What Does the Lord Require of Us?

Atypically, I’m posting this before I preach this sermon later this morning. The texts are Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12. In light of what’s going around us, I felt the urge to preach on humility.

Micah was a prophet who lived during the latter part of the eighth century BCE around the reign of Hezekiah. He came from Moresheth, a village southeast of Jerusalem. His name translates approximately as Who is Yahweh? or Who is the Lord?

At that time, economic inequality in Judah was highly pronounced. The wealthy elites had accumulated power and wealth at the expense of small farmers. The wealthy were large landowners as well as officials, the military, and merchants. Traditionally, small farmers were economically self-sufficient, but a market-oriented surplus economy developed by the wealthy class put them in an economically tenuous situation. Add to that the tradition of dividing land among heirs and a growing population, their economic security became more precarious, which diminished their financial cushion to weather bad harvests. The normal obligations of taxation and forced labor led farmers to take out loans, which compounded their burdens. Ultimately, it forced small farmers into perpetual poverty.

Of course, the wealthy class was their source of credit. Thus, they increased their wealth at the farmers’ expense further exacerbating the division between rich and poor. They exploited their inherent advantage and made the poor economically dependent upon them. Consequently, this exploitation and disparity upset society’s social stability.

The wealthy, however, did not intentionally break laws to enrich themselves. Rather, they used the existing legal system and the existing structural weaknesses to their advantage. Furthermore, holding a theological understanding that their prosperity and financial success and security were signs of God’s blessing, they did not question the moral underpinnings and ethical implications of their decisions and actions.

At the same time, Assyria, one of the surrounding nations, began an aggressive expansion campaign through the region, which created a political crisis. It added to the problems pertaining to the economic situation. Hezekiah ultimately had to capitulate, which included paying a hefty tribute to the Assyrian king. This tribute included stripping the gold from the Temple doors (2 Kings 18:13-16). The elites, trying to preserve their power, advantage, and privilege, sought to play one side off the other, but failed. The result destroyed political morality and imposed of an oppressive burden the population.

Thus, the prophets: Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah. Though not exceedingly wealthy, they were in a better financial position than the farmers they openly supported and on whose behalf they advocated. Thus, Micah could severely critique those who held power and wealth.

He did not accept the wealthy and powerful’s theological complacency. He did not condone their offerings as sufficient to absolve them of their complicity in creating and sustaining the economic oppression which plagued the farmers and poor people. He believed theologically that God led the people out of their oppression in Egypt and that to leverage a system to oppress the people violated God’s intentions.

This morning’s reading from Micah is a poem in which he spoke God’s lament. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (v. 3) We might expect Micah to speak harshly to the powerfully wealthy. Yet, he did not accuse them of being a prostitute as Hosea did. Or threaten fire upon them as Amos did. Micah gave voice to God’s weariness that those in power have forgotten God’s grace in their lives. They forgot that God led them to freedom and sustained them for forty years in the wilderness. Micah’s words did not threaten.

Rather, he declared that all the Lord requires is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Not a threat, but a simple and clear commandment.

Arrogance and hubris, greed and self-centeredness. They are easy by-products of power. The wealthy used a legal system to accumulate power and amass wealth. They used this system for their own ends and ignored the burden their desires imposed upon the people from whom they extracted their wealth. But the power they accumulated was not enough for them. They wanted more, and so, worked to gain more until it all came crashing down.

People who hold power must use it responsibly. Indeed, the more power we have, the greater the responsibility required of us. Underlying that responsibility is humility. Micah essentially told the powerful that God is paramount and the apex of all life, theirs included. We, as recipients of God’s gracious generosity, should never lose sight of our relationship with God and that relationship calls upon us to remain humble.

Jesus essentially said the same when he stood before the crowd and preached the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. When he spoke of the kingdom of heaven, he turned this world on its head. Essentially, Jesus’ message proclaimed that to find true peace and justice rooted in love, we cannot find it when we live by the rules of this world. We must live by God’s laws and commandments. Power, then, in the kingdom of heaven comes from humility. Power necessitates our full awareness of how and what we do impacts all those around us and its consequences seen and unseen. It was true then, and is true now.

Jesus told the disciples and the crowd around him that in their humble lives, they are God’s servants. They are blessed because they are loved and in response to that love must be merciful, must be pure in heart, must be peacemakers. In response to God’s love they should stand with the oppressed in spite of hate and persecution directed at them.

Blessings come in our humility and our faithfulness to God’s desires for us, which are to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. We won’t find blessing or happiness when we think and act for our own self-interests, pursue our own self-seeking schemes, strive to become fabulously wealthy, allow fear to replace love, or trust weapons of violence and destruction to achieve peace.

Humility leaves space for gratitude, which allows us to remember that what we have is God’s. It allows us to acknowledge that our spiritual gifts enable us to succeed and that real success comes when everyone around us is lifted up too. Humility acknowledges that we don’t have all the answers and are hardly perfect, thus leaving room for doubt and questions even when we are confident of ourselves. Humility embraces the belief that demonstrations of real strength come through restraint. Humility defines leadership as service, not domination. Humility accepts that we have no control over the lives of others or even our own. Humility finds awe in even the simple and oftentimes pedestrian aspects of life.

Who is Yahweh? It’s not us. To live as though we are, we will fail. The fallout could harm people around us. Dwelling in the kingdom of heaven means we must live humbly. We will find true peace and justice rooted in steadfast love when we submit to God’s ways and trust in Jesus’ teaching. Then, the blessings of the kingdom of heaven will be upon us.

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A Christmas Story

Last month I bought a book of Christmas short stories. As I read them, I began to think about the structure of Christmas stories and decided to attempt one on my own for Christmas Eve. This was my Christmas Eve homily tonight.

James and Alison were friends in college and became a couple shortly after graduation when they both got jobs near each other. Married for 12 years, they had two children, Maddie, age 10 and Jacob, age 7. Their house was in a good neighborhood in a small New England city. The city itself was emerging from a major economic downturn after the mill at the edge of town closed twenty years before. Stores and new businesses were opening across the city and plans to develop the old mill site were underway. It was a good place to raise a family. Yet, it had its problems, including many homeless men and women.

One day in late spring Maddie asked James, “Daddy, where is your daddy? You have to have a daddy. Everyone has to have a daddy.”

“I’ve told you before, Maddie, I don’t know my father. I grew up with people who loved me, though. You know I was a foster child and lived with three different families until I went to college. I kind of look at your grandpa, Mommy’s daddy as my father,” said James.

“I know that. But I want to meet your real daddy. I want to know where you came from.” she said.

James’ voice began to quiver, “This is very hard for me to talk about. My father left me when I was about four years old. My mother died and after several months, my father took me to some office. He signed some papers and walked out. I never saw him again.”  He went silent for a moment and hugged Maddie very hard. He didn’t want her to see him cry.

The family were members at the Open Table Church and actively participated in its ministries. James helped once or twice a month serving the community supper on Tuesday nights. Open Table was one of five churches in the city, which took turns to provide a hot meal to people who needed a place to eat on weeknights. Many of the people who came were among the city’s homeless.

One evening Maddie joined James at the community supper. James filled the plates and Maddie brought the food to each guest. As many people who worked the supper were church members, James didn’t have to watch Maddie too carefully. Occasionally he looked for her just to be sure she was OK. He noticed that she was deeply involved in a conversation with one of the guests.

As they were driving home, James asked, “Who was your friend?”

“His name is Old Ollie. He’s a nice man,” said Maddie. “He was in the army, and he’s lived all over the world. He’s a good storyteller.”

“He comes often to our meals. He’s a regular,” James replied. He went on to say, “You’ve got to be careful, Maddie. Don’t tell him too much about yourself and don’t leave the room with him. Actually, I’d be more comfortable if you didn’t talk to him too much.”

“But, Daddy, he’s so friendly. He’s lonely, too. He has no family, and this is the only real meal he gets on Tuesdays,” Maddie said.

“I think it’s great that you made friends with Old Ollie, today. Still, be careful, Honey. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.” James tried his best to hide his deep reservations.

A couple of weeks later James was at the supper dishing out food. Maddie brought Old Ollie’s plate to him. Noticing that this time Maddie was sitting across the table from Old Ollie, James watched Maddie more intently. As they were clearing dishes, Maddie came to James. “Daddy, I think Old Ollie is your father.”

“Maddie,” he said quietly, “he can’t be. My father walked out of my life. He never called me or wrote me a letter. Plus, I grew up on the other side of the country, why would my father be here?”

Maddie answered, “You and Old Ollie have the same nose and the same color eyes. If you talk with him, you’ll see.”

Figuring that if he went to Old Ollie to talk with him, Maddie would leave him alone. James went to Old Ollie and extended his hand, “Hi, I’m James Carson, Maddie’s father.”

“Oliver Murphy. Pleased to meet you. You’ve got a bright girl here. She asks a lot of good questions,” Ollie said.

“I’m sorry she was bothering you.”

“No, she wasn’t. I don’t get to talk with many people. Being homeless, a lot people don’t want to talk with me. Or when they do, they keep their distance. Maddie made me feel like a real person.” Ollie continued, “You’re raising her right.”

“Thanks,” said James. “You want to know something funny, Oliver? Maddie thinks you’re my father. She said I have to meet you because you and I have the same eyes and nose.”

Ollie laughed and went to stand next to James. “Are our eyes and noses really the same, Maddie?” he said. He said looking at James. “I don’t have any children.”

Over the next few months James would greet Ollie by name and Ollie in turn introduced James to some of his friends from the street. After the meals, Ollie stuck around a bit longer to help clean up. He and James would talk. He learned that Ollie served in Vietnam. When James asked him what he did there, Ollie told him, “I was a tunnel rat.” James looked at him a little puzzled. Ollie explained, “I crawled through the tunnels to clear them out.” He paused, “I’d rather not talk about this, it’s not a story to share.” During those months, when Maddie came with James, she would bring two plates to Ollie, one for him and one for her.

Summer turned to autumn and temperatures began to drop. One evening James asked Ollie how he would manage through the cold weather. Ollie told him that he tries to get to the cot shelter by 6:00 to get a bed for the night. “This city is one of the good ones.” Ollie said. “In many places you have to get to the shelter by 4:30 to get a bed, which means I don’t get to eat meals like this. At least here I can eat and have a chance to get a bed. And you know I have to leave every morning by 7:00 with my stuff because the shelter can’t hold a bed during the day. It’s first come, first serve.”

“What do you do during the day?” James asked.

“I have a part-time job breaking down boxes at the hardware store. It’s a couple of hours every day, which gives me enough money for coffee and a little food. They also allow me to get my mail there so I can get my government checks. And then, after I’m finished, I nurse a cup of coffee for a couple of hours at Burger King, except on Wednesdays when I go to Dunkin’ Donuts because the Episcopal church pays for coffee during our Bible study. I usually hang out at the library in the afternoon until it’s time for supper. I’ll read the paper there or try to nap.”

“What about getting more hours at work?” James asked.

Ollie motioned with his hands that he drinks too much. “Yeah, I sometimes drink too much, which means I can’t get into the shelter. It also keeps me from holding a steady job. But I will say this. Since Maddie started talking with me, I’ve had fewer bouts with drunkenness. These months have been the longest in about 40 years that I’ve stayed reasonably sober.”

James wasn’t ready for all that information. He never really thought about the way of life for someone who is homeless.

As James, Alison, Maddie, and Jacob were watching TV after Thanksgiving dinner, James asked the children, “What do you want from Santa this year?”

Jacob said, “I want a fire truck and a drum set.”

“What about you, Maddie?” asked Alison.

Maddie thought for awhile. “I’d like Old Ollie to have dinner with us.”

“Old Ollie?” Alison looked a bit puzzled. Turning to James, “Isn’t he that homeless man you’ve told me about?”

“Yes.” he replied. “Maddie, I’m not sure if Old Ollie will come to dinner. He’s got friends, you know. He might want to eat with them.” Though James had gotten to know Ollie, he was not comfortable asking Ollie to join them for Christmas dinner. Trying to change the subject he asked, “What else do you want?”

“Well,” she said, “I really want Old Ollie to come over. Besides none of the churches will be serving Christmas dinner.”

“Your father and I will discuss this later,” said Alison.

Alison and James talked about it for the next couple of weeks. She became more acquainted with homelessness and about Ollie, too. Finally, they agreed to extend Ollie an invitation for Christmas dinner. They also agreed that they will not serve alcohol and to pay for Ollie’s room for a night in one of the local motels because he would not get a bed at the shelter after supper. When they told Maddie, she was overjoyed.

On Christmas afternoon James picked Ollie up from the bus depot because it was the only place open. He brought Ollie to the motel room where he could leave his stuff. James gave Ollie a box. “Merry Christmas, Ollie.” He opened it to find new set of clothes.

“Man, James, dinner at your house and this room for the night … you didn’t have to do this. And how did you know my size?”

“Clothing labels. Last week at supper, I checked your stuff at the church. Listen take a shower and wear these to dinner. My in-laws are joining us for dinner, too, and I don’t want to freak them out. I’ll wait in the office.” James said.

About thirty minutes later Ollie came to the office. “Wow! You clean up nice.” joked James. “I think I’ll take you home.” They got in the car and in a few minutes arrived at the house.

When they walked into the house, Maddie shrieked, “Old Ollie! You’re here! This will be the best Christmas ever.” She ran to him and gave him a hug.

Alison and Jacob came out and James introduced them. He wanted to get Ollie settled before his in-laws arrived. Ollie thanked Alison for inviting him to dinner. She remarked, “Thank Maddie. I’m glad we can do this. After all it is Christmas.”

He replied, “I know this was not easy. And honestly, it’s not easy for me right now. I’m a little nervous. I haven’t been to a real Christmas dinner in decades.” Trying to make a tentative joke, “When we sit down to dinner, you’ll have to tell me which fork to use.”

Ollie began to scan the living room. There were many pictures: Alison and James’ wedding picture, a family portrait done at the church, various pictures of Maddie and Jacob. Pointing to another couple, “They are my parents, Marla and Tony,” said Alison. “They’ll join us for dinner. They’ll be here in about 30 minutes.”

As Ollie studied the pictures, he stopped and stared at an old picture. It was a small 3 x 5. In it was a picture of a young, beautiful woman with a toddler. James noticed that Ollie was studying it very intently. “That’s me and my mother,” James said. “It’s the only one I have of us.”

“What happened to her?” Ollie asked.

“She died when I was four. It was just my father and me for awhile and then he abandoned me and I became a foster child. I lived with three different foster families until I went to college where I met Alison.” James said.

“Where did you grow up?” Ollie was very curious now.

“Way out west in Idaho,” James replied. Now James was getting curious.

“Was your mother’s name Gail?”

“How do you know that?” James looked surprised.

Ollie reached into his pocket and pulled out a beat up old wallet. It was thick with scraps of paper. He sorted through them and pulled out a tattered wallet size picture. It was James’ mother.

Ollie began to explain, “She was my wife. We lived in Idaho. We met in high school and got married just before I went to Vietnam. I did two tours and came back a mess. I drank a lot. I couldn’t hold a job. We fought a lot. There were many times I’d walk out without warning and go camp in the woods for days. Finally, one day I left and never went back.”

By now Alison, Maddie, and Jacob were transfixed by Ollie’s story. “How long were you married?” Alison wondered.

“Well, two years during Vietnam and then another twelve years after I returned. I don’t know I guess twelve … fifteen years. I’ve kind of forgotten.” Ollie said.

James was too stunned to speak. He was trying to absorb this revelation. “Did you stay in touch at all with Gail?” asked Alison.

“Not really,” he replied. “My sister knew Gail and stayed in touch with her. I called my sister every few months from a pay phone. She would tell me about Gail. But she couldn’t tell Gail anything about me because I was wandering around the country. I wasn’t in one place long enough to be found. When I learned that Gail gave birth to a boy about eight months after I left her, I sent her some money without a return address. And then, I learned that about six months after my son was born that Gail moved in with a guy. He adopted my son. That was kind of about it. I lost track of the boy when my sister told me Gail died. My sister also told me that she never did like the guy who moved in with her. She said he didn’t seem friendly at all. He actually put some distance between her and Gail.”

James, looking surprised and confused, “I thought you didn’t have any children.”

Ollie replied, “Well, I never met my son. In some ways I’m not sure how true my sister’s story was. I can’t really wrap my head around this.”

“This is a lot for me to wrap my head around too,” said James. “Based upon what you’ve told us Ollie, I’m about the age of your son, now.” After a long silence, James asked, “If you could meet your son, now, what would you hope he would be?”

Ollie exhaled deeply. Slowly he said, “I would hope that he is OK, you know healthy. He’d be happily married with some good kids. He’d have a good job and a comfortable life. He would be kind and compassionate. Being a faithful member of a church and a respected person in the community would be nice, too. Like you, James.”

Silence. And then the doorbell rang.

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Moving Forward

Today was my last day at the Trinitarian Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Northfield, MA.

I was with the congregation for six months as its interim pastor. We worked hard so the congregation can now see possibilities for its ministry. Like many congregations, they are small, about 40-45 in worship on Sundays. They are aging and they face financial stress. They are, however, a healthy congregation, and they willingly worked during our time together.

Typically, my last sermon for a congregation is a brief summary of our time together.

I used Deuteronomy 34:1-8 and Matthew 28:16-20

These were Moses’ last words to Israel as he stood on Mt. Nebo. He led Israel through the wilderness for forty years. The other side of the river was ahead of him, but he would not cross it. According to Matthew, these were Jesus’ last words to the disciples when they returned to Galilee. Today is my last words from this pulpit. I assure you I don’t have a Moses complex or see myself as Jesus. They seemed, however, apt.

I cannot tell you enough how much I have enjoyed my time with you at TCC. Most of you know my trip is 90 minutes each way between Pittsfield and here. Commuting three days a week means I spend about nine hours on the road, and it has been worth it. Admittedly, it has been tiring, but being here has been energizing.

When I initially met with the Executive Committee, I asked that a significant portion of the congregation participate in this interim process, and you did. We’ve done a lot together. We had five community discernment sessions in which we delved into congregational identity, Northfield concerns, history, habits, and fundraising. We read Beyond Resistance in order to understand the church in a post-modern era. We went through the first 15 chapters of Acts and learned that the Church is practically a miracle due to the Holy Spirit’s power. And the weekly articles… I told colleagues, “I assigned homework.”

I’m not sure when things started to shift, but I sense that TCC sees how change is necessary for its sustainable future. You’ve probably heard “missional identity” said more times in the last six months than in the past several years. Thoughts about earning rental income from the underutilized space in the building are taking hold. Even the nebulous concept, post-modernism, no longer sounds weirdly foreign.

We know now that today’s context of the local church and its community is different than the 1960s to the mid-1970s when the American mainline church was in its heyday. Then, the local church had a prominent place in the community. It was a place for civic responsibility and engagement. Church membership was an imprimatur and to be a church trustee or a deacon elevated one’s standing in the wider community. Long established churches built annexes or enlarged their church houses while new churches came with every new housing development. Inside the church, the sanctuary was packed, and we measured Sunday School attendance by scores of children. Church was the center of a congregation’s social life. Volunteers gave their time throughout the week performing a variety of tasks: organizing and running fundraisers, teaching Sunday School, visiting parishioners, leading Bible study. Today, not so much. Sunday worship has more empty space than people. We’re ecstatic if we have five children in Sunday School and the classrooms have become storerooms for stuff we used to use and may one day possibly find a use for them again. We’ve dropped some fundraisers or else they’re not quite as extravagant as they were a generation ago. And we lament. We lament that we aren’t what we were. We lament that the number of people we once had is no more. We lament that the heyday is over.

But what if we see where the church is today not as a loss, but as preparing the ground for resurrection? Remember, Moses died on Nebo. Though he saw the Promised Land, he wasn’t going to get there. Someone else was going to found a great nation. And as Christians, we can’t overlook that all of Jesus’ teachings, which changed the world, probably would have faded into oblivion because he never wrote any of it down. He had to die on a cross.

As much as we love this church and all that it is presently, it will not last forever. What I learned serving here is that the church, which is the gathering of people, is ever-changing. Births and deaths. Comings and goings. Ebbs and flows. These are reassuring rhythms. However, they are internal to the church. And in the church’s heyday, they were sufficient.

We’re in a new era now when people feel they have no need for the church. Yet, we know the church matters. The church holds deep memories of life’s celebrations and milestones. The church gives us meaning and affirmation. The church offers grace. The church celebrates and weeps with us. Quoting from the UCC Statement of Faith, “God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.”

We cannot freeze what is and hold it indefinitely because the church is never the same from month to month and year to year. We need to let die the belief that we can remain as we are. We need to let die the belief that people will come to us because of what we provide. We need to let die our memories of our past glory.

When we let die the belief that we can remain as we are, when we let die the belief that people will come to us, when we let die our memories of past glory, we will have new life. We are the fertile ground, but when we hold too tightly to our past, our habits, and our own perceptions of who we are and were, they are the weeds that choke new growth.

Over these months, we’ve been able to look at this field. Certainly, there are weeds. But weeds don’t grow if the ground is not fertile. Our fertile ground is timeless teachings and commandments of Jesus. Our fertile ground is people, like yourselves, who love this church and love to serve in the name of Christ. It is my hope that in our time together you have been able to look at TCC with a clearer eye. You see weeds that need to be pulled. You see habits and practices that need to die. You also see possibilities for your future that a year ago you didn’t imagine as seeds for new life.

We need to let die the notion that this is “our church.” The church was, is, and will always be God’s church. We don’t own it. We can’t even claim it for ourselves. Like Moses who would not cross the river, we might not see what our local churches will become, but, hopefully, we have prepared the ground to support new life to serve a new generation.

Jesus spoke to the disciples in the imperative, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Essentially, he told them they had to go out into the world; the world would not come to them.

Beginning from its earliest days, the church grew because it went out into the world. Disciples spread the gospel message in which the assumptions of this world are turned on their heads. We remember in Acts that when the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers that Pentecost morning, the church was born, and it spread out from Jerusalem. Paul set sail to start churches throughout the Mediterranean basin. Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Peter baptized Cornelius, a Roman centurion and a Gentile. I think of the words from Natalie Sleeth’s anthem, “Go ye, go ye, into the world and make disciples of all the people.” The gospel message is that God’s kingdom, God’s realm of peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive love, is not for the end of our mortal days, but is made real in this world when we live as Jesus taught.

As the church, we have the task to make Jesus real. We are the body of Christ and thus, should incarnate Jesus so people who are not in the church know that Jesus is very much alive at TCC. Do not fear change. Do not fear because the Holy Spirit is with you. Do not fear death because resurrection is a promise.

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Advent Candle Liturgy for 2019

Feel free to use this liturgy. If you do, please include the following: “Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.” © Quentin Chin 2019

Advent Candle Liturgy – 2019

Advent 1 – Dec 1
Romans 13:11-14
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

One:    Today is World’s AIDS Day. Its theme is “Communities make the difference.” The UNAIDS website describes the theme this way: “Communities contribute to the AIDS response in many different ways. Their leadership and advocacy ensure that the response remains relevant and grounded, keeping people at the centre and leaving no one behind. Communities include peer educators, networks of people living with or affected by HIV, such as gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and sex workers, women and young people, counsellors, community health workers, door-to-door service providers, civil society organizations and grass-roots activists.”
Many: Life-giving and life-sustaining God, AIDS was once a virtual death sentence. Today, it is manageable for many people. We give thanks for a broad community of doctors, scientists, advocates, healthcare workers, and people with AIDS. Their work and ministry have lifted the death sentence. We continue to pray for people in parts of the world where AIDS remains problematic. May the darkness surrounding them come to an end so light will fill their lives. Amen.

Advent 2 – Dec 8
Romans 15:4-13
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.  For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”; and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”; and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

One:    We are a nation of many people from many places. We are a people born of many experiences. We are racially, ethnically, sexually, politically, generationally, economically, physically, and developmentally diverse. Our parochial interests, however, weaken us. We will have true community when we can turn aside our narrow self-interests. Then, God’s light will shine.
Many: Our community is fragmented, O God. Though we may differ in our races and ethnicities, though we may differ in our sexual identities, though we may differ in our politics, we are your children. Encourage us and prod us to find common ground. Grant that we might live in harmony with one another. And in that harmony may we have peace. Sustain us with hope for a new day. Amen.

Advent 3 – Dec 15
James 5:7-10
Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

One:    The day of promise is almost here. While we wait, we must not cease to thicken the bonds of community. We must tell our stories. We must listen to them. Though our community fabric is tattered and frayed, compassion and kindness will repair it. New life will abound. Nevertheless, patience
Many: Steadfast and faithful God, we are your children. Teach us to listen with compassion. Teach us to speak in love. May we refrain from judgement. Grant us patience while we work to reweave the tattered fabric of our community. Give us courage to reach out to strangers. Remind us that when we put on the breastplate of love, we have no need to fear. Amen.

Advent 4 – Dec 22
Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

One:    We have been waiting with expectant hope that a new day will come. On that day we will be one with another. Despite our differences, we will find common ground upon which we can lay the foundation for the beloved community. On that day, we will build a just world for all people, a world rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love.
Many: O Shepherd God, you lead us as flock. Seeking shalom, we have gone on our separate ways. Come among us. Gather us together. Remind us that true peace comes when we live together as the beloved community. Encourage us to have humility so that we can honor each other’s differences. Help us to restore our community so your peace and justice rooted in love can prevail. Amen.

Christmas Eve – Dec 24
Titus 3:4-7
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

One:    On this night long ago, a very young mother gave birth in a stable. This child grew to teach a radical vision of true community: power is humility, wealth is generosity, authority is servanthood. He taught that the world’s problems cannot be solved alone and that by working together, even with our differences, we can be the light of hope for those who live in darkness. Tonight we celebrate the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.
Many: Holy One, on this night you came to us in a tiny baby. You grew to share our common lot. You called us to serve one another in love. Remind us, yet again, that true peace comes in breaking bread and sharing the cup. Prod us to seek common ground for the common good. May our ministries of grace bring healing and hope to this world and usher in your realm of peace. Amen.

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Sabbath and Rest

I departed from the lectionary yesterday and preached this sermon about Sabbath.

The leadership in the congregation I’m serving has been thinking seriously about its future.  This congregation is like many: the average age in pews is increasing, its membership over the past several years is decreasing, its finances present a challenge to its ministry, and people are expressing fatigue.

Recently, some people have floated the idea to use 2020 as a Sabbath year.  The idea has generated some excitement.  Most significantly, people have suggested that we stop fundraising (we’ve had three fundraisers in three months and we’re planning another one for November) and redirect the work towards strategically reimagining its ministry.  Still, nothing has been definitively decided.

I decided to introduce Sabbath yesterday to prepare the congregation.  Besides, it is Labor Day weekend.  I used Leviticus 25:1-6 as my text.

Driving here on Wednesday, I saw school buses.  The speed limit by the school dropped to 20 MPH.  This weekend marks the unofficial end of summer.  Reflecting upon summer, or maybe the end of summer, I think of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.”

People took vacations, whether a respite from work, or to visit grandchildren who were out of school.  Others got away for a short visit to the lake or to the ocean or to the mountains.  Communities held street festivals where we could justify stuffing our faces with fried dough because “I’ll walk it off.”  Perhaps some people sat in the stands to watch baseball, a game without a clock.  Or maybe people gathered in a backyard drinking beer while hot dogs and hamburgers sizzled on a grill.

Cooking is simpler.  Freshly sliced tomatoes alternating with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese. Corn on the cob.  A bowl of berries with whipped cream.  Eating a peach for dessert as its juice runs down your arm.

Life’s rhythm in the summer is different.  Its pace seems slower.  We amble rather than run.  We stop to sniff the flowers because they’re in full bloom.  We watch clouds scuttling across the sky.

Rest and relaxation are summer’s prescription for our overworked and ofttimes frenetic lives.  We need time off because we’re not meant to nor capable of working all the time.  Although summer is probably our most obvious time off, it’s not our only one.  Weekends happen throughout the year.  How they evolved vary depending upon the source one reads.

Weekends came out of the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday.  A 19th century English labor practice paid workers at the end of the week to give them Saturday evening and Sunday to spend with friends and family.  However, so many workers took off on Mondays to drink and gamble at public houses that the day became known as Holy Monday with soaring absenteeism.  Factory owners compromised and offered half-day Saturdays in exchange for work attendance on Monday.

Saturday and Sunday became an accepted norm when a New England textile mill in 1908 gave Saturdays to its Jewish workers.  As the mill was closed on Sunday already, its Christian workers, who were the majority, sought and received Saturday off as well.  The practice spread so that in 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act designating a 40-hour work week with Saturdays and Sundays as weekends.[1]

Though rooted in Sabbath, these rests, whether the weekend or summer breaks, are not necessarily Sabbath.  We typically treat them as “our time” as opposed to “our employer’s time.”  We fill “our time” with our activities: yardwork, shopping, home repairs, meal prep, kid’s sports events, and the myriad other things we have to do because we have so much to finish just to get to the next week.

In Judaism, Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday night.  Sabbath, also known as Shabbat or Shabbos, is a cessation from work, but not just the work of 40 hours of employment. Depending upon how strictly one observes, a few examples of Shabbat (which its root means “cease” or “desist”) practices would be to refrain from cooking, to not ride in a vehicle, do not fix things or finish projects, and to not transact business (which means not spend money).  Shabbat in Ancient Israel was universal.  As noted (Exodus 20:9-11),

“Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel contrasted space, which is the way we live our lives, to time, which is the sacredness of living.  He wrote, “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”[2]  Heschel invited us to see Sabbath as a cathedral in time, thus enabling us to glimpse eternity.  He wrote, “What would be a world without Sabbath?  It would be a world that knew only itself or God distorted as a thing or the abyss separating Him from the world; a world without the vision of a window in eternity that opens into time.”[3]

Sabbath is not just time off, but time off with the intention of strengthening our relationship with God as we delight in God’s presence.  Like God, who on the seventh day rested after six days creating the world, observing Sabbath allows us to reflect upon what we’ve done the previous six days and perhaps even to believe that it was very good.

Sabbath, though, extended beyond humankind and animals.  It also included the land.  Every seventh year was a sabbath year for the land.  It allowed the land to rest.  Furthermore, Leviticus reminds us that the land is God’s, “When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.” (Lev. 25:22-24)

That the Torah commands a sabbath for the land, agriculturally it is a good practice, too.  By letting the land lie fallow, the land replenishes the soil’s nutrients that certain plants have leached out.  It increases levels of carbon, nitrogen, and organic matter as well microorganisms.  Following a fallow year, crop production from that field is higher.

We, however, don’t just stop our activities and call it Sabbath.  Sabbath practices are intentional. We don’t say, “I don’t feel like cooking today.”  Rather, we cease cooking today in order to dedicate our cooking time to God.  When we realize that Sabbath requires us to cease our daily tasks, we have to prepare in the days leading up to the Sabbath, such as making extra food to last through the end of the next day or making sure that the home repair project is done in order to have true rest, giving us time for God rather than the daily work that occupies our lives on all the other days.

Sabbath is not just rest.  It is sacred rest.  Sabbath is not a vacation or a weekend away.  Sabbath is not to complete the business we couldn’t complete during the week.  Sabbath is not merely to stop and relax.  Sabbath is to cease the busyness of our lives and turn our lives over to God and in so doing see beyond tomorrow, beyond the next year, in order to see the splendor of eternity.

[1] https://bigthink.com/scotty-hendricks/who-invented-the-weekend-2 and https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/08/where-the-five-day-workweek-came-from/378870/

[2] Heschel, Abraham Joshua.  The Sabbath.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York 1951, renewed 1979.  Page 6

[3] Ibid.  Page 16

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Finding Our Way Home

I preached this yesterday at church.  I used the lectionary readings from Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and then the gospel lesson, Luke 12:32-40.

I mentioned Rheinhold Niebuhr in this sermon.  Coincidentally, he had a home in Heath, MA, which is not too far from where I’m preaching these days.

Last weekend’s shootings in El Paso and Dayton were horrible.  Since then, we’ve endured a tsunami of news.  Emotions and speculations.  Anger.  Exasperation. Frustration. Powerlessness.  Finger pointing.  Inaction on gun regulations.  Charges of racism and white nationalism.  Mental illness.

Politicians weighed in.  Doctors diagnosed. Pundits pronounced.  Amid all the competing voices, we try to make sense of the senseless.

We need prayers.  Certainly prayers for the victims, their families, and their communities.  Certainly prayers for the first responders and medical teams.  We may even pray for sensible gun regulations and substantial help for people with mental illness.

As clergy, we don’t stand completely neutral.  I don’t believe in the simplistic beliefs on the extreme ends of the spectrum that removing all guns or equipping everyone with a gun will make us safer.  We need sensible and reasonable, evidence-based gun regulations recognizing that overwhelmingly gun owners are responsible and not mentally unfit.  I believe that racism shackles us as a nation and must be addressed.  Though we can blame irresponsible racial rhetoric by our political leadership for fanning its flames, we also have to acknowledge even some of the most well-intentioned people can be racially insensitive. And I know this from firsthand experience.  As for mental illness, while we will argue that more needs to be done for treatment, we should not overlook that traumatic experiences in childhood, such as living in a household mired in poverty or having a single parent or living where alcohol or drug abuse is present, can lead to mental illness later in life.

We also have to be honest.  We can pass the most stringent gun regulations tomorrow, but that won’t make El Paso and Dayton the last mass shootings when we have more guns in this country than people.  As horrible as mass shootings are, we should recognize that they make up a very, very small percentage of gun deaths annually.  In 2017 the CDC reported almost 40,000 gun deaths of which 60% were suicides and 37% were homicides.[1]

The missing voices this past week were theologians.  Where once theologians like Rheinhold Niebuhr were household names, today’s theologians seem to talk only among themselves.  At one time a preacher’s Sunday sermon might be a column in Monday’s paper, today most people in our communities don’t even know the name of the local clergy.  Theologians offer a different perspective often grounded in ancient wisdom.  They also offer a longer view.

Two short observations.  First, a few years ago I visited the Alamo in San Antonio, TX.  Panels inside the compound presented a history of Texas.  Texas was once part of the Mexican Empire which covered much of the present American southwest.  As this nation expanded from east to west, settlers of European descent began to establish themselves in what is now Texas and over the years changed the social fabric and racial mix such that the settlers agitated to establish their own republic independent of Mexico, which they did.

The second illustration is Carmi, IL.  A few years ago, Amy, Allegra, and I stopped for a couple of nights in southern Illinois.  One night we went to dinner in Carmi, a town of around 6500, which was way bigger than Grayville, where we were staying.  Driving through its downtown on Friday night, we saw lots of empty storefronts in what seemed to be a once prosperous community.  No nightlife, other than the Dairy Queen.

These observations gave me two insights into the state of our nation.  The first is social.  Immigration has added to the cultural churn which has been at work across our nation for two generations due to movements such as post-modernism, feminism, racial identity and awareness, and sexual fluidity.  The second is economic.  Globalization and technology have impacted almost every aspect of our industrial infrastructure and capacity, which have hollowed out once prosperous communities like Carmi and dashed economic security for millions of people as they face their retirement years.  Our nation today does not reflect what we imagined it would be 50 years ago.  Our nation today is incongruous with the myths we have created about ourselves and for ourselves.

Over 20 years ago, Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, saw the trends in America and equated them to Judah’s exile to Babylon.  He maintained that we are exiles in our own homeland.  Brueggemann wrote, “…exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith, were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed.”[2]  He went on to describe six aspects of exile.  Though all are important, two stand out for me:  The greatest threat to exiles is the power of despair and the danger in exile is to become so pre-occupied with self that we cannot get outside of ourselves to rethink, reimagine, and redescribe larger reality.

I often think that Brueggemann’s assessment was far more accurate than anything else I’ve heard or read.  The displacement many people feel in this nation is a type of grief or mourning, which then gets manifested in ways that are not always healthy.  An extreme example is resorting to violence.  More subtle are the effects of stress that grief imposes upon our bodies and our psyches.

Without the certainty of the past and the absence of reliable cultural markers, we gaze into an unknown future, and that is frightening.  Our moorings are gone.

Scripture, our ancient stories, recounts many people who walked into their unknown future equipped only with their faith in God’s grace.  Abraham heard God tell him to leave his homeland with the promise that he will become the father of a great nation.  When Naomi returned to Bethlehem from Moab, Ruth chose to stay with her and, consequently, entered a foreign land.  Of course Moses led Israel from Egypt between walls of water to their freedom.  All of them had faith.  All of them trusted God.

Despair can lead to destructive behaviors because those who suffer have nothing to lose.  Those in despair believe they have lost their privilege and authority.  Their dreams evaporated.  The mythology that defined them proved false.

In a sense, they may see their loss as punishment for something they did not do.  We have no control over the economic wreckage due to globalization and technology.  How do we find meaning and coherence when social churn is relentless and unstoppable?  How many remember that immigration has been our nation’s story since its beginnings?  How many people have forgotten their own immigrant family histories or have mythologized it by claiming, “they came legally?”

Fear.  Fearing change.  Fearing the unknown.  Our instincts in response to fear lead us to freeze, fight, or flee.  But we can’t flee when we are home because as exiles we’re not home.  Then we freeze or we fight.  We freeze and don’t do anything as though we’re dead.  We want a savior to rescue us, to revive us, to restore what was.  We fight because we’re not going to accept this any longer.  We will take control by whatever means to stop the social and economic forces pressing upon us.

Seeking a savior to lead us.  Seeking control to stop the tsunami.  Those are not the unfailing treasure.  The savior to lead us is not someone we elect, whether Republican or Democrat.  That savior is Jesus, who told us to be dressed and have our lamps lit.  That savior is the one who will come to serve us.  Furthermore, we cannot stop the tsunami.  Believing we have control to stop it is a fiction we use to assuage ourselves.  The control we have is how we respond, not in fear, but in service, as slaves to one another and to the stranger and to the widow and to the orphan and to the alien among us.

Brueggemann proposed three possible responses to our exile.[3]  The first two, assimilation, which is what some Jews did during their exilic period in Babylon, and despair, which is the “grim resolve of Stoicism,” are forms of giving up and resignation.  The third response, however, is “fresh, imaginative theological work, recovering old theological traditions and recasting them in terms appropriate to the new situation of faith in an alien culture.”

In practical terms, we revisit, reimagine, and reclaim the fundamentals of our faith, Jesus’ teachings:  servanthood, compassion, generosity, love, forgiveness, gratitude, reconciliation, and peace.  Though they may look different, these are our moorings. We should open our eyes and unstop our ears so we can comprehend the forces pressing upon us in order to respond faithfully to the gospel.  I remember years ago serving communion and the deacon who brought the bread happened to bring a multigrain loaf.  It was delicious and a little startling from the usual bread the church served.  I noted that in my benediction saying, “Isn’t that truly the body of Christ?”

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/18/us/gun-deaths.html

[2] Brueggemann, Walter.  Cadences of Home Preaching Among Exiles. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY 1997 Page 2.

[3] Ibid. P. 116

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Listen Carefully

Yesterday’s rally in which the president forcefully restated his tweet attack against “the Squad” and went further to question their loyalty to this nation and cast them as evil, compounds the  language Sen. Graham (R-SC) used the other day when he tried to stand up to the president’s Sunday tweet while tearing down his House colleagues calling them communists and anti-American.

Of course this language is wrong, inappropriate, divisive.  It is irresponsible,  It is abhorrent.  We can condemn the president (and by extension many leaders in the GOP who have chosen to stand maybe arms length with the president), but let’s not overlook what he is doing.

Trump is whipping up nationalism.  His rallies, like last night, implicitly position him as a defender of this nation and its values.  Thus, opposing him means opposing this nation.  He establishes his opposition as anti-American.

Patriots love their country.  Nationalists love their country uncritically.

Below is a sermon I preached four years ago during the July 4 weekend.  I based the sermon on the appointed texts for that day:  2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and 2 Corinthians 12:2-10.  2 Samuel is the account of David’s anointing as king of Israel.  In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul wrote of his necessity to remain humble.  I made the above distinction between patriotism and nationalism in this sermon.

Let’s pause during our national celebration to consider Paul’s reflection on weakness as it pertains to this nation.  We are a mighty nation.  Despite rising prosperity in Asia and Europe, we remain unsurpassed as an economic and military power.  Though we have a thoroughly dysfunctional government, especially in the legislative branch, politically, we are among the most stable governments in the world.

No other nation can be relied upon to stand against tyranny and naked aggression as we.  We can assemble sizeable and significant resources and deliver them anywhere across the globe to people who struggle with poverty or suffer from severe hunger.  Our dollar’s stability makes it the international currency standard.

We are a beacon of hope where the words of the Declaration of Independence remain as fresh and inspiring today as they were 239 years ago.  People risk their lives to enter this country seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There is no doubt that we are a great nation.  Many will cite this nation’s greatness as American Exceptionalism, a concept derived from the combination of our democratic ideas and institutions with our personal liberty and a conviction of self-sufficiency and individualism born out of our history.  We have referred to ourselves as a “shining city upon the hill,” which was first coined by Governor Jonathan Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.  We have massive economic wealth and a military second to none.  We live large in our minds and on the world stage.

This becomes a problem, however, when we believe in our greatness uncritically.  We compound the problem when we believe our exceptionalism is a sign of God’s favor.  I have problems when our politicians end their remarks with some variation on “God bless America.”  I have a problem with the song “God Bless America” because implicitly that phrase confers a status upon this nation which promotes our exclusivity.  It also leaves us blind to our realities or at least reluctant to acknowledge our faults.

When David became king, it was the culmination of years of struggle.  In the narrative arc of the David story, this is its pinnacle.  Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann described David’s narrative leading up to this point as the uncritical public side of David.  David was flawless.  As we proceed second Samuel, however, the David narrative will change.  We’ll see his interior side.  We’ll see David’s shortcomings and his flaws.  This mighty and popular king was not above deceit and treachery.  His power intoxicated him.

Why should we be surprised?  Power is intoxicating.  As the most powerful nation in the history of the world, we can be drunk on our own greatness.  When we stand on the hill, we can’t see the world beyond where the light falls off.  Like standing on a stage, we cannot see the audience beyond the footlights, but the light under which we stand exposes our flaws to them.  While much of the world looks upon us in admiration, they also see us critically.  They know that we press vigorously for human rights around the globe and yet, we have the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world.  They see a nation that is all too willing to use its military might not to defend the helpless, but to press for and maintain its political advantage in places too far from its shores.  While we may espouse freedom, the world knows that we remain mired in issues of race and class where too many people because of their race or their class have little chance to attain their aspirations and hopes.

Patriotism means to love one’s country.  But patriotism without acknowledging a nation’s flaws and weaknesses is nationalism.  Nationalism doesn’t allow us to see places where we have fallen short of our own ideals.  Nationalism believes in its own greatness to its own detriment.

While we can be a great nation with our flaws, we cannot be a strong nation without first acknowledging them.  Our flaws weaken us internally.  While the shooting at AME Emanuel two weeks ago shed the scales from our eyes about the state of race in America, we have a lot of sustained work to do around racism.  We can’t be a strong nation when we accept 20% of our children living in poverty.  Though we are a strong nation militarily, we hurt ourselves when we too readily commit troops abroad to advance our national agenda.  We will continue to harm ourselves if we don’t address climate change realistically and comprehensively.  We cannot sustain ourselves with our criminal justice policies which have brought about the highest incarceration rate in the world and have decimated black communities.

We might think that admitting our flaws makes us vulnerable.  But if we don’t admit our flaws, we have no compulsion to mend them because when we believe we are flawless change is inconceivable.

Honestly, our greatness as a nation is not what we project outwardly.  We’re great when we have the courage to face our flaws and not just talk about them, but address them with intentionality, with compassion, and with honesty.  Believing we are flawless and ignoring our weaknesses is ultimately cowardly because we will fear making the necessary changes in the way we live together as a nation so all can live fully with the aspirations Jefferson wrote into the Declaration of Independence  (and making a small adjustment) “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This weekend we express our patriotism, our love for our country.  Whether one’s family of origin was born here, came on the Mayflower, or fled the homeland to make a new life here, we are all Americans.  We all celebrate this day whether white, black, Native American, Asian, Hispanic because we are all Americans.  We all celebrate whether we are disabled or temporarily abled.  We all celebrate regardless of whom we love.  We all celebrate no matter where we sit on the political spectrum.  We all celebrate without regard to religious affiliation or theology.  We all celebrate because we are Americans who hold the ideals Jefferson boldly laid out for us 239 years ago.

But we must be patriots, not nationalists.  Nationalists love their country right or wrong.  Patriots have a lover’s quarrel with their country.

The late William Sloane Coffin wrote, “It is gratifying for Americans to recall that ours is the longest-lived revolution in the world, maybe even the most successful.  But it would be a mistake to forget that our influence as a people was greatest when as a nation we were weakest.  We rallied far more hopes and energies when we had no rockets and no muscle.  The other day I read words of Alexander Hamilton more pertinent perhaps to our time than to his: ‘To be more safe the nations at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”  Today our danger may lie in becoming more concerned with defense than with having things worth defending.”[1]

Today let us celebrate our commonality as Americans.  But let us not fear to see our flaws.  Let us have courage to be vulnerable.  Let us begin to mend them.  Let us resolve to be patriots.

[1] William Sloane Coffin.  Credo. Westminster John Knox Press:Louisville, KY 2004 Page 81




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The Good Samaritan Recast

The president should spend his Sunday mornings in church. Preferably, he should attend a traditional mainline church, not a church in which its leadership has distorted Jesus’ message of justice and peace rooted in love. He should eschew churches like First Baptist Church in Dallas led by Rev. Robert Jeffress.  Messages in which LGBTQ people are cast as sinners or immigrants are not quite American enough are not typically heard in many of the mainline churches I know.

If the president had spent yesterday morning in church, he might not have been so quick to tweet his openly racist attack on Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley.  He would have been too busy holding a hymnal or folding a worship bulletin or keeping his hands still while in prayer.  He might have heard words, especially yesterday about the Good Samaritan and what being a neighbor truly means, which might have given him pause.

No one should be surprised by his tweet.  Though yesterday’s tweet was probably the most blatantly racist comment he has made, his past remarks have barely covered his racist views.  Though we can cite his racist comments when he announced his candidacy for President of the United States in 2015, it began way before that when he led the birther movement against President Obama.  He compounded it when he kept demanding the president’s academic records saying that he wasn’t smart enough to be president.  Since then, he questioned Judge Curiel’s decision on immigration because of his Mexican heritage.  He gave a pass to the white nationalists in Charlottesville, VA.  He claimed immigrants from “sh_t hole” countries are the source of our problems.  He wants to build a wall on our southern border despite all data pointing to the most significant entry points for undocumented immigrants are our legal ports of entry.

Suprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, no major GOP leader has condemned the president’s tweet.  Rep. Amash, who recently left the GOP to become an independent, condemned it. This morning the Washington Post reported that the president wants the four representatives he attacked yesterday to apologize to him.

His tweet should be condemned by all the members of Congress, regardless of party.  A bill to censure him for his comments should swiftly pass Congress this week.  I won’t hold my breath.

Trump is unfit to be president.  His tweet made abundantly clear that he is a racist.  Though some of his predecessors also were racists, they did not display as openly and as blatantly their racism as our current president.  Presidents, whether we agree with them or not, should seek to bind all of us together as a nation and not divide us and pit us one against the other.

As for the GOP… when is his behavior beyond the pale?  If you find no reason to condemn his tweet and reprimand him legislatively for it, why are you shirking your constitutional responsibility and authority?  For racist comments like yesterday’s there is no grey area, especially for people in political leadership.

I’ll cast this in terms of yesterday’s gospel lesson, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) for members of Congress, Democrats and, especially Republicans.  Your four colleagues were attacked and left in the road.  Who are you in this story?  Will you be the Samaritan, the priest, or the Levite?


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Our Superpower

This was my sermon from July 7, 2019.  I based it upon the morning’s gospel lesson, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.  I delivered it in Northfield, MA.

I confess that I haven’t seen any of the recent superhero movies.  Justice League, Spiderman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Avengers, Black Panther… I haven’t gone.  It’s not that I dislike superheroes.  They have an appealing fantasy aspect.  I watched Superman in the late 1970s and as a child I read Superman and Batman comic books.  I watched various superhero television series:  Batman, Superman, and the Green Hornet.

I go to the movies often enough, though, and I’ve seen the trailers. Though the superheroes are all different because of their particular super powers (a database of super powers and abilities lists 231 powers and abilities[1]), the plots seem to share the same basic premise, the conflict between good and evil.  The superhero uses his or her power to vanquish evil’s stand in, who has powers of his or her own.  Generally, the end is a loud, almost cataclysmic, violent final confrontation in which evil is destroyed and good triumphs.

This story from Luke was far different.  Jesus sent 70 people into the towns to serve the people they would meet and to proclaim to them, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” He sent them forth with nothing more than who they were to meet the people where they were.

Let’s pause and think for a moment.  They left with nothing more than the clothes they wore to engage with people they didn’t know, including some who might be hostile.  That’s pretty daunting.  They returned feeling joyful and filled with accomplishment because they vanquished Satan.

Imagine making a movie focusing on one pair of the seventy.  They don’t have any obvious power, such as enormous physical strength or shape shifting or invisibility or flying.  As a film, it could be kind of boring.  I can see a fan of super hero movies saying, “Really?  Eating with people and not even being picky about what is put in front of them?  And the words, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you,’ are not even some powerful incantation.”

I’ll admit that if a movie were made about this gospel lesson, I’d more likely see it over the current crop of superhero movies.  Not because it’s religious or even based on a Biblical story.  I’d choose it because it’s not loud, it’s not violent, and it’s got people eating dinner.  Mind you that my favorite movie is My Dinner with Andre, which came out in the 1981 and is a movie in which Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory talk over dinner for almost two hours.  That’s it.  Nothing else, although, there is a waiter who serves food.  But enough of the movies.

The seventy went into the towns and villages.  Though only traveling with the clothes on their backs, they had inside of them the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ wisdom, and love.  Love as in agape, God’s love. Love, the greatest transforming power we know.  The abiding love that God has for us and that we have for each other.  That’s all they had, and they vanquished evil.

Yet, evil was not defeated for all time.  Evil is not a one-time occurrence.  Evil is a constant.  Evil has two forms, qualitative and moral.  A qualitative evil is something bad in nature or a condition.  A qualitative evil as misfortune leading to a loss of prestige or status or physical condition.  A moral evil is faithlessness to covenantal relationships.  It’s disobedience to God or disobedience to the teachings of Jesus, the opposite of righteousness.

Following Jesus’ teachings leads to the peace we will find in God’s kingdom, as in the wholeness of life, as in shalom.  Shalom grows out of justice predicated and built upon love.  Love is not an emotion, but actions:  compassion, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation.  Love as Paul described (1 Cor. 13:4-7): “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Jesus’ wisdom, reflected in his teachings, overturns our typical measures and perspectives of this world.  That wisdom combined with love vanquishes evil.  Just as Jesus taught the seventy about real life, those lessons apply to us as well.  We infuse our lives with gratitude, even for the tiniest grace.  We live with humility, acknowledging that real power comes from servanthood not domination.  We live with generosity, remembering that we don’t define wealth by how much we have, but how much we give away.  Though we may be righteous, we reject self-righteousness because, ultimately, we submit to God.

We live in an ongoing struggle between good and evil.  We live in that tension all the time.  Remember what we say in the Lord’s prayer, “Deliver us from evil.”

Rather than going through a litany of moral evils, let’s take one, the divisions we have in our national life between race, gender, sexual identity, generations, and politics.  These divisions tear our nation’s fabric, taking what ideally should be a multi-colored cloth and tearing it and poking holes in it little by little so that there is nothing left to hold it together.

I’m not saying that the media is evil or that social media is evil, but they have exposed our divisions.  An example would be the migrant situation at our southern border.  I don’t think anyone would dispute that the conditions under which these migrants are held are inhumane.  We expose our divisions when we begin to unpack culpability and then seek to blame one side or the other.  And though I don’t believe we should be silent, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that all our anger and frustrations have limited effect when we direct them at each other or political leadership, which seems to happen with social media.

We can set aside our differences when we look much closer to home.  Migrants are the poorest of the poor.  Migrants work on many of our farms in western Massachusetts or in low-paying minimally skilled jobs in our cities and towns.  What can we do to serve the migrants who typically labor in the shadows of our community?  Sitting with them and listening to their stories, we will learn not only how we can help them, but also learn about them and their struggles.  Importantly, though, we will listen to the migrant’s story regardless of his or her immigration status because we are meeting them where they are in that moment.  By listening to their stories, especially when they labor typically out of sight, they will experience the peace that comes from the kingdom of God in that moment because we took time to be compassionate and kind and to love them.  In that moment their immigration status is irrelevant because we won’t see them as undocumented or legal or even as an immigrant, but as a person who carries the weight of the world.  Indeed, we might even stop seeing that person as an immigrant and see our sister or brother, a child of God, like us.

To be bearers of God’s peace we need nothing more than the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ teachings, and love.  We don’t need super powers because they are powers enough – powers that can make God’s kingdom real in this world.  Vanquishing evil doesn’t take a violent, cataclysmic confrontation.  Rather, it takes quiet moments of conversation, moments when we break bread, moments when we see each other as sisters and brothers, God’s children.

One final thought.  In that list of 231 super powers… you won’t find love.

[1] https://www.superherodb.com/powers/

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Stepping Out in Faith

Yesterday was my first day in the pulpit at Trinitarian Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Northfield, MA. I’m working with the congregation for a short period to help it discern its direction for its future.

Their situation is similar to many churches: aging congregation, dwindling attendance, financial struggles, and fatigue. Many of our churches need to make a paradigm shift in the way they practice church.

Sometimes serendipity (or is it the Holy Spirit?) conspires to serve our purposes unexpectedly. The Revised Common Lectionary reading was Acts 11:1-18.  It just screamed PARADIGM SHIFT or maybe I just imagined I heard it.  Anyway, here’s my sermon:

Here’s a factoid.  The digital camera was invented in 1975 and patented in 1978 by Kodak.  The camera, which is on display at the Smithsonian, took a 100 x 100 pixel image.  It took 23 seconds to record onto a cassette tape and another 30 seconds to view it on a television.  Kodak made billions of dollars on the patent until it expired in 2007.

Its inventor, Steven Sasson, demonstrated it to executives across Kodak’s many divisions and even suggested that the image could be sent via telephone line. He got a tepid reception. The image wasn’t that sharp, and they didn’t believe people would want to see their pictures on a television.  Furthermore, it would end their lucrative film business.  Bear in mind that Kodak not only sold the film, it made the cameras to capture the image and the chemicals to develop and print the images.

Three years after the patent expired, Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

Though we don’t see the familiar yellow box, Kodak is still around.  Rather than seeing itself as a chemical company, it is an image company.  It provides imaging solutions for other companies and partners.  It also developed a business incubator park in Rochester which houses 68 companies with 16 million square feet for manufacturing, distribution, labs, and offices.

Another factoid.  Remember Blockbuster Video?  They seemed to be everywhere.  I remember spending lots of Saturday evenings looking for a movie on VHS to rent.  Then, Netflix came.

Netflix had no brick and mortar store.  It allowed subscribers to choose films from the web and then would send them through the mail.  There were no late fees.  That model, though, was only a starting point.  Its true vision entailed streaming films to viewers over the internet and enabling them to watch a movie over any viewing device.

Today, no more Saturday nights for me at the video store.  DISH television bought Blockbuster and only one brick and mortar Blockbuster store remains.  It’s in Bend, Oregon.

Kodak and Blockbuster missed what hit them.  They were wedded to their business model.  Kodak relied upon selling film and chemicals and photographic supplies to show pictures on paper or as slides.  Really, who would look at pictures on their telephone?  Blockbuster set up stores to bring movies to neighborhoods and relied upon revenue from late fees.  Except, people have better things to do than return Saturday night’s movie to the store on Sunday.

These companies had to make a paradigm shift to remain viable.  Survival meant letting go of some deeply cherished practices.  It required rethinking their basic assumptions.  It necessitated recognizing a massive change coming upon them and then stepping out in faith to embrace something new and different.

That’s what Peter did.  When he witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon Cornelius and his family, he saw the Jesus movement in a completely different way.

Jesus did not intend to found a new religion.  His ministry sought to reform the practices of the religious authorities.  He questioned the way they interpreted Jewish law.  He pressed to make Judaism consistent with his understanding of the law.  His teachings ran contrary to the ways of the Roman Empire, essentially overturning the assumptions of the Empire’s organizing principles.

All of Jesus’ disciples were Jewish.  When he ascended forty days after the resurrection, the movement he began became their responsibility.  They believed that the movement was a Jewish reformation.  Though Philip readily baptized the Ethiopian eunuch earlier in Acts, the baptism of Cornelius’ family was a revelation to Peter.  The same Holy Spirit that touched the Jews on that Pentecost morning touched Cornelius and his family.

Advocating for Gentiles to be baptized and become part of the movement was a paradigm shift.  Faithful to the ways of Jesus would not be limited to Jews.  Consider for a moment the implications of this.  One that comes to my mind immediately is 1 Corinthians 8 when Paul instructed the church to set aside disagreements over meat sacrificed to idols.  Opening the movement to Gentiles fundamentally changed it.  Peter successfully persuaded them.

Later in this chapter Luke noted that word about Jesus had spread among the Gentiles.  Describing the next twelve months, Luke wrote, “And a great many people were brought to the Lord.” (11:24b)

The paradigm shift changed the movement.  Luke wrote, “So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” (11:26b) This was the break.  The movement identified itself separate from Judaism.  Of course, this decision was stepping out in faith because no one could know what was to come.  They trusted God and Jesus’ teachings to guide them into their unknown future.

When we look at the health of the church today, we need a paradigm shift.  You are not the only church that has an aging population, that has a declining membership, that faces financial challenges.  This situation is not confined to the United Church of Christ.  It’s across denominations and the theological spectrum.  Even evangelically conservative congregations face the same situation.  Furthermore, when we really dig down into the Christian landscape today, even our seminaries are struggling.

Let’s not, though, believe that this is the end of the Church.  The Church as in God’s church will never die because the Holy Spirit is alive and moving.  However, though the Church will always be, local churches come and go.  Note that all the churches founded by Paul are gone.  If there are historic churches which should be around, they would be Paul’s.

Still, I believe there is life yet to come for many of our local churches, even those that are struggling.  Even those whose congregations are small.  Even those whose congregations are aging.  Even those who face financial insecurity.

I’m here to work with you for a short term interim period to guide your discernment.  We know we cannot keep doing what we’ve been doing for decades, but what do we do?  The quick from my perspective is a church needs to identify and claim an identity rooted in its vision of the body of Christ in the world today.  In short:  what makes this church unique?  as God’s instruments of grace, how are we called to serve?  what values truly matter to us in order to serve and what do we have or do that impedes our service?

We will work together over these months.  We have already scheduled community discernment sessions, one session a month, through the summer.  We will read together and discuss how to be the church in a postmodern world.  We will reconnect to our roots with a Bible study on the first half of Acts to find lessons for the future.

Friends, this interim time is a time to ask questions.  Ask questions of me.  Ask questions of yourselves.  Let the Holy Spirit lead us together to see ourselves in a new light.  Let us learn a new song to proclaim the gospel to a world that desperately needs to hear hope born anew.  And let us step out in faith.

[1] https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/kodaks-first-digital-moment/

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