seen this earth, this tiny blue marble from space, and have known themselves to be at once in heaven and on earth. A thin place is where we feel juxtaposed between knowing that we are tiny and insignificant yet also rare and precious. We may experience a sense of oneness, a feeling of transcendence, a deeper connection to God, or as author Eric Weiner puts it, “the Infinite Whatever”. We feel at peace.

Where have you experienced a thin place?

But not every place we feel relaxed or that we experience as beautiful is a thin place. Eric Weiner writes, “Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”

Moses found a thin place, a piece of holy ground when he encountered the burning bush. God was calling him to be his more essential self, although I don’t think he was all that relaxed. This is a prequel scene to Jesus calling fishermen to be disciples: “Moses, now you herd sheep. Soon I’ll teach you to herd cats…uh, that is, people.” Often God calls out to us in a thin place to lead us to other thin places; more often places we’d rather not go or wouldn’t think of going to in order to become our more essential selves. 

One of the thinnest places I’ve ever been was in a dump. And not just any dump but the Oaxaca city dump in Oaxaca, Mexico, about 20 miles outside the city limits. Eight years ago I went on a mission trip with 12 other adults to Casa Hogar, an orphanage of about 80 children, many with disabilities.

It was Wednesday, the middle of our trip; it became the spiritual pivot upon which our week turned. The kids and staff had prepared over 100 ham and cheese sandwiches plus a huge container of punch for us to take to the workers and residents of the Oaxaca city dump. There are 40 or so families who live and work in the dump, culling recyclable plastic bottles from the mountains of garbage. They bundle up the plastic, load it on trucks, and it is then sold to a Mexican mafia who pays them about 400 pesos (40 dollars) for the week's work: 10 pesos (1 dollar) per family. Some of their food they scavenge from their findings. They work from sunrise to sunset, in 80⁰+ heat, surrounded and permeated by the stench of rotting garbage. Imagine some of the worst stuff they could find, and they have found it and probably worse: medical waste, including syringes; dead animals; smells so bad they could be seen escaping from the just-ripped plastic bags.

Jesus of the dump - Oaxaca, Mexico

This task of delivering lunches to these resident workers twice a week had become a recent mission of the orphanage; the children would argue over who got to make the sandwiches and then deliver them to the folks at the dump. Those who are the recipients of mission also need to have the opportunity to serve and give to others so they see themselves as having something to contribute and so to share with others. But this week the children were grounded because of misbehaving, so it was up to our group and a group of college kids that had also been working at Casa Hogar that week to deliver lunch.

We had been told that these people, upon introduction, might offer us their arms instead of their hands because of how dirty and bacteria-ridden they are. We were urged to shake their hands anyway. For Jesus there were no 'untouchables'; only people in need of human connection. We stopped on the way to buy a huge sack of oranges to augment the meal. The trip took about 30 minutes, the dump announcing itself in its usual way. We passed by corrugated tin shacks that housed these families and others; there was no running water, no electricity. We pulled into an abandoned sorting station that gave us and the workers some shade to visit in. As they noticed the bus, they would come in a few at a time, hesitant at first, then slowly they would lower their guard and smile. We were humbled by their hospitality as they opened their home to us.

I helped dole out the cold drinks in plastic cups, giving a smile to substitute for a greeting in my crude Spanish. Then we grabbed the bags of sandwiches and oranges and handed these out. Soon everyone was digging in. I went and sat with a young girl, maybe 5 or 6, and her little sister, who seemed to be about 2 or 3. I figured the little one's Spanish was about the same as mine, so I thought I would be in good company. The little one took her sandwich apart and handed the half with ham to her big sister; she then proceeded to take pieces of the string cheese off the bread and eat them. Like any mother, I suppose, I made yummy sounds and rubbed my tummy as if to say "that must taste good." Instead she interpreted my gestures as signs of hunger, peeled off a piece of cheese and handed it to me.

Her hands were filthy and so were mine. I hesitated for only a split second; what could I say...no, thank you? I took the cheese in my fingers and put it in my mouth, smiling at her, careful not to let the tears rise. A bit later she offered me another piece of cheese. I ripped the piece in half and gave half back to her but she shook her head ‘no’. She gave another piece of cheese to a young woman, even though this was the best lunch she would have for a few days.

I have had Communion in more ways than I can count. I have served, and been served by, all kinds of people: men, women, children, teenagers, priests, ministers, laypeople, many colors, from all walks of life. But it has never meant as much to me as it did that Wednesday afternoon in the Oaxaca city dump, served to me by a little girl with grimy hands and an open heart in a place ridden with decay. It was one of the purest moments of Communion I've ever experienced. Through that little girl, God was visible, incarnate, real. And me? I was on fire but not consumed. That’s what I call thin.

When Moses saw that burning bush, it was like he was doing some sacred rubbernecking at the scene of a car accident. Or a riot. Or a video of an execution. He was being present. “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” In the previous chapter Moses thought he had found one way to solve the oppression, the forced labor of his people. He witnessed an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked both ways, saw that the way was clear, and he killed the Egyptian. But rather than condemning Moses, God put Moses in charge of leading his people out of slavery in a different way.

We wouldn’t necessarily think of the burning that is Ferguson or Gaza or Syria or Ukraine as holy ground. And yet is that not the voice of God calling out to us, to stop, to see that something sacred is burning, that lives are at stake, that we need to unmask not each other but ourselves and be transformed. 

Tear gas raining down on a woman in Ferguson, MO

The great I AM can be whoever or whatever God needs to be, wherever God chooses to be, especially in those places where God’s people suffer. God pulls our attention to where there is suffering, to compel us to look within and see if we harbor anything, if we participate in systems that cause harm. Thin places are also places that force us to turn our attention and be present. And it can hurt to be present, especially when we must attend to pain, ours or someone else’s.

What is our burning bush, right here, close to home? How is God speaking to us with some attention-catching fire, causing us to be present? We have our own Ferguson, MO in Wilmington, DE, except that no one is protesting the highest rate of violent crime per 100,000 residents per year. 1,703 violent crimes in Wilmington in 2012. In 2013 there were 150 reported shootings.

The New Ark supports missions in Wilmington such as Friendship House, the clothing bank, and now
Bright Spot Ventures, an urban farming operation that employs teens and young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. They have gardens at the Rodney Reservoir Community Garden, greenhouses at the Delaware Psychiatric Center, and have a farmer’s market at Cool Spring Park.

Our protest could be driving out of our way to Cool Spring Park on a Thursday afternoon to buy some veggies, herbs, and flowers; becoming community or sponsor shareholders with the Delaware Food Bank’s CSA program; volunteering with these young urban farmers to spread compost, plant seedlings; finding other ways of partnering with these residents of West End Neighborhood House that they would know their more essential selves.

Indeed, this is a thin place, holy ground. Here we are, Lord. Unmask us. Set our hearts on fire with love for you and all your people, for your name’s sake. 



Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
- from the Desert Fathers