Sunday, June 28, 2015

Changing our minds

Mark 4: 35-41
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 

June 21, 2015

            You know that bumper sticker (that Gandhi didn't say) “Be the change you wish to see in the world”?  Most of us know that changing ourselves isn’t as easy as we might think it might be.

           This video illustrates how complex our brain algorithm is for riding a bike. Imagine the brain algorithm for faith. Or for church. Or for how we perceive race.  And for each of us it’s different. What if we had to change the way we think about church and faith and each other because the ways we have been doing and being church aren’t working the way they used to?

           In the gospel of Mark, this story of Jesus and the disciples isn’t so much about the storms of life that come with change, so much as it is about the most violent storm, the biggest change of all time. The gospel of Mark was written around the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE – about 40 years after the death of Jesus. For Jesus’ followers it wasn’t just a rocky boat they were in; they weren’t sure they were going to make it to the other side. Everything they knew that gave their lives shape and meaning was gone. And to top it off, Jesus was asleep in the boat. It was like he wasn’t there.

            The apparent absence of God is a part of our faith most of us don’t talk about. When we can’t sense God, when we don’t feel God’s presence or hear God’s voice; when we can’t see God working in our lives or in the lives of others, then God is not there. We blame ourselves. We blame God. Sometimes we blame church. We want God to be strong because we feel weak and powerless, especially in the face of violence. And yet our God is one of weakness and vulnerability: like a prayer group that welcomed a strange young man, like the survivor who forgave that young man after he took the lives of nine precious human beings.

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words not long before he was executed in Nazi Germany: “God would have us know that we must live as [those] who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. [God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which [God] is with us and helps us.”

Jesus Calms the Storm, Daniel Bonnell, 2011

            Sounds a lot like that backwards bicycle. Right is left; left is right. God with us; us without God. God who has the power to stop a storm; God who can’t stop someone who hates from killing. God who gives life; God who came to die.

            Faith is not something that keeps us safe. Whether God is present or not offers us no guarantees. For the last 20 or so years we’ve seen our human institutions fail us, from banks to voting, to Congress and healthcare, to the economy, to the security of our nation, to the decline of faith communities, to our color- and power-biased justice system. It’s as if we've been asleep in the boat ourselves, only now waking up to the painful truth that racism continues to be a deep wound in our nation and white privilege is a very real problem. 


            David Hayward, an online theologian, wrote, “The mind first believes something, then bends the whole universe to conform to and confirm those beliefs. This is suffering.” And yet God is bending the universe toward justice, toward wholeness by bending God’s self into this world and onto a cross to die. This is how God wakes us up, how God changes our minds and hearts, and realigns that algorithm in our brains that says we know the truth.

            God’s algorithm, God’s answer to hate and fear is love—radical, unconditional, life-upending, fearless love. Love that engenders peace and stillness and calms raging storms; love that forgives even the unthinkable, because we really don’t know what we are doing.

            The only way we get there is every day, with God’s help, we love. Every day we put ourselves in Love’s way. We let go of what we think we know and train our minds and hearts to a different way. In the words of the poet Wendell Berry, “[Every] day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. …Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” 



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An evening at the Table

Mark 4: 26-34
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 14, 2015

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890

This past Sunday we had our second evening worship service with dinner and Communion, called "An Evening at the Table".

We read the scripture from the gospel of Mark, then discussed around the dinner table these questions:

What brings you joy?  What makes that seed that God has planted within you come alive?

In what aspects of your life do you do ministry of some sort?

How would you describe your spiritual gifts?

As our invitation to the Table we watched this movie clip from Phenomenon, starring John Travolta:

We then shared plates of fruit with one another: apples, grapes, strawberries, blackberries, and pineapple.  This too is Christ's body broken for us, seeds of new life within, that become part of us.

We are the seeds of God's future.  Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Walking like a duck

Mark 3: 20-35
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
June 7, 2015


            Earlier this week I encountered the first of what would become an onslaught of reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out photos, most of which have ranged from mixed to critical to vehemently negative.  Oddly enough, it was a letter to the New York Times from a female UCC colleague.  While acknowledging that she is an Open and Affirming minister and at the same time, that Jenner espouses a more conservative point of view, my colleague went on to state that Jenner, as a woman, was now on her ‘turf’.  She then proceeded to initiate Jenner into this dubiously-desired club by criticizing her appearance:  makeup, push-up bra, perfectly-coiffed hair, stiletto heels; that these undermine everything feminism has struggled against.  And then unthinkingly she declared, are we not all beautiful in the forms we arrived in on this planet.

            In effect, my colleague was asking if Jenner could have debuted as enlightened as the rest of us who were born in the forms we also identify with. Caitlyn Jenner was not born in the form she identifies with, which she now wishes to show off with abandon. Who can blame her? Well, apparently, plenty.


           Already some feminist and transgender advocates have resoundingly rejected Ms. Jenner as any kind of hero or role model. The media gave her the same sexist treatment as they would any female celebrity on the red carpet. There are some who are even petitioning the International Olympic Committee to strip Jenner of her gold medal from the 1976 Olympic games.

           Whenever a transgender person comes through their transition, however they manage to do so, however imperfectly, what we are witnessing is a birth. But rather than an infant, what comes into being is an adult living through yet another adolescence. Author Jennifer Finney Boylan, in her memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, writes, “Transsexuals going through transition resemble nothing so much as gawky, wonder-struck teenagers, amazed and perplexed by their bodies, startled by an awareness of themselves as men or women, as if they have invented the whole business single-handedly then and there. …It does no good to tell a transsexual that this is all old ground and to get over yourself, any more than it does to tell this to a fifteen-year-old.”

          In essence, Ms. Jenner is celebrating that in a major aspect of being human—gender identity—her outsides finally match her insides, something that hopefully all human beings aspire to. It’s just that for most of us it doesn’t require surgery. And you’d think if that it looks like a duck, talks like a duck, walks like a duck, it would in fact be accepted as a duck, inside and out. An authentic human being. A child of God.

          In this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark, there are some that think that Jesus is out of his mind. The scribes start a story that he’s in the service of Beelzebul or Satan. Everyone has a different expectation of what a Messiah is supposed to look like, talk like, walk like. Jesus’ family even goes so far as to do an intervention, trying to restrain him, sending for Jesus and calling out to him.

           Jesus’ one purpose was to do the will of the One who sent him: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Jesus labored with his whole being to have his outsides match his insides, to be an authentic human being, a child of God, and Jesus calls us to do the same. Whenever we do God’s will, whenever we do justice, or love kindness, or walk with God and each other as humbly as a duck, we are Jesus’ sisters and brothers, and we get to claim as family anyone else who does likewise. There is no turf but God’s turf.

          This Table is where we make our transition, where our inside image of God becomes our outward being. We won’t get a Vanity Fair cover for it. No one may even take notice. Or we might even get accused of being out of our minds or working for the evil one. No one ever said it would be easy walking like a duck. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


Isaiah 6: 1-8; John 3: 1-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 31, 2015



            “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

            Jesus said to Nicodemus that we must be born from above, or what has become a Christian idiom, born again.  We keep using that phrase, but I don’t think it means what we think it means.  When I was planning worship with Terri and EJ and Lisa and MT, EJ said that an idiom is a phrase that means something other than the literal meaning of the words.  Both she and MT said that they learned this in school, that when we say “It’s raining cats and dogs”, it’s not literally raining mewing kitties and howling dogs.  Rather, we know it’s a heavy, soaking downpour.

            So when Jesus says we must be born from above or born again, it’s as if Nicodemus declares “Inconceivable!  Jesus, you keep using that phrase ‘born from above’.”  And Jesus replies, “Nicodemus, it doesn’t mean what you think it means.  Don’t take me so literally.”

            Don’t take Jesus so literally.  Sometimes I think we’ve translated that into “don’t take Jesus so seriously”.  Because if we did, that phrase “born from above” or “born again” wouldn’t just rankle us but rattle us down to our bones.

            The Greek phrase that the gospel writer uses means “to bring forth or to conceive from the source or beginning”.  In order for something to be reborn, born again, born from heaven or from its source or beginning, it first has to die.  This isn’t just the center of the Christian faith; it’s the whole of the natural world.  Every spring we witness the earth return to life, but every winter we witness a death.  Seeds fall into the earth and die before they sprout a tender green shoot.

Even though we are people of faith who live in hope of the resurrection, we avoid death—talking about it, planning for it—like the plague.  Our culture desensitizes us to death, but still we glorify it in war and violent entertainment.  We do not make friends with death.  Yet St. Francis of Assisi went so far as to call death his sister.  Acknowledging and accepting death as his daily companion allowed Francis to discern what was essential to living and freed him from fear.

Today is a day for celebrating our teachers, our graduates, and our third graders receiving their Bibles.  Why on earth am I talking about death?  Couldn’t it wait for another Sunday?  Because the Church doesn’t have that kind of time.  Because this message has been pressing on my heart for a few years now, and I love church too much to wait.

If the Church is to be born from above, if Church is to be renewed, reborn, then first it must die.  The Church echoes the life of Jesus in most ways except this one.  This past week one of the devotionals from the United Church of Christ asked the question, why anyone would want to lead a dying church.  And I could not believe the naiveté of the response: “I don’t believe that God will let the church die.”

God let Jesus die on the cross.  God lets every single one of us and every living thing die.  We believe, we trust, we hope that death does not have the last word, but it does have the second-to-last word.  We suffer loss through death and yet it is also a portal, a transition, from one form of life to another.

In the often-quoted John 3: 16 Jesus says that we will not perish but have eternal life—another Christian idiom.  The Greek word for perish means utterly destroyed, something different from death.  If we believe in Jesus, that is, if we trust Jesus, follow him and his way of compassion, justice, and love, then we need not fear death.  We will not fear death because Jesus teaches us how to live.  We will not be utterly destroyed in death.  Rather, life will continue eternally.

We know this now from science.  Quantum physics tells us that energy can never be destroyed; it can only change form.  Everything we know, everything that exists is made of the same energy, is made up of different combinations of atoms.  The energy or the content continues to exist—it’s the form that changes.

Church as it currently exists has been coming to the end of its life for some time now.  And just we treat our own death by using more resources at the end of our lives and forestalling the inevitable, we have been doing the same with the Church, the Body of Christ.  We’ve reformed and split the Body into different versions of itself.  We invest resources and time and energy to keep it viable.  We institute programs and activities and attend workshops on how to do church so others will come and join us.  We even have a church renewal organization with the acronym CPR.  And much of our motivation has been fear and the survival of the Church rather than inviting people into a relationship that will change their lives.  (Which, when you think about it, is a lot of what’s wrong with our healthcare system.) 

The question we need to be asking ourselves is, “How has the church changed my life?  How could the church change my life?”  And I can only tell you how the church has changed my life, and I don’t just mean by giving me a vocation.  Church reveals to me the way of compassion and forgiveness.  Church teaches me how to be not just generous but open-hearted.  Church informs me that I’m not the center of the universe.  Church is where I begin to recognize that everything is sacred and that God is present everywhere.  Church is home, the place where they take you in, no matter what.  Church is where justice begins, the workshop for the kingdom of God.  Church is how I learn to love and work with people who are different from mewhich is everyone.  Church is where I discover that I am a whole person—body, mind, and spirit—made in God’s image, and that God calls the whole person, the gifts and the flaws, to be God’s hands and feet in the world.  Church is the place, the people where I don’t do all this perfectly but only with God’s help.  Church introduced me to the vulnerable heart of God, to Jesus and to resurrection, when my old life, the one that wasn’t working, died and a new life rose in its place.

God will do what God will do.  The Church is in the midst of an evolution. Other institutions formed by covenants—family and marriage—have changed and continue to change over time.  And yet life and love persist.  John’s gospel was written 30-50 years after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem—what in effect looked like the destruction of Judaism.  And yet, inconceivably, Judaism and the burgeoning movement called the Way—what would eventually be called Christianity—evolved and continued.

Church is not about its own survival.  It’s about changed lives and a changed world.  It’s about being compelled by the image of God within us and recognizing that image in everyone else and lifting it up.  It’s about accepting the reality of life which includes death and life that goes on.  It’s about conceiving how to live as faithful people in this time, in this place, not for ourselves but for the last, the least, and the lost.  It’s about taking risks for the sake of the gospel.  It’s about taking Jesus seriously.

Church is about being born again.  Inconceivable?  I do not think that word means what we think it means.