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"Thanksgiving Day & Native American Justice" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 18, 2018

posted Nov 21, 2018, 10:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

On a small rise in Lake Park sits a marker; it looks like a forlorn grave stone.  And in a way it is, for it marks one of the last Indian Mounds in Milwaukee. A cultural group called the Woodland Indians lived throughout Wisconsin from about 500 BC to about 1200 AD.  They built mounds throughout the state - conical ones like in Lake Park but also ones shaped like animals or lines. Sometimes the mounds included tombs, sometimes just objects; their purpose remains elusive.

Milwaukee once had numerous Indian Mounds - 200 - but now only two remain, the one in Lake Park and one more on the State Fair grounds.  White settlers to Milwaukee quickly destroyed the vast majority of the mounds in order to use the land for farms or housing; in the case of Lake Park, Frederick Olmsted destroyed all but one of the mounds to create his own landscape vision of the park.

The Indian Mound in Lake Park seems like a metaphor for many of the ways white Americans have interacted with Native Americans.  The mound was once part of a network of ritual spaces, a sacred geography, which white settlers carved up to give new meaning and shape to.  The mound and its twin across the county now sit isolated. Lone survivors of centuries of conquest, destruction, and removal. (And the one on the Fairgrounds remains isolated in a sea of concrete; a grassy reservation.)  Daily I pass the Indian Mound, but how often do I remember whose land I am on?

Our Christian movement - the United Church of Christ - continues to advance the work of racial equity.  This past summer our Wisconsin Conference of the UCC called on all our congregations to study and engage Native American justice issues.  Much of the effort centers around a concept called “The Doctrine of Discovery,” a theological justification developed by our European ancestors to give a pretense of legitimacy for the conquest and colonization of non-Christian peoples.  Our Plymouth Justice Network is working to develop a plan for how best to engage this issue. And as we do, I want us as a congregation to reflect together on the intersections between our faith, our history, and our witness today in the world.

As we begin this conversation, insights from Anita Phillips shape my thoughts.  Phillips, part of the Cherokee Nation, works as a social worker and United Methodist pastor with Native Americans.  In an open letter to the Church, Phillips asked four questions that get to the root of racial equity:

  • Do you see us?

  • Do you hear us?

  • Do you see Christ in us?

  • Do you claim us?

These four questions took me to the heart of issues of racial equity.  They can lead us to take up questions of Native American justice; but they are also the key questions which take us to the heart of racial equity.  When it comes to the work of justice, these questions can shape our reflection and call us to action. We can ask these questions in regard to Native Americans; but also with other People of Color, Muslims and Jews, transgender people; these questions lay bare the reality of pain and opportunity for change in our society.  Whom do you see? Whom do you listen to? Whom do you see Jesus in? Whom do you claim?

Just as most pass by the Indian Mound in Lake Park without thinking about it, the life and culture and history of Native Americans often goes unnoticed.  Native Americans make up a similar size of our population as Jews, Muslims, and LGBT people but remain “invisible” in many ways in our society. Which is odd because the footprint of Native peoples remains large on our society, from familiar place names like Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic.  But in other ways too - the State of Indiana got its name because at one point the federal government set aside that territory as tribal lands; that treaty, like so many, got broken almost before the ink dried.

Thanksgiving may be the one time when white society does notice Native people and their history.  But we do so with a romanticized version of the story of Native Americans and Europeans eating together.  Colonist Edward Winslow described it in a letter to a friend in 1621, saying, “many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain, and others.”

I’m struck by the questions we don’t ask of this romanticized version of racial harmony.  How did we go from feasting together to European settlers killing and confining Native peoples?  Jill Lepore in study of early New England looks at how the colonials came to define an identity over-against Native people.  At first, Native people did live side-by-side with the European settlers; many even formed so-called “Praying Towns” of Christianized Indians.  But then, in the generation after Massasoit, the Europeans started a war against his son. They called him “King Philip” but he knew himself as Metacom.  And the major casualties of that war were people in the Praying Towns: thousands were rounded up and confined to Deer Island in Boston harbor, without sufficient food and water, hundreds died and others were sold into slavery in the Caribbean; America’s first internment camp, first deportation program.

The European colonists then set about on a new strategy: instead of living side-by-side with Native people, the colonists committed to pushing Native people west or isolating them on reservations.  While we remember the mythic story of Thanksgiving - feasting together - we forget what happened next - the refusal of Europeans to see Native people as equals in creating a society together, as either a sovereign nation to respect or as citizens to embrace.

Justice for Native people begins in seeing them as equals.  As Chief Joseph said, “We ask to be recognized as (people), let me be a free (person).  Free to travel, free to stop, free to choose my own teachers, free to choose my own religion.  Free to act, think, and speak for myself, and I will obey every law or submit to the penalty.”  Justice requires of us the capacity to see another person as a person.

But justice demands more than seeing; we need to hear and take seriously the witness and words of Native people.  Anita Phillips in her letter to the Church asked if we can hear Native Americans. She’s worth quoting at length:

“To hear our story requires the deliberative step of suspending one’s own story which is perpetually ringing in the ears.  As we human begins walk and talk and live our lives, we are continually evaluating, comparing, amending, and listening to our own story.  The mechanism that processes feedback inside ourselves must come under our conscious control. It becomes an act of will to stop listening to one’s own story and begin listening to someone else’s.”

That’s one of the key challenges of justice, not just for Native people but for all: to stop listening to one’s own story and begin listening to someone else’s.

What might we hear if we listened?  We might hear the International Grandmothers, “We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth: the contamination of our air, waters, and soil; the atrocities of war; the global scourge of poverty; the threat of nuclear weapons and waste; the prevailing culture of materialism; the epidemics that threaten the health of the earth’s peoples; the exploitation of indigenous medicines; and the destruction of indigenous ways of life.”

The majority of mining for natural resources like uranium and gold happens on land belonging to indigenous people, often without their consent; just think of the Keystone XL Pipeline crossing tribal lands despite the clear protests of Native people.  They didn’t want the pipeline out of fears it would leak and, of course, in its short period of operation it’s already spilling out pollutants. Can we hear the anger at this injustice? Justice requires of us the capacity to listen to another person’s story.

First justice makes us see; then we hear; and next we recognize Jesus in the other person.  This means acknowledging the “other” as holy.

W.E.B. Du Bois, writing from the black perspective in America, once described what he saw as “white religion.”  And thus he explained that the religion of whiteness works “by emphasis and omission to make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man’s soul, that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought, that every great deed the world ever did was a white man’s deed, that every great dream the world ever sang was a white man’s dream.”  What Du Bois documented a hundred years ago continues to warp us, a religion of white supremacy.

We can subvert white supremacy by finding the holy in the other; to see the sacred in other stories, the greatness in other dreams, the profound in other deeds.  Or, as Anita Phillips said, “This is an essential part of our life in Christ, that we are able to see Christ in one another. It is the great equalizer that Creator God has made available to us.  Before repentance is possible, we must see the face of the sacred in other another.”

This morning we sang “Many and Great” a hymn written by Joseph Renville of the Dakota.  The hymn - as noted in the footnote of our hymnal - became associated with the execution of 38 Dakota after a conflict with settlers in Minnesota.  At the largest execution in American history, the Dakota sang as led to the scaffolds. Can we see these 38 as martyrs like Jesus? Can we find Jesus across the centuries in Native people’s resistance to colonialism and endurance of dignity?

Recognizing Jesus in another leads to the fourth step of justice: claiming the other as our own.  Just as Martin Luther King taught us that “we are all caught in an inescapable web of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” so to do Native people like Anita Phillips point to our interrelatedness.  Phillips explained, “To be related to someone, you claim them as your kin.  They are part of your family.”

One of the readings I came close to using in our worship service came from a speech of Red Jacket, a leader of the Iroquois, who addressed white missionaries before an assembly of the five nations in 1792.  In his speech he pointed to many of the broken promises white people made to him. But what struck me was the way he kept addressing the white missionaries as “brother.” Naming the white missionaries as brothers punctuated the speech.

And it made me realize the very different way white culture conceived of the familial relationship with people of color.  Many whites over the years have claimed people of color as family - you certainly hear that in the south - but the metaphor is parent-child: the white parent, the colored child.  That metaphor underlay legal structures in which people of color were treated as “wards” of the state; and even now we hear it in the language of “minorities.” Minors. Minors to whom?

But we hear a different familial metaphor in the witness of Native people.  Not parent-child but sisters-brothers. I think that’s the ultimate move of justice: to leave behind the old metaphors of some as parents and others as children and to instead embrace the sense of equality between siblings.

I hear an echo of that challenge in Edward Winslow’s description of that first thanksgiving.  Winslow saw Massasoit coming to the plantation as a vassal, subservient: a warrior bringing 5 deer like tribute.  Massasoit saw himself as a sibling, bringing food to a family meal.

Sisters and brothers, this is what the work of justice requires of us.  Seeing the other. Hearing the other. Recognizing Jesus in the other. And finally knowing the other as our siblings.  May we do the work of justice. Alleluia and Amen.

"Joseph" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 11, 2018

posted Nov 21, 2018, 9:52 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I love the way some people have names which perfectly fit them.  The other night I went to see a gay comedian who adapts famous musicals into political commentary.  Last Spring, with President Trump visiting Kim Jong-un he drew on the Sound of Music to produce “How do you solve a problem like Korea.”  He goes by the name “Randy Rainbow.”  Could there be a more perfect name for a gay musical theater comic?  At first, I thought this must be a stage name; but no, his parents named him Randy Rainbow.  Or I think of a gifted and organized wedding planner we sometimes work with here at Plymouth, Tiara.  Yes, that’s right, when she was born the doctor presented her saying, “look, it’s a wedding planner.” And so, they had to crown her Tiara.

While I love these stories of “perfect names,” I’m also deeply drawn to the song we sang during the scripture lesson.  We sang God’s promise:

I will change your name,

You shall no longer be called

Wounded, outcast, lonely, or afraid.

I will change your name,

Your new name shall be

Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one,

Faithfulness, friend of god,

One who seeks my face.

The song speaks to the power of God to change our lives.  While Kanye West may talk about alternate realities and politicians talk about alternate facts, God’s power promises to alter our reality, to alter the facts of our lives.

In the United Church of Christ, we are about changing lives; this is grace.  And the world needs a church which believes in the power of God to change lives.  But we also need it ourselves. We need grace: to know that the awful names we get called (or that we call ourselves) are not our true identity; to know ourselves by God’s name for us - beloved, chosen, blest.

This power of God to change lives comes out in the story we heard Les read this morning, an abbreviated story of Joseph.  You might remember the big moments of Joseph’s story: as a teenager, the young Joseph endured the jealousy of his brothers; they beat him up, tossed him in a pit, and then sold him into slavery.  Enslaved, Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar’s wife; imprisoned, he interpreted dreams; released, he came to run Egypt through times of feast and famine. Enslaved to in charge, Joseph remained estranged from his family.  But then famine caused them to come to Egypt; through several ruses he tested them. Finally, he revealed himself to them and brought them down to Egypt.

But this year I began to wonder about this basic story.  It started when my friend Jody Hirsh, the Jewish Educator at the JCC, led a discussion on Joseph.  He looked at the end of the story in which Joseph becomes reconciled with his brothers. “How can this be?”  Jody asked, “How can Joseph forgive?” It does seem like scripture too neatly ties up the story: a happy ending.  Could we forgive our siblings if they did such a thing to us?

So, this summer while on sabbatical I reflected and prayed about this story.  And as I kept reading through it, elements I’d overlooked came to take on new significance for me, parts of the story that speak to how Joseph came to a place of forgiveness, moments when his life changed.

First, I noticed how the storytellers use Joseph’s age to punctuate the story: 17 when his brothers sold him into slavery; 110 when he forgave his brothers.  Which means that while the narrative makes it seem like forgiveness came quickly; it really took 93 years before Joseph could say to his stricken brothers, “have no fear.”  Even that might be too quick for me; but I appreciate that forgiveness took time. God’s power acts in the world; but more like the slow power of the Colorado River carving the Grand Canyon than the quick shift of an earthquake.

Spiritual healing takes time.  Which is one reason we build a church out of brick and mortar instead of meeting forever in a tent.  Our journeys unfold over a lifetime; and we need a church where that can happen. One worship service might inspire us; but real change in our hearts and lives takes time.  The world needs a church like Plymouth (and we need it too) committed to creating change over the long haul, a Colorado River of grace carving out the deep beauty in our lives.

And yet, there were moments in the long arc of the Joseph story that seemed to propel change.  I tried to call attention to these in our abbreviated version of the story. First, when Joseph went from prison to stand before Pharaoh he shaved and dressed.  It sounded as simple as that; “When he had shaved himself and changed his clothes, he came in before Pharaoh.”  But in that verse lay a multitude of meanings. Joseph had previously dressed like a shepherd, an Israelite: desert robe, long beard, shaggy hair.  He looked like a foreigner to the Egyptians. But now he shaved: cutting off the beard, losing his long hair. He made himself pass.

Any of us who have tried to “pass” know the cost of fitting ourselves into the strait-jacket of expectations.  It’s the gay man toning down his flamboyancy; the woman who can’t get angry. It’s the African-American man who speaks with a softer, higher voice so that he doesn’t seem threatening to white people.  It’s the Muslim who shaves his beard much like Joseph to not seem too foreign. But oh, the cost of not being ourselves.

Scripture underscores this cost by having Pharaoh rename Joseph; calling him, “Zaphenath-paneah.”  I’ve certainly butchered the ancient Egyptian; but I know the name means, “the one who reveals the secrets of life.”  Not a bad name in and of itself, but it turned Joseph into a functionary. Pharaoh didn’t bother to learn Joseph’s name; he only learned how Joseph could be useful to him.  In renaming Joseph, Pharaoh made clear that he was to make a break with his past and instead to just become the man Pharaoh needed him to be; a functionary.

The pain of this all becomes overt when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers.  What caught my attention was this moment when everyone sat down to eat: the Egyptians, Joseph, and the brothers, all at separate tables.  We normally focus on Joseph’s reaction to seeing his long-lost brother Benjamin but hear what happened when they sat down. “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.”  The Egyptians wouldn’t eat with the Hebrews; a segregated society. But what happened to Joseph? For all his attempts to pass, for all his attempts to become Egyptian enough, the Egyptians still would not eat with him. He sat alone.

His brothers wounded him; but the Egyptians made clear, “no matter what, you will not belong here.”  Joseph realized in that moment that he would always be the foreigner, the outsider, the outcast no matter what he did to try to pass.

Now I’ve read this story a lot over the years, but I don’t think I noticed this detail until our congregation started really focusing on racial equity, facing the reality of racism and discussing issues of unearned privilege and unfair power.  But our church opened my eyes and I see the discrimination right in the text: the Egyptians wouldn’t eat with the Hebrews for that is an abomination to the Egyptians. The world needs a church like Plymouth (and we need it too) that opens our eyes to the reality of pain.  But also, the world needs a church like Plymouth that makes welcome and acceptance real, one that says, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Joseph needed that; I need that; I suspect we all need that kind of welcome, the kind that seats us all at the same table.

After Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, the whole family settled with him in Egypt.  The famine continued to rage. Joseph had stored up grain; and now people came to him, desperate.  They sold everything to buy Joseph’s grain. And then the next year, when they didn’t have any belonging, them came again to Joseph.  As he stood before them, the Egyptians said, “There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die.”  The people became so desperately hungry that they sold themselves into slavery.

What did Joseph think at that moment when the Egyptians said, “Buy us and our land?”  Did he feel proud of his planning ahead; the grain Savior of Egypt? Did he want to boast to Pharaoh of the profit he made?  I don’t think so. I think that in that moment when the Egyptians sold themselves, Joseph realized that he’d become the very thing he hated.  He’d become like his brothers, enslaving others, selling them into bondage. I imagine he cried; “Wretched man that I am! For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7: 24, 19).

This moment in the story - if you were reading along in the Book of Genesis - comes across as out of place.  You could even read the story without scene. And yet, the original storytellers included it because it told us something so important about Joseph.

Just as the realization about the racism of the Egyptians affected him, so now an insight into himself did as well.  Joseph faced an awful true about himself; he did the very thing he hated. And as he continued to sit with that insight, I think it is what ultimately allowed him to forgive his brothers.  I don’t think the forgiveness at the end of the Joseph story could have happened without Joseph’s insight into his own moral struggles.

One of the roles of church in our life is to help us see those places of growth in our own souls.  We begin with confession because here at least we don’t have to pretend that everything is perfect; we don’t have to pretend to be angels.  But confession isn’t the only place that may make us aware of ourselves. Years ago, two families in our church didn’t get along. Neither family is here anymore, and they covered it up with fake pleasantness; but I knew.  They sat near each other; neither willing to give up their pew despite their disagreement. And when we’d have a passing of the peace, it became for them the passing of awkwardness, a moment which caused them to see the brokenness in their relationships.  We need a place in our lives like Plymouth (and the world does too) where we face what is broken in our lives; a place where we can say, “I have done the very thing I hate.”

Still, Joseph’s brothers did an awful thing to him.  And it took time to forgive. They thought they might never hear those words.  We can’t really know what moved Joseph to forgive. But I know what does in my own heart.  More than just seeing the pain in the world, more than just seeing my own complicity, forgiveness comes as an experience of grace.

I need a place like Plymouth (and I think you do too) that continually pushes me to open my heart more and to let go of those things I grip too tightly, especially animosity.  Like Joseph, I need a place where God can work on my soul and change my name. No longer wounded, outcast, afraid. But beloved, chosen, blest.

And friends, the world needs a place like that too.  Alleluia and Amen.

"Saints and the New Birth of Freedom" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 4, 2018

posted Nov 12, 2018, 12:30 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

What lives do we honor?  And how do we honor them?  These questions underlie any celebration of All Saints’ Day.  But before looking at how we might answer these questions in the church, I want to think with you about whose lives we memorialize in our country.

Our public memorials say a lot about our values.  In the 1900’s and again during the Civil Rights Era, many communities put up memorials to the Confederacy as a clear celebration of white supremacy in the face of movements for racial equity.  For example, the University of North Carolina in 1913 dedicated “Silent Sam,” a statue of a Confederate soldier, to symbolize, as the organizer said, “The cause for which they fought is not lost, never can be, never will be lost while it is enshrined in the hearts of the people of the South, especially the hearts of the dear, loyal, patriotic women, who, like so many Vestal Virgins (God’s name be praised), keep the fires lighted upon the Altars.”

But hearts changed; and a jubilant crowd toppled Silent Sam this past August, in a scene that could have come from Eastern Europe or the Middle East; people freed from tyranny, the liberated pulling down a symbol of oppressive ideology.

The debate about old Confederate statues made me look in a new way at other memorials.  I grew up outside of Washington, D.C. Over the last several decades Washington saw numerous new memorials.  In the last few years work began on several - a memorial for Operation Desert Storm, a memorial for World War I, and a third for the Global War on Terror.  So many of us are familiar with visiting Washington to see the Vietnam Memorial or the World War II Memorial that we might miss the novelty of this war commemoration on the Mall.

Yet for the first 200 years of our democracy the Mall didn’t contain war memorials.  That changed with the Vietnam Memorial and then picked up speed in the decades since.  To me the oddity of this comes out in the Global War on Terror Memorial; we’re now memorializing wars that haven’t even ended.  And yet, somehow, we think it time to carve in marble, “mission accomplished.”

Elizabeth Meyer, vice chair of the committee which decides on new Washington landmarks, questioned the wisdom of these proliferating memorials, noting, “The Mall is a public space that symbolizes our collective national identity, and we’re more than wars. We’re more than commemorating the dead. ... What is the threshold when the Mall becomes essentially a cemetery?  A war memorial zone, with no space for anything else, for the way in which we gather together and construct our national identity through the kinds of things we do together on the Mall?”

I know other memorials have joined the Mall, most notably the Martin Luther King Memorial.  And yet I think her question remains. What we remember of the past changes our identity in the present; what does it mean to so empathetically emphasize war in our national identity?

What gets lost when we emphasize war comes into focus when we consider how differently we could tell our national story on the Mall.  For example, instead of war memorials we could have constructed memorials to efforts to expand voting rights and citizenship, creating a narrative across the expanse of the Mall that linked struggles for voting rights and equality, documenting in marble the effort to truly make America a nation of “We the People.”

But Meyer also asked another question: why put war memorials on the Mall instead of Arlington National Cemetery?  The cemetery sits on the former slave encampment that Robert E. Lee called his plantation home. During the Civil War, the Union seized the property and afterwards turned it into a cemetery for union soldiers.  To me, this makes Arlington a profoundly powerful memorial: land once worked by slaves turned into a burial ground for those who fought for freedom, the home of a traitor now the resting place of those loyal to American ideals.  And Arlington makes the costs of war clear. While many of the War Memorials on the Mall proclaim proudly that we won (Victory! Victory!), Arlington’s marching rows of white tombstones speak to the lives lost. And because internments still happen there, one walks the ground to the sound of gun salutes.  Too many war memorials look to glory; Arlington makes clear the cost.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier occupies the most poignant place in Arlington.  And from that point where we remember the unknown, one looks across the Potomac to Washington, D.C.; one’s eyes follow the hill down, across a bridge, to the Lincoln Memorial; standing at Arlington looking towards Lincoln, I hear his Gettysburg Address, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

To me this changes the ways in which we remember the fallen; it frames their loss of life in connection to the great purpose of our country: the struggle for a new birth of freedom.

But something else occurs to me as well.  In the past, people tended to raise monuments to a single person, a hero; someone like Erastus Wolcott, the Civil War surgeon whose statue stands in Lake Park.  Or we raised monuments to heroic moments, such as the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. But our recent memorials tend to enshrine lists of names, a mass of people.  The list seems to promise that everyone gets honored, but the cumulative effect feels to me like a loss of individuality; people merge into an anonymous mass.

I’m increasingly concerned about the turn in our country toward authoritarianism and what feels like fascism; what certainly is the deep revival of white supremacy as we saw in this last week of attempted bombings and shootings in Kentucky and Pittsburgh.

It seems to me that many authoritarian regimes celebrate an everyman - and, let's be honest, it usually is a man; the everyman stands in supposedly for all of us but in ways that strip away the unique identity.  This kind of everyman appears on our new memorials; like the everyman dough boy on the World War One Memorial, off to fight in Europe and returning from victory glorious.

The attempt to construct an everyman in our memorials doesn’t feel right.  We are not abstractions. An everyman is no man, and certainly no woman. It’s as if we’re trying to construct a crowd within which we can find our identity.  But I see danger down that road, a tribalism of falsely constructed fidelity that can’t include all of us who feel hyphenated between multiple identities.

To pull this all together: I’m concerned about the increasing focus on military conflict and victory in our public memorials, a loss of connection to the great project of giving birth to freedom, and an anonymizing trend that loses sense of the individual.

Our All Saints readings develop in us a different sensibility than our current trend in war memorials.  And to point that out I want to look more closely at our Psalm this morning.

The opening verses firmly root the divine into creation; “The earth is God’s and all that is in it.”  God doesn’t come as a power fighting, combating, conquesting. God roots in nature; “for God has founded [the world] on the seas and established it on the rivers.”  These verses harken back to the opening stories of Genesis, of God creating and forming and dwelling in the world; reminding us that the Holy practices creative goodness instead of violent coercion.

Next, the Psalm turns to the qualities of holiness; we read this Psalm on All Saints because it speaks to the characteristics of sainthood.  “Who shall stand in God’s holy place?” the Psalm asks; and we know the answer, “those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.”  The Psalm takes all 613 laws in the Old Testament and reduces them to the simplicity of “clean hands and pure hearts.” In case we don’t know what “clean hands and pure hearts” means, the Psalm then repeated those concepts in parallel phrases: clean hands - do not swear deceitfully; pure hearts - do not lift up souls to what is false.  This makes holiness something possible and ordinary; something we can do; not requiring extraordinary devotion or courage but an everyday attention to decency. But it also points out the great dangers we face; the idolatry and falsehood that can lead us astray. And what is white supremacy but a false idol before which too many lift up their souls?

In Christian spirituality we usually read the final verses as describing the resurrected Jesus, a victorious king returned.  And hearing the story that way transforms the martial imagery into something else. It sounds militaristic: “Who is the ruler of glory?  God, strong and mighty, God mighty in battle.” But imaging this as Jesus transforms it for me: Jesus as the one who suffers, as the one who confronted injustice, as the one who welcomed all and witnessed for equity.  And behind him come not battalions but a movement of all those with clean hands and pure hearts. Twice we heard, “Lift up your heads, O Gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the Ruler of Glory may come in.” The Psalm speaks of a city wall with an imposing gate; secure against any marauders, doors locked for fear of caravans.  But the Ruler of the Saints says, “open up.” Not just a small door to let one in; throw open the gates so all can come. Just as the line of sight from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to Lincoln’s Memorial makes clear the project of American struggle - birthing freedom - so too this Psalm connects the ordinary decency of the saints with Jesus’ grand project - open the gates, welcome all, make an inclusive city.

The Psalms point to a different way to remember than that of our culture at this point: to remember our rootedness in nature; to celebrate our ordinary saints; and to see ourselves as part of Jesus’ great movement to throw open the gates.  Later this morning we will remember friends in our congregation and people in our neighborhood whose memorial services our church celebrated this past year. Ordinary; but all saints in their own way; not perfect, but part of God’s great movement of love and joy.

Some you might know well; like Becky Adlam, who always found ways to connect people who wanted to volunteer to some of the deepest needs in our community.  As a leader in the nonprofit community, she worked to open doors for younger leaders who came up behind her. And long after she retired, continued to be someone who deeply connected with people.

Some we didn’t know nearly long enough; like Kristen Carter, who joined our congregation only a few years ago; yet even in that brief time, her great joy and reclaimed faith late in life shone bright even as cancer overwhelmed her body.

And others you probably didn’t know; like Robert Lee Collins, whose widow asked us to have his service because they voted here.  But in life we’d recognize him as a fellow traveler; because this man opened his home for foster children, investing in their lives in a way that changed their futures.

And this year we mourned the death of Dan Hackbarth, who’s gruff goodness made him a reliable friend.  Jody Holbrook - who could say “it gets better” because she faced down many challenges to come to a place of grace in her life and then found a way to so deeply love her grandchildren that each experienced that grace with her.  Leone Karow, who showed great dignity and love even as age and illness weakened her body, teaching that immobility can’t contain us. And Tom Pexton, who might have been best known for his puns here; but in his service as a pastor worked in the south to bridge racial divides and helped form an NAACP chapter in his Ozark town.

This year we also celebrated the life of Carolyn Zeidler - who amazed me with her ability to turn a city lot into the Garden of Eden; and yet even more, Carolyn created an abundance of friendships, including forming friendships across our racially divided city through a quilting group at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

Ordinary saints whose lives left an extraordinary impact on us; each in their own way sharing joy and love.  Ordinary people whose lives pointed to the extraordinary work of God; each in their own way working for a new birth of freedom.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • Feasting on the Word (Commentary on Psalm 24)

  • Montgomery, David, “A wave of war memorials is coming to D.C. Are we all at peace with that?” Washington Post, July 31, 2018

"Liberty, Purity, Solidarity" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 28, 2018

posted Oct 29, 2018, 10:08 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every fall our nation remembers the Pilgrims, the intrepid souls who founded Plymouth Colony.  We ought to especially remember them here at a congregation named after their famed colony. And yet, what story do we tell about them?

One story - the classic myth - describes the Pilgrims as refugees from persecution and violence, people who braved the seas in search of freedom.  The Pilgrims started in England, a group of people objecting to the practices of the Church of England. Life became intolerable. And so they left; first to Leiden in Netherlands, and later, for America seeking religious liberty.

And yet, there is another version of the story which speaks of the Pilgrims leaving for America because they found the Netherlands too tolerant.  Leiden not only welcomed in Pilgrims but people of lots of different faiths. And to make matters worse, the Pilgrims saw their own children embracing the tolerant views of the Dutch.  So they left for America, not seeking liberty but instead purity.

Liberty or purity; which did the Pilgrims seek?  Honestly, the Pilgrims tried both; they believed they could only have liberty through purity.  Our country continues to struggle with this question: how can we have liberty? Can we only find it in purity?  Or is there another basis to our liberty?

But this Sunday we look back to another historical moment: The Reformation, and especially Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Catholic Church that gave rise to our spiritual movement, Protestantism.  Luther inspired the “protesters” with his insistence that we are “justified through grace by faith.” This slogan of the Reformation sent millions to prayer (and just as many to war) but today it largely rings hollow.  We might know this slogan, but it doesn’t grip our hearts. Instead, it’s become a bit of a historical anachronism, like “Remember the Alamo” or “Don’t tread on me.” But in what sense are we Protestants if this core slogan of the Reformation doesn’t resonate with us?  So I want to look at this slogan and in particular grace.

Luther’s great insight came from his re-reading of the Biblical text; and this morning as we look at the concept of grace, I think the most Protestant thing we can do is to re-read the Biblical text.  Just as the Letter of Paul to the Romans inspired Luther, it can inspire us too. And in fact, I think it can help us understand how to answer this question of liberty or purity.

This morning we heard one of the core Biblical texts for understanding grace. “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”  Now that’s a mouthful of theological concepts!

I want to work our way into this verse by first stepping back.  The word “grace” which was so important to the Apostle Paul and later Christians doesn’t appear everywhere in the New Testament.  The Gospels of Matthew and Mark never use it; and Luke and John only very sparingly. And in all the gospels, Jesus never used the word grace.  So this word that is so important to Christianity comes to us from Paul. And therefore, we need to know, “what happened in Paul’s life to make the word grace so significant?”

Paul lived in a culture marked by a profound distinction between Romans and the rest.  Roman citizens had rights no one else enjoyed. But even Romans lived in a time of great upheaval.  The Roman state had steadily increased in size in the century before. With growth in power came disputes of how to share the wealth.  Roman society experienced three civil wars in the decades before and after Paul, from the rise of Julius Caesar to after the death of Nero.  And within that span of about 100 years, all the famous families of one generation disappeared as ever new people rose to prominence. We know how our American Civil War continues to reverberate in our country; but imagine if we’d experienced three of them.  The Romans did. And it left everyone uneasy about their place in society and what the future held for them.

Those anxieties affected Paul as a Roman.  But he also faced challenges to his identity as a Jew.  Judaism during the lifetime of Paul varied far more than it does today.  You might remember some of the names of the different groups of Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes.  But there were even more - old-line aristocrats and upstart converts, zealots and dabblers, purists and syncretists.  A decade before Paul wrote, a Jewish aristocrat inserted himself into a Roman debate about imperial succession and put forward Emperor Tiberius; within a decade after Paul wrote, Jews led a revolt against Rome that convulsed the empire.  All of which is to say Jews also felt uneasy about their place in society and what the future held for them.

Both as a Roman and a Jew, Paul felt those tensions of identity and the anxiety of belonging.  At first, Paul tried to resolve his anxiety by becoming an expert at distinctions. He understood his purpose in life as patrolling the boundaries of who belonged and who didn’t.  And, when Paul met the first followers of Jesus, he felt in his heart that they didn’t belong. Paul wanted to make this clear; and the Book of Acts described Paul’s participation in lynchings of early Christians.  So, when people caught an early follower of Jesus named Stephen, Paul held onto people’s coats as they beat Stephen to death. Motivated by his deep anxiety, Paul took part in mob violence designed to make clear: you don’t belong.

Paul became a leader in patrolling the borders of who belonged and who didn’t.  He decided to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus in order to seek out more people who he thought didn’t belong.  But then, in the desert, something happened. A blinding light knocked Paul to the ground; and he heard in his heart a voice saying to him, “Why do you persecute me?”

I find it so interesting that this happens to Paul while he was in-between places; in-between the center of Jewish religious power and a regional center of Roman political power.  Anxiety about his own identity caused the young Paul to believe strongly in distinctions, that you were either this or that, in lines drawn between people, a world of the righteous and the rest.  But then, while he was in an in-between place, neither here nor there, something happened that altered his life.

Paul came to realize Jesus spoke to him in that in-between place.  And what did Jesus say? Probably what Paul would record later in the Letter to the Romans: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”  In between places, Paul found Jesus relieved his anxiety and fears, till he knew he belonged, no matter what.

A new Paul emerged in that moment, one who stopped patrolling the borders of purity and instead embraced others as children of God.  Paul once worked hard to draw distinctions between people; but now he found God erasing them. Paul came to embrace a new purpose for his life: opening up the family of Abraham to include other people, literally welcoming in the people treated as “others” and “aliens” in his society.  When I wonder what grace means, I think of this conversion of Paul from fear and hatred to inclusion and embrace. And nowhere does this conversation become more clear than in the Letter to the Romans.

Paul wrote to a community he didn’t know; in the other letters he picked up conversations he’d already had with people but in Romans Paul starts a new conversation, giving us the most complete description of his spirituality.  And, taken as a whole, the Letter argues for including gentiles into God’s covenant with Abraham. Instead of purifying the community, Paul moved to make it expansive and inclusive.

In the Letter he did this by making an argument about sin, showing over the course of several sections the ways in which everyone fell short of the demands of the Law.  And that line of thinking culminates in our reading today, which opened with Paul’s pronouncement: “Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.”

Paul then quotes a series of Biblical quotations - a laundry list really - that underscore this sense that everyone disappoints.  But the people receiving this letter knew the quotes; like when someone sings a line of popular song and you can hear the rest, the first people to hear Paul’s Letter knew the rest of the quotes.  So, for example, Paul at one point quotes Psalm 36, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” And the people hearing him would know how the Psalm continued, “The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; they have ceased to act wisely and do good.”  And their memory would have carried them from this depressing indictment on to the promise and hope of God’s action that will save people; “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.” This same theme underlies all the Bible passages Paul quotes; after confession, the assurance of hope.

Having laid the groundwork, Paul then made his case for solidarity overt.  All have fallen short; there is no distinction; God helps all of us in our need; and so, we live on equal footing, before God and each other.  The key to unlocking this meaning comes in Paul’s comment about boasting. He said directly, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded.” By boasting he meant the sense of superiority we get when we draw distinctions; that boastful pride that says, “well at least I’m not like them.”  Just as he found God’s grace erasing the distinctions Paul tried to draw, so too he tells us: there is no distinction.

The grace that first came to Paul in-between Jerusalem and Damascus now fully blurred the lines he once made between us and them.  This is grace for Paul: the gift that came to him from God, experienced by him in the person of Jesus, that moves him to see beyond all the distinctions and self-prides and boasts which one defined him, till he embraced all as loved by God.

Ellen Charry helped me think about this grace that changed Paul’s life from a quest for purity to a commitment to solidarity.  For Paul, she wrote, “Grace comes from God through Christ to Paul and through him to his converts as a possession. One carries grace on one’s person and spreads it around.”  When I heard Charry say that, I imagined grace as a cord: coming from God, through Jesus, to Paul, beyond Paul, to the world; a cord binding up all those who’d been broken apart.  God doesn’t use grace to draw a line between insiders and outsiders; God uses grace to draw a line through our hearts, linking us together, in solidarity.

This morning, as we baptize Callum, we see the power of grace revealed.  Just before we baptize him I will remind you, as I do before every baptism, the meaning of what we do: “Through baptism we celebrate publicly what is always true: God loves every person, God treasures every life, God rejoices over our nearest relative and the most distant person.”  Baptism grounds us in the reality of grace - God’s love, not as something that separates the righteous from the rest, but as the power that pulls us into solidarity, one with another.  And in this solidarity we find our truest liberty: “as children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

Paul began as a man committed to purity; wanting to make his community holy by excluding those who didn’t belong, purifying it.  But he came to embrace solidarity. How can we achieve liberty in our country? Paul once thought liberty came through purity. But God’s grace taught him to find his liberty in solidarity.  May we open our hearts to grace, that we too can find liberty in solidarity. Alleluia and Amen.

"Hearts Open to Others" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 21, 2018

posted Oct 24, 2018, 2:24 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

As my kids got older, they stopped playing soccer and baseball on our front yard.  In fact, it’s been years since they did. So this summer, I decided to re-landscape the front of our house.  Two new beds, running down our front sidewalk, boxwood hedges with room for flowers beside them.

And now, with the beds complete and fall arrived, came the time to plant - silia and tulips, my favorite spring bulbs.  We had so many bulbs - 200 per side - that Jay dug a trench for planting. I came out to question the depth. Never question an engineer about measurements.  He got out his tape and showed me he’d consistently dug it 8 inches, ensuring the bulbs would be properly placed 6-8 inches under the soil.

While this was going on, a neighbor came over.  “Andrew,” he said, “you’ve got it made. My wife would never dig the trench so I could just come out to place the bulbs.”  Gay marriage ain’t looking so bad is it?

We humans pay lots of attention to issues of power and roles, fairness and inequality; and all these issues underlie our Gospel lesson today.  Almost from the beginning, people interpreted James and John as acting on a brash impulsivity, requesting in an almost unseemly way positions of power beside Jesus; James and John, sons of Vanity.

And yet, I wonder about this interpretation.  Were they really just seeking out their own glory?  Or does this reading of their relationship miss something crucial about discipleship?

Think with me about this story (and you might open up your Pew Bibles to page 47 in the New Testament).  Jesus and the disciples were heading down to Jerusalem; but the disciples were so dreading what awaited them in Jerusalem that they held back, afraid and worried while Jesus walked on in front of them.  What must that have felt like, to have your friends unable to walk with you as you approached a deadly confrontation? Lonely, bitter; Jesus started talking openly about his death: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

The disciples are behind Jesus, holding back on the road.  So he probably turned around to face them. Did he shout these words?  Did he cry as he spoke them? Mock. Spit. Flog. Kill. There is a staccato hardness to these words.  I almost imagine Jesus spitting them out, no warmth in his voice to the dithering disciples, forcing the recalcitrant to face what they wanted to avoid, dragging them up to the reality of the situation.

At this moment, James and John catch up to Jesus.  And they say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  Now normally we treat this as a request for positions of authority and power, as if they’d ignored the part about Jesus dying and jumped ahead to the part of him coming back in three days.

But this conversation between Jesus, James, and John needs to be read in relationship to the other times Jesus predicted his impending death.  For Jesus had death on his mind and kept trying to talk with the disciples about it.

The first time Jesus said he would die, Peter rebuked him.  This made Jesus so mad he yelled, “get behind me Satan.” And then he spoke of the need for all his disciples to suffer like him.  Then he warned everyone, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The disciples still couldn’t handle Jesus’ predictions of his own death.  So when he started to talk about it again, the disciples sat silently, sullenly, afraid to believe him and afraid to challenge him.  This frustrated Jesus; exasperated, he again spoke sternly, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

But this time, when Jesus again spoke of his death, James and John act differently.  First, they move from the crowd of fearful disciples to stand close beside Jesus. Jesus sometimes spoke euphemistically about his death and they adopt some of the same language: Can we be beside you when you enter into glory?  Can we be beside you when you die?

Normally people think of James and John being brash, but as I read the Gospel of Mark, they were the first disciples to actually listen to Jesus’ pain; to hear him; and to make clear that they would beside him in his pain.

Far from vanity, James and John showed empathy.  And Jesus responded to their empathy. Where normally he became despondent at the reaction of the disciples, now he speaks tenderly, concerned for James’ and John’s ability to suffer.  He said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” In this very human moment, Jesus knew the suffering he faced; and he didn’t want them to face it too.

James and John press on; “We are able.”  And Jesus accepts their willingness to suffer with him.  “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”  But he added that they might not be with him on the cross; and indeed, two others will be there on his right and on his left.

I’m sure that James and John could have found a better way to express their solidarity with Jesus.  But beyond their words, the action of moving from the crowd of fearful disciples to stand beside Jesus seemed to truly matter to him.  In his pain, he was not alone.

The other disciples did not react well to this.  The people too afraid to walk with Jesus now became angry when James and John did.  Often smoldering fears can inflame burning anger, which seems to be the case with the disciples.  Their anxiety came out in anger at James and John. But why? Was it because James and John tried to take some privileged spot in the next life?  Or because James and John went and stood with their pained and lonely friend?

Jesus’ own sense of this moment comes out in his reaction.  He doesn’t remonstrate James and John but instead repeats again what he said before to the disciples.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

I know this runs against the typical way the story gets read; but notice how differently Jesus responded to James and John versus the rest of the disciples.  To James and John he acknowledged their willingness to suffer and to serve - “the cup that I drink you will drink too.” But to rest, those who held back in fear, he instead makes a point about discipleship, “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

The rest of the disciples had clearly missed something.  The rest of the disciples paid heed to their own envy, their jealousy over James and John, and maybe even their shame over not acting more like James and John.  The rest of the disciples had served their own resentments.

But what had James and John done?  They paid attention to Jesus’ pain.  They heard the friend who kept talking about his death.  They heeded his loneliness. And, in this, they exhibited the best of discipleship: a heart for others.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time drawing this distinction between James and John on the one hand and the rest of the disciples on the other because I think it speaks to how we need to be church today.

First, across the world, Christian faith often seems to believe more in the status quo then it does in the power of Jesus to transform lives.  Recently I heard the story of Boniface Mwangi, a photographer from Kenya who documented political repression in his country. Mwangi described his experience growing up.  “In my childhood, they taught me silence. Don't argue, do as you're told. In Sunday school, they taught me don't confront, don't argue, even if you're right, turn the other cheek.”  How many American Christians get the same message? How many taught silence? Mwangi had to learn another way to be in order to stand up to the oppression in his country.

Another leader from a different part of the world sharpens this critique of Christianity.  Dr. Koson Srisang leads Christians in Thailand. He once described a report by Asian church leaders, which confessed, “the Church is often found on the side of political powers against the people; it… participates in programs and structures which not only cause injustice and oppression but which also reinforce the suffering of the people.”  This attitude reflects, as Dr. Srisang explained, that in churches we deal with people as sinners but not people as the one sinned against. His comments from Thailand hold true here too: most American Christians put their energy into culture wars against so called “sinners” but have little to say about injustice and oppression. And in much of American Christianity, people talk about being saved from sin instead of liberated from oppression.

Both Mwangi and Dr. Srisang describe a Christianity the rest of the disciples would have well appreciated: cautious, apprehensive, fearful Christianity; what I think of as the Church of St. Stability.

But we’re called to be a different kind of church; one with a heart open to others, to be like James and John, seeing human pain and responding, even if we don’t always have the right words.

The experience of human pain we’re called to answer comes out in a poem by Canaan Banana of Zimbabwe, who paraphrased the 23rd Psalm in a work he called “The Voice of Agony.”

Man’s cruel Hand is my destruction

I shall ever want.

It makes me lie down beneath the prison cells of injustice.

It leads me beside the hot fires of gunpowder.

I am fighting a lone battle, apathy and indifference surround me.

The table of starvation is ever before me.

My head is anointed with burdens.

Dejection and despondency haunt me.

Freedom and justice are my heart’s desire.

Help me, O God, to walk the valley in pursuit of [dignity].

And hasten the Day of the Haven of Your Love, Power and Justice.

James and John - hearing that same “Voice of Agony” in Jesus - responded to their friend.  And that’s what we are all meant to do as followers of Jesus: forget who’s in charge, forget who’s a sinner, just work for those sinned against.  My hope for our congregation is that each of us will have a mission project that compels us, a way we answer that “Voice of Agony,” being part of something that helps the sinned against: whether it’s a homeless agency like Guest House or Pathfinders, advocacy for racial equity with MICAH or Voces de la Frontera, help to our elderly neighbors through Eastside Senior Services, or something abroad like Sustain the Future.  I want each of us - either personally or as a household - to be able to name how we answer the Voice of Agony.

When we say the world needs a church like Plymouth, we mean the world needs more people of faith who open their hearts to others, more people of faith who reach out in service, more people of faith who won’t keep silent in the face of injustice.

Alleluia and Amen.

"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.


  • 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.


"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.


"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.

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