Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The unexpected God

Acts 2: 1-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 24, 2015 – Pentecost Sunday

            A colleague of mine called Mr. W. “spooky”. Hasn’t that been our relationship with what we used to call the Holy Ghost? Hasn’t the Holy Spirit been misunderstood in our mostly-white, mainline Protestant enclave? In its unpredictability, we can experience the Spirit as annoying. This holy wind gets on our nerves. Sometimes the Spirit can be intense, can come on too strong. Sometimes I think the Holy Spirit just wants to play, but we often don’t know how. And this image of the Spirit as wind that gets lonely because the wind is unrecognized, unappreciated, undervalued—that God’s Spirit is trying to get our attention in the only way it knows how—conveys to us that this Holy Ghost is indeed a friendly one.

            What would it look like if the church—that community created long ago by the Holy Spirit, and this one created not so long ago by the Holy Spirit—what if we sat down with that same Spirit, shook hands, and accepted this mercurial, whimsical, change-loving God, just as God has been, is, and will be, in all of God’s glory?

            What happened on that day of Pentecost so long ago was not what was expected. Jesus’ disciples and many others had gathered for the festival that celebrated the harvest and the giving of the Ten Commandments 50 days after the exodus. God had been known to be disruptive and showy in the past: thunder and lightning and a thick cloud on Mt. Sinai, God descending like fire, shaking the whole mountain with God’s unearthly presence; Moses’ face shining like the sun and the moon after speaking with God; Jesus’ clothing and body transfigured into a dazzling spectacle, keeping company with prophets of the past, long since gone.

            These were mostly revelations to a select few, a holy and intimate confab. But different languages zooming around the room, all understood, tongues of fire alighting on the heads of these Galileans for all to see—it was almost like that lyric in “American Pie”: “Oh and there we were all in one place/a generation lost in space/with no time left to start again”. This was a sight for all the sore eyes of Jerusalem and beyond. The author also takes pains to remind us that these were not just Jesus’ disciples but Galileans—what we would call hicks or hillbillies…or lower and slower. Jerusalem was where the educated elite gathered, the movers and the shakers. Once again, God upends human trends and expectations. #Thereisnohashtagforthis. Just as Jesus was born in a shed and worshiped by poor migrant shepherds, the Holy Spirit filled the hearts of backwater illiterate peasants, and it would be they who would spread the good news of Jesus.

Pentecost, from St.Aloysius' Church, Somers Town, London, UK.

            Again and again God goes to the margins of human experience and calls to us from that wilderness, “Over here!” Just when we think we’ve got church figured out, the church needs reforming. We’ve heard that we are living through another great reformation, what some are calling the Great Emergence. This can be difficult to imagine when what we are witnessing is the decline of not only Christianity but of religious community and affiliation in general. In fact, this emergence is about 40 years old by some folks’ reckoning. This church, most likely without realizing it, was part of that emergence—the desire to witness to one’s faith in a new way of being community, with fresh winds of the Spirit.


           Thirty-five years later the New Ark, for all intents and purposes, has settled down and into some of the same ruts other United Church of Christ congregations find themselves in. We have the same amount of ministry, tasks, and roles to be filled as a congregation twice our size. We have similar expectations of church for a congregation twice our size. We have an increasing retired segment of our church as well as empty nesters and families with one or two working parents with not much time for volunteering. Everyone is busy and facing their own challenges, teetering on the verge of being tapped out. The emerging church ship has sailed. “Geez, Cynthia, when you put it that way, it sounds worse than I thought it was.”

            How are we to be church in this 21st century, given our ruts and our challenges and each of us with our own take on reality? How are we to be church, with the still-increasing rise of those who are spiritual but not religious, the unaffiliated seekers and believers and those hurting from what can truly be called spiritual abuse and church bullies? Where is the unexpected God in all of this? From what far corner is the Holy Spirit gusting? From what margin is God calling?

            As always, ironically, God is calling from the center of our faith, the whole of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s we who have pushed the gospel to the margins, to the edges of our spiritual experience, of our religious community. We cherry-pick the gospel as much as anyone else. Marcus Borg wrote that when we read scripture in worship, we ought to conclude the reading with the injunction “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church”. What is the Spirit saying to us through the good news of Jesus Christ? By what authority do we truly live? What difference does this church make in our lives and in the life of this community and the communities we live in?

            Molly Phinney Baskette, senior minister at First Church UCC in Somerville, MA, says that their church exists for the last, the least, and the lost, right out of the gospel, directly from Jesus’ lips. Jesus said that the last shall be first and the first, last; that those who minister to the least of these have ministered to him; that he came for the lost sheep.

            A new neighborhood of apartments is going in behind us. We need to be able to speak clearly what difference the gospel makes in our lives, not only for ourselves but those who need a church like this one. When the gospel is visible in our lives and in our life together, we will have the renewable energy to serve that gospel and to be church, not just for ourselves but for the last, the least, and the lost. When we get to know the spooky Spirit and accept the abrasive, life-upending parts of our faith as well as what comforts and sustains us, the Spirit’s potential then becomes our potential as well.

            Where in the gospel does Jesus give us sass? (The youth in our church call The Message by Eugene Peterson, the Sass Bible, because Jesus gives people sass.) What is it about the gospel that annoys us, gets on our nerves, that comes on too strong, is too intense? Let’s go there. 


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Village people

1 Corinthians 12: 12-27
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 17, 2015

         I’ve started making a habit of having lunch at Klondike Kate’s on Wednesdays.  It’s half-price sandwiches and salads. I sit at the bar, so as not to take up a table.  The bartender, Andy, always wears Red Sox cap, so of course we struck up a conversation.  He’s from the Boston area and still has a touch of the accent.  It turns out his wife is from Danbury, CT, so he knows where Monroe is, my former town.

        A couple of Wednesdays ago I came in for lunch as usual.  I chat up Andy about the changes going on at the empty Mojo Main down the street.  I say, “It’s going to be a craft beer hub, with over a hundred different kinds of beer.  I saw an article about it this morning in the News Journal”. 

 A gentleman sitting a few feet away says, “That’s me.  That’s me and my partner.  We’re doing that.”  Andy turns toward him, “Really?  What a coincidence.”  The man, whose name is Jim, says, “Yeah.  Hey, nice Red Sox cap.  You from the Boston area?” 

 Andy says, “Yeah.  You?”  “Yeah, I’m from Taunton.”  I pipe up, “I know where Taunton is.”  Andy gestures toward me and says, “Yeah, her too.”  “Oh yeah?  Where?”  “Marshfield”.  “Oh yeah.  Actually, I’m from Raynham but usually nobody knows where that is.”  By the way, both Taunton and Raynham are not far away from Rehoboth…Massachusetts, that is.

        I’ve been reading the teaser messages on the marquee in front of Mojo, intended to generate interest in what’s coming next.  They’ve certainly worked their magic with me.  One in particular, though, I wanted to take issue with, and as luck would have it, I was face-to-face with one of the guys who was responsible.  “Hey, you know that sign you had that read ‘Remember the cantina in Empires Strikes?  Nothing like that.’  The cantina wasn’t in Empires Strikes Back; it was in the original movie.”  “Hah!” Jim said.  “That was my partner.  I’m gonna text him right now and tell him.”

 What are the odds?  I just happened to see the article.  Jim probably came into Kate’s to check out the competition.  And yet it’s moments like those that make us wonder, and we cue the theme song from The Twilight Zone.

 Then there are the stories that can make the hair rise on the back of the neck.  In the New York Times this past Friday:  Two women, strangers to each other, enrolled at Columbia University, sign up for the same writing class.  When they went through the introductions around the table, they discovered that they are sisters, given up for adoption over thirty years ago.  “You are members of one body, and individually, members of one another.”

 In the mechanical, Newtonian universe, there is a reason for everything, there is cause and effect.  But in the quantum universe, in the subatomic realm, the same laws do not apply.  Light can exist as a particle or a wave.  Water can exist as vapor, liquid, or solid and yet it is still the same molecule—H2O. 

 Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book of essays entitled The Luminous Web, recounts an exchange between the physicists Richard Feynman and John Wheeler as they discussed string theory.  Wheeler exclaimed, “Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and same mass!”  “Why?” Feynman asked.  “Because they are all the same electron!” Wheeler replied.[i]

  What if what appears as diversity is really oneness, wholeness?  We all may behave differently, but at the deepest level we are the same substance.  And when we make the conscious effort to associate with one another, despite, even because of our differences, we create connections and relationships—we begin to witness inklings of this unity.  We become aware that we are not so much building a body, but that we were already a part of the one body.  And when we make promises to each other and join in covenant, we become part of the body’s healing.

  And so it is with what has become known as the Village at this church.  Though perhaps it may have been a tacit covenant, through the common bond of parenthood and childhood, you were the architects and citizens of a village—a network of parents and children and many others in which everyone looks out for everyone else, shares responsibility and wisdom, play and learning.  You were and continue to be an incarnation of God’s love—what we call in churchy language, the Body of Christ.

 In that Body, there are no strangers.  Recall that weekend about a year and a half ago when we first met each other.  My daughters were worried that the ‘kids down here’ wouldn’t accept a pair of geeky sisters.  The youth group here wondered if a couple of preacher’s kids would get along with a geeky group of teens.  Surprise!  You all made room for each other, opened wide the way into the Village, because that’s what you do when connections are made, when oneness recognizes oneness.

 [Confirmand names]—you are the Body of Christ, and individually, members of one another and each of us.  Each of you is a likeness, an image of God, which calls us to see the sacred in all life.  As you have grown, I hope you have witnessed this image of God within you and these village people.  We who have watched you grow—it was and is our sacred and glad calling to help you realize that image of God within you and allow it to unfold in your life.  As you continue to grow, you too will be given opportunities to help others realize the image of God within them, that their lives are sacred and worthy and just as precious as yours.  This can be hard work—making those connections, building relationships.  But it will be your healing as well as theirs; your joy as well as theirs.  You are builders of the next Village, the next incarnation of God’s love, and so be true to that image of God within you.

  It not only takes a village to raise our children; it will take a village to heal our planet—one village at a time.  A village where we are one Body, and individually, members of one another.  A village where we all realize the image of God within us and within everything living thing.  We all everyone must share the burden.  We all everyone will share the joy.  We are village people.  We are Church.


[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web (Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 2000), 53.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A thousand other loves

John 15: 9-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 10, 2015

            Sometimes the way we read the language used in scripture can get in the way of, as Marcus Borg put it, what the Spirit is trying to say to the Church. So I’d like to unpack some of the biblical baggage we carry around with us.

[Jesus said:] "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

First off, let’s deal with John’s use of the word ‘Father’ for God.  When the gospel of John was written, some 60 to 90 years after the death of Jesus, calling God ‘Father’ was a radical notion.  For more than two thousand years, Israel referred to God as YHWH, a name that one did not speak, because how does an individual or a faith community address the creator of the heavens and earth, of the whole cosmos?  ‘Father’, on the other hand, implies intimacy, vulnerability, and yet a sense of one’s place in the creation.  When Jesus used ‘Abba’, which translates as ‘Daddy’, he went a step further and implied a childlike dependency and trust in the One who was also Adonai or Lord and El Shaddai, the God with the power of a mountain.  There really isn’t an inclusive version of this relationship, other than ‘Mother’ or ‘Mommy’.  ‘Parent’ does not convey quite the same level of intimacy as ‘Papa’ or ‘Mama’.  Many Native Americans refer to the Spirit that created humankind as Grandfather or Grandmother, recognizing the wisdom of our elders and yet implying that same sense of tenderness and closeness.

Since we are celebrating all families, of shapes and sizes, with a variety of relationships, we could read it this way:

"As the One upon whom I am dependent for everything has loved me, so I have loved you; abide (or live, make a home) in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept the commandments of the One upon whom I am dependent for everything, and I live in, I have a home in that love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Now for the word ‘commandment’.  The Greek word entolĂ© means ordinance, injunction, or command but with a little twist.  It is a command more concerned with the outcome than with just obedience.  The outcome is that we love one another as God has loved us.  The outcome is to have a deep and abiding, that is, live-in relationship with Jesus, a lifelong friendship.

"This is the outcome that must follow from my loving you, that you love one another.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the One upon whom I am dependent for everything will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am not asking you but giving you these commands because I desire with my whole life that you love one another."

         We who have a thousand other loves—God desires that we excel at one love: that we love one another. 

         But it’s not just a love that improves our own lives. Friday morning I had a Facebook conversation with a friend of mine who posted a quote from the 19th c. Unitarian clergy and author William Henry Channing:

“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to bravely await all occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”

While all of this is beautiful and laudable, it is a sentiment born of privilege.  Love is not love if it does not impact those whom the world deems unlovable.  Jesus said that if we love those who love us, what is that?  Anyone can do that.  The love that Jesus desires we impart to one another is a love that goes hand in hand with justice.  Not that we just get along with each other, but that we love one another in a way that liberates the oppressed, heals the anger of our enemy, pays a living wage, and sends the rich away ready to serve.

But this is not a love we can give with the intention that it change someone else’s life.  Like prayer, unconditional love is something that changes us.  Unconditional love gives us the courage to effect change in systems and communities and policy; to raise our voice, go out and vote; to keep company with and give what we can to those who are starved for a love that holds hands with justice.  To love with the intent that our love will hopefully change someone’s life is to impose a condition.  Unconditional love changes us and transforms our lives.  If it’s going to change another person, then it’s up to them to figure that out.

Earlier this week I was reading a blog post written by a mother giving advice to her daughter, who was trying to decide whether to keep dating a certain boy.  She was unsure as to whether this boy loved her.  The mother quoted 1 Corinthians 13 and asked her daughter, is he patient and kind?  Is he envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude?  The mother counseled the daughter to use this passage as a way of discerning whether or not this boy’s love was worthy of her.

If 1 Corinthians 13 is to be used as a measuring stick, then we use it to measure ourselves and the love we give to others.  Am I patient and kind?  Am I envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude?  When was the last time I insisted on my own way?  Have I been irritable or resentful?  Do I cheer louder for wrongdoing or for the truth?  How am I doing at bearing all things, believing all things, enduring all things?

No one can pass this test with flying colors.  There’s always room for improvement, which is why we have grace.  With the thousand other loves in our lives, the only one that really matters is how we’re doing loving others.  The outcome that must follow from God loving us is that we love each other, no strings attached, no yardstick to measure.  It’s this kind of love that transforms us into lifelong companions of Jesus and creates a family that spans across color and creed, sexual orientation and gender identity, ability, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic class.  As it reads on the door out front, we love.  We are Church.  

Jesus said that people will know who we are by our love.  And yet two-thirds of the younger generations who are not in church think that either white mainline Protestants do not welcome LGBT folks or they don’t know that we do.  So many people who are not part of a faith community but have a spiritual life do not know that there is a church, the United Church of Christ, that extends an extravagant welcome to everyone—to all families and people seeking a family.  This is why we are commanded to love and where we need to do more work, not just so we will love each other but that others might know that there is a powerful love waiting for them—love that can heal and transform a human life.

So I leave you with a question:  how can we work on loving each other that we would be known by that love?

May it be so.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015


1 John 4: 7-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 3, 2015

           Some of you may recall that my word for this year is stretch. Though there are days I may forget this word, this theme for the year, it has not forgotten me. If I choose not to do my sun salutation in the morning, or at least try to stretch out the morning kinks, the universe has many other opportunities for me to stretch in a variety of ways, most of them having to do with forgiving, accepting, and loving others.

           Author and psychologist M. Scott Peck defined love in this way: The will to extend oneself for one’s own or another’s spiritual growth. In other words, love is the willingness to stretch beyond our self-imposed limits that we might know and experience the immense and unconditional love God has waiting for us and for all.

           God is the one who makes it possible for us to love as God loves us. God stretches toward us each and every moment, open-handed, open-hearted. God extends to us the extravagant invitation to move in and live in this love all of our days.


           There is nothing we can do or are required to do to receive this gift. God’s love comes to us unbidden, unshackled, unreservedly. We don’t have to get our ducks in a row, eat all our vegetables, be the most valuable player, finish our to-do list, clean our house, give the appearance of being put-together. We can be our messy, feeling-broken, at-our-worst selves. God’s not waiting for us to pick up the phone and call. We don’t even have to believe in God for God to love us. That’s what unconditional means.


          Some things are true whether we believe in them or not. And why wouldn’t we want unconditional love in our lives? Unconditional love makes it possible for us to let go of shame and guilt. Unconditional love shows us how to put aside our grudges and forgive ourselves and others. Unconditional love softens our hearts and our eyes, takes away our need to be right and replaces it with kindness. Unconditional love removes our need to judge, to see what’s wrong with someone else and replaces it with the courage to examine the log we’ve been carrying around in our own eye. Unconditional love casts out our fear, our pain, and tears down the boundaries human beings have built between ourselves. Unconditional love makes what seems impossible, possible.

          Presbyterian minister and biblical commentator Matthew Henry wrote in 1700, "It is a sign that our love is far from perfect, when our doubts, fears, and apprehensions of God, are many." If our love is far from perfect, or complete, then we have an imperfect, incomplete idea of who God is. God is love. No one has ever seen God. But God can be seen through Jesus, who Jesus loved, how he lived and how he died. Even from the cross Jesus forgave those who cried out for his execution, those who carried out, and those who did nothing to stop it.

          It is also a sign that our love is far from perfect, when our doubts, fears, and apprehension of others are many. This past week we have seen images and heard stories of violence and looting in Baltimore, MD. We have heard the news that the state attorney general has brought charges against the six police officers connected with the death of Freddie Gray. Many have been quick to judge both the mob and the police. Occupying a place of righteousness takes away the need for us to change anything about ourselves, thus changing anything at all.

          The question that seldom gets asked is, “What would it look like for us to love these police officers, to love this angry mob, to love the disenfranchised among us, to love those who profit from others’ misery?” Talk about a stretch. It would mean we all have work to do. More listening. More understanding. More giving. More holding accountable, beginning with ourselves.

          Not only do we need more of us engaged in honest conversation about race but about justice, power, and money. Money has become our moral currency as well our monetary currency. Money shows us what’s important to us, what we love, and where we have begun to calcify and shrink rather than stretch and be willing. Love is what makes it possible for us to stretch, to be willing, to be open, to listen, to be honest with ourselves. Love is the stretch.

          And this Table is where it begins. Here Jesus reaches out to us and calls anyone who would approach this table his friend. Here we gather the strength to love the way God loves. Through bread and the fruit of the vine Jesus showed us the way of love that is willing to lay down life for friends. Mother Teresa wrote, “Intense love does not measure. It only gives.” At this Table we come to know the intensity of God’s love for each and every one of us. It is immeasurable. God’s giving never ends. Amen.