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"Practicing Extravagant Generosity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 14, 2018

posted Oct 17, 2018, 1:22 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

A few years ago, I pulled up to a parking space.  The car in front of me had a vanity plate - the one in your bulletin - “WE TITHE.”  Honestly, my first thought was, “What, HUMBLE wasn’t available?” (Actually, I checked this week; and indeed, someone has the vanity plate “HUMBLE”.)


And then, as I thought about my reaction, I realized it said a lot about our cultural attitudes about money.  Talking about money can be hard; and yet it’s what Jesus talked about the most. My first reaction to the vanity plate showed a common one: to project a boast, an unseemly pridefulness onto the owner of the car.  And that’s how we can often respond to conversations about money: fear that we’ll be seen as boasting or offended when we interpret others as boasting.


Peeling back that reaction, I realized another emotion can lurk underneath: guilt.  Guilt often enters into discussions of money: guilt about what we can’t do, guilt about what we have, guilt pressing us to give.


I’m mindful of these landmines in conversations about giving.  And yet, I think we need to think about generosity as a spiritual practice.  Not just because Jesus talked so much about money. Not just because we’re starting our annual campaign at Plymouth.  Not just because money can be stressful. But because decisions about money reflect so much about our spirituality.


So often I hear people refer to guilt as an emotion in their spirituality.  The powerful emotion of guilt and its close relative shame often figure in religious language.  But what would our faith look like if gratitude replaced guilt? If thanksgiving replaced shame?


Our reading from Romans rarely gets shared in church; it never appears on the lectionary and mostly gets overlooked because it sounds like the credits at the end of movie.  And yet, I like the Paul who ends the letter better than the one who began it. For Paul opened the letter with sexuality shaming - the most anti-gay passages of the Bible - but ended it with exuberant thanksgiving.  Paul can’t contain his appreciation, his joy, his love for the people he knows and works alongside of. What would Christianity look like if we focused less on the beginning of Romans and more on the end?


The best message comes from what isn’t said in the list.  Greet Phoebe, a woman whose leadership in the church Paul respected.  Greet Aquila, Andronicus, Herodian, Apelles - all Jewish followers like Paul.  Greet Apliatus, Urbanus, Strachys - all Greeks and Romans. Greet Narcissus - a former slave who rose to a position of great authority with Claudius, until that ended in Narcissus’ arrest and imprisonment; but Paul didn’t forget the man in jail.  Greet Prisca, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis - more women whose leadership moves Paul to thanks.


With gratitude a different side of Paul emerges - gracious, inclusive, joyful.  This Paul lived in a world of women and men, Greeks and Jews, freed and enslaved and imprisoned who found themselves united in mission.  If thanks and appreciation can so change Paul, can you imagine what it could do for us?


Actually, social scientists know exactly what gratitude can do for us: studies consistently show gratitude positively correlated to happiness, well-being, and even physical health.  As one study explained, “Grateful individuals are more perceptive of simple everyday pleasures, show better recovery from traumatic experiences, have a more proactive coping style, and are more likely to seek social support than those who are less grateful.”  Simply put: gratitude changes lives.


I know what working to be more grateful means in my own life.  I’ve always loved to cook and bake. In fact, after my seminary graduation, Julia Childs and I were in the buffet line together at the house of Peter Gomes.  Julia prophesied that one day I’d be holding cooking classes in my church basement. Like Julia, I love anything French.


About a decade ago, back when the movie “Julie and Julia” was in theaters, I decided to cook my way through a French dessert cookbook, LaDuree’s aptly named, “Sugar.”  I learned to make macarons, choux pastries, tarts. Macarons became my signature dish (and actually Julia was prescient; I’ve taught friends how to make macarons, though never in the basement).  But I ate most of what I made; until I carried around forty pounds of macarons. Lemon macarons. Graham cracker s’more macarons. Strawberry balsamic macarons. Salted butter caramel macarons. I loved them all.


But then, as I continued to develop as a baker, I realized the mindset that separated home-bakers from professionals.  Home-bakers really bake what they want to eat. Professionals bake what they like to make. So this summer I started focusing on the joy of making things to give away.


And these baked gifts became expressions of my gratitude.  So last week I showed up at the house of friend about to move to Boston for an experimental cancer treatment; a dozen buttery croissants to say thanks for his friendship and hopes for his treatments.  And then I left baguettes, jam, and cheese in the choir room; again, a baked thank you. In each case, the bake took place over two nights - the first night I measured my ingredients and started my dough; the next afternoon rolling and proofing and baking; twenty-four hours to let my gratitude grow like yeast, expand and strengthen.  I’m starting to do this more and more - showing up with unexpected patisserie to say thanks: croissants for the deacons, entremet for someone whose friendship sustains me, ciabatta for a neighbor on my street. (I’m thinking of changing my job title to croissant fairy.)


Beyond the practicality of finding a way to bake but not overeat, this change made gratitude and thanks a part of how I live every day.  And as a side benefit, I lost a baker’s dozen of those macaron pounds.


Just as giving things away changed my relationship with baked goods, it changed my relationship with money too.  Instead of giving as an expression of guilt, I find that as Jay and I practice greater financial generosity, our gifts reflect a growing sense of gratitude.  As we’ve worked to tithe, gratitude moved to the center of our spiritual life. And as with baking so too with money: it just isn’t healthy for me to keep everything I make; better to give it away.


The conservative commentator Russell Reno, editor of First Things, gave me a way to think about this.


Reno, drawing as he often does on St. Augustine, suggested we have two basic ways to relate to reality: use and enjoyment.  As he said, “to use means taking up what is before us for the purpose of some greater end.” In other words: use this to get that.  Now, this isn’t necessarily bad: but it treats things as tools. What we use can be used for good or for ill. In contrast, he explained, “Enjoyment has a different character.  When we enjoy something, we are grateful for it, resting in the blessing of its presence.” And in a way, Reno means by enjoyment that we gratefully cherish something.


There’s much more to say about Reno’s distinction, but for now just think about these two words: use and enjoyment.  I find it a helpful away to think about the money I keep for my own use and that which I give away. There is a practicality to the money we keep for ourselves; we can use it for good or for ill.  (And what we do with the money we keep for ourselves is a spiritual issue too; which is why we have so many justice-focused discussions and studies.) But what I give away doesn’t get used for myself; but rather given as an act of joy, a cherishing of community, and gratitude for others.


As I suggested with Paul, practicing gratitude brings out a different side of our personality, a better side.  Martin Copenhaver, President of the Andover-Newton Institute at Yale University, once noted how we Americans “live in a time of extraordinary abundance but that hasn’t led us to greater thankfulness.”  Instead of gratitude, we often think we deserve whatever prosperity we enjoy. We live in a culture where successful people boast of being “self-made.” No connections got them privilege places; just hard work and ambition.  Bart Simpson once brought this attitude into comic exaggeration. Asked to say grace before dinner, Bart closed his eyes to pray, “Dear God, we bought all this stuff with our own money, so… thanks for nothing.”


Moving toward greater generosity pushed me in a different direction: to just say “thanks.”  Jay and I give because we realize all the ways we haven’t made it on our own: the help from family, from government, from friends, and from unearned and often hidden privileges.  So instead of telling ourselves that we got it all ourselves - thanks for nothing - we give as an expression of gratitude.


Yet what do we do when life seems far from blest?  This is why I wanted to include a reading from Job.  Job suffered. He lost his family, his business; all of which lead to the anguished cry in our reading, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”  It speaks to his bitterness of soul.  What are we to do in our bitter moments?


Recently the progressive Christian thought leader Diana Butler Bass talked about one of her bitterest moments.  Shortly after receiving her doctorate in history, she started teaching at a small Christian college. While she received good marks for her teaching, Butler Bass couldn’t conform to the expectations of the community, especially as she was going through a divorce.  With the tenure committee clearly hostile to her prospects, the college president called her into his office to fire her. And then he added, “You just don’t fit. This wouldn’t be a good place for you. One day you will thank me for this.”


Butler Bass experienced her own bitterness of soul, especially so as those words - “one day you will thank me” - echoed in her mind.  Newly divorced and unemployed, things did not look good. A friend suggested she start keeping a journal. She started by writing about all the painful feelings around the loses in her life.  But observations about good things crept in too: a break in the weather, a meal with a friend, some professional recognition until eventually gratitude overtook her journal. As she said, “as the pages added up, day after day, I started seeing my life and the world differently.”


Through this process, Butler Bass came to appreciate the insight of Maya Angelou, who said, “If you must look back, do so forgivingly.  If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present… gratefully.”


Butler Bass found that gratitude moved her from bitterness to a renewal of hope.   Our Psalm speaks of this kind of transformation too: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”


Practicing gratitude changes lives because it moves us from a mode of scarcity to one of abundance.  People can be entangled in scarcity whether or not they have material wealth - there are people living in our wealthiest neighborhoods who feel they don’t have enough and there are people in our poorest ones who call themselves blest.


People talk about hindsight - looking backwards on our life - and foresight - looking ahead.  But I think gratitude cultivates in me a widesight. It widens my view so that I know I didn’t make it on my own.  It widens my view so that I don’t narrowly focus on what I don’t have or just see what others do have. It widens my view so that I see all the good things even when not everything is good.  It widens my view so that I can cherish life.


Imagine what would happen if we made thanksgiving the heart of our spirituality; giving the center of our budget; gratitude the best part of our day; widesight the essence of who we are.  Alleluia and Amen.





Sources:

  • Bass, Diana Butler, “Practicing Gratitude,” Christian Century, 2018.

  • Copenhaver, Martin, “Learning to Give Thanks,” Christian Century, 2015.

  • Cooper, Burton, “Why, God? A Tale of Two Sufferers,” Theology Today

  • Newsom, Carol, “Job and His Friends: A Conflict of Moral Imaginations,” Interpretations

  • Reno, Russell Robert, “Gratitude for the Given,” First Things, 2017

  • Uhder, Jens, Mark McMinn, Rodger Bufford, and Kathleen Gathercoal, “A Gratitude Intervention in a Christian Church Community,” Journal of Psychology & Theology, 2017.

"St. Francis’ Lessons in Changing Lives" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 30, 2018

posted Oct 1, 2018, 9:25 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Oct 1, 2018, 7:16 PM ]

I always try to ask family members before telling stories about them.  Lucky for me, Duchess will agree to anything if she gets a treat.


We love Duchess, our red lab.  But early on we realized Duchess didn’t care for water.  She’d freeze; legs locked, when we got close to water. She doesn’t even like a bath.  And if it’s raining outside, she’ll skip a walk rather than get wet. Serves us right for naming her after royalty; she’s a bit precious.


I’d long given up hope she’d learn to swim.  But one day a friend suggested we walk our dogs; and as his loved to swim, we wandered down to the lake.  My friend’s Portuguese Water Dog strained at the leash - like a kid driving up to the Dells. When we got down to the water, the other dog immediately went in.  And Duchess got her feet wet; progress. In fact, she so wanted to play with the other dog that she got in far enough to get her belly wet. And then, as the other dog fetched sticks, Duchess stood in the water, jumping up right on the edge of her comfort zone.


After that, I decided to try taking Duchess to the lake every day.  We’d walk to a coffee shop (she loved her puppuccinos) and then head off to the lake.  We hit a week of calm water. Duchess would stand, feet in the water, anxious to get a stick but determined to not go too far in.  With other dogs around, she’d play on the beach but only look with longing when they dove into the water.


Then one day, for some reason, she jumped in after the stick, retrieved it, and came back triumphant.  I immediately claimed credit in the family for teaching her to swim; but really all I did was walk and wait.  She loved the water from that first moment really in it.


Two days later, the calm water had given way to rougher waves; ones at least as tall as Duchess.  But once off her leash, she didn’t even pause for me to throw a stick. She was ready! I can’t imagine doing the equivalent - facing off against six-foot waves on my third day of swimming.  But she rode a wave in, shook herself off, and looked at me, as if to say, “What? I’ve always done this.”


Watching Duchess learn to swim made me think about all the ways we learn and work to create change in our lives.  Often, we forget the hard work, shaking if like so much water; when something becomes second nature it can be hard to remember how it felt when new and strange.  But it’s worth thinking through what happens when we learn; and in particular, when we learn in ways that change our lives.


We remember St. Francis once he became a Saint.  The holy man, who lived a simple life in harmony with nature, greeting Sister Moon and Brother Wolf.  The founder, who created a worldwide movement of people living in community. The artist, who created the first nativity and numerous hymns.  But what of Francis before; before he started, as one person said, “padding about in flower-filled fields basking in the love of God.”  I’m interested in Francis before all this; in what happened along the way to make Francis into the saint he became.  How did his life change? And, following Francis, how can our lives change too?


Francis would never have described his teenage self as a “saint.”  No, teenage Francis got drunk, partied around Assisi, and pranked the respectabilities of town elders.  And young Francis signed up for war against a neighboring town. But that war ended badly for Assisi and for Francis; the enemy captured him and held him for a year in prison until his father could ransom him.  Francis came back a changed man; but not yet changed into a saint. And it’s this period between his dissolute teen years and his sanctified life later that so interests me.


For Francis didn’t change overnight; no lightning strike conversion, no moment of being kicked off his horse.  Instead, over a period of years, a number of experiences and friendships changed Francis from indulgence to devotion.  It began when Francis met a leper.


Francis lived in a culture that deeply feared lepers.  Lepers lived apart from other people, relegated to “leper colonies.”  And lepers rang bells to warn people of their approach; streets would empty, doors and windows close.  Ostracism seemed like wisdom.


People didn’t have an understanding of infections and germs; instead they viewed lepers as accursed, spiritually damaged; they worried more about contagious shame than infectious disease.  


John Updike once gave voice to the feeling this ostracism created in his short story, “From the Journal of a Leper.”  The leper wrote one day, "The name of the disease, spiritually speaking, is Humiliation." And that captures the way the isolation and social rejection ate away at people’s sense of humanity.  


Today we don’t have leper colonies in America; and yet we know about ostracism, about treating people as the dangerous, suspicious “other.”  We know what it means to give people a diagnosis of humiliation; to call our sisters and brothers “animals” and to treat them worse than animals.  


Well one day Francis heard the bell which announced the approach of a leper.  A still small voice in Francis - his conscience, the Holy Spirit - caused him not to run but instead to turn towards the leper.  No one recorded who he saw when we looked past the leprosy. Did he see a brother-in-arms from the war? Did he see a friend-from-childhood?  Did he recognize the sister of a family friend? Or, was the person unknown to him even as he saw fully and completely another human?


Francis moved towards the leper, embracing and kissing the leper.  And I imagine, in that moment, healing a bit of the humiliation of the person treated as “other.”  This didn’t just happen once but became a recurring theme in Francis’ life: he continually sought out, cared for, and lived with lepers.


Francis’ conversion didn’t begin with some great spiritual insight; but rather, with a very human one.  Not a big “God” moment. Rather, change in Francis’ life began when he started seeing people around him as fellow humans.  He disregarded the messages of his society about honor and shame, insider and outcast. Who ostracized by our society could we embrace as a sister and brother?  And how could our work to overcome our prejudices and stereotypes be the beginning of a new life?


Sometime later, Francis went outside of Assisi to pray at a small chapel, San Damiano.  The chapel celebrated the faith of an early Christian saint killed during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian.  Damian and his brother practiced medicine and became famous for refusing payment for their services: people called Damiano “the silverless” because he didn’t accept money.


As Francis prayed at the chapel, he felt he heard God say to him, “Francis, go repair my house, which as you can see, is falling completely to ruin.”  Francis took this message from God literally: he sold some goods from his father’s store to raise enough money to start repairing the church. Some say he went about doing the work himself.  Later Francis would look back on this moment to see the message from God as a metaphor: beyond repairing a physical chapel, he went about repairing the character of a corrupt institution.


People often tell that story about Francis; but I want to zero in on what it means in terms of Francis’ purpose.  Francis felt God leading him to action; but he missed the point at first; it took a lifetime for him to realize how God was leading his heart.  So instead of a eureka moment when Francis understood his purpose, Francis received a puzzle which he wondered about over his lifetime: how can my life repair the church.


Too often I hear people of faith declare quickly God’s plan, labeling every bit of luck as if God intended it.  This summer I went to the French Pastry School in Chicago for a chocolate bootcamp. I ended up working with a woman I didn’t know; a baker from Texas whose husband leads a non-denominational church.  At first, I felt apprehensive - how’s a Christian baker going to react to a gay preacher - but we formed a quick friendship. I’d only cringe when she would say, “God willed that we’d work together!”


On our last night, we went out to a restaurant recommended by our chef instructor; we planned to order a number of things, sharing plates to get the most flavors.  We couldn’t decide between the slow-roasted pork shoulder with clams, charred bread, and pimento-anchovy butter and a whole roasted fish served with summer squash, zaatar oil, and sunflower.   I know: #firstworldproblems. With input from the waitress, we settled on the fish. But then the pork shoulder arrived. The Christian baker was not pleased; she had really wanted the fish; she had not ordered pork.  And so, to her frustration, I said, “But it seems God wanted us to have the pork!”


This did not satisfy her; so she complained.  The waitress realized she’d written fish on our ticket but told the kitchen pork.  And so, the restaurant gave us the pork for free. Turns out God wanted us to have both!


I really don’t think God’s plans can be so easily understood.  No, I prefer Francis’ example, in which a well-intentioned effort to follow God misses the point; where it takes a lifetime to figure out God’s message for our lives.  Change in our lives comes when we live with wonder about God’s intentions.


Francis’ work on the church angered his father.  And, as a dad, I get it. Francis took stuff from his father’s store, sold it on the side, and pocketed the money for his own pet project.  Not really the picture of sainthood. When his father came to San Damiano to confront Francis, his son hid from him.


But later, Francis went back to Assisi to face his father.  His father dragged him before the bishop, demanding that the bishop force his son to return the stolen money.  In response, Francis completely stripped: returning the stolen money and even the clothes on his back that he’d received from his father.  To all he announced, “From now on I will no longer say, My father Peter Bernadone, but Our Father, who art in heaven.”


This hard moment marked a dramatic change in Francis’ life.  He committed himself to life as a hermit, as a religious beggar, starting the journey that would end with his sainthood.  It feels true to me how Francis waffled at this point, first hiding from his father and then showing the courage of his convictions.  


And I can see how this moment pulled together the earlier experiences in his life.  Francis took on a life akin to that of a leper, living as a social outcast, in solidarity with the most vulnerable in his society.  And his choices reflected the values of Saint Damiano; like the patron saint of the chapel he repaired, Francis turned away from a life denominated in money.  


Before he became St. Francis, the man Francis experienced three important turning points as his life change.  Change began when he opened his heart to people treated as outcasts in his society. Change continued as Francis wondered what God wanted him to do with his life.  And change deepened when Francis showed the courage of his convictions.


I never thought my dog Duchess would swim.  Some who drank and partied with Francis never thought he’d be a saint.   But amazing change can happen in our lives. How might we change if we opened our hearts more, wondered about God’s purpose for our lives, and showed more courage?  


Alleluia and Amen.





Sources:


"A Sound Spirituality" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 16, 2018

posted Sep 17, 2018, 1:54 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

This past Spring, Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco made news with its Beyoncé Mass.  The cathedral used several of Beyoncé’s songs - such as “Freedom” and “I was here” - along with readings from the Gospels and Psalms to explore female-centered interpretations of scripture.  One of the organizers explained the spiritual import one of the Beyoncé’s songs. “We used ‘Flaws and All,’ a song maybe Beyoncé wrote for her fans or for Jay-Z.  But if you listen to the words in an ecclesiastical context, it’s a very faithful, honest, raw acknowledgment of the imperfect relationship we have with God.”  And of course, from clips on YouTube, it appeared to be very fun.

About 900 people came to the mass; many of whom don’t normally attend church.  A crowd filled with young adults, people of color, and LGBT people drawn by the music and the novelty of singing favorite songs in a new way.

I love the creativity of the Beyoncé Mass; but I also love this story because it reminds us of the power of music to bring people in and embody the grace of God in new ways.  It reminds us to celebrate the role of sound in our spirituality.

The Catholic theologian Richard Gaillardetz (Gah-lard-e) once made an interesting observation about the Protestant tradition.  He wrote about the sacraments. The Catholic tradition has seven sacraments; Protestants have two - baptism and communion. But Gaillardetz said we Protestant’s really have three: baptism, communion, and music.

And he’s right.  Nothing can spark more controversy in a Protestant churches than music.  One of our former pastors, Bill Edge, often called the music staff the “War Department” of Plymouth.  I’m glad not to have that relationship with Donna and Larry! Yet whether in Plymouth or in other Protestant congregations, all our conversations about music reflect the deep importance of music to our spirituality.  Like baptism and communion, music - sung, played, listened to - becomes for us a way to feel God’s presence, experience our connection to each other, and know the sacred.

But what makes music sacred?  Must it be “religious”? Or can a song be “spiritual but not religious”?  Personally, I don’t find it very helpful to draw a strong distinction between sacred and secular music, because I focus on how the music affects me.  The old revival hymn “Just as I am” is clearly “religious” and the recent Top-40 hit by Charlie Puth “I am” clearly secular but for me both speak to our anxieties and fears transformed and healed.

Focusing on the effect of music on me, reminded me of a song Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum once sang at Plymouth for one of our justice revivals.  (Tiferet led Congregation Shir Hadash, the Jewish synagogue that meets here, before she accepted a new position out east.) At the beginning of the service, she sang a Nigun, a wordless song in which a sound is repeated, something like “lai-ly-lia-lia-lia.”  It was both meaningless and deeply meaningful. Meaningless in that the sounds didn’t convey any content; meaningful in that the sound communicated all of the joy and warmth and depth of Tiferet’s faith.

An old Jewish story once gave the origin of the Nigun.  In the story, a rabbi went into the woods to pray. He found the place, built a fire, and sang the service.  God said, “It is enough.” Later, the rabbi goes again to pray. He finds the place but forgot how to light a fire.  When he sang the service, God said, “It is enough.” Then the rabbi forgot where to go to pray so he just sang the service where he was; God said, “It is enough.”  Finally, the rabbi forgot the words of the service, so he just sang a series of nonsense syllables; and God said, “It is enough.” Any song, even a wordless song, can be a sacred offering.

As I thought about why, I remembered singing at the Sufi Center down in Racine.  (The Sufis are part of the Islamic tradition, as progressive within Islam as we are within Christianity.)  I went with some people from our congregation. First, we sat around tables to discuss some spiritual questions.  Then we shared a simple meal together, delicious Persian flavored vegetarian dishes. And finally, we sat down on the floor, two lines facing each other to sing several Zikr, a song which uses repetitive phrases to quiet the mind and bring the body into harmony with God.  To paint the full picture: we were singing (not my gift), in a foreign language (not my gift), while clapping hands on knees and then together (which involved both rhythm and coordination, definitely not my gift). I didn’t do it well; and yet even as I bumbled through the Zikr, I found the practice deeply moving, filling me with a quiet joy.  Perhaps because in the midst of rising Islamophobia, to sit with Muslim sisters and brothers felt healing. But even more, I think, because just as God didn’t need a fire, or a place, or even words to hear the prayer of the rabbi, it turns out God doesn’t need perfection either.

I felt the beauty of a sacred moment when I sang Zikr.  I moved from my head down into my body; now that might sound weird, but I think it is a common experience when we really let ourselves sing or play music.  Just as our diaphragm pulls down to fill our lungs with breath to sing, singing pulls our self down into our body.

Paul Freinkel, a professionally trained singer who works as a medical doctor in Africa, recently wrote about the deeply transforming experience of singing.  As he explained, “There is an embodied and powerful presence that enters my space sometimes when I sing - a knowledge, or an experience of something ineffable, transpersonal, part of me, yet far wider and inclusive: a voice soaring; sometimes wonderfully alone, sometimes in community; for others whether silently listening, or in song will some way join in this most powerful singing.  Singing has become a way for me to dip into my being, to contact an elementary authenticity and the simple, sometimes paradoxically painful, exhilaration of being alive.”

Even for non-professionally trained singers, we can have those moments when singing allows us to “dip into our being.”  When I came out in the 1990’s, I struggled with my sense of place within Christianity and within my family; and even, as a man; because the cultural models of masculinity didn’t include being gay.  I went to the Gay Pride Parade in Washington, D.C. during that time. It felt amazing to be in a crowd of so many people. Later that evening I went to a worship service at the Metropolitan Community Church in DuPont Circle, a congregation made up almost entirely of gay men.  About a hundred people filed into an almost too small room. And when we sang hymns that evening, the sound resonated off the walls, an amazing, strong, masculine, gay voice. It got me out of all the trouble I carried in my head, down into my body, till I knew I would be okay.

Embodiment - this dipping into our being - doesn’t just happen when we sing but comes as one of the gifts of music.  The deaf drummer Evelyn Glennie once described how she hears with her body because her ears can’t.  When she wanted to learn to drum, she listened to the drum with her hands, arms, cheekbones, stomach, legs, and even her bare feet.  As a young adult, she wanted to join the Royal Academy of Music in London, but they didn’t think she could because of her deafness. Still, she pressed them to let her audition.  And they realized she heard with her body. Now she travels the world, an acclaimed musician, whose ability to play music comes from her moving deeply into her body, hearing with her skin and bones the sounds her ears can’t perceive.

This embodiment that happens in music can be an experience of God.  As Christians, we celebrate God as a Trinity: God, the mother and father of us all; God known to us as Jesus our brother; and God present to us as the Holy Spirit.  Singing feels to me like a profoundly Trinitarian experience. When we sing, we use our own voice as the instrument; both musician and instrument at the same time; and from the singer and the voice arise the song.  The singer, the voice, the song: an embodiment of the Trinity.

 

But it’s more than that too.  Music - whether we sing, or listen, or play - connects us more deeply to each other.  I read once that a researcher studied what happened when a group sang together. Over time, the singers developed more and more harmony; they sounded better of course.  But, and this is what amazed me, even their hearts started to beat in rhythm together.

Even outside of a choir, the practice of singing deeply connects us one to another.  When we sing a verse of a Psalm, like we did this morning with Psalm 150, our voices ring with 3000-year-old emotions, maybe even older.

The ability of music to connect us can be very powerful, emotional.  Whenever a church member dies, we sing the first verse of “For All the Saints” on the Sunday after they passed.  Singing it connects us together in our grief but also connects us to others who’ve died. Such feelings of connection can be even stronger with a hymn like “Amazing Grace,” which threads through our hopes and griefs for generations.  So that through song we realize: we are not alone, because we sing.


We might think of this as a sense of reconnection.  Especially because, as musician Kathleen Harmon once pointed out, the very order of a hymn can be healing in the midst of our own disordered lives.  When we struggle with grief, the loss of a friend, the disappoint of a job search, the claustrophobia of unhappiness, the chaos of change, then the very rhythm of a hymn - the repetition of chords, the structure of verses and chorus - speak to predictability of God’s love.  And so, the music not only connects us to one another but can reconnect us when the disorder of life makes everything seem out of tune.

And yet sometimes hymns speak to emotions we don’t share or even find repulsive.  Tom Long wrote about one of those hymns, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  He confessed to hating the hymn, feeling it should never be printed in any Christian hymnal but deposed as a glorification of militarism.  As he said, “This hymn, with its “hut-two-three-four” tune and its warring call for Christians to raise the battle flag, has long outlived its usefulness.”  You might have your own list of such hymns to which you’d say good riddance, either because of the words or the melody.

Vacations take Tom Long to a rural community and its very small Methodist church, two dozen people on a big Sunday.  The small church gets by as best it can musically: creative, earnest, far from perfect. As he explained, “An elderly saint plays the piano if her glaucoma isn’t too bad. On one Sunday someone squeezed out “Blessed Assurance” on an accordion; on another Sunday, a woman braced a harmonica against the handlebar of her motorized wheelchair and lovingly played “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.””

Then came a Sunday service which opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  Tom Long sighed with his whole soul. But the church members dutifully opened their hymnal and began to sing.  And suddenly this hymn he detested became something new and wonderful. Not because he changed his views on military power; but because the little church was anything but a battalion, and the absurdity of them as an army of God reminded him that the song could “be true only in the improbable reign of God.”  It moved him to tears to imagine his frail church as an army, not armed with swords but marshalled by love that sees no one as enemy.

Tom Long’s surprising reaction to a hymn he disliked came as a moment of grace.  He saw his congregation with a new beauty. And that’s one of the spiritual gifts of music: to move us unexpectedly.

  

Bringing us into our bodies, connecting us to another, even surprising us: music comes as a spiritual gift.  And perhaps it all comes back to our breath. In Hebrew, the word used for Spirit is the same as breath. So, no wonder singing - and by extension all music - connects us to the spiritual.  It’s all about breath; it’s all about spirit. Alleluia and Amen.

.


Sources (those not hyperlinked in text):

  • Boyce-Tillman, Joyce, “Music as Spiritual Experience”

  • Freinkel, Paul D., “Singing and Participatory Spirituality,” International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 2015.

  • Harmon, Kathleen, “Music Notes: A Spirituality of Hymn Singing,” Liturgical Ministry, Fall 2001.


"Acts 25: Church and State" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC, September 9, 2018

posted Sep 10, 2018, 11:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC


Every February, politicians, lobbyists, and a few religious leaders come together in Washington for the National Prayer Breakfast.  The New York Times refers to the breakfast as “similar to the World Economic Forum, except that Jesus is the organizing principle.”  The prayer breakfast this last winter garnered more attention than most when it came to light that Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy, used the event as part of her recruitment of top government contacts (giving new meaning to the search for a Higher Power).  But even without Butina, we’d want to question this event and the ways in which Church and State interact in America today.


Two moments this summer reminded me of the importance and disagreement over this question.  

  • In June, the Supreme Court punted on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in which a Christian baker claimed the right to discriminate against customers because of his faith.  Jack Phillips claimed that he followed a higher law, God’s law, that exempted him from normal laws about non-discrimination.

  • Then Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to defend the Trump policy of separating children from their asylum-seeking parents at the US border.  “I would cite to you,” he said, “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”  In other words: faithful Christians can’t question the government.


Just pause for a moment to think about these contrasting views of how Church and State, or if you prefer faith and politics, relate.  Both Jack Phillips and Jeff Sessions are Christians, part of the Southern Baptist tradition. Phillips claims faith means he can annul any law in conflict with his faith; Sessions claims faith means we must all submit to the law.  Does faith raise us above the law or make us submit to it?


Jack Phillips and Jeff Sessions in these comments represent two classic ways Christians have responded to the State: either trying to withdraw into our own sphere or legitimizing state power.  And we can see these moves on both the liberal and conservative sides of Christianity. Liberal Christians who shelter undocumented immigrants are like Jack Phillips - conscientious objectors to laws in conflict with their faith; and likewise, when liberal Christians ask if a Supreme Court nominee will respect precedent we can sound like Jeff Sessions.


Our reading from Acts this morning suggests a third way to understand the relationship of Church and State.  But first some background: before the scene we heard today, Paul traveled to Jerusalem and tried to preach about Jesus in the Temple.  The religious authorities charged him with crimes against the people and a crowd prepared to lynch him. But the Romans interceded, arresting him.  While booking Paul, the Romans learned Paul held citizenship by birth, so they placed him under house arrest while they figured out what to do with him.


Two years later, a new governor arrived and he decided to settle the case of Paul.  Governor Porcius Festus faced a difficult situation: the religious authorities in Jerusalem wanted Paul killed and many in the area resented Roman rule.  Acquiescing to the religious authorities might appease the crowd, making his rule easier. But Paul’s Roman citizenship meant Festus had to tread lightly.  So Festus hit on a novel solution: transfer the trial from the Roman city of Caesarea to the Judean city of Jerusalem, which would give the religious authorities a better chance to kill Paul.  Festus asked Paul to agree to transferring his case over to Jerusalem.


But Paul refused to play along.  First, he asserted his innocence; “I have in no way committed an offence.”  And then, he reminded Festus of his Roman citizenship.  “I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried.”  Festus wanted to do the easy and expedient solution by giving Paul to the religious authorities.  But Paul held Festus accountable to Roman law.


The authors of our summer study on Acts call this the third option for how the Church and State can relate.  Some think Christians ought to be “conscientious objectors” who withdraw and isolate from the State. Others think Christians ought to legitimate and accept State power.  But Paul’s actions suggest another option: the Church can hold the State to account. Martin Luther King took this approach: he demanded America live its creed, “liberty and justice for all.”


This position sounds most like what we try to do in the United Church of Christ: holding the State accountable to its ideals.  And yet, as I think about all of these approaches to the question of Church and State, I’m struck by the way they assume the primary purpose of the Church is to decide right and wrong.  Jack Phillips thinks the right thing to do requires him to withdraw from the State; Jeff Sessions thinks the right thing to do requires subordination to the State; and Paul asserts the right thing to do is to hold the State accountable.  While these positions differ, in each of them the Church acts - to borrow a metaphor - like an umpire calling balls and strikes.


But is that the primary role of the Church, to ump the game of life, deciding right and wrong?  The problem with the Church as umpire comes because we Christians don’t all agree on the rules of the game.  Comedian Michael Che of Saturday Night Live fame pointed this out once in a routine he called “Confusianity.”  In a bit on hell, he said he thought the bomber of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando should clearly go to hell.  But, Che said, imagine what happens when he gets there. The bomber turns to someone else and asks, “What are you in for?”  “Sodomy.” Even now, we Christians can’t really agree on the rules of the game: what Jeff Sessions calls obedience to divinely ordained government many others consider an inhumanity.


Beyond the impossibility of umping a game when we can’t agree on the rules, I began to wonder what the focus on right and wrong does to our relationships.  If faith is primarily about deciding right and wrong, then what happens when other people disagree with me?


I realize that makes the question much too abstract; so I want to reframe it by looking at the curious case of Alan Dershowitz, a retired law professor from Harvard who became famous for his defense of civil liberties and now regularly appears on Fox News in support of President Trump.  You might have seen him on Hannity and Friends calling the Mueller investigation the legal equivalent of a colonoscopy. (He meant this as a put down of Mueller, dismissing him for doing something icky and unpleasant; but isn’t the purpose of a colonoscopy to check for a cancerous growth that can kill the body?)


Alan Dershowitz complained that his neighbors shunned him for his views.  He spends his summers on Martha’s Vineyard, down on the south end of the island, the town of Chilmark, where he can be found playing checkers on the porch of the general store with friends who affectionately call him “Dersh.”  Now, having defended Trump, he says people shun him: not inviting him to parties, not even looking him in the face, treating him to McCarthy era tactics of shame.


Is this how we treat people we disagree with?  And what does that mean for our future?


Well, I decided to investigate when I went to Martha’s Vineyard this summer.  The Vineyard is an unmistakably liberal place. President Obama and his family were visiting the same time I was; on the way to my sister’s house I saw many signs celebrating the Obamas.  So I could imagine liberals on the Vineyard looking away from “Dersh.”


But down in Chilmark people tell a different story then Alan Dershowitz.  While many people around America see him defending President Trump, people in Chilmark see him on the nude beach.  They’ve seen the full Alan Dershowitz. Not even an amicus brief in sight. And so now people feel they’ve seen enough of the Dersh.


As I stood on the porch of the Chilmark general store, I wondered: what’s true?  Is Alan Dershowitz shunned because he’s an “all-out” Trump supporter or just because he’s too often “all-out”?  And as I asked myself that question, the Dersh’s friend Rudy helpfully explained, “truth isn’t truth.”


If the Church is meant to umpire the State, then we need to know if it was right for Dershowitz to defend Trump or wrong for him to go naked in public.  But what if we saw a different fundamental role for the Church?


As I look back on the Book of Acts that we studied this summer, I’m aware of an unspoken theme that runs through so many of the stories: how can people who disagree learn to live together?  Paul himself struggled with how to relate with people he disagreed with. At times he lifted up a vision of God creating a community that transcended our disagreements: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  But at other times he fought with partisan bitterness, calling those who disagreed with him dogs and mutilators of the flesh.


In one tragic moment of the Book of Acts, Paul came to disagree with his best friend Barnabas.  Paul wanted to return to some of the congregations they founded together. Barnabas agreed; but he wanted to bring along a man named John.  John had previously traveled with Paul but had, in Paul’s words, “deserted them in Pamphylia.” Paul and Barnabas fought and angrily separated; Paul choosing another companion and Barnabas setting off with John.  I don’t want us to overlook the challenge of this moment in Paul’s life: focused on being an umpire of right and wrong, Paul sacrificed his dearest friendship on the altar of his own certitude.


A very different example comes from earlier in the Book of Acts.  The religious authorities imprisoned Peter and a mob gathered with the aim of killing him.  In that moment, Rabbi Gamaliel, a Pharisee, a member of a partisan group opposed to Peter, rose and spoke in his defense, saving his life.


We are at a deeply divided point in our nation’s history.  And however the election in November turns out, a significant percentage of our country will feel it lost, millions of people.  I don’t think we need more umpires of right and wrong in that moment, but rather people who can help us imagine and to learn how to practice forgiveness and reconciliation.  What if we saw the role of the Church as being the work of reconciliation in our deeply divided State? To be like Rabbi Gamaliel? Our deep divisions can’t simply be healed by winning; instead, we need to create a way for people to come home.


Now this doesn’t mean we can’t tell Alan Dershowitz to stay off the beach or to reconsider his legal advice.  But it does mean looking for how we can be one family together.


A few years ago, we took a year to study and reflect on White Privilege as part of our commitment to racial equity.  One week in the group I participated in, two men from a conservative evangelical congregation arrived, one black, the other white.  As we went through the study guide, it became clear that the ideas about racism we were discussing were new concepts (for the white guy; not news to the black guy).  And I remember several awkward conversations over the few weeks they attended. Yet, I was proud of our church folks, who were clear-eyed in facing the reality of discrimination but also open-hearted in making space for someone considering this history for the first time.


I want us to be that kind of congregation: clear-eyed about right and wrong and open-hearted enough to keep bringing people home to each other.


Alleluia and Amen.





Sources:

"Acts 20: Leadership" by Rev. Andrew Warner - Plymouth Church UCC, September 2, 2018

posted Sep 10, 2018, 11:31 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Growing up, I spent much of my time in the Boy Scouts.  And at every stage I heard the motto, “Be Prepared.” So, I learned to have my emergency kit to start a fire whenever I went camping; to know how to turn clothes into an emergency floatation device.


I thought of that motto when, over the weekend, Dakota texted that he wouldn’t make church today.  I was not prepared. And I heard the advice of my preaching mentor come back to me: always have two sermons ready, one in your back pocket and one on your heart.  Jay knows this too; so when he heard I was going to preach today, he wanted to know which sermon I’d use. ‘Sin Bad’ or ‘Jesus Good’?


Neither.  For they didn’t connect to our lesson from the Book of Acts.  So, I ask you to bear with me as we look at Paul’s words and what they can teach us about leadership.  And whether it’s good or bad, I’ll have at least learned again that a leader ought to always Be Prepared.


Throughout the summer our church studied the Book of Acts, listening to the stories of the first church in order to imagine how God wants us to be church today.  Many of our stories followed the adventures of Paul, who started out as an oppressor of the first church, then became a convert and went on to share the Gospel throughout the Mediterranean.


Our reading this morning comes as Paul prepared to return to Jerusalem; he’s uncertain of what will happen there, imagining that he might die and knowing he’ll probably never return to his friends in Ephesus.  And so, Paul gathered together the elders of the church in Ephesus; our reading comes as the beginning of his farewell speech.


But the farewell also served as a speech to commission new leaders.  In a passage just after our reading, Paul pulled these thoughts together when he said, “keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.”  In Paul’s speech we get a vision of what it means to be a Christian leader.


But before looking at what constitutes Christian leadership, I want us to think about the models of leadership in our country today.  Years ago, people describing leaders borrowed a term from biologists - alpha males. And while there are alpha females across many species, the term really came from observations of male chimpanzees and wolves.  Newt Gingrich actually popularized this metaphor; as Speaker of the House in the 1990’s, he gave freshman congressman copies of the book “Chimpanzee Politics.” He wanted them to be like alpha males.


And men do certainly get themselves into silly competitions for dominance.  I can see it in Donald Trump trying to out shake hands with Emmanuel Macron; but also in moments in my own life.  Years ago, I got a chance - thanks to Heather Ullsvik Loomans - to sit on the stage behind President Obama while he spoke about the Affordable Care Act at a rally in Green Bay.  I arrived early and got a seat behind where the president would stand. I looked at the cameras and knew I was lined up well. And then state Senator John Ehrenbach arrived; and he noticed my seat and the cameras.  So he sat beside me and asked me to scoot down. But I wasn’t moving. As the stands filled in, Senator Ehrenbach kept trying to muscle into my personal space, to move me along the bench. But I wasn't moving. So we engaged in a subtle shoving match until the president arrived.  And then, I ended up in all the photos, just over the left shoulder of Obama while Ehrenbach sat hidden behind his head.


Beyond these absurdities, there is a model of alpha leadership in our country that looks to chimpanzees and wolves as models of how to be dominant; a strutting alpha male who makes other males act subserviently.  And really this meant a leader who beat others up, barked commands, asserted dominance, made everyone know who was boss. Basically, a bully.


And this metaphor of the alpha leader continues to bounce around our culture; lots of books and articles evoke it when talking about leadership.  A recent essay in Forbes did so under the title, “How to Lead Your Team Like an Alpha Wolf.”  It advised readers on the ways to dominate their competition, kill other predators, and organize their hierarchical pack.  This model of leadership is gendered; leadership as a form of masculinity: men get praised for being dominant, women dismissed as domineering.  Which is why I wasn’t surprised to learn the author of the alpha wolf article in Forbes runs a financial services company named “Patriarch Equity.”  (As if the patriarchy needed more equity.)


It seems to me that too often the model of leadership in our culture embodies a hyper-masculinity, a bravado of dominance.


Which is why Paul’s farewell strikes me as an important, and very different, model of leadership.  A number of phrases stood out to me as I listened to Paul’s words:

  • You yourselves know how I lived among you

  • Serving the Lord with humility and tears

  • Enduring trials

  • Not shrinking from doing anything helpful

  • And now, as a captive to the Spirit

  • Imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me


This is not the vocabulary of dominance.  No business book in America advises CEO’s to anticipate a future of imprisonment and persecutions.  Yet Paul uses this language; he did not speak of his dominance but his captivity: captive to the Spirit.


Jesus spoke of this kind of leadership at the very end of the Gospel of John, where he said to the Apostle Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  Christian leadership doesn’t mean projecting dominance but being led by the Spirit of God.


Interestingly, the word leader echoes this sense of being guided by the Spirit.  Leader comes from an old English word, lithan, which meant “to go.”  A leader is one who goes.  Leadership consultant Robert Dilts observed about this, “It is significant that the root of the word leadership does not have to do with “power,” “command,” “dominance.”  It has to do with going somewhere together with others. It’s not so much about “being number one” as it is about “leading the way” through one’s own actions.”


Paul pointed to his own actions in Ephesus: his leading through humility, tears, and service.  This description of Paul reminded me of something the biologist Frans de Waal pointed out about chimpanzees.  As someone who studied chimps in the wild instead of just using them as a metaphor for CEO bullies, de Waal called attention to all the things alpha males and alpha females actually do among chimps.


Our stereotype of alpha male chimps suggests that they get and keep their position by being the toughest roughest chimp in the pack.  But in reality, even the strongest chimp can be taken down by other chimps working together. Which means strength isn’t key. Instead, alpha male chimps get and hold their position because they demonstrate generosity and empathy to create a stable coalition.  A chimp that wants to become the alpha shares food; everyone gets something.


Even more importantly, the alpha chimp - male or female - demonstrates empathy to more vulnerable members of the group.  Chimps often fight; an alpha will intercede between the two combatants and arbitrate between them, usually deciding for the underdog.  This makes the alpha popular because the chimps know they can get protection. Beyond this, the alpha chimps console distressed members of the group, hugging them just like we humans do.  The alphas actually give more consolation than any other chimp; that is, the alpha chimps demonstrate the highest levels of empathy in the group.


The generosity and empathy of the alpha chimps allows them to form coalitions within their group; coalitions which enable them to become and remain alpha.  The more they engage generosity and empathy, the more stable their leadership of the group will be.


These are the same values Paul pointed to when he spoke of his humility, tears, and service.  How would leadership look different in our society if we focused on generosity and empathy instead of dominance and power?


The full implications of Paul’s vision of leadership come out in the last verse we heard from Paul.  “I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”


To my ears, Paul has shifted from generosity and empathy as a strategy for winning friends and influencing people to self-sacrificing service as a way of life.  And he spoke to this not only here in Acts but in many of his letters. Such as when he wrote to the Church in Galicia:

I have been crucified with Christ;

and it is no longer I who live,

but it is Christ who lives in me.”


I know he didn’t always succeed at this, but Paul tried to set aside his ego (which he called being “crucified with Christ”) so that he didn’t seek out his own glory, honor, and power.  Imagine how our politics and society might look different if our leaders let go of their egos.


This was Paul’s journey.  Paul had Roman citizenship at a time when everyone around him struggled on as undocumented residents in the Roman Empire.  And this citizenship actually protected Paul when he did get arrested in Jerusalem. Paul held status and wealth and power; but he knew faithful leadership called him to continually let go of his privilege and position.


Not everyone’s path to faithful leadership involves letting go of their ego.  People who have been marginalized and oppressed don’t need to make less of themselves.  Where Paul needed to experience his ego crucified with Christ, others may need to experience themselves resurrected with Jesus.  Some need to let go of their privilege; others need to claim their dignity. Which may be why Jesus said, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”


How would leadership in our society look differently if those with privilege and power sought to be crucified with Christ?  And if those marginalized and oppressed sought to be resurrected with Jesus? If we all made a way for Christ to live in us?


Paul raised these questions with the church in Ephesus because he wanted them to become leaders like him.  To excel in generosity. To strengthen their empathy. To make sure Christ lived in them. In short, to be prepared no matter where the Spirit would lead them to be Christian leaders.  Alleluia and Amen.


"Koinonia" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - June 3, 2018

posted Jun 4, 2018, 1:49 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Earlier this week something in the news caught my attention; no, not Roseanne Barr. The National Spelling Bee took place in Maryland, with hundreds of youth competing for the trophy of top speller. 14-year old Karthik Nemmani of McKinney, Texas, won the honors; but all the youth amazed me. As much as I like to read, they spelled words I didn’t even know.


At the penultimate moment, a previous winner misspelled Bewusstseinslage. I had to look that one up; a loan word from German that means a state of consciousness lacking in sensory awareness. To use it in a sentence, “She claimed Ambien caused her Bewusstseinslage.”


But other words were as difficult, like glossodynia, a “burning sensation in mouth.” This word describes a medical condition. I found several related terms at the Mayo Clinic site: orodynia, oral dysaesthesia, and glossopyrosis. I get the drift of all these derived from Greek; perhaps we could coin a new one, “Her tweet seemed glossopyracist.”


Another new word I learned: triturate, as in to crush. And in a sentence, “The tweet triturated her eponymous show.”


And yet, despite all these new words, Karthik won on a word much more familiar to me: koinonia.  It means “spiritual community.” While the word comes to us from Greek, the word itself is not old.  Rather, people created this word in the mid-nineteenth century - in the midst of the Civil War and the industrial revolution - to describe both what they experienced in church and what they longed for: koinonia, community.


Could there be a better word for 2018? For in this age of tweets, this era of online trolls, what could be better than koinonia? To know that we are not alone? To feel, in the depths of our hearts, we belong?


Biblical scholars often attempt to reimagine the sitz im leben of a scriptural passage. (This is just a German way of saying the situation in life that caused a particular passage to be created.) And when they wonder about the personal experience behind a psalm, scholars zero in on those most disturbing verses, the one’s Katie read on our behalf. The vehemence of those passages leads scholars to wonder if the author experienced some unjust accusation; perhaps denounced for idolatry. Scholars hear that in the closing line, when the psalmist appeals to God, “See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The accused person is throwing themselves on the mercy of God.


Faced with an accusation by the community, the person felt themselves excluded, cut off, set outside polite society. Scholars hear this in the strident lines of the majority of the psalm, which proclaim over and over, “No matter what, God is with me.” Scholars hear that and add the unspoken conclusion, “No matter what, God is with me (even when it feels like everyone else is against me).”


The person who wrote our psalm experienced an utter lack of koinonia. Or, we might say, anakoinonia (uncommunity). The psalmist wrote as one slandered and shunned, one made to feel other and outcast.


As I thought about this sitz im leben of the psalm, I found myself thinking of both Roseanne Barr and the person her tweet attacked, Valerie Jarrett. If Biblical scholars are right, then the situation of either woman could be similar to that of the author of the psalm.


It may be easier for us to see Valerie Jarrett’s situation as akin to the author of that psalm. The tweet slandered her, drawing on 500 years of white supremacy to pillory Jarrett. Anyone in such a situation would long for koinonia. And Jarrett herself said as much, “First of all, I think we have to turn it into a teaching moment,” she said. “I’m fine. I’m worried about all the people out there who don’t have a circle of friends and followers coming to their defense.” When someone tries to publicly shame us, as Roseanne tried to do with Jarrett, then we especially need the assurance of community. To see the psalmist as like Jarrett can make us sympathetic to the author; we understand and feel the injustice of the exclusion.


But we could also see Roseanne Barr as reflective of the situation behind this psalm. Roseanne said something disgustingly cruel for the way it echoed racist tropes. And then the swift reaction caught her off guard, leaving her cut off from community. One can imagine her surprise. After all, she sang the national anthem while grabbing her privates and no one protested (unlike Colin Kaepernick, who respectfully took a knee to honor victims of police shootings and touched off an ongoing controversy). And more recently, Roseanne Barr made a similar racist remark against Susan Rice and suffered no backlash. So apparently Barr thought she could make another comment comparing a prominent African-American leader to a beast. And now - behind all the apologies to try to regain her standing - one senses Roseanne feels persecuted herself. (Which may be why, when the Ambien excuse failed, Roseanne turned to other excuses, claiming she thought Jarrett was white, then Persian, then Jewish.) Seeing the author of the psalm as like Roseanne may make us far less sympathetic.


And yet, whether the psalmist was like Jarrett or like Barr, I think the psalm operates as an expression of transforming grace. Even those most troubling verses, those verses we so often skip, speak to how God’s grace can work in our lives to bring us back into koinonia (community). So think of Jarrett, or Barr, or someone else who feels judged and excluded from community as we delve a bit deeper into this psalm.


I treasure this psalm - one of my favorites - because of the first eighteen verses, the verses we normally read; and in fact, when I pray, I turn to these verses for my own language.  he power of these verses comes from the very personal way the author speaks of the relationship with God.


It begins with the opening verses: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” And some translators feel we could even intensify this very personal address to God, saying, “You, you know…”


And in this very personal address, the psalmist makes clear how well God knows us. “Even before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it completely.” To be so fully known is both wonderful and, if we’re honest, awkward. It means something far more than that God understands how we feel; God knows before we even know. God knows the truth of who we are before we do. We remain in the dark about the patterns in our lives, but God sees them. How does it feel to have someone know the truth of our life before we do?


Many people who have come out as LGBT have had an experience where you share this deep discovery about who you are only to have someone say, “I knew already.” When it happens to me, I feel like, “wait a minute, this is my big moment.” And yet, the person knew. It happened to me years ago when I came out to my brother. There was a lot of family drama before I told him; but when I finally did, he’d already known. First, his wife always suspected; turns out being a teenage boy with a favorite china pattern was a wee bit of a giveaway. And then he’d seen a book at my parent’s house, “When your Son comes out.” It all stole my thunder.


And yet, to be known this way is also comforting. Because it’s the friend who can read a thousand words in just one of your looks; the one who knows your silences and each of your hundred smiles.  God knows us this completely.


The psalm then repeats this affirmation of God’s knowledge by speaking of the impossibility of fleeing God’s sight. “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (That poetic verse imagines us rising with the Sun in the east - the wings of morning - and traversing the Earth ‘til we set in the west - settle at the farthest limits of the sea.) No matter where we go, God goes with us. And even more, God is with us in the places we never imagined we go.


This leads to a revelation: the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, the God who goes with us wherever we go, can see beyond all our pretentious: “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.”


God’s amazing knowledge allows the psalmist to speak some of the most profound words: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Wonderfully, fearfully made. To speak this way is to name the full range of our possibilities, to accept both the grandeur and the grittiness of our humanity, to know our beauty and our shadows.


I think all of these beautiful verses act as a prelude to the awfully honest words we tend to avoid. But it is only after the psalmist says God knows us better than we know ourselves, only after the psalmist says God goes with us even to places we can’t imagine, only after the psalmist realizes our identity as wonderfully, fearfully made, that the awfully honest feeling can be faced. And to really hear those words, it helps to think of the psalmist as either Valerie Jarrett or Roseanne Barr.  What is the awful truth both have a hard time naming?


Jarrett spoke about this tweet with great dignity; as I quoted earlier, she said, “I’m fine.” Her words were calm, dispassionate, poised even. But I noticed more what went unsaid. Her hurt.  Her anger. Her grief. Many commentators suggested what Roseanne Barr said could be seen as a sign of the state of race relations in America; but I think more was disclosed by what could not be said. Jarrett had to follow the advice of countless parents as to what to do in the face of white supremacy: stay calm. And yet surely a part of her wanted to scream when Roseanne referred to her as a beast.


I know Jarrett can’t say publicly what she really thinks of Roseanne Barr; but surely God knows. And likewise, this psalm, this prayer, gave voice to the thoughts the author dares not speak; the thoughts only God could discern; the pain only God could see. Can we be so revealingly honest in our prayers, naming our rawest emotions before God? Can we name in prayer the pain and grief which keeps us from koinonia?


But these most troubling verses can also be heard as the words of Roseanne Barr. Because the psalm speaks to the truth we can’t face about ourselves. Roseanne - despite apologizing to try to save the tatters of her reputation - has kept retweeting conspiracy theories about this.


Perhaps the psalmist did much the same, adopting a tone of self-righteous indignation. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” But then comes the real question hidden in another self-righteous proclamation, “See if there is in me any wicked way.”


I read once of a reporter who went to witness a rally for a brand-new confederate monument in the South. She wrote, “Most of the attendees were so polite, and so eager to tell me that the Confederate legacy was divorced from slavery, that it reminded me of the peculiarity of racial relations in America, where a person who has racist beliefs believes himself to be absolved if he doesn’t consider himself racist.” Just as those raising the Confederate statues don’t see themselves as racist, Roseanne doesn’t seem to recognize the racism behind her comment. (And I suspect that is why Roseanne is now trying to say she thought Valerie Jarrett was white.)


But God - who knows our thoughts - can indeed see what we don’t want to see about ourselves. And so, when we pray to God - “Try me and know my thoughts.” - God must just be thinking, “I find you trying indeed.” Perhaps praying this psalm can move us to know those truths we don’t want to see about ourselves. To know the truth about what keeps us from living more fully into koinonia.


The psalms are sometimes called the “Prayer book of the Bible.” Not just because it contains 150 prayers, but because it teaches us how to pray. What if we learned to pray like Psalm 139 - affirming of course that we are not alone because we live in God’s world and then allow that promise of koinonia to move us to a deep honesty about the feelings we hide, sometimes even hide from ourselves? Alleluia and Amen.




Sources:

  • Feasting on the Word

  • Okeowo, Alexis, “Witnessing a Rally for a Brand New Confederate Monument,” The New Yorker, August 29, 2017.

  • Wang, Amy B., “Champion crowned at Scripps National Spelling Bee from record-breaking field,” Washington Post, June 1, 2018

"Joy and the Trinity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 27, 2018

posted May 29, 2018, 11:15 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A while ago, I was talking with a friend about the work of our congregation to address white privilege and to work for racial equity and immigration rights.  The friend I talked with is white; and as we talked, her face became clouded, until she said, “I just find it so depressing to talk about this.” It made her feel ashamed to talk about issues of oppression and discrimination.  She wanted to talk about happier topics. “Why can’t people just be happy?” she wanted to know.


The conversation stuck in my mind.  First, I know many people struggle with this sense that talking about white privilege is demoralizing.  But I also realize that these conversations and the work for racial justice brings me deep joy. And so, the difference between how my friend and I experience this work made me wonder: how can we find more joy in the work for racial equity?


In part, my friend made me realize that I don’t talk about joy enough.  And perhaps that’s a challenge for those of us committed to justice work: we talk more about justice than joy.  It’s not that I think we face a choice; as if we can either have a serious conversation about justice or have a happy conversation about joy.


No, what I mean is that those of us engaged in justice work need to talk more about how this work creates a deep sense of joy in us.  (And by joy I don’t mean giddiness but a deeply resonate sense of purposeful peace.)


I felt that joy recently when I went with about a dozen people in our community to the May 1st march in Waukesha.  (Banners from that march still decorate our sanctuary and the Commons.)  We were joined by thousands, more than I could count, walking through the streets of Waukesha to protest a policy which would turn Waukesha sheriff deputies into Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers; empowering them to stop and detain anyone who looked like they might not be citizens; which practically means more situations like the one that unfolded recently in Montana, where two US citizens were detained for speaking Spanish in a convenience store.  So, we were in Waukesha to advocate for immigration justice; but as I walked along, an abiding feeling of joy overcame me. Perhaps it was because of all the butterfly symbols we carried; perhaps because I walked with friends; perhaps because of the gorgeous day; perhaps because I saw old friends like an alum from college and a veteran of LGBT rights struggles.


All those reasons and more for joy.  But, as I think about that joy, I begin to wonder if it had less to do with who I was with and more to do with God.


We often talk about the Biblical reasons for our justice work; rooting our values in Jesus’ teachings.  But could our joy also be a spiritual experience, something rooted in the very nature of God?


And so, as I think about the joy I felt in Waukesha, I want to step back to think a bit about our Christian understanding of God.  This Sunday we honor the Christian idea that God is Triune: that God, the mother-and-father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present among us as the Holy Spirit is actually just one God.


If your mind glazed over at this point, you are not alone.  For this idea of God as Triune has long confounded Christians.  The math doesn’t make sense: 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. And we Christians have spent thousands of years arguing about what it means to believe in the Trinity.  And yet, for all the confusion of this theological idea, I treasure it.


And I treasure it because the idea of God as Triune inspires me with a vision of community: God as both distinct - three persons - and yet meaningfully together - unified.  Distinctly three. United as one. Divine equality. Eternal equity.


This vision of beloved community matters to me because of what it says about human possibilities.  Scripture speaks of humanity as bearing the image of God; humans as the likeness of the divine. Which left theologians wondering: how do we reflect God’s Triune image?


In Western Christianity, the kind of Christianity that shaped much of our Christian movement, theologians looked for the ways an individual embodied the Trinity.  St. Augustine saw the Trinity reflected in an individual’s memory, understanding, and will. (And of course, this just anticipated in some ways Jung’s later idea of the id, ego, and superego.)


While in the West we’ve looked for the Trinity in individuals, other Christians sought the Trinity reflected more communally.  Eastern theologians saw humanity reflecting the Triune nature of God collectively; all humans bearing the image of God. This can particularly matter now, when we live in such an individualistic society: we can move from thinking of our individual life embodying God to imagine our mutuality reflecting the divine.


Gregory of Nyssa was one of those theologians who saw the Trinity reflected in human community.  As he explained it: God, the mother-and-father of us all, God known to us as Jesus Christ, and God present among us as the Holy Spirit share the same substance.  And likewise, humans, for all our diversity, share the same substance. And so, Gregory didn’t find particular meaning in the “three-ness” of God, but in the equality and equity of God; not the number but the sharing of a life together.  And so, he then looked for the reflection of God in those experiences of human equality and equity, seeing in all our human diversity, a common humanity.


A similar insight comes to us in hymns, like the one we often sing after congregational meetings.  

Blest be the tie that binds

our hearts in Christian love;

the fellowship of kindred minds

is like to that above.


Finding God’s image reflected not in one person but in all humanity helps me understand why I experienced joy in Waukesha.  Moments of community, particularly moments of diversity in community, bring my heart closer to reflecting something of God’s own community.  My joy was like to that above.


This year, with Trinity Sunday falling on Memorial Day Weekend, I’m also struck by how this idea of embodying the Trinity speaks to our national questions of identity.  Do we find God best reflected in one body - one universal norm - or do we find God best reflected in our great diversity? And in a similar way, do we look to one norm of what it means to be an American?  Or do we find our American-ness in the breadth of our diversity?


Such a debate goes back a long way in our democracy.  This week I read an old speech by Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who settled in Wisconsin before becoming a Union General.  In the lead up to the Civil War, he traveled the country giving stump speeches for Abraham Lincoln. And in those speeches, he articulated what he called “True Americanism.”  And his concept still speaks to our debates now.


Speaking in Boston, to a crowd who he knew questioned some of his right to be in America, he addressed square on their questioning of his belonging. “I, born in a foreign land, pay my tribute to Americanism? Yes, for to me the word Americanism, true Americanism, comprehends the noblest ideas which ever swelled a human heart with noble pride.”  And as he went on, he said that while other nations claimed to be homeland for a particular people, America was different because it was a mother-country to all humanity.  He recalled all the immigrants who came to America, saying, “Thus was founded the great colony of free humanity, which has not old England alone, but the world, for its mother-country.”  Schurz spoke to American greatness as founded not in the purity of some European culture but in the striving of diverse peoples for their equality.


Schurz, in that same speech, anticipated the insight of Martin Luther King, who famously said, “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be; and you can never be who you ought to be until I am how I ought to be.”  This idea of the interwoven nature of our dependency seemed evident to Schurz in the South: enslavers denied freedom to other humans but in the process shackled their own liberty, because in the slave states people didn’t have freedom of speech and assembly; enforcing slavery meant slave states set aside our Bill of Rights.  As Schurz explained:

The system of slavery has enslaved them all, master as well as slave. What is the cause of all this? It is that you cannot deny one class of society the full measure of their natural rights without imposing restraints upon your own liberty. If you want to be free, there is but one way: it is to guarantee an equally full measure of liberty to all your neighbors. There is no other.


Schurz knew he could not be truly free as long as other humans were enslaved.  This desire for freedom caused him and his fellow soldiers to risk their lives for the freedom of others.  And so, for Schurz, “True Americanism,” true patriotism, meant striving toward the realizing of equality and equity among humans; a striving for a society like to that above.


Our American experience speaks to me of why diverse community brings deep joy.  The more I am free, the more I am free to feel joy. My freedom depends on the freedom of others.  So, when I work for freedom, I free not only others but myself.


I knew that in Waukesha.  I marched so that undocumented immigrants would be free from the fear that a traffic stop could result in deportation.  But I also marched so that my children could drive through Waukesha without fear of how they would prove their citizenship to every sheriff they met.


More broadly, these last few years as we learned more about white privilege and organized for racial equity meant I learned and grew and discovered.  I formed new friendships; and saw other friendships become deeper. Just last month Pastor Joy Gallmon, pastor of St. Mark’s AME, the oldest African-American church in our city, invited me to her installation service.  But for the journey of our congregation, I would not have been there. And once there, I discovered joy in a new place, in a shared love of Jesus, and in a common mission to work together for equity.


On this Trinity Sunday - Memorial Day Sunday, I’m struck by the joy I find in our work for equity.  I find joy in this work, joy because I know God wants me to live in a beloved community that reflects the very diversity at the heart of God.  I know my freedom comes with the greater freedom for all my sisters and brothers. And as I stretch my heart and conscience and mind through sacred conversations, I find the deep, abiding joy of God in my soul.


Alleluia and Amen.


"Listening, the Spirit’s Gift" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 20, 2018

posted May 22, 2018, 7:48 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I don’t do much on Twitter; but a few years ago I had set up an account.  And though I don’t follow many people and have even fewer followers, I did somehow end up getting notifications during the last presidential election from the Tennessee GOP.  @TenGop tweeted articles that pressed all my partisan buttons; aggravating tweets I completely disagreed with. And these tweets just hardened my heart against the GOP and made me feel like I had nothing in common with those across the aisle.


Eventually I figured out how to clear @TenGop from my twitter notifications.  And I didn’t think about it again, until this winter when the Mueller investigation revealed @TenGop to be one of many twitter handles used by the Russians to try to influence our elections and society.  Which made me wonder about the ways I had been influenced; not in my voting but in how I viewed my neighbors.


This question became even more real as I learned more about Russian meddling.  For instance, two years ago, in the led up to the election, Russia used social media to organize an “anti-Islam” protest in Texas.  It agitated and energized people with fears Muslims would impose Sharia law. The so-called “Heart of Texas” got people to show up outside a Houston Mosque; a crowd of people with Confederate flags and “God Save America” signs.


The same Russian trolls also created an account for “United Muslims of America,” which called for a counter-protest.  And counter-protesters did show up, carrying signs about loving their Muslim neighbors and “Hate is not a Family Value.”  


Passions rode high for both the protesters and the counter-protesters, egged on by Russian trolls who tried to gin up each side to “battle in the streets.”


In many ways, the Russian trolls acted out a negative version of the Pentecost story.  The early disciples awoke one morning and, moved to overcome their fears, left the safety of their upper room to share the story of Jesus.  Miraculously the crowd understood; despite the differences in their languages, the people on the street heard the message of the disciples; a gift of the Holy Spirit.


We’ve experienced a different kind of spirit active in the words of Russian trolls; a malevolent spirit, which united us not in understanding but in animosity; a dis-spiriting Pentecost that continues to inflame our hostility.  


The Russian trolls who spoke to every side and any side in our society spoke directly to our hearts, communicating not one message but evoking a common feeling: anger.  You see it in pictures of the protesters and counter-protesters outside the Texas mosque: people speaking different political languages but held together in their outrage.


Thinking about those Russian trolls this Spring led me to hear the Pentecost story in a new way.  In the past, I always thought of the miracle as tied to the act of speaking. Peter spoke. Everyone understood.  And indeed, the text suggests this way of understanding the miracle when the crowd said to one another:

“Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

      

And yet, I’ve come to see the miracle not as one of speech but as one of listening.  Peter spoke with his heavy, Galilean accent; the rustic timber of a hardworking fisherman; vowels rolling like the waves.  Yet in his voice the crowd heard, they listened, they knew something beyond the words he used.


Understanding Pentecost as a miracle of listening moves us back to ancient understandings of spirituality.  Jews - even to this day - regularly recite a prayer called the Shema. It comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, where God instructed them to recite twice a day, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.”  Normally, we focus on the second part of that phrase, the affirmation of monotheism which so distinguished Jews from their neighbors. But, as I read through scripture, I’m struck by how often it reverberates with the command to hear.  Indeed, we might consider the posture of listening to be at the heart of Biblical spirituality, embodied in the advice to approach God, saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”


What would change in our lives if we focused less on what we wanted to say and instead gave more attention to just listening?  Saying in prayer: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And in our most intimate relationships: “Speak, love, I am listening.”  And with our friends: “Speak, for I am listening.” I think it could be miraculous - spiritually and relationally - if we spent more time listening than speaking.


I love the vivid pictures of hell the poet Dante created centuries ago.  I love these poems not because I think he accurately imagined the afterlife, but because he so truly named the hell we can make of relationships and the hope for something better.  


As the poet Dante made his journey through the underworld, he came at one point to the place were heretics dwelled.  Dante didn’t develop a dogmatic notion of heresy; instead, the heretics he met reflected the root meaning of the word.  Heresy comes from the Greek word “to choose” or “to divide.” People in the time of Dante looked back to the story of the soldiers gambling for the clothing of Jesus; dividing his belonging and choosing by lot who would get his cloak.  And so, heresy spoke to the kind of choosing and divisions that break community.


In hell, Dante met two famous partisans of Florence; men whose acrimony divided the city.  One, Farinata Degli Uberti, led the party of the Ghibellines; and another, Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, belonged to the rival Guelph faction.  These two groups constantly fought for control of Florence; when the Ghibellines were in power, they exiled the Guelph’s; then the Guelphs came back, they sent the Ghibellines away.  They divided the city; heretics who believed only they had the truth.


But in hell, Dante found both Farinata and Cavalcante sharing one tomb.  Except, these two souls couldn’t talk to Dante at the same time. Instead, one would pop up from the tomb to talk to Dante and then the other would rise, forcing the other back down.  They spent eternity enacting their dance of partisan power; never speaking to each other, always working to silence the other.


And there, in that image of two politicians bound in the same tomb but unable to be present at the same time, Dante gave us a powerful image of the hell that comes when we refuse to listen.


Dante paused on his journey long enough to engage both Farinata and Cavalcante in conversation.  With Farinata, who led the party Dante opposed, the poet now listened to him with respect, almost reverence.  One senses it in the description he provided of Farinata:

My eyes were fixed on him already.  Erect,

He rose above the flame, great chest, great brow;

He seemed to hold all Hell in disrespect.


And in case Dante wasn’t ready to honor Farinata, his guide underscored the need for respect by saying, “Mind how you speak to him.”  All of this emphasis on respect contrasted with how Florence treated Farinata: sent into exile by the Guelphs, he died; and later, to add insult to injury, the Guelph’s exhumed his body, burned it, and excommunicated him.  But now, Dante does what should have happened before: he listened respectfully to his political opposite.


The need to listen only got further emphasized when Cavalcante rose from the tomb.  While Farinata towered high, Cavalcante can only peer over the side. But he asked about his son, Dante’s best friend.  Back in Florence, after the Guelphs seized control from the Ghibellines, they split into two factions, the White and the Black.  People in Florence looked to Dante to help restore order after the White and Black Guelphs came to blows; and he decided to exile the leaders of each group, which meant exiling his best friend.  So, when Cavalcante asked about his son, Dante spoke of the son in the past tense and Cavalcante thought him dead. He disappeared back into the tomb, encased in grief.


Cavalcante’s sorrow came because he didn’t listen; he didn’t listen to Dante explain the exile.  Next Farinata rose again. Which gave Dante a chance to give him a message of hope; “Now, therefore, will you tell that fallen one who asked about his son, that he is not dead.”  


And so, this powerful image of partisan rancor ends with the possibility: Farinata will talk with Cavalcante, Guelph will listen to Ghibelline, the red and blue of Florence finding a peace.


But of course, we don’t need to look back to Dante and partisan strife in Florence to feel the danger of what happens when we don’t listen.  We know it all to familiarly in our own lives.


Which is why I’ve come to think of the gift of listening as the work of the Spirit.  I want you to think of a moment when someone truly, deeply listened to you. A time when you could share your thoughts or your silences and be heard.


As I think about those times in my life, a few common characteristics become clear.  The person who listened was curious instead of defensive. Curious about what I thought, curious about what I would say, curious about what I felt.  All of which is different from the quick to judge, defensiveness we can often get trapped in. And even when not overt, too often we think about what we will say next instead of hearing what was said.  But the curious listener, that’s a gift.


Even in an argument, curiosity turns the tone of the conversation.  Judgment proclaims, “How can you think that!”  But curiosity wants to know, “Why do you think that?”


Relatedly, the people who’ve most listened to me, listen because they don’t know the answer.  Do you know what I mean? Sometimes it seems like someone is listening, but then you find they’re just waiting to give you their answer: to tell you what to do, ready to fix a problem you haven’t begun to describe.  But true listeners listen because they don’t know the answer. Instead of waiting to answer, they wonder and wait. Which might be why good listeners are often so good with silences. Wonder emerges in silence like stars in the dark sky.  


These two qualities of listening can be found in the crowd on that first Pentecost: they were curious, they wondered.  And I think in their listening, curiosity, and wonderment we can see the movement of the Holy Spirit.


Our continuing testament reading from Langston Hughes points to this need to listen.  He wrote about the two most familiar American synonyms: freedom and liberty; which we can seem so close in our patriotic lexicon as to be interchangeable.  But he teases out a gulf: “There are words like Freedom, Sweet and wonderful to say” and “There are words like Liberty, That almost make me cry.”  Such emotion packed between two synonyms demands my curiosity and wonder, a listening.  Because, “If you had known what I knew, You would know why.”


The miracle of Pentecost comes in this: our listening to what each other has known.  The listening of an international crowd to Peter. The listening of one lover to another.  The listening of one friend to another.


This Pentecost may we experience this miracle in our own lives, the miracle of curiosity and wonder; may we be people who say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:


"Why I Support Immigrant Rights" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 6, 2018

posted May 7, 2018, 12:48 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated May 9, 2018, 1:44 PM ]

I’m wondering: has anyone here visited the house where Anne Frank tried to hide from the Nazis? And how many more have read her diary? Thanks; but even if we haven’t seen her house or read her journal, almost all of us know the basics of her story. Anne Frank’s family sought refuge from the rising violence in Germany. They fled to Holland and were safe for a while; but when the fascists invaded, they hid in the attic of a house, the secret annex. But after two years in secret, they were discovered and sent to concentration camps, where Anne Frank and most of her family died.


In recent years new information about Anne Frank’s family came to light. Anne Frank’s father had sought to leave Holland for America. He wrote a series of desperate letters to American friends in the government. In one he said, “It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”


But, American officials refused him entry. They claimed Europeans fleeing the Nazis could really be secret fascist spies, who would be “sleeper agents” of a hostile ideology. We could have made a difference in the life of Anne Frank, but we allowed fear to deafen our ears to the cries of her family.


As our country debates immigration, I can’t help but wonder: how many children we turn away are writing diaries our descendants will read? A boy in Aleppo? A girl separated from her mother by a government preparing to deport them both? A child on a caravan fleeing gang violence in their home country told they could not come here?


Over the last year, our congregation raised and reflected on issues of immigration during worship, adult education, and through advocacy events. In two weeks, following the lead of the Wisconsin Conference of our Christian movement, we’re going to consider a resolution to become an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation that works with Voces de la Frontera to support immigrants, documented and undocumented.


Questions about immigration touch on both politics and faith. Each of us needs to wrestle with this in our own hearts. Today, I want to share with you why I support our “Immigrant Welcoming” move; to share how I’ve come to think about these questions both as an American and as a Christian. You will need to discern these questions in your own heart.


First, I know a sermon ought not to be a patriotic speech, but I can’t figure out how to think about the question of immigration solely as a Christian. I am both an American and a Christian, identities that do not always go well together. And yet I need to think about this question both ways.


In speaking about immigration, some say that we can’t have a country without borders. But I think, we can’t have a country without a Dream. Our American Dream shapes our country far more than our borders do.


And so, I remember the founding of our country. The British Generals imagined the revolution as a battle for territory. They invaded Boston, controlled New York, and captured Philadelphia. They were winning the battle for borders. But Washington knew all he needed to win was the idea of America. Even at the lowest moments of the revolution, with only the Dream to keep him warm, Washington knew that the idea of America mattered more than control of territory. And ever since, our nation has depended not on tough borders but enduring Dreams.


President Ronald Reagan, nearly forty years ago, several years before he granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants, spoke to this when he said, “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.” And later in that same speech he said, “[Undocumented] immigrants in considerable numbers have become productive members of our society and are a basic part of our workforce. Those who have established equities in the United States should be recognized and accorded legal status.”


Reagan, for all I might disagree with him, reflected a long-standing insight into the nature of political society. A view long ago articulated by Augustine, who said, “a kingdom without justice is nothing more that a great robbery, a pompous gang of bandits.” Gangs and warlords can have territory; gangs and warlords can set up checkpoints and borders; but gangs and warlords do not nurture Dreams. Our American Dream defines our nation, not borders or language or skin color.

Second, as a Christian, I think about the content of our Dream.  James Cone, a leading African-American theologian who passed away last Saturday, shaped my Christian understanding of our American Dream. He once said, “I still regard Jesus Christ today as the chief focus of my perspective on God but not to the exclusion of other religious perspectives. God's reality is not bound by one manifestation of the divine in Jesus but can be found wherever people are being empowered to fight for freedom. Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed is the primary criterion that we must use to judge the adequacy of our theology, not abstract concepts.”


Life-giving power for the poor and the oppressed; Cone’s criteria caused him to understand our Christian story within the experience of the poor and oppressed in our country. And so, he once wrote about the birth of Jesus, saying that if Jesus were born today in America it would then instead of a manger in a barn he’d be placed in “a beer case in a ghetto alley.” And when he wanted to understand the Cross of Jesus, he looked to the lynching of African-Americans. James Cone understood our faith as a promise to those who can’t sleep for trouble, those who can’t dream for want.


This focus by James Cone on looking at God’s word for the poor and oppressed caused me to hear in a new way the classic story of God speaking to Moses. Two things stand out to me: God heard the cries of the Israelites; and God remained elusively undocumented, “I am who I am.”


The Israelites had long lived in Egypt - four hundred years according to scripture. While once they were welcomed in, later Pharaohs turned against them, first enslaving them and then trying to persecute them to death. The Israelites groaned under the injustice they suffered.


So God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”


God heard the cries of the Israelites. And just as surely, that same God hears the cries of people today. Those who wonder: where will my help come from? Those who feel stuck, “lost in [their] own world without a map or a guide.”


And knowing this about God haunts me. God hears these cries; but do we? We didn’t hear the cries of Anne Frank. Are we covering our ears even now to the very people God listens to?


But God heard the cries. And, as one scholar said, God invited Moses to join in a conspiracy of freedom. God wanted Moses to join in an unlikely plan to free the Israelites: return to Egypt, tell Pharaoh to let my people go, lead them through the desert, and make a new home in a land of milk and honey.


Moses had fled Egypt when he broke the law. Now God wanted him to return; and to break even more laws by helping people “steal themselves to freedom.” Pharaoh said, “there is no authorization for this migration” but God commissioned Moses to commit a crime of freedom.


God’s conspiracies for freedom make for America’s greatest moments too. I’m proudest of Americans who conspired for the freedom of those enslaved. Proudest of those who conspired for women’s equality. Those who conspired to recognize same-sex couples when the state called them undocumented marriages. And I can’t help but see that our church has joined all those earlier conspiracies for freedom; and we did so because we dream of freedom for those who cry in the night of oppression.


An elusively undocumented God commissioned Moses. We’ve heard it so often that we might miss the uniqueness of how God discloses an identity: “I am who I am.”


Moses on the mountain met a wilderness God, one who lived beyond the boundaries of countries and empires, a God without a name (or a God who refused to give a name). The ancient gods and goddess all lived in specific places; they had homes, temples. The Egyptian gods and goddess lived on the Nile. The Greek gods and goddess lived on Olympus. But Moses met a wilderness God, a God who wandered, without a known address, no documented home. I am who I am. I will be were I will be.


Even when the Israelites settled in Jerusalem, and built a Temple, they knew God didn’t really live there. They just saw it as the footstool for God, a place a wandering God might rest weary feet.


Jesus came as the embodiment of this elusively undocumented God. And so I’m not surprised to hear him say, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” And that same Jesus who didn’t have a home, sent his same disciples out abroad, “Go therefore and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into my conspiracy of freedom.”


Believing in an elusively undocumented God changes how I think about our current questions. God did not embody privilege but vulnerability. God did not have security but uncertainty. And so I think I will find God among the vulnerable and the uncertain. For God said as much, telling Moses, “I am the God of Abraham” - the man who left his home for the far country, “I am the God of Isaac” - the man who snuck into the land of King Abimelech because of a famine in his own land, “and the God of Jacob” - the man who ran from family conflict and moved from place to place. Our God is a God of the refugee, immigrant, and exhile. And so, I think God not only hears the cries of the vulnerable but can be found among them.


I hear such faith echoed in the famous words Emma Lazarus ascribed to the Mother of Exiles in the harbor of New York:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"


All of which is why, as an American and a Christian, I support immigrant rights. I believe in an elusively undocumented God who calls us to join in a conspiracy of freedom to help those who cry out help amid the suffering of poverty and oppression.


Alleluia and Amen.




Sources

  • Myer, Ched and Matthew Colwell, Our God is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (p. 57 shaped my reading of Ex. 3).

  • Reagan, Ronald: "Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy ," July 30, 1981. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=44128.

"Watching Your Language: On Love" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 29, 2018

posted May 2, 2018, 8:15 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A writer I like once said, “theologians are people who watch their language in the presence of God.”  Normally people think of “watching their language” as avoiding swear words. And indeed, I regularly have people apologize for using an off-color expression.  People use a swear and then look at me, “Oh, sorry Pastor.” It happens so often that I’ve realized I never get called Pastor as much as when people swear.


But swear words don’t really offend me.  And, honestly, I know how to use them too.  Still, I like the reminder to watch our language in the presence of God.  Yet what language ought we watch? Swear words? No, the words we ought to be careful about are those that can become banalities and trivialities: words like love and friendship.  


Our Gospel lesson this morning uses these very words, words we ought to watch very carefully.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”  Jesus used the very words we need to be careful about: love and friendship.


The need to watch our language comes out in hymns.  Bryan Sirchio, a pastor and musician in our Christian movement, once wrote about the hymns which drive him crazy as a progressive Christian, those hymns that he can’t stand, the ones whose words seem as jarring as swearing in church.  And he decided he wouldn’t sing such hymns anymore. So, he adopted three rules:

  • No more bloody Jesus

  • No more Rambo Jesus

  • and No more boyfriend Jesus

(and of course no bloody Rambo boyfriend Jesus)


These rules addressed three concepts that Bryan Sirchio wanted to be careful about.  First, the glorification of violence, especially the violence done to Jesus on the cross.  Second, the celebration of Jesus as hero who kicks butt, the guy who triumphs over others. And finally, the romanticizing of Jesus, which turns his command of love into the sweet nothing whispers of beau.


Each of us might have favorite hymns that break Bryan Sirichio’s rules.  (I know I couldn’t imagine Good Friday without singing “Sacred Head Now Wounded”.)  Still, I get his point when I think of other hymns, ones that speak of Jesus in harlequin ways, hymns which could just as easily be about a human lover as they could be about Jesus.  We might call such songs theo-erotica.


Hymns like “He Walks with Me in the Garden.”  This is full on Boyfriend Jesus.

And he walks with me and he talks with me

And he tells me I am his own

(I think of it as the Tinder hymn, after the popular dating app.  Swipe right on Jesus).


And the joy we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known.

(I’ve known men arrested for that in the park).

The temptation to swoon for Jesus distracts us from the challenge of his words; romanticizing Jesus makes it harder to hear the ways he wants us to change our lives.  


How would we experience Jesus’ words about love and friendship if we didn’t filter them through the image of him as boyfriend, bloodied, or a Rambo?  This morning I want to think with you about love and friendship without getting caught up in romance, blood, or victory.


The Gospel of John centers around a long description of Jesus eating and drinking with his disciples on the night before he died.  Because we live so removed from this cultural moment, we could easily overlook the way this meal evoked the kinds of philosophical discussion over meals people often had in his day, a tradition most famously captured in Socrates’ Symposium.  In that story, Socrates gathered with his friends to drink and eat and discuss love, too.  And yet, the ways Socrates and Jesus talked about love differ greatly.


Over dinner, Socrates told his friends what he knew of love.  He described the way that we first love one person, a particular love, a particular beauty.  And then, as we mature emotionally, we go on to love people more generally: from loving one particular person to loving lots of people, from one beauty to lots of beauties.  (I’m not sure what his first lover thought about this.) Socrates said that we go from loving lots of people to a universal kind of love, a pervasive appreciation of beauty itself.  Socrates advocated a kind of romantic ladder: from one lover, to many lovers, to love itself.


Though more than two millennia separate us from Socrates, this kind of universalizing still shapes our ideas of love; we talk of love as a universal emotion, something one can feel abstractly, grandly; love for humanity.


But Jesus spoke in a different way about love.  His love kept bringing him back to the present, to the here, the now.  Love sent Jesus into particular relationships; “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only son…”  Jesus didn’t move from particular people to abstraction; love made him see particular people ever more clearly and deeply.  Jesus loved Lazarus; he didn’t move from Lazarus to love other people and then to just abstractly think about humanity. No, he loved; and when his friend died, he wept.  And so, when he sat at dinner and talked about love, Jesus didn’t look up to the heavens to speak abstractly of love, but he looked at these particular friends and said, “I have called YOU friends.”


But the thorniest issue concerns Jesus anticipation of his own death.  He named it in our lesson, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  The tradition of bloody Jesus hymns celebrates this story line.


Too often the bloody image of Jesus puts the emphasis on the fact of Jesus’ suffering and not the reason - on the gore of blood instead of his purpose - in ways that make it seem as if God wanted or even delighted in Jesus’ pain.  Biblical scholar Barbara Reid helped me think about the ways we can tell the story of Jesus’ violent death without perpetuating and even condoning violence.

First, I want to make clear: we misuse the story of Jesus’ death whenever we use it to keep someone locked into abusive situations; “Just bear your cross.”  It happens all the time. Just yesterday, I heard the story of immigrant Amanda Agana, a star of her college track program. Amanda started life in Ghana; but life got complicated when her mother became ill and died.  Amanda’s father felt overwhelmed caring for all his children, so he sent Amanda to live with a relative in the capital city. Amanda’s aunt treated her like a slave, even beating her; even now her legs bear the scars of all the whippings.  But the psychological abuse affected her even more. Amanda explained, “[My aunt] kept telling me that it’s what I deserved because I had killed my mom. She said this is how you repent in the eyes of God — by serving other people. So, I thought it was fair, like I deserved to suffer because I took that light away from people.”  Amanda’s exploitation only ended when her father rescued her and brought her to America.


Jesus didn’t simply suffer for the sake of suffering; a pointless endurance.  Instead, as scholar Barbara Reid interprets the cross, “Jesus is the friend who goes to calamity’s depths [to save] his friends.” And so, Jesus on the cross did not demonstrate endurance but fierceness, not suffering but service, not pointless but persistent.  The old Nicene Creed captures this when it explained that everything Jesus did was “for us and our salvation.” Not as satisfaction of the anger of God, a hunger only quenched with blood; but as an expression “of the length to which God would go to restore broken community.”   


And Jesus calls us to go to those lengths too; not to suffer for its own sake but because transformation requires a fierce commitment.  The kind of commitment a neighbor showed in rescuing a girl held in bondage in Texas. A young girl from Guinea came to America; she thought it was to live with relatives but instead it was to be a slave to the son of the first dictator of Guinea. One day she managed to flee to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor became her support and advocate; helping her build the courage to confront her enslavers and walking with her through the justice system so that she could get asylum.


“I do not call you slaves,” Jesus said.  And he engaged in the fierce work to make sure we could become free and he sends us out to do the same work: “Just as the father sent me, so do I send you.”


Christianity often presents Jesus as the triumphant warrior, what Bryan Sirchio called Rambo Jesus.  But conceiving of Jesus as a warrior, as a Rambo, turns the world into an “us versus them” place.


It can be appealing to shape our lives by a like-minded clubbiness.  And, in fact, many scholars commenting on this passage look to Aristotle’s definition of friendship.  Aristotle thought good friends, real friends, could only arise when similar kinds of people shared similar kinds of goals; friendship depended on similarity for Aristotle.  


And yet, Jesus sought the opposite.  In the most famous moments of his life, Jesus went out of his way to form friendships with people utterly unlike him.  Born into poverty, he befriended wealthy Nicodemus. He gathered around himself common labors and the financial elite, sinners and soldiers, women of ill repute and men of no repute.  When traveling through hostile territory, his friendliness so shocked a Samaritan woman that she asked, “Why is it that you, a Jew, a man, speak to me, a Samaritan, a woman?” And yet, that is who Jesus was: a boundary crosser.


The French philosopher Jacque Derrida asked important questions about friendship that point to the difference between Aristotle and Jesus.  We most often base friendship on values like equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. These are all good in and of themselves; but as a basis for friendship these values push us towards sameness and conformity.  Instead, Derrida suggested, we could base friendship on inclusion, curiosity, and solidarity. Importantly, these values encourage us to seek out and befriend those who are different than us. Philosophers use a great word to speak of our openness to those who are different from us: alerity.  Do we form our friendships on the basis of similarity or alerity, those just like us or those with a heart open to difference?


Perhaps I’ve gone too deep into philosophy.  So, let me pull back to say how I hear Jesus teaching us to love and befriend.  Jesus teaches us to love actual, particular people; to love them fiercely; and to open our hearts in love to those who are different than us.


I think Jesus commanded us to love this way.  And we have an opportunity to live out this commandment on Tuesday by participating in a march with Voces de la Frontera.  Remember: love isn’t abstract; we’re meant to love in particular and concrete ways. Immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, need us to show our love because the Sheriff in Waukesha is planning to implement a policy which would turn his officers into ICE agents, empowering sheriff deputies in Waukesha to stop and demand papers of anyone they suspect of being here undocumented.  Voces needs fiercely courageous supporters. And they need us to be friends, not because we’re the same but because our hearts open to include others.


I want us to watch our words before God; and in fact, to learn to love like Jesus: loving particular people, with a fierce persistence, that makes room for difference.  Jesus called us to love like this so that Jesus’ joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. Alleluia and Amen.




Sources in addition to Feasting on the Word:

  • Flynn, Meagan, “Texas couple kept Guinean girl enslaved for 16 years until she escaped, feds say,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

  • Maese, Rick, “She ran from years of abuse in Ghana. Now she runs for the U.S. Naval Academy,” Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

  • Uriah Kim and Ahn, Ilsup, “The Post-National Responsibility Toward Undocumented Immigrants: The Practice of Hesed and a New Ethics of Friendship,”

  • Reid Barbara, “The cross and cycles of violence,” Interpretation [serial online]. October 2004;58(4):376-385. Available from: ATLASerials, Religion Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 28, 2018.


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