Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The bare minimum

Lev. 19: 1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-40

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

October 26, 2014 – Reformation/Reconciliation Day


            In this morning’s reading from the gospel of Matthew we get to see Jesus engaging in some scholarly repartee, showing off just how good of a Jew he is.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, the week when he will die.  He’s got nothing to lose, so he’s giving them all he’s got.  The Sadducees, the social elite whose role it was to maintain the temple, had tried to corner him on a question about the resurrection of the dead and failed.  Now the Pharisees, who loved debate and the study of the Torah, are up at bat, and they’ve brought their best pitcher, a lawyer.  “Of all the things God commanded us, which one is the most important?” 

            He thinks he’s thrown a curve ball.  I mean, if God gives you a list and tells you to do something or behave a certain way, all of it is important.  But this lawyer doesn’t count on Jesus knocking it out of the park.  He quotes Leviticus.  If anyone is going to quote Leviticus, this is where they need to go.  “Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  These two commandments hold together the rest of what God commands.”

            In other words, these two commandments are the glue that holds it all together.  In Leviticus the word “love” is not used outright, but we do hear “I am the Lord” again and again.  In everything we do we are to remember that God is Lord, which essentially means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.  These two commandments are the bare minimum of what God requires, of how we are to live in relationship to all living things.  If we can manage these two, the rest is a piece of cake by comparison.  But the bare minimum—love God, love neighbor—can be the most difficult to accomplish on any given day.

            What if we had a daily reminder to love God and love neighbor?  During the children’s time Susan and I gave the children (and all of you) a way to remember to love God and neighbor with all our heart, mind, and strength.  Originally, the sign of the cross was a way to remember some basic, classic Christian beliefs.  On the thumb, fore-, and middle finger:  “We believe in God the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Bring the three fingers together, saying, “These three are one.”  On the ring finger and pinky:  “Jesus was fully human and fully divine.”  Joining all the fingers together, then bring them to the forehead, the heart, the left shoulder, ending with the right shoulder:  “And this mystery we strive to know with all our mind, all our heart, and with all our strength.”

            When I was a young Protestant, in my ignorance I viewed this ritual as being rather magical, as if crossing oneself could protect a person from all sorts of evils or as a way to make oneself holy.  As I grew older and worshiped with Catholic friends in college and went on retreats at a Jesuit retreat center, I grew to have a respect for ritual, even those I didn’t quite understand.  They were not always meaningful to me, but they were to others.  Which is one way of defining what it means to love another.

            Author M. Scott Peck defined love in this way:  “Love is the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth... Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

            Today is Reformation Sunday, when we celebrate the reformers of the church who gave rise to the many and varied forms of worship, theology, and spiritual practice that we have today.  The United Church of Christ is a reformed and reforming church, always seeking renewal and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we do so.  But the United Church of Christ also calls this day Reconciliation Day, for that reformation so long ago splintered the Body of Christ, no longer a whole Body.

            How many here today grew up in the Catholic Church?  For some, their relationship to that church has been painful.  For others, perhaps more of an estrangement or disagreement about doctrine or the Church’s stance on homosexuality, women, and birth control.  And others of us have been hurt in other churches or we’ve wandered about, seeking a spiritual home.  All these splinters under our spiritual skin, under the skin of the Body of Christ.   But then I also wonder if the Puritans, our spiritual forebears, may have gone a bit too far in their reformation when it came to rituals and the richness of spiritual practice, that there could be a source of healing for us there.  And so there are times I hesitate to incorporate in our worship anything that might remind us that once all Christians were Catholic.

            The motto of the United Church of Christ is “That they may all be one”.  This was Jesus’ prayer for his disciples, then and now.  We can be one and yet still be diverse in our worship and spiritual practices.  We can become one when we begin to move toward each other, one small step at a time.

            I am encouraged by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and his justice-love for the poor, for his small steps toward the LGBTQ community, and for his desire to live more simply and joyfully like his namesake, St. Francis.  Reconciliation between Christians will not come easy nor will it happen quickly.  But these are the first glimmers of hope that I have seen in quite a while.  My Catholic brother Francis is extending himself for the spiritual growth of those who have been excluded.  How might I extend myself toward my Catholic sisters and brothers?

            I like to use the sign of the cross whenever I am near a body of water that brings me closer to God.  Silver Lake in Connecticut has been such a place.  I have witnessed a colleague, when greeting the lake as we all usually do when we arrive, crouch down, dip her finger in the cold lake water and cross herself as a reminder of her baptism.  I then adopted the practice. 

            At the rear of the sanctuary are two small bowls of water.  If you wish, as you leave the sanctuary I invite you to dip your fingers in the water, cross yourself, make some peace with God and your neighbor, and remember your baptism with these words:  “Love your neighbor as yourself (on your five digits, then close them), love God, (crossing yourself) with all your mind, with all your heart, and with all your strength.”  This is what holds it all together.  If we can do this each day, the rest is a piece of cake by comparison.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The big reveal

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

October 19, 2014


            The hardest thing to do after a betrayal or argument with someone we love is to reestablish communication.  You know, talk to each other—without bitterness or sarcasm, the passive-aggressive form of bitterness.  So in this morning’s reading from Exodus we have God and Moses trying to make a go of it, to rebuild the connection they had before the making of the golden calf.  In verse 11 it reads that the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.  But now God says that Moses may not see God’s face and live.  The intimacy that once was has been broken, yet God still reaches out to Moses, for Moses has found favor in God’s sight.  God wants to satisfy Moses’ longing for connection and closeness and yet still remain God—holy and wholly other.

            It seems that is how it has always been between human beings and God:  intimate yet distant, or in churchy language, immanent yet transcendent.  God-in-our-face, God-apart.  We want God close but not too close.  We want something we can hold onto but eventually find this kind of God lacking and powerless, hence, easy to leave.  Like the genie in Aladdin, we want God to have phenomenal cosmic power but give God only an itty bitty living space.  And yet God doesn’t give up on us in this push-me-pull-you relationship.

            The truth is, more often than not, we witness God in our lives after the fact.   We see God’s backside walking in and through our lives, leaving a wake or a ripple.  No footprints in the sand but like after a storm, often there is a new beach to walk on, both familiar and strange, and the journey continues.

Moses in the Cleft of the Rock, Phillip Prescott Parham, 2007

            But enough of this swirly talk.   Let’s actually look at where God has been moving in and through our lives and the life of this church.  This morning I’d like us to make two lifelines, one for our own life and one for the life of this church.  If you haven’t been a part of this church for long or you’re unsure of some of its history, instead chart your relationship with church in general.

            All of us have negative and positive events in our lives that have had a lasting impact on us.  The same is true for the life of the church and our life with church.

            As you fill in the empty spaces on these lifelines, reflect on where you can see God walking in and through your life.  If God appears to be absent, give some thought to that.  For the one about church, thinking about either events in the life of this church, or your relationship with church, where do you see God or not and when?  Also look for patterns and ask yourself is this how God has not only been speaking to me but also speaking through my life and through the life of this church?

(give congregation 10 -12 minutes to fill out lifelines and share with a neighbor)

            When I filled out my own lifeline recently, I could see that for good or ill my father was the driving force in my life, either directly or indirectly.  But I could also see God’s care and love through the people around me, most evidently witnessed in the church that I had come to love.  I realized that since the death of my father, I have been the driving force for many of the significant changes in my life and the life of my family.  My hope is that this has been God acting through me and my desire to heed God’s call for my life and not just the desires of my ego.

            I would bet that many of us have had an ebb-and-flow relationship with church, either this one or others.  God and community and individuals is one of the most difficult, joyful, frustrating, life-giving ways to learn to love.  Like marriage or any other kind of covenant, we can be tempted to jump ship on any given day.  Then, at the right time, God walks by, with only her back visible, leaving a ripple, a wake, a storm or stillness.  And somehow we are ready to keep going, keep giving, keep traveling to where God is leading.  I’m in for the long haul.  How ‘bout you?

(You can create your own lifeline chart like this one.)