Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dropping everything

Psalm 62: 5-12; Mark 1: 14-20
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 25, 2015

Calling Disciples, He Qi (c) 2014 all rights reserved

            Never mind that water being turned into wine. Or a whole host of demons cast out into some nearby pigs. Or five thousand people fed with five loaves of bread and two fish. Or any of those other miracle stories. This miracle story in the gospel of Mark is my favorite. What miracle, you ask? As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, the one where Jesus “created faith where there was no faith, created disciples where there were none just a moment before”. No thinking about it, no what ifs, no goodbyes. Immediately they left their nets, their families, everything that was familiar, and walked off with Jesus. 

            A couple of weeks ago in confirmation class we talked about if we had ever met someone so compelling that we would drop everything and follow after them. It’s hard for any of us to imagine that someone could have such power, that it would seem like we were so weak. And yet we don’t think of the disciples as being weak-minded, as though they had just signed over their lives to a cult. Their actions sound foreign to us. We ask, “Is that what God wants from me? I’ve got responsibilities, family, work, friends.” Church begins to feel like one more thing on a very long to-do list.


           Authors Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin, in their recent conversation with Krista Tippett, remarked how many of us feel as though we’re supposed to save the world but to do so efficiently. Parker commented that “[our] society is obsessed with effectiveness, outcomes, results, and that the tighter we cling to these, the smaller the tasks we take on. However, faithfulness trumps effectiveness.”

           Jesus wasn’t after effective disciples. These were fishermen who knew nothing but nets, and not a clue about building a church. Heck, much of the time Jesus sounded as if his teaching was knocking itself against a brick wall. What Jesus was after and still is, is faithfulness; in essence, showing up, putting ourselves and our will in God’s hands. 

            So very often we are powerless over our circumstances, our mood, our emotions, our thoughts, our attitude. We are in the grip of something so compelling that it seems there is no other way we could be. Which is why Jesus came preaching that the time for repentance is now, the time to change one’s thinking is now, not by our own merit or power, but by dropping our assumptions, pre-conceived notions, our fears and judgments and allowing God to come into that empty space. Instead of fishing for answers, we’re invited into making community that has the power to change our lives and the lives of those around us.

            The psalmist reminds us that God alone is our rock, our refuge, fortress, that which saves us and keeps us from being shaken. We live our lives and we are the church as though it all rests on our shoulders, as though the future hinges solely on what we do or don’t do. Then what role does God play in this? Does God exist merely to keep us company on the journey? Do we not believe that not only is God still speaking but God is still creating?

             I don’t think that what we’re evolving toward is the human race saving itself, by itself. It seems pretty obvious that we need help. And even if that help comes off like a trick of the mind and the heart into believing that the power of love can change human lives, what difference does it really make? Here we have process and results, both of which matter. Love which leads to a human life lived differently. That kind of love we need help with. The kind of love that is patient and kind; love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love that does not insist on its own way; love that is not irritable or resentful; that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It is a Love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. A practice of love where we not only give it away, which can lead to burnout, but a practice where we also find it for ourselves and allow that love to sustain us. Which is why we need Jesus, the person in whom Christians witness the fullness of the power of love.

             Jesus shows us how to show up and to do so fully, with all our gifts and all our brokenness, our beauty and our flaws. It’s not up to us to figure out if we’re all on board with this; only if we’re doing it ourselves and let God take care of the rest. It’s really not even up to us to save the church. We’re called to be faithful. If the Church goes out of business being faithful, then indeed it will be the Church triumphant. Let us not forget that we follow a man who was by all worldly accounts a glorious failure being faithful to the call that God had given him. Our tradition tells us that Jesus did not raise himself but was raised from death by God. It is God who does the heavy lifting.

           Ultimately, Courtney Martin writes that “[our] charge is not to save the world after all. It is to live in it, flawed and fierce, loving and humble.” Perhaps that is how the world will be saved, not by making the world’s salvation our aim, but by allowing our saving to be Love’s aim, by allowing Love to work a miracle through us and in us.

          The time is fulfilled, and God’s beloved community is as near to us as this moment; let us think differently and actually believe the good news, that love has the power to change our lives and our life together. Amen.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Psalm 139
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 18, 2015


            Did you know you can fall in love with someone by asking and answering the same 36 questions and then looking into each other’s eyes for 4 minutes?  Twenty years ago psychologist Arthur Aron invited two strangers to do exactly that in a laboratory setting and succeeded.  The questions start off harmless enough but then become increasingly intimate, the answers creating a sense of vulnerability and closeness.  The key is that the intimacy is reciprocal and equal between the two people.  Each one knows the other’s inward thoughts through answering the same questions.  Of course there has to be a similar level of trust.  If one is completely honest and the other is somewhat reticent, there is an imbalance of vulnerability and power, and intimacy is broken. 

            In Psalm 139 it is God who knows us not only intimately but completely, and yet that is all the psalmist can truly claim to know about God.  In fact, there is no proof for God’s existence or non-existence.  That’s why it’s called faith and not certainty.  Often our culture approaches an experience of the divine with skepticism or what we called in seminary ‘the hermeneutic of suspicion’.  And perhaps it is because it seems there is this imbalance of vulnerability and power.  God, or whatever divine power there is, searches out our path and our lying down, knows our words before we speak them, hems us in behind and before, but we can never truly know God in the same way.

            But if God is love, and God’s love is perfect, that is, complete, is that how we can know God?  When we not just feel or experience God’s love but know it deep down in our bones.  How often do we allow ourselves to know that love and its power to heal, to forgive, to uplift?  How often do we allow ourselves to be comforted and to know ourselves as unconditionally accepted and render that same gift to others?  God’s love is as powerful as we allow it to be, as real as a transformed life.

            One of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, looked at the not-too-distant future and imagined God, not as love, but as change.  Rather than love being the most powerful force on earth, change became the immutable power, the only lasting truth that transformed human lives.  But change can be positive or negative.  Change doesn’t care about who we are; it doesn’t love us or hate us.   Change just is.  I don’t think I would like having a God whose effects on human lives is scientifically observable, but also doesn’t care one way or the other about what happens to me or you or the rest of creation.  I don’t want to live in a future where God as love has failed.

          In truth, God as love has been failing for centuries.  Instead, God and religion are used as an excuse for hatred, exclusion, torture, and violence.  Once again, the lectionary conveniently cuts out the uglier verses of this psalm: a desire for God to kill the wicked and aligning God with one’s own personal hatred.  Indeed, some of these verses sound as though they were coming from the men who gunned down those who were killed in the offices of Charlie Hebdo:  “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me— those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.”   

#JeSuisCharlie, indeed.  If God knows us, really knows us, then God knows all our peccadilloes, our petty desires, and our capacity for violence and hatred.  But we don’t see anyone using a hashtag with the words “Je Suis La Haine” (I Am Hatred), “Je Suis La Terroriste” or “Je Suis Le Tyran” (I Am a Bully).  We cannot disown these verses, ignore them, cut them from our worship, and say “They are not me.  I do not hate.”  But they are me and you when we want our way.  These words and emotions are us; they are human.  When we choose sides, we declare that one group of human beings matter more than another.


      The hard truth is, God searches and knows and loves those who would earnestly pray those violent verses and carry them out.  God that is love, loves who we would call enemy as deeply and intimately and completely as God loves us.  And so the psalmist saves the hardest part for last, the final two verses, which are really the most difficult of all:  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  If God knowing us completely leads to anything, it’s that we might know ourselves, and not only know but love ourselves so much that we’re willing to be led away from our own way of viewing the world so that we might understand the world and others the way God does.

            How do we here at the New Ark not only allow but desire God to search us and know our hearts?  How do we convey that everyone who comes through our doors really does matter?  God’s love is as powerful as we allow it to be, as real as a transformed life.  How do we live differently as a result of having been a part of this church? 

            Black lives matter, police lives matter, journalists and satirists matter, free speech matters, but so do Muslims of all stripes, and all nations of this earth; poor people and rich people; gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, intersexed and queer people; men, women, and those who don’t identify with a particular gender; the spiritual and the religious and those of no faith; those in prison and those on the streets; young, old, all colors, and everyone in between.  You matter.  We all matter. God knows us inside and out.  There is nowhere we can go where God, the sacred, the holy power of love is not already there waiting for us.

            And there's nothing we can do to change that.  

            The world will change when we start living that way.  Amen.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Troubling the waters

Genesis 1: 1-5; Mark 1: 4-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
January 11, 2015

         It didn’t take long for that baby in the manger to grow up, did it?  Christmas was two and a half weeks ago; now he’s a grown man.  The last we heard about Jesus, from Matthew, was that the magi had come to pay him homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and that Jesus and his parents narrowly escaped Herod’s rage.

But according to Mark’s gospel, the story of Jesus begins not with his birth, but with his baptism, with the beginning of his public ministry.  And it begins with its own high drama:  John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus immersed in the waters of the Jordan, clouds and shadows and sky rent open, and a voice from heaven saying “Beloved”.  Beginnings are very important.  They set the tone and the direction of the rest of the story.

The Genesis lesson gives us an account of the beginning of creation, setting the tone and direction of the story of the relationship between God and God’s creation.  Here there is also high drama:  chaos—that formless void, then the Spirit of God moving over the waters like a strong wind, darkness, then light where there was none, and a voice saying “Good”.

            Our own beginnings, our birth into the world—there is no higher drama than the labor to bring a child into the world:  nine long months we grew in darkness, in the waters of the womb and then the struggle of labor, the first breath, light and voices.  Nurse midwives tell us that our beginnings, how we come into the world, affects us as infants and as we grow and develop.  They advise low lighting, warmth, quiet or soft music to ease some of this drama, to ease the infant’s transition into the world.  Parents are also encouraged to give their new baby his or her first bath, as a way of bonding with the child.

            All these beginnings have at least three elements in common:  light, darkness, and water.  And not calm water but moving water—restless oceans, a flowing river, water breaking from the womb.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children,

Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

            When Jesus came to John for baptism, he was participating in an ancient Jewish religious ritual called a mikvah.  A mikvah is ritual immersion in a bathing facility with a natural source of water, such as a spring or a groundwater well.  According to Orthodox Judaism, a mikvah is necessary to make one spiritually pure in order to worship in the temple.  To facilitate purification, the water has to be living water—water that moves.

The BesalĂș mikveh, Province of Girona, Spain

     Water that moves is a source of life.  We need water to live. More than 80% of the human body consists of water.  Billions of years ago, the first life forms on this earth evolved in the primordial oceans, and then emerged onto land.  Every life form on this earth has its beginnings in waters of some sort, and then has a need for water in order to live. 

In a hot arid climate, such as the Middle East, water is the antithesis of death. Many of the purity laws in Leviticus relate directly to some form of death.  In Orthodox Judaism women are required to have a mikvah after their monthly period, not because the bodily function is unclean, but because it is considered a loss of a potential life, a form of death.  Death is considered unclean because it is believed to be a consequence of sin.  Death did not enter God’s creation until the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

And so John was proclaiming a baptism, a mikvah of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  To repent is to return from exile, to turn from going the way of sin that leads to death, to turn toward the Way that leads to the promised land of God.  The Greek root of the word ‘repent’ means to think differently, to go beyond the mind that you have, beyond conventional understanding.  Einstein is quoted as saying that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind or consciousness that created it.  To think with a sinful mind is to think we are in death.  To repent is to realize that we are forgiven, that God intends us for not only for life but to be loved, beloved, and then to live that truth as a way of life.

But why is John offering this repentance, this forgiveness in the wilderness?  If a Jew who followed the Torah wanted to be cleansed of sin and death, they would go to the temple in Jerusalem and give an offering to be washed in the temple mikvah and proclaimed pure by the temple priests.

Most scholars agree that John was an Essene, a desert sect of the Jewish faith that rejected the temple authorities, believing them to be corrupt, that they had taken too much power and authority for themselves, controlling who was in and who was out.  John prophesied the coming of the Anointed One, the Messiah.  To prepare to be ready to follow the Messiah, the people must turn from their sin that they may be able to accept the teaching and the Holy Spirit this Messiah would give.  They must be able to think differently about God and their relationship to him.  And desperately wanting to be close to God, they came from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem, away from the seat of religious authority, to participate in this cleansing mikvah that was free to all.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children,

Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.

            So why did Jesus need to be baptized?  After all, he is the one John described as more powerful than himself, whose sandals John was unworthy to tie.  I can think of three reasons why Jesus would begin his ministry in this way.

            First, it was customary (and still is) for one who was entering the rabbinical vocation to be purified in a mikvah, to be immersed in God’s living waters as part of the ordination.

            Second, Jesus may have already had it in mind that he was headed toward his own death.  The experience of being submerged in water and rising with the breath of God filling his lungs may have been to remind him not only of the promise of resurrection, but of God’s promise to sustain him through whatever lay ahead for him.

            And the third and perhaps most important reason was that Jesus was aligning himself not only with John’s anti-establishment agenda but also with the crowds who came for baptism.  These would have been those considered outcasts by the religious authorities, the poor, the sick, the sinners, tax collectors, drunkards and prostitutes with which Jesus would be spending most of his time; in essence, the neediest of God’s people, those who acknowledged that they had lost their way and were ready to return to the Way of God. 

By allowing John to plunge him into the sacred waters of the Jordan, Jesus not only troubled the waters of the religious authorities, but declared himself a mikvah, became living water for the neediest of God’s people.  And the heavens tore open, the Spirit came upon him like dove, and voice came from heaven proclaimed, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Even though our experience of baptism is not nearly so dramatic, do we realize what we’re doing when we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives?  Remember, beginnings are important: they set the tone and the direction of the rest of the story.  In the United Church of Christ, baptism has been the beginning of our faith story.  The Holy Spirit has been with us from the very beginning, stirring up the waters of our lives, cleansing us of that which we don’t need, healing our brokenness, making us ready for a life of compassion, service, forgiveness, and justice for the neediest of God’s people.

Like creation, baptism is not a once and over event but an invitation to grow.  Jesus calls us from the shores of the Jordan to join him in his baptism, his ministry, yes, even his death but also in his new life.  If we want to have new life, we must be willing to let go of the life that is not working for us.  If we want to renew the church, we must be willing to let go of that which is holding back the church from renewal.  If we’re looking for calm waters, unchanging ways, and a clear horizon, this is not the baptism we were given.  Troubled waters are part of the good news of Jesus.  Troubled waters mean life:  life lived in the presence and in the care of God.

How do we, the New Ark, need to repent, that is, to think differently about our life together?  How does the Holy Spirit make herself known to us?  How often do we personally think about our own baptism?  How is this church living waters and for whom?  How might we practice baptism on a daily basis?

We are beloved children of God, each and every one of us, each and every person on this earth.  In creating humankind, God has declared us good.  And by our baptism we have been made one with Jesus and with his ministry of compassion, healing, and justice.  Our lives will never be the same again.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children,

Wade in the water, God’s a-gonna trouble the water.