Thursday, April 30, 2015

Planting a seed

On Sunday, June 14, we'll be having another Evening at the Table.

We'll be using different elements for Communion.

Can you guess?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Surrender = Subversive

Psalm 23; John 10: 11-18
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
April 26, 2015 (Good Shepherd Sunday)

            It never fails. Sooner or later, the scripture goes to work. God not only speaks but engineers, conspires, and shows me yet one more time, that though God may not be in control, I certainly am not. Again and again I am given opportunities to be compassionate, to take a risk, to struggle, to get it wrong as much as get it right, to ask for help and to give help where it is needed.

            The Lord is my shepherd; meaning, I am not. I shall not want. I certainly want for nothing. And so when I am asked to provide out of my means by someone who has no means except to ask repeatedly for help, why do I struggle so? Green grass grows freely in my yard, and I can pay someone to mow it. Clean water flows from my tap, and it's cheap. Restoration for my soul is there for the asking. I can even afford to make mistakes in judgment. There are times I think I know which is the right path, but sometimes it can be the road less traveled.

            I’ve been listening to the news reports about migrants in Africa making the treacherous crossing to Europe, willing to risk their lives and some of them perishing in the process. It’s not enough for the Lord to be named a shepherd in our times. We’ve romanticized the shepherd and flock with pastoral images right out of the psalm for today. In the Middle East, shepherds were nomads who lived with their flocks, sleeping out in the elements, always seeking the next pasture, the next water source. With climate change on the rise, the number of migrants will only continue to increase. And so earlier this week I rewrote the 23rd Psalm, thinking of those seeking a better life in another land.

The Lord is a migrant
       who only wants to live.
Greener pastures always somewhere else;
Who is made to choose
       between suffering and unsafe passage;
To not drown in the waters to be crossed
       or die in a shipping container
       or turned back at the border by armed men
but be restored to wholeness and justice.
What is the right path 

       when the way is not open to you?

The migrant’s path
       is a death march.
Evil is all around;
There is much to fear.
Bruised and broken
       by smugglers’ rod and staff.

No one wants you.
Surrounded by enemies,
       the table is bare.
When was the last time
       soap and clean water and a soft towel
       touched this body, this head?
Yet millions of hands are cupped in hope

       of being filled.

One day

       will the mercy of our lives
       spill over into

       the life of the migrant?
How shall we follow one who has no home?

            The One who leads us is one who is powerless, who has no voice, who suffers relentlessly. Jesus was a migrant. In Matthew’s gospel he tells his disciples: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” When we welcome the migrant, when we have compassion for those with no homeland or no home, we welcome Jesus and open our hearts to him.

            In Deuteronomy, a book from which we read only nine times in the three-year lectionary cycle, verse after verse, we hear of how God commands God’s people to treat strangers, widows, and orphans as valued members of the tribe, to share with them a tithe of the harvest, to not deny them justice, to do all of this as worship to Yahweh. In a patriarchal society women and children who were alone were defenseless because there was no male presence to protect them. Strangers were outside the covenant, yet still part of God’s creation. Therefore, knowing human nature, God commanded that God’s people become their protection, because once God’s people were slaves and knew what it meant to be powerless. 

            Most of us in the United States don’t know what it means to be powerless. We live with the illusion of control and we relish it. And so it is often difficult for us to surrender, to obey, to be led by a homeless, migrant shepherd. Even so, we know the problems around us are overwhelming, to the point of paralyzing us, which has become our powerlessness. Indeed, how shall we follow one who has no home?

            Chris Hedges, in his collection of essays entitled The World As It Is, writes this about battling evil, cruelty, and injustice:

        “Perhaps in our lifetimes we will not succeed.  Perhaps things will only get worse.  But this does not invalidate our efforts.  Rebellion—which is different from revolution because it is perpetual alienation from power rather than the replacement of one power system with another—should be our natural state.  And faith…is a belief that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures.  We are saved not by what we can do or accomplish but by…our steadfastness to the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and those who endure oppression.  We must stand with them against the powerful.  …[The] struggle to live the moral life is worth it.”

             When we surrender to the One who would lead us, one who is weak and powerless in the world, it is an act of rebellion, of subversion. The world would have us believe that it is the powerful who are in charge, who have control, who determine the fate of the world. This is the way of empire, and we’ve heard this bedtime story before. Even though we might get it wrong, once again God is giving us the opportunity to be compassionate, to take a risk, to struggle, to ask for help and to give help where it is needed. Our God of second and third and fourth chances sets before us the ways of life and death, and shows us, through life, death, and resurrection, that when we surrender, we rebel against the ways of empire and choose not only life, but love. 

            Even though it feels as though what we do does not make much of a difference; even though our efforts can often be flawed and imperfect; even when it looks like we’re being used; even though to all appearances things just might get worse; to continue to stand with the powerless against the odds—this is what we call faith and being faithful. This is what it means to follow Jesus the Good Shepherd. Nothing was promised that looks like what the world defines as success. The only thing that Jesus promised is that we would learn to love well: to love God our creator with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

            American theologian Frederick Buechner wrote "What's lost is nothing to what's found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup." Our cup spills over with abundant life. Lord Jesus, you are our shepherd. We want for nothing. Show us the way. Amen.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Saint Food

Luke 24: 36b-48 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
April 19, 2016

             For a long time I didn’t know I was a ‘foodie’.  I thought I was just someone who loves to eat and eat well.  I’m not quite as adventurous as some (I don’t go for things like squid and wouldn’t go near haggis unless offered to me by a native Scot), but I love Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisine.  I’m also a fan of Mediterranean foods:  Armenian, Lebanese, Greek and Turkish.  I’ve also tried Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Cuban, Spanish, Moroccan, and Ethiopian fare, and enjoyed each one.  I’ve eaten local dishes while visiting the Bahamas, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Holland.  When I lived in Ohio, I would go with a church group to an annual Hungarian dinner at a UCC church.  My mother’s family is from Mississippi, so running through my veins is a fondness for my mother’s cornbread dressing, collard greens, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, shrimp gumbo, cornbread, and grits.  And anything barbecued makes my mouth water (how’s yours doing right now?).

            But one of my favorite meals is the church potluck.  It exudes the aroma of the incarnation, the embodiment of the divine.  Everyone usually prepares their beloved and best dish.  And there are always some standard offerings:  the ubiquitous lemon squares, broccoli salad, baked beans, green bean casserole, baked ziti (name your own preference).  Worship is a lot like a potluck supper:  some things you can count on; some surprises; some things you wouldn’t go near but someone likes it; some stuff doesn’t get touched at all; too much dessert or not enough, but it’s good just to be together and to have some nourishment, forget about business and put aside our differences for a while.

My husband and I had a potluck supper for our wedding reception.  Some folks balked at the idea of bringing both a wedding present and a covered dish but we could not afford to pay for dinner for about 300 people:  there were members of the church where I was the associate pastor and the church where David was a member, scads of children, plus our family and friends.  David and I provided shrimp cocktail for everyone and four different sheet cakes besides a small ceremonial wedding cake.  My church provided lemonade, iced tea, and coffee.  And we ate and talked and danced and ate some more, under a tent on a beautiful June afternoon.  It was like a piece of heaven.

I have often wished that there was a restaurant where everyone who came for dinner would bring a dish or dessert to share.  All you’d have to pay for would be your beverage and an overhead charge.  Every night it would be something different.  Every night would be a different crowd, and the name of the restaurant would be “The Church Potluck” or “The Potluck Supper” so as to be non-sectarian.  I know health codes wouldn’t allow such a thing but I’d like to think that such an enterprise could help change the world.

Jesus knew about this bond between food and community, how it seems you can’t have one without the other.  Jesus made use of meals and food as a way of serving up justice and building community, that commonwealth known as the kingdom of God.  In the feeding of the multitudes he demonstrated that there is more than enough for all.  A mandate was also given:  “You give them something to eat”.  He ate with prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and other outcasts, revealing God’s desire that all be welcome at the table.  At the last supper Jesus illustrated with bread and wine that there is no greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In the reading from the lectionary in the gospel of Luke we enter into the middle of an Easter meal with Jesus and his followers.  Just a few verses earlier Jesus shared the first course of bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Now he is taking part in some broiled fish.  Bread and fish take us back to the feeding of the multitudes and other humble suppers where the presence of Jesus and God’s love brought new life to those present.

Jesus eats this fish, and shows his scars once again, to give witness to his resurrection.  The disciples thought they were seeing a ghost, an experience of the dead rather than of the living.  The good news here is that the incarnation did not end on the cross.  The risen Christ is the Jesus who died.  Jesus Christ is God’s love in living, breathing flesh and bone.  We are also made of the same flesh and bone.  The resurrection hallows our fleshy existence and restores us to the image in which we were created, despite what we may perceive in the mirror.

For some of us this is a thorny issue, that being in the flesh is a good thing.  Some of us have real problems with food.  Most of us have turned to food for comfort at one time or another.  The term ‘comfort food’ doesn’t conjure up certain images in each of us for nothing.  Other times we punish ourselves by denying particular foods or we try to bulk up our self-esteem by refraining from indulging our secret cravings.  Some of us analyze every morsel that passes our lips while others of us don’t think twice, let alone remember what we ate.  So for Jesus to make plain the resurrection through the flesh of his body and eating of food so as to build this budding faith community can sound problematic at best to us who have issues with food.

Sometimes when we eat, we want to satisfy a deeper hunger than the one in our bellies.  And this is what Jesus is getting at.  He has a poor man’s supper with the disciples but then he moves on to the meat of it all.  He teaches them again the scriptures to show them the consistent faithfulness of God.  God’s love shown through the resurrection should come as no surprise to them; it is part of the thread of grace that runs throughout the entire Bible.  And it is this grace, this unconditional love, which fills our longing that has no name, our appetite for the ineffable, our yearning for transcendence.

Jesus isn’t about convincing them of the resurrection for the sake of believing.  Jesus witnesses to the disciples so that they would bind themselves together as a body resurrected from their grief, to remember all that they had been taught, all that they had seen and heard so as to share it with others.  Talking about faith over a good and simple meal is as good as it gets in my opinion.  We are nourished in both body and spirit, fully satisfied by God’s good gifts.

Though the organic food movement dates as far back as the 1920’s, to Rudolph Steiner in Germany, we have been slow to connect what we eat, how it is grown and harvested with not only our physical health but with our spiritual well-being.  Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring declared loud and clear how we are damaging the earth’s ecosystems and our own body systems by how we use pesticides.  In the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. we learn that our food is more engineered than grown, and more of our food is produced by a small handful of corporations.  When we eat, it’s not often that we realize that we’re eating dirt, water, sunlight, and a great deal of hard work.  Everything we eat comes from the earth or depends on it in some way.  Truly we are eating elements of resurrection:  a body broken and blessed, given for us, that has the power to bring us to new life.

We’ve forgotten what it means to live by the 1970’s slogan Know your farmer, know your food and to appreciate God’s good gifts in their season.  Of course, Jesus and his disciples lived in a time when all food was local.  They would probably look at our ways of food production and think us disconnected from the divine itself.

  We celebrate Easter whenever we join around a table, give thanks, pass the plates, and by eating together, create new life and new joy.  How much more does eating food grown in our own backyard, or on a local farm, add to that new life and new joy! 

When was the last time we had a potluck supper after worship, when most folks would be able to stay?  Do we need to recommit our efforts to shop at farmers markets, the local co-op, or sign up for a CSA share, and to have local foods present when we gather?  Have we ever considered having a raised vegetable garden on the church grounds?  Jesus shows us just how ‘fleshy’ he is; how ‘fleshy’ is Jesus in this church?  Is he a ghost or a real flesh and bone Jesus made alive in each of us and in our life together?  How do we connect our “feeding of the hungry” with our own feeding at the Communion table?  If we celebrate Easter with eating, how does that influence other meals, like the family dinner, the business lunch, the midnight snack, the guilty binge, the drive-through quick-fix, the commuting breakfast?

When we the Church realize how significant and how deep the resurrection is, authentic community, life-sustaining, life-creating, justice-serving community comes into being.  Jesus said “Love one another as I have loved you”—love that is not a feeling or a good idea but action made in our flesh and bone.  Jesus told Peter “Feed my sheep”, that we be fed and feed each other in such a way as to transform us and the earth, the kitchen table and that church potluck into the heavenly banquet where all are welcomed, restored, nourished, accepted, resurrected.  Saint Food, make us instruments of your peace.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How to survive the Zombie Jesus apocalypse

John 20: 19-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 

April 12, 2015 (Bright Sunday)

            First off, I have to give credit for the title of this little meditation to our very creative administrative assistant, Barbara Graham. A few weeks ago I was describing to her the scene in the gospel of John with Jesus’ disciple Thomas, his morbid request to put his hand in Jesus’ resurrected side, and that this scripture always falls on the Sunday after Easter, when we now celebrate Bright Sunday with humor. Without so much as a beat or batting an eyelash, she said, “Sounds to me like how to survive the zombie Jesus apocalypse!” Then a little light bulb went on above my head.

            Zombie culture is popular right now and has been for the last decade or so. It went underground (if you’ll pardon the pun) in the mid ‘80’s after enjoying another decadent decade following the shocking debut of the 1968 movie “Night of the Living Dead”. Turns out that currently there are many who look at Easter as that day when Christians worship a zombie Jesus, that the resurrection is nothing more than zombie Jesus back from the dead. There are websites, videos, comics, even swag proclaiming Zombie Jesus Day. One photo I saw online was of a young woman dressed as a zombie nun, holding a sign that read, “Jesus died for your sins. He’s back for your brains.” I’m sure there are many who think that we who see truth in the resurrection have checked our brains at the door and handed them over to Jesus.

            To some of you this may sound more than just irreverent but sacrilegious. The whole notion of Bright or Holy Humor Sunday can be unseemly to some Christians. But for centuries, in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions, Easter Monday and Bright Sunday were observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Parishioners and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, sang and danced. It was a time for clergy and laypeople to tell jokes, with no other agenda than to worship God by having some fun. The custom of Easter Monday and Bright Sunday celebrations were rooted in the musings of early church theologians such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. Easter was "God's supreme joke played on death," when Jesus became the Life of the party. The early theologians called it "Risus paschalis - the Easter laugh.”

          One component of humor is to push at the line of what’s funny, especially at our own tradition, our own expense. What it does is to make a little more room inside us: room for love, forgiveness, acceptance, peace, joy. So how do we survive this zombie Jesus apocalypse?

          Well, first of all, the risen Jesus wishes them peace. Zombies never do this. They wreak havoc and terror instead. Jesus also breathes the Holy Spirit, the breath of life, on to his disciples, giving them the power to forgive sins. For the gospel of John, this is the Pentecost event. Zombies are more into murder and mayhem. Nope, no zombies here.

          But Thomas wants to see the mark of the nails, to touch Jesus’ wounded hands, and put his own hand in Jesus’ side. That does sound pretty zombie-like. Jesus is also quoted in the gospel of John as having said, “Those who drink my blood and eat my flesh, live in me and I in them.” Yuck! That’s about as close to Night of the Living Dead as I want to get.

          The risen Jesus isn’t a zombie back from the dead or just some high-minded ideal or a philosophical concept. He is risen in a living, breathing body. In all the stories of the resurrection, his body is missing from the tomb not because of literal reasons but because of experiential ones. Death is not the last word. Resurrection, new life, is experienced in the body, in our bodies, imperfect as they are—now, as we are living and breathing. Every day we experience resurrection when we wake up in the morning, and we breathe in and out. It’s just that most days we take it for granted. There are times we go through our days like zombies, mindlessly performing our routine, going through the motions, forking over our brains without thinking. Why do we seek the living among the dead? We forget what a miracle we are, the miraculous world we live in.

         We experience resurrection not only in our bodies but corporately, in this body, the Body of Christ, imperfect as it is. A couple of weeks ago I had a dream about us, about this church. We were standing in our closing circle, but in a room where the walls were painted a warm, golden color. I was moving around the inside of the circle, each of you with prayer hands, and I was holding your hands in mine. My hands were hot, like irons, and I felt compelled to share this fire inside me with you, or else I would become flame. As I held each of your hands, the warmth, the heat from my hands spread to yours, warming the blood in your veins and arteries, flooding your whole body, your faces flushed with warmth. With each of you I could see in your eyes that what you were experiencing, what you were feeling, what was flowing through your whole being was tenderness, love, compassion, welling up from within you, for you, a holy love for yourself. Some of you were skeptical, some of you were tentative. You weren’t sure what was happening—I wasn’t sure what or how it was happening. But we were all hungry for it; it felt like resurrection, like new life.

        Jesus wasn’t a zombie, and we don’t have to be either. Easter isn’t just one day. (Here’s a spoiler: neither is Christmas.) Every day we are blessed to be in this body, and in this Body, is Easter. Every day is a second chance. Every day is resurrection day. Yes, yes, and yes!