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"Back Here, Again?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - August 20, 2017

posted Aug 22, 2017, 10:21 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Aug 23, 2017, 11:07 AM ]

Last Saturday, as my family wound up our vacation in Spain, we decided to go hiking.  We try to get out hiking wherever we go.  And this last weekend, in the Sierra Nevada's, the compelling landscape of rugged mountains called to us.

Without a car, though, getting to a trail-head can be complicated.  We took a taxi out to a small hill town called Cartajima - a village no bigger than our congregation.  The driver dropped us off at the bar, the only one.  In Spanglish he made sure we knew the bar was closed.  I think he doubted our plan to hike over the mountain.  But the map made clear the trail only took about three hours.  We’d be back in Ronda for lunch.

We set out. The map seemed so clear but we struggled to find the first trail marker.  Many people would have taken this as a bad sign.  But we like hiking.  So we pressed on once we found an initial trail marker, marveling at the majesty of the mountains and the abundance of goats.

The second trail marker took us onto the property of a goat herder, along a nearly abandoned road, beside a stream bed.  But then we came to fence; after a while we found the nearly faded paint that marked a sort of gate we could open to get into another field.  The goats scattered as we approached.  We followed the path further up and into the mountains, not realizing that would be the last trail marker we saw.

Somewhere along the way it didn’t seem right.  Our path didn’t seem to match the map.  So we backtracked and found what seemed like rocks piled on top of each other; a classic way to mark a trail.  So we followed the new path until that petered out into scrub brush.

Certain that the path could be found just around the bend, we decided to climb up to the ridge; we just needed perspective.  But one ridge led to another ridge and to another ridge.  We climbed high enough that we couldn’t even see goat poop; even goats knew not to go there.  I realized all the pictures we’d taken on the way up would be broadcast on some Spanish TV show about the dumb American hikers.  “Estaban muy perdidos,” the announcer would say, shaking her head.

A family vote settled the question of what to do next: we started the scramble down the mountain.  Somehow the goat trails we followed up the mountain turned into briar patches and rocky drop offs on the way down.  Finally, five hours after we started out on a three hour hike, we stumbled back into Cartajima.  At least the bar was open now.

For much of the hike it seemed like we were getting somewhere; but in the end, we ended up right back where we started: tired, scratched up, and thirsty.

This week the roiling of news from Charlottesville, Virginia, kept reminding me of my failed hike.  I thought our country, our society, was making so much progress; hard, difficult, but progress.  But watching neo-fascists carry torches while shouting “blood and soil” made it feel like we’ve lost our path and stumbled down a brier patch back to the 1950’s or the 1930’s.

So many awful moments stand out in what happened in Charlottesville and in the reaction since.  Not the least of them the tragic killing of Heather Heyer [“higher”] by a white terrorist.  But I also think of the Congregation Beth Israel: while they gathered for prayer, men dressed in fatigues and armed with automatic weapons looked on from across the street and white supremacists marched by chanting Nazi salutes.  As a precaution, the Torah scrolls were removed for safekeeping and the congregation left worship in groups by a back door with a security guard.

We’re here again?  No wonder I find myself so drawn to the poetry of Langston Hughes.  The great poet gave us a testament this morning:

I am so tired of waiting,

aren't you,

for the world to become good

and beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

and cut the world in two--

and see what worms are eating

at the rind.

This week - terror in Charlottesville, terror in Barcelona, we saw the worms of hate eating the rind.


While I struggled with what happened in Charlottesville, I happened to be reading an essay by a conservative theologian - a theocon - named George Weigel.  His essay noted all the ways he felt our society and politics were broken by divisions: between cultural traditionalists and cultural progressives; between the economically empowered and the economically disempowered; or even between the responsible and the irresponsible; but by any measure, divided.


Weigel felt our divisions were evidence of a deeper moral problem.  As he said, “We have no horizon of moral judgement against which to settle our differences.”  And as a solution he suggested a “New Awakening.”


The New Awakening turned out to be, as Weigel went on to describe it, the rest of the country adopting his particular moral horizon of right and wrong.  He described it more subtly than that of course; but basically he suggested all would be well with democracy if we agreed with his particular understanding of Biblical Law.


He didn’t convince me.  But I got intrigued by Weigel’s argument.  I’ve had many conversations with many of you about the problems in our country, the kind of problems evidenced by the deplorable hatred on display in Charlottesville by white supremacists.  We can talk about our divisions as issues of race and class and resentment.  But what if we framed it as a spiritual crisis?  What if we look at this as a spiritual problem?

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew speaks to the spiritual challenges we face in our country, the kind of problem evidenced in Charlottesville and afterwards.  This story about Jesus comes after some of his most famous miracles: feeding five thousand people and walking on water.  Both of those miracles were meant to mark Jesus as another Moses, a leader and a law-giver.  Now, in today’s reading, we get just that: Jesus giving the new law.


Everyone - from Jesus’ time to ours - worries about the effect of what we eat on our bodies.  Jewish tradition long prohibited “unclean” foods - pork, shellfish.  It’s not unlike the way many of us try low-sugar diets, obsess about wheat-bellies, and go gluten-free.  We focus a lot on what goes into us.


Jesus makes fun of our obsessions.  “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”  And as he explained: this is because what goes in the mouth goes out to the sewer.  And what comes out of our mouth comes from our heart.


We saw this week how words and actions that come out of someone’s lips can defile.  Photos of the protests in Charlottesville captured many angry men shouting awful things. One of them was Peter Cvjetanovic, a white supremacist from Nevada.  He was horrified when the photo of him went viral; he didn’t think of himself as a racist.  How odd: he traveled 2,500 miles to carry a tiki-torch and shout “Jews shall not replace us” and offer Nazi salutes but somehow wants to pretend this wasn’t racist?  He discovered that words defile because they disclose what’s in the heart.



But there’s more to Jesus’ statement than just this idea of what really defiles us.  Jesus wants to make clear our proper moral horizon.  As one scholar explained, “Jesus calls us from a self-centered consideration of what might harm our bodies to a broader concern of how our actions and attitudes hurt others.”  And here’s the point behind Jesus’ teaching: he didn’t long to eat “forbidden” foods, but rather he wanted to keep everyone focused on what mattered.  He gave a moral horizon on which to measure what we say and do: how do our actions and attitudes hurt others.


Which makes the second half of our reading all the more difficult and important.  A Canaanite woman - that is, one of “those” people - asked Jesus to help her daughter.  Jesus’ people looked down on the Canaanites, saw them as their ancient enemies and as followers of a cursed religion.  Good people didn’t associate with those people.


Even more, Jesus called her a dog.  A man calling a woman a dog.  A word he spit out at her.  I think the translation is just being polite by using “dog.”  He certainly said it differently.


All of this didn’t stop the woman from asking for help.  But she didn’t just ask but shouted, demanded, and implored.  The woman’s actions broke all the social taboos of her day, most especially that of women speaking loudly in public to men.  The disciples got frustrated; “Send this shrill woman away!”  Jesus fell silent.  The silence of complicity.  No one knew how to respond to the scene this woman made.


But she would not accept Jesus’ uncomfortable silence.  She kept demanding, “Lord, be merciful to me.”  We often think of mercy as a noun - a thing.  But this woman used it as a verb - an action.  She wanted Jesus’ actions to make clear God’s inclusive, transformative, expansive love.  And in particular, she wanted Jesus’ actions to live up to his own rhetoric.  Perhaps she even heard Jesus quote Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Her words held a mirror up to Jesus.  Most of us don’t react well when we’re shown the impact of our words and attitudes.  But Jesus didn’t react out of a place of fragility; no messianic fragility.  He recognized his own prejudice towards the Canaanites, heard the dissonance in his own voice, and knew in his heart the need for change.  In that moment, Jesus realized the harm the careless words on his lips caused.  He saw the disconnect between his lips and his heart.  Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”  And more importantly, from this point on, he included Canaanites, foreigners, and outsiders in his work.  This more expansive vision of his work culminated in sending his disciples out to share his message with all the nations of the earth.

This Sunday, after this week when hate seemed so powerful, I treasure this story of Jesus realizing the error of his bigotry, of Jesus coming to practice the expansiveness of the love he preached, of Jesus coming to not just speak of mercy but to enact mercy.

The re-emergence of neo-Nazi’s sent me back to something Albert Camus once said after World War II.  Camus, most known as a writer and philosopher, fought fascists as part of the French Resistance.  After the war he spoke to a Benedictine monastery about the responsibility of Christians.  He didn’t identify as a Christian, but he said:

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally. . .

This is the move Jesus made because of the Canaanite woman: from abstract language about the content of our hearts to living the radically inclusive love of God.  He spoke up and paid up.

And we need to do the same.  The violence in Charlottesville was nothing new; but in a powerful way it revealed the worms eating the rind.  We can respond by speak up and acting out in clear ways against white supremacy.

Last week, when I got lost in the Sierra Nevada, my family walked a long way only to come back to the very place we started.  It felt like our nation has done the same.  We missed one particular thing on our hike: trail markers.  We needed trail markers to show us the way over the mountain.  And that’s what I think we need to become in our lives in Milwaukee and America at this time: trail markers showing the way over the mountain of racism that divides us all from each other.  Often we think what we most need is trail-blazers, daring people of tremendous courage.  But I want to claim the importance of trail-markers too, people who make clear their own journey and who help people along the way.  We might not all be able to be trail-blazers, but we can be trail-markers, finding ways to stand up and stand out for racial justice.

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Weigel, George, “The Next Awakening,” National Affairs, Spring 2017

  • Christian, Jack and Warren Christian, “The Monuments Must Go,” Huffington Post

"The Kingdom of God is Like?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 30, 2017

posted Jul 31, 2017, 1:07 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

The meals at my favorite restaurant begin with an amuse bouche, some special, small course meant to amuse the palate.  I’m always amazed at how small the chef can make these bites.  Tiny slices, just bits of food, yet packed with flavor, in combinations I’d never imagine; some small strange thing, like pickled sesame seeds on smoked quail tongue garnished with saffron-infused dust.

I try to make these things at home.  But I find it hard to cut my vegetables small enough.  Chopped. Diced.  Minced.  What is the knife cut smaller than minced?  Atomized?

Well this Sunday we get Jesus’ verbal equivalent of amuse bouche: finely cut, flavor packed parables.  One might wonder if Matthew, having come to the end of one chapter in the Gospel, decided to just throw these parables together, taking all the random things Jesus once said, serving up theological leftovers, a melange of meaning.

These parables seem so different from each other.  From verse to verse the theme changes constantly.  First a mustard seed, then some yeast; a man who buys a field and then one who buys a pearl; did I mention the fish?  But recently, as I savored these words from Jesus, I began to notice all the ways these random parables strung together.  

Of course, these five parables get linked together by the use of the common phrase, “the kingdom of heaven is like…”  But I want to be clear: this isn’t the same as Jesus just talking about heaven.  Jesus doesn’t use these parables to help us imagine “what’s next.”  These parables do not address what happens once we die.

Instead, the kingdom of heaven contrasts with Empire of Rome; or we could hear it as a contrast to “how the world works.”  Jesus used these parables to help us imagine how God acts in the world.  Instead of describing what happens after we die, Jesus looked at the here and now to give a sense of God’s alternative to the way the world worked.  So perhaps we ought not translated the Greek phrase as “the kingdom of God is like…”  A better paraphrase, one that gets to the heart of Jesus’ real-world concerns, would be, “God’s politics are like…”  Or, perhaps, “God works like…”  For Jesus wanted us to imagine how God worked in the world, not sometime in the future, but now, among us.

If I could assign homework this morning, it would be for each of us to imagine our own parables, our own explanations, of how God works in the world.  How would you complete the sentence, “The kingdom of God is like…”

Jesus’ five examples of how to describe God’s politics repeat a number of themes we might not expect.  For each of these parables tell of God’s hidden work, through suspicious characters, who bring about amazing transformations.  I want to look closely at a few of these themes in these heavenly amuse bouche.  

Most famously, Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed.  We often remember it as the small little seed that grew into a mighty shrub.  And culturally we talk about “mustard seeds,” those small actions that engender profound change.

But Jesus meant something more than “great things come in small packages.”  Nor did Jesus suggest we develop the spiritual equivalent of a Napoleon complex.  

The metaphor is more insidious.  While I love mustard, farmers in Jesus’ day considered it an invasive plant, a nuisance, and a weed.  We might compare it to the garlic mustard spreading through Milwaukee’s parks and choking out native species.  

People often overlooked the small seed of the mustard plant.  Overlooked, hidden, the seed germinated into a problem: a sturdy shrub whose roots and branches had infiltrated the field.  The forgotten seed grew into a bush big enough to support birds.

I know we normally focus on the small-becoming-big message of the parable, but I don’t want you to miss this theme of hiddenness, which comes out in almost all of this parables.   Thus, in the last parable, Jesus spoke of an amazing catch of fish.  But the fishermen had to separate them because the good fish were hidden among the bad ones.  

So it’s not just that the mustard seed was small, but that it was overlooked, hidden in plain sight.  Jesus wanted us to know God works in hidden ways, creating change out of sight, until we realized the overlooked seed became a sturdy bush.  


Recently, in all the coverage of the healthcare law, I read a profile of Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.  He votes nearly the complete opposite of my instincts on almost every issue.  But what caught my attention was a story about him and Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.  The congresswoman was shot and nearly killed.  About a year later, bearing her wounds, she came to Washington to hear President Obama deliver the State of the Union address.  Members of the president’s party routinely stand to applaud.  But the congresswoman had trouble standing.  So Jeff Flake, who sat with his friend, kept helping her stand.  Which meant that he was the only Republican standing for ovations for Obama.

His gesture of decency, hidden amid the contention of partisan fights, might just be an insidious seed of God.  What hidden signs of God’s work do you find growing in the world?  

Jesus not only used metaphors of hiding, but also some strange characters to tell us of the kingdom of God.  He said God works like yeast.  We don’t view yeast negatively; it gives us beer and brat buns, foods we love in Milwaukee.  But to Jesus’ audience, yeast represented something more suspicious and even dangerous.  

Yes of course people used yeast to make bread.  But every year Jews cleaned out their houses to get rid of the yeast.  This tradition developed for many reasons, among them the association of yeast with corruption, decay, and death.  As people in Jesus’ day saw it, yeast corrupted flour.  They made a connection between the yeast which fermented dough and the bacteria which decayed a body.  And as a result, most preachers in Jesus’ day used yeast as a symbol of corruption and decay, the secret pollutant which spread unexpectedly until it spoiled the whole batch.         

We get a sense of this negative association with yeast if we read Jesus’ words in the Greek.  There the woman took yeast, hid it in the flour, until the whole sack was leavened.  (There’s that theme of hiddenness again).  The woman hid the yeast; was this just a creative way to say she kneaded the dough?  Or was there something mischievous in the woman hiding the yeast in the flour?

And so Jesus told this parable: God works like a woman taking corrupting yeast and adding it surreptitiously to the flour until it infects the whole batch.   

But this theme of suspicious characters doesn’t just concern the woman and her yeast.  Think of the man who “discovers” money in a field and then goes to buy the field.  Hmm; there’s something not quite right about this story.  The man dug in someone else’s field.  He served as a hired hand - digging, hoeing, planting, doing all the grunt work of farming.  And as he tilled someone else’s field, he uncovered a hoard of treasure buried in the ground.  What did he do?  He hid the money (hiddenness again).  And then he went to the owner of the field, keeping his find secret, and bought the field.  By rights, that hoard of money really belonged to the original owner of the field.  But the hired hand kept it secret.  There’s a word for this: fraud.  The employee defrauded the owner of the field.

If we wanted to put this into modern terms, Jesus said God works like an employee who uses insider information for his own gain.  

These parables don’t sound flattering.  God works like polluting, corrupting yeast hidden in your food.  Or God works like a man defrauding his boss.

Why did Jesus tell these stories?  Why did he want us to imagine the kingdom of God as a subversive and even illegal act?  

I’m not saying that you ought to go out and defraud your employers.  But what would it do to our spirituality to start looking for God to work in our lives in unexpected ways, through unexpected people, with unexpected results?


Protests erupted in South Carolina after Dylan Roof committed an act of terrorism against Mother Emmanuel AME Church.  As Bree Newsome thought about the attack, and the on-going legacy of white supremacy, her thoughts turned to the Confederate Battle Flag flying outside the state capitol building since the 1960’s.  She and other activists decided to take it down.  Their plan called for a white man - James Ian Tyson - to help her over the fence and then she would climb the pole to tear down the battle flag.  By working together, they wanted to symbolize the way whites and blacks can work together to dismantle racism.  And, as Bree said later, to reject the power of fear.  As she explained, “I refuse to be ruled by fear.  How can America be free and be ruled by fear?  How can anyone be?”

Newsome and Tyson clearly broke the law.  Trespassing.  Ignoring commands of police officers.  Desecrating a flag.  Criminals.  And so the police threatened to use a taser on Bree Newsome, who had climbed high up the pole.  They only stopped because Tyson - who was white like the officers - wrapped his hands around the pole.  “Hurt her and you hurt me.”  

Law-breakers; and didn’t the power of God work through them?

Lastly, these parables point to tremendous change.  Small seeds become big bushes.  A little yeast changes the whole pot.  But perhaps none capture this more than the merchant who sells everything to buy the pearl of great price.

Merchants, people who bought and sold goods in the market, didn’t generate much social respect in Jesus’ day.  Shifty, dishonest.  So once again, we have a suspicious character.  Jesus described this merchant finding a “pearl of great price,” which he esteemed so much that he sold everything he owned in order to buy it.  But think about this for a moment.  If a merchant liquidates all his merchandise, in order to buy the one thing he’ll never sell, then he’s gone out of business.  Jesus spoke of the power of God to completely transform someone.

Where do you see the power of God utterly changing people?


The other day I heard about the small, rural town of Silverton, OR.  As they say: it’s East of Portland by about 40 miles and 40 years.  But the town elected the nation’s first transgender mayor, Stu Rasmussen, in 2008.  It didn’t take long for protesters from Westboro Baptist Church to arrive with their hateful signs.  The protesters held signs with ugly messages of hate.  And the good-ole boys in their pickup trucks thought to themselves, “You can’t say that about our mayor.” So people from the town showed up to hold a counter protest.  Someone thought the men ought to wear dresses and the women men’s cloths.  One of the cross-dressing counter-protesting guys said later, “At first I felt weird in a dress but then more and more people showed up, people I thought would never do it.”  I think the power of God looks like cross-dressing cowboys out to support their small-town transgender mayor.  

These five parables of Jesus - these five spiritual amuse bouche stories - speak to the way God works in the world: hidden, unexpected, and transformative.  How do you experience that power of God?  I see it this way: The kingdom of heaven is like a politician helping a friend applaud his opposition.  The kingdom of heaven is like a person who breaks the law to do something right.  The kingdom of heaven is like a good-old-boy wearing a dress to defend his transgender mayor.  Alleluia and Amen.


"Wheat and Tares (or “Weed Sunday”)" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 23, 2017

posted Jul 24, 2017, 1:08 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Jul 25, 2017, 8:04 AM ]

SERMON: The Wheat and the Tares Reinhold Niebuhr

Recently Crystal, in our church office, started posting on Facebook teasers about the focus of our upcoming worship services. This week she made a graphic about the parable of the wheat and weeds. I’ve always thought of this parable by the older title, “the wheat and the tares.” But I like this new name, “the wheat and the weeds.” As I saw it on Facebook, I began to think about how we might market it even better. What if we advertised, “Weed Sunday?”

I do want to get into the weeds this Sunday. And to listen for what Jesus meant spiritually by his odd advice to “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.”

A deeper understanding of this parable begins by looking at the kind of weed Jesus called “tares.” The plant we call “tares” or “darnel,” officially lolium temulentum, grows throughout the same region as wheat. The words used for this plant give a sense of its nuisance. Tares comes from an Arabic word meaning “deficient.” Many people called this weed “false wheat” because the plant looks nearly identical to wheat. One can only tell the difference between wheat and false wheat when the plants go to seed.  Tares produce a darker seed than wheat.

Bread made from wheat and this false wheat tastes bitter. And the seeds, when eaten, can produce a hallucinogenic response and can even lead to death. Which gave the plant the name darnel, which comes from an old French word meaning stupefied.

Tares represented a real nuisance to farmers. No farmer would ever plant tares in with their wheat; and none would allow the tares to remain and spread among their crops. And yet, Jesus imagines the farmer letting the wheat and the weeds grow together.

It’s this element of the parable which would have perplexed people in Jesus’ audience. And it’s this very oddness which I want to probe. Why did the farmer delay action against the invasive weeds? Why did Jesus speak against a rush to judgment against evil?

Years ago, I read a sermon on this very question by Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr lived early in the last century, becoming in many ways “America’s Pastor” because his sermons and essays so influenced public thought. Niebuhr died in 1971 but his ideas continue to live on, with a notable resurgence of interest on both the right and left: Sen. John McCain and David Brooks on the right, President Barack Obama on the left, and even James Comey, all read Niebuhr.

The parable about the wheat and weeds speaks to the human condition as Jesus made clear in his interpretation of his own story. God sowed good seed in the human heart; the devil came along with bad seed; and now our hearts grow thick with wheat and weeds. We can of course read this metaphor on two levels - as story about our own hearts or a story about human community.

St. Augustine, reflecting on this, coined the term “corpus permixtum” or mixed body. And that, Jesus said, is our condition both individually and communally. We are mixed with good and bad.

To this continuum of good and bad, Niebuhr adds another sense of our mixed condition.  In a number of places, he wrote of the ways humans are both finite and infinite. Or, as our morning Psalm had it, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” That is, we humans exist but for a moment - a wisp of life; our lives a nano-second in a universe billions of years old. “Yet,” the Psalmist answered, “you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” That is, we humans, though finite and fragile, stretch towards an infinite transcendence: the eternal, the divine. (We could even sketch these two continuums out: a horizontal continuum, good to bad; and a vertical continuum, finite to infinite).

We humans run into trouble when we forget this mixed nature of our existence, our simultaneously fragile and grand life. This trouble comes when we make judgments; as Niebuhr explained:

“Our life story is concerned with making rigorous distinctions between right and wrong, between good and evil.  Part of the Christian faith corresponds to this interpretation.  Certainly a part of [the scriptures] is not quite sure whether [humanity] is in relationship to God, or whether the primary job for the righteous is to war against the unrighteous.  

But here lies our great danger. Our rush to judgment represents an attempt to transcend our own fragility and finitude; to make ourselves great by the judgment of others.

Recently I got into an argument with someone. We disagreed about the right thing to do. And in his frustration he laid out stark alternatives: I could agree with him and all people who love children or I could be narrow-minded and selfish and pursue my own agenda. In that moment, the substance of our disagreement didn’t matter because it had been reduced to a simple equation of joining him in being absolutely right or being the embodiment of all that was wrong.

This kind of stark choice represented for Niebuhr the human attempt to transcend our own limitations in order to judge with the insight of God into the absolute difference between right and wrong.

I saw this tendency in the man I argued with; and of course, seeing it in him made me see it in myself too. In so many ways, we’re moving more and more into a cultural moment when we think our own decisions come not just as opinions but as transcendent judgments.

Which is why Jesus told his disciples, “Let the wheat and weeds grow thickly together.” It may not make sense for gardening, but pausing in our rush to judgment matters in how we see ourselves and others.

We can all easily get wrapped up into a rush of judgment in our own versions of this parable. Can’t you identify with the farmhands? The farmer planted wheat. I’m sure the farmer went to bed satisfied with hard work well done. But then morning came: someone had planted weeds - in with the wheat. When have you had your best laid plans sabotaged?

It’s happened to me in my garden. I love the Knock-Out Roses which were developed here in Milwaukee and I plant them around my house. A few years ago I put three in my backyard. But soon I noticed something was eating them. The stems got shorter and shorter. Rabbits! They had attacked some other rose bushes over the winter; I was sure it was those “wascally wabbits.” There is no purer hatred than that of gardener for those thieves in the night.

I started to plan my revenge on the rabbits. And, as a cook, I could already taste the rabbit, braised in honey, the best way to eat those rose desecraters. Basically, it was full on Elmer Fudd time at my house.

And then one day I looked out in the backyard. Duchess ran about, the stump of a rose bush in her mouth. My loves clashed. I don’t know why my dog thinks thorn bushes are good treats; but the rabbits are safe for the moment, Duchess has the backyard, and the roses the front.

But more is at stake in our rush to judgment than the potential to finger the wrong culprit. For we are truly corpus permixtum, mixed bodies, and this doesn’t just mean that we have good and bad motivations at the same time, but that, in fact, the good and bad live tangled inside us and more broadly in society.

Niebuhr teased out the interwoven nature of good and bad by looking at the connections between selfishness and creativity. As Niebuhr explained, “Let us consider the matter of creativity and the desire for approval. What could be more evil than the avaricious desire for the approval of our [fellow people]? But how closely related it is to the impulse of creativity.” In other words, what actor in a play doesn’t read with keen interest the reviews?

Niebuhr wanted us to see the ways a base emotion and a grand one grew together. He pointed to Cervantes. Some say he wrote Don Quixote to pay off his debts. Others because he wanted revenge on his critics. But does it make Don Quixote any less of a great work to be written for such reasons?

Yet in our desire to separate the wheat and the weeds, we fail to see people as they truly are; something we see in much of the celebration of Jane Austen. People often speak as if Jane Austen was embarrassed by her novels, too shy and retiring to ever want them published. This story of the modest mouse writer began with her nephew’s biography. He claimed his aunt hid her writing whenever anyone entered the room. The story of her modesty grew with retelling until later biographers imaged her stuffing sheaves of paper in her dress whenever someone walked in the room.

But why must Jane Austen be modest in order for us to celebrate her creative accomplishments? Her first novels were published anonymously; but so were the majority of books published at the time. Her friends and family certainly knew what she was doing; and her identity as an author quickly became known. Why would it take away from her literary grandeur for her to want to tell her story? Does it make Pride and Prejudice any less great for Austen to be proud of it? Must we be prejudiced against the ambition of a woman?

Austen - like all of us - had her own ego. We don’t have to deny it in order to make her great. And yet we know all too well that self-love, a tremendous self-regard, can become a monstrous egoism. Niebuhr wondered, “We know certain people to be monstrous egotists, but can we put our finger on the spot where this mixture of love and self-love, which we all have, turns into monstrous egoism? We have to make our judgments, but we cannot be exact in our moral measurement.”

Which is why Jesus advised, “Let the wheat and the weeds grow together.” We can’t navigate our world without making decisions between right and wrong. But we can avoid seeing our decisions as transcendent judgments, to know ourselves as making partial and incomplete ones. To let the wheat and the weeds grow together means to recognize ourselves as mixed bodies, to see the limits of our wisdom and the ambiguity of our own virtue.

The importance of seeing how the wheat and weeds grow in our own hearts came home to me recently when I read of a Muslim man arrested in Florida for shaking the hand of white Christian man. The Christian wanted to leave a party but the Muslim’s daughter was playing in the street; he started honking. The Muslim came over to talk with him. At one point they shook hands. Later, the Christian claimed it was assault: the police arrested the Muslim on entering a vehicle (he reached his hand into the truck) and assaulting the elderly (too firm a grip). The Christian claimed to have become panicked when the Muslim mentioned Allah; “He’s a Jihadi,” he thought.

These men got caught up in the legal system, one accusing the other. But reading their story it became clear how many similarities they shared, both good and bad. They both used their faith as a shield: the Christian against any who didn’t worship like him and the Muslim egging on Christians who annoyed him with attempts to convert them to Islam.

Why rush to judgment? Why not let the wheat and weeds grow thick together? And perhaps we’ll learn along the way the truth of what Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of weeds: “A weed is just a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.”

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Looser, Devoney, “Jane Austen Wasn’t Shy,” New York Times, July 15, 2017.

  • Niebuhr, Reinhold, “The Wheat and the Tares,” The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, 1986.

"Parable of the Sower" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 16, 2017

posted Jul 19, 2017, 2:18 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Church art 09-17-14 010.JPG

Over the last few weeks I walked my dog Duchess past a neighbor’s house, mostly to watch the progress of his garden.  My neighbor, who I only know well enough to nod at, is fixing up the house he recently bought. Fresh paint transformed it. But the work on the garden confuses me.

My neighbor planted an ambitious number of shrubs and flowers.  But he didn’t make flower beds. No turning over the grass, laboriously knocking clods of dirt loose from clumps of grass. Instead, he just dug in a flower bed edge and dumped choco-shell mulch over the grass.

It looks good for the moment, but I keep thinking the grass is going to pop up through the mulch. A weeding nightmare. Or did he discover some trick I don’t know? I can’t decide; so, Duchess and I keep watching as we walk by.

Just as I wonder about the gardening technique of my neighbor, close listeners to Jesus’ story might wonder about the sower. The sower does nothing to prepare the soil; no tilling, no fertilizing. And in fact, the sower cast seeds everywhere: on the field, among bushes, on rocky ground. This is hardly a well-thought-out approach to farming!

And indeed, it seems pointlessly wasteful; as ridiculous as one of our neighbors buying plants from the nursery and then scattering them about the yard, putting a sun-loving plant underneath a bush, leaving others to root on top of the concrete sidewalk, and digging others into the ground with some manure.

Perhaps because we’ve heard the parable so often or perhaps because we’re so removed from the practice of farming itself, the actions of the sower don’t sound ridiculous. But the disciples knew something wasn’t right about the farmer casting seed where it couldn’t grow, something as odd as if we showed off our hostas left on top of concrete.

We skipped over the part of the Gospel where the disciples express their confusion about this to Jesus. The disciples said to Jesus, “Why do you talk this way?” Clearly they thought: no one farms like this; why tell this kind of ridiculous story?

Basically, Jesus said he used parables to make people think. So, what seems ridiculous ought to give us the greatest pause and cause us to wonder why.

This morning I want to “wonder why” about three parts of this story: first, the ridiculous farmer; then, the four strange soils; and lastly, the miraculously unbelievable harvest. Each makes me wonder why.

So first, the farmer. We call the farmer “the sower.” Our Christian tradition long celebrated the sower in art. Our own sanctuary includes a stained-glass window of this parable, which Crystal reprinted on the bulletin.

But as I mentioned, the sower farms in a ludicrous way. What does it mean that the sower plants seeds almost guaranteed to fail? Seeds planted on the pathway, seeds cast on rocky ground, seeds scattered among thorns. It doesn’t make sense for a farmer to act this way. A farmer who acted so haphazardly would need to be very comfortable with failure.

We don’t often celebrate failure. People brag about success; we only talk about the seed that landed on fertile ground. And yet failures matter. Years ago, I heard Malcolm Gladwell tell the story of railroad connecting Massachusetts and New York. The track had to run through the Hoosac Mountain with a five-mile long tunnel. Everyone agreed that once they breached the shell of the mountain, they would be able to tunnel through soft rock. Engineers. Geologists. They all agreed. But once they started digging, they hit hard stone after hard stone. Costs overran, profit evaporated; a spectacular failure. The engineers and geologists who got the science wrong about the Hoosac Mountain felt like failures. But their failure - including the failure of the original railroad company - opened the way for Massachusetts factories to get their products out to the expanding western regions of our country. The failures of those involved with the railroad originally led to the tremendous economic boom of New England factories. From failure, even spectacular failure, came success.

The sower in the parable took risks and faced failures. And so I began to wonder: who does the farmer represent? Are Jesus’ disciples meant to be the sower? Or is the sower really God?

It can be deeply important for us to claim our failures and risks. But this morning I’m struck by how it can change our view of God. Our tradition often emphasizes God as all-knowing and all-powerful. But Jesus suggests God acts like a haphazard farmer, a ridiculous risk-taker doing things we know will fail. What would it mean to worship an all-failing God?

To say it that way sounds odd, I know. But think about the farmer: no matter how unlikely to succeed, the farmer kept trying. No matter how certain the failure, the farmer still hoped.

I think that’s how God works with us. God keeps trying. God still hopes. I worship a God who doesn’t fear failure; and that means a God who will never give up on us.

If God is the sower, then perhaps we’re the soil. Jesus retold the parable of the sower because the disciples didn’t understand it at first. Jesus mostly repeats what he said the first time but with the retelling he underscored four kinds of soils: the exposed and foot-trodden dirt of the path; the shallow, rocky earth; the weedy and thorn-choked patch of ground; and last, the fertile soil.

Jesus makes clear that each of the first three soils relate to problems in understanding: the foot-trodden path is like a hardened heart; the rocky ground like someone filled with the flush of initial excitement but unable to sustain it; the thorny patch like one distracted.  But success comes with the fourth soil; “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields.”

Jesus meant for us to wonder which soil described us: are our hearts hardened, our souls shallow, our minds distracted, our lives fertile?

We ought to ask ourselves such a question. And yet, even though I don’t garden much, I know what makes for fertile soil: manure.

My brother once worked on a horse farm. He boarded more than thirty horses outside of Baltimore. Which meant he had a lot of barns and stalls to clean out.  Piles of manure.

During that same time my dad lived in Delaware, near the ocean. Sandy soil surrounded the house. It was nothing like the rich, dark soil around here. So my dad called my brother; who was soon driving out every year with a pick-up filled with manure. The flower beds looked gorgeous.

Jesus calls for us to be fertile soils. Which means manure. Can we remember that when life get difficult? Just going to make better soil. When you’re dealing with a lot of...manure, just remember: better soil.

Jesus equated manure-rich soil with a depth of understanding. More...manure, more understanding. But the reason why becomes clear when we contrast the rocky, shallow soil with the fertile, manure-rich soil. Plants can live in shallow soil; I’m amazed at how tenaciously a plant can eke out existence on some craggy spot. But such plants run the risk of drying out in the hot sun. Jesus explained about people who lived like such a plant, “yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”

In contrast, the fertile, manure-rich soil allows plants to deeply root into the soil and the ground itself holds more moisture.

This difference points to the nature of understanding. Understanding is not the same has having the answer. One can have the answer to a problem but not understand the situation; we can know what happened but not why it happened. Spirituality isn’t about having the right answers; it’s about understanding.

We can have answers to life’s questions; but is our understanding shallow? I find that in my spiritual life I long for deeper and deeper roots. I’m less and less concerned with answers and more and more interested in understanding. To me, understanding comes from listening. Listening to God in prayer. Listening to other people. Listening to other religious traditions, cultures, and histories. And, along the way, dealing of course with a bit of… manure.

If you recognized yourself as one of the first three soils Jesus described - hardened, shallow, or distracted, then what could you do to become more fertile? How could you start listening more deeply?

Lastly, I want to think about the yield Jesus described in these parables. Often the Bible will underscore an important point by repeating it twice. And Jesus does this with the yield of the seeds. In both versions of the parable, Jesus emphasized, “[Some] seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

These yields represent miracles. As one Biblical scholar explained, “Sevenfold meant a good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee.”

In other words, Jesus basically said, “A Sower cast seed everywhere - even where it didn’t make sense - and ended up winning the lottery.”

We normally think of this as the “parable of the sower” but I wonder if we ought to consider it the “parable of abundance.” For the parable ends, each time Jesus tells it, with amazing - unheard of, barely can be dreamed of - abundance.

Our God of failures, who knows we can only be fertile if there’s enough manure in our lives, calls us to believe in unimaginable abundance.

So often we keep our hopes practical. We dream the possible. We count on the expected. But Jesus points beyond this, to an abundance we can’t see coming from failures and manure we’d rather avoid.

But this Sunday, with this parable, Jesus challenges us to wonder: What can come of failures? What can come of manure? What would unimaginable abundance mean in your life?

Alleluia and Amen.



  • Feasting on the Word

  • Gaventa, Beverly R., “Hearing the Questions,” Christian Century, June 16-23, 1993.

  • Gladwell, Malcolm, “The Gift of Doubt,” The New Yorker

"A River Makes Glad the City of God" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - July 9, 2017

posted Jul 10, 2017, 12:34 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Last week I attended the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, the bi-annual national gathering of our Christian movement.  Delegates and visitors came from around the country to listen to inspiring speakers like the Rev. William Barber, who is starting a new Poor People’s Campaign; to elect our national leaders like the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who was confirmed as our leader on issues of justice and transformation; and to pass resolutions expressing the witness and shaping the future of our movement.  This year I went as a visitor, which meant that I had more time to do what I like best at General Synod: catching up with friends from around the country.  All these things together - inspiration, direction, and friendship - make General Synod special.

We’ll all have a chance to sample General Synod directly because the next national gathering will be here in Milwaukee in the summer of 2019.  But I also wanted to give you a taste of it today, with elements of our worship service drawn from what happened at General Synod.

The overall theme of the General Synod came from Psalm 46, “There is a river that makes glad the city of God.”  The event took place in the cavernous Baltimore Convention Center.  To make it more of a worshipful space, the center stage included an altar area, with a gently gurgling fountain on one side.  A massive screen across the back displayed images of streams and rivers, a range of images changing throughout the sessions and services.

As I watched the images, I noticed something peculiar.  Synod met under the theme, “there is a river that makes glad the city of God.”  But all the images showed rivers and streams devoid of buildings: a stream through a field, a river running over rocks, a forest glade with a gentle ribbon of water.  Nary a house, much less a skyscraper, in sight.  And ironically, we were gathered on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary formed by five major rivers running through metropolitan areas: Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington, Richmond, Norfolk.

We celebrated the river that makes glad the city of God but without any images of rivers in actual cities!

This dichotomy reflects the basic split we’ve long lived with in America: nature vs. the city, a split that only really exists in our minds, for our most urban spaces teem with “nature” and our most remote wildernesses bear signs of human change to the climate.  We need new ways of imaging nature and the city, not as opposites but as interwoven.

And so I started to think about the streams and rivers that run through actual cities; including our city: the Milwaukee, the Kinnickinnic, and the Menomonie.  What spiritual lesson can we learn from the streams and rivers of our cities?

Years ago urban planners treated urban streams and rivers as problems.  The rivers flowed through run-down industrial parts of cities; polluted.  And they occasionally flooded.  To control the urban river, planners built concrete culverts to contain and direct the flow of water.  We built highways for cars and culverts for rivers. Sometimes the rivers were even completely covered; forced into tunnels and chutes, treated more as a problem than a resource.

But in recent decades the thinking about urban streams and rivers radically changed.  People began stream restoration projects.  Concrete culverts were removed, embankments softened, wetlands recreated; all so streams could return to their meandering through cities.

One of my favorite urban stream restorations took place in Seoul, South Korea.  I love it because of the dramatic before and after pictures, which I’ve reprinted in your bulletin.  Urban planners had built a highway over the Cheonggyecheon Stream and routed it through a culvert.  But then the city rediscovered its urban stream: a new generation tore down the highway, restored the stream banks, and created an urban river parkway.  A number of changes happened: bio-diversity increased, land-values rose, and the urban heat effect dropped in the blocks around the stream.  Pollution decreased too.  As one study documented, “[The project] reduced small-particle air pollution by 35%. Before the restoration, residents of the area were more than twice as likely to suffer from respiratory disease as those in other parts of the city.”  In other words, the city became more livable.  The river made glad the city of Seoul.Cheonggyecheon-Stream-Before-After1.jpg

What can we learn from an urban stream restoration like that of the Cheonggyecheon?  It often feels to me that religion seeks to contain the wildness of the Spirit much like urban planners once sought to shunt streams into converts.  Our religious tradition long worried about passions; and so we constructed ways to control and direct them with rules and doctrines more rigid than concrete.  But the Spirit cannot be bound by a culvert.  I find that I long for the theological equivalent of a stream restoration project, to claim the natural ebb and flow of the spirit, to meander.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) undertook a stream restoration project that speaks to this change in spirituality.  MMSD is in the process of removing the concrete culvert lining the Menominee River from an area near the Brewers’ stadium.  A one-mile long section of the river will be restored by replacing the concrete with stone and rock.  Before, when lined with concrete, the river acted like a waterslide, whooshing fish downstream and making it impossible for them to swim upstream.  The restored stream bed of rock will create a natural pattern of deeper pools and shallow riffles.  Fish will now be able to return all the way to Menomonee Falls because they can swim and rest.


This stream restoration project here in our own city points toward another spiritual lesson.  The move from concrete culverts to natural streambed allowed fish to both rest and rush.

Do we allow ourselves the same pattern - times of resting, times of rushing, as we follow the natural pattern of a streams pools and riffles?

Most pastors take off Monday or Friday, however, years ago I changed my schedule to work Monday through Friday, but shorter days so that I could pick my kids up after school.  That way they didn’t have to do an after-school program.  I continued that pattern long after Tomas and David grew big enough that they didn’t need me, or want me, to meet them after school.  Recently this Spring, I realized this wasn’t working for me.  And so I started taking Mondays off.

I liked having a day to myself, but I noticed something more.  Years ago, I used to finish writing my sermons by the end of the day on Friday, but for many years this had crept into Saturdays; until eventually it was most of Saturday.  However, when I started taking Mondays off, I also started getting my sermons done on Fridays again.  It gave me a pattern of rest and rush.

This practical experience in taking time off reminds me of something Martin Luther once said during the midst of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther told his students, “I have so much to do today that I have to take even more time in prayer.”

I always thought it a funny comment, but I know more deeply now the truth behind his words.  Sometimes, when we have much to do, we need even more time to go slowly.

Are you like a fish trying to swim up the fast rushing waters of a stream in a culvert?  Or, have you found a way to rush and rest, a natural stream that can take you far?  For it is the pattern of pools and riffles which make glad the soul.

Lastly, I want to think about a metaphorical urban stream, the stream described by the prophet Ezekiel.  We heard a portion of Ezekiel’s vision as our first reading.  He stood at the Temple, at the heart of Jerusalem, when he imagined a spring erupting in the floor of the sanctuary.  The water flowed east, out the front doors of the Temple, and down into the courtyard.  There it swelled.  Ezekiel imagined an angel guiding him along the river; “Going on eastwards with a cord in his hand, the man measured one thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured one thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the waist. Again he measured one thousand, and it was a river that I could not cross, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.”  The river flowing from the Temple grew and grew, from a trickle to stream to a river to a flood.

Later, in the portion we didn’t read, Ezekiel went on to describe the water from the Temple flowing down all the way to the Dead Sea, until the water of the Temple transformed the salty waters of the Dead Sea into a place of life and abundance.

But our reading ended with the question of Ezekiel’s angel-guide, “Mortal, have you seen this?”  And it’s a question we ought to ask ourselves; have we seen the river of God’s grace flow with renewing power?  Have we seen the power of God’s grace grow from a trickle to a mighty river that cannot be stopped?  Seen the river that makes glad the soul?

This last week while at General Synod, I heard a story of a small spring that became a mighty river.  The Central Atlantic Conference of our Christian movement hosted General Synod.  During one of the worship services they shared the story of the First Congregational Church of Washington, D.C. and the founding of Howard University.

The First Congregational Church in Washington wasn’t founded until just after the Civil War.  New Englanders joined the federal government, working on Reconstruction and trying to figure out how to help recently freed African-Americans.  A debate arose in the church about its mission: should the church work to help African-Americans or should it also integrate African-Americans into its own congregation?  This rose into a church fight; but the vision of integration won.

During those difficult years, amid a church fight, a few members of the congregation gathered one night for prayer.  As they prayed and dreamed together, a vision arose of starting a new university.  It must have seemed impossible: a divided church in a divided nation starting something audacious.  And yet they tried.  One found a three-acre campus, another secured funding through the Freedman’s Bureau, and soon a few students arrived.

Those fragile hopes persisted into Howard University, a now top-tier research institution rooted as a historically black college.  A spring in the city became a river of learning.


Ezekiel’s vision of a spring in the Temple becoming a mighty river makes me want to look around our city to see where the waters of transformation can be seen.  One of those springs, in my mind, is a new effort by Dana World Patterson to confront human trafficking.  We recognized the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee, which Dana chairs, last year at our anniversary dinner.  This summer Dana began a new effort: barbershop conversations about human trafficking, ones in which men speak to men.  As Dana explained recently, “[there was power in men talking to other men] about the ills and devastation of human sex trafficking in a way that enhances responsibility, creates accountability, and is supportive to end the demand.”  Talking to Dana about this program feels like standing beside a small spring that’s about to become a river transforming the city.

We sang Chris Grundy’s song “Already Done Walked” at Synod.  At one point, Chris explained how his experiences at Eden Seminary in St. Louis led him to write it.  When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, students and faculty joined in the protests.  Chris wrote the song as a reflection on the experience.  Those protests sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, a still growing river which will change our country just as surely as Ezekiel saw water from the Temple bring life to the Dead Sea.

There is a river that makes glad the city of God.  And both the real rivers in our cities and the metaphorical river of God can help us imagine our spirituality: a spirituality restored to ebb and flow, a spirituality of rest and rush, a spirituality which may start as a small spring but bring a torrent of transforming grace.  I thank God for such a river.  Alleluia and Amen.


"Loving v. Bigotry" by Andrew Warner, June 11, 2017

posted Jun 12, 2017, 8:18 PM by Andrew Warner

Names can be such a funny thing; and sometimes a person turns out to be perfectly named for the controversy they cause.  We saw it earlier this month when the FBI arrested an NSA contractor for leaking sensitive information: Reality Winner.  There could be no more perfect name for someone who leaks information.  Especially since she leaked information about Russian interference to help a reality TV star become the winner.


But lots of people have perfect names for their situations.  Who will lead Britain?  Teresa May?  Or as Jeremy Corbyn proved, Theresa May Not.  And one of the top picks for college football is a kicker named Chance Poore.  How do fans even root for Chance Poore?  Pittsburgh also has a kicker with a fun name, Chris Blewitt.  Imagine if Chance Poore faces off against Pittsburg’s Chris Blewitt; announcer field day.


Today we’re celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of a Supreme Court decision, one that also involved an aptly named people, Mildred and Richard Loving.  Of course, one of the defining marriage cases of our country had to be headlined by the Lovings.



But the name of the state is equally symbolic: Virginia.  The colony of Virginia was named for the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth the First.  The name of the state itself reflects a preoccupation with women’s virginity and even more with white women’s purity.  The name Virginia reverberates with long traditions of white patriarchal obsessions with sex and purity.


And so, the name of this Supreme Court decision points to the larger social questions it asked: love or purity, loving across racial lines or racial purity.  We celebrate Loving v. Virginia today because it’s the triumph of two ordinary people over the extraordinary power of bigotry, the triumph of love over the politics of purity.


Before looking more deeply at this case and the theological questions at its core, I want to first step back to share a framework for how to understand social justice questions.  I heard it from Tracy Wispelwey, a UCC pastor and artist from Virginia.  And I had an image of it inserted into your bulletin.


Tracy spoke of an iceberg; icebergs famously have a part that is visible above the waterline and a large mass of ice hidden below the surface.  When it comes to issues of justice, we often see most prominently an event: a visible act of discrimination or oppression.  But layers of meaning and causation lie hidden underneath that visible event: trends, what’s been going on for a while; systems, the structure of rules and laws; and beliefs, the ideas and concepts.iceberg.jpg


This year as we looked at the issues of white privilege and racial equity, we tried to move from shocking events and hard realities to understand the trends, systems, and beliefs that keep supporting segregation and discrimination.


Traci Blackmon, who helped lead the protests in Ferguson, MO, after the death of Michael Brown and now leads our Justice Witness Ministries, commented on Tracy’s iceberg theory.  She said, “We go to another rally and sign another petition but we don’t see change...  We can’t chase every dog.  We can’t get caught in an event & counter-reaction loop.  Instead of always responding we need to highlight our resolve.”


That resolve means engaging issues at deeper levels.  And so we can think of our responses.  To an event, we react.  To trends, we start programs like after-school clubs or food pantries.  To systems, we advocate for new policies like a more sensible approach to non-violent drug offenses.  And to beliefs, the most difficult to challenge, we respond with new symbols, rituals, and narratives; this is the unique capacity of faith communities and artists.


The Loving versus Virginia decision mattered so much because, while it started as a discriminatory act, the case ultimately reached down to affect our systems and beliefs about race.


Mildred and Richard Loving first met in their hometown of Central Point, Virginia; a rural community not far from Richmond.  In the 1950’s Richard, who was white, married Mildred, who was black.  Virginia law did not allow white people to marry anyone who wasn’t white; interracial marriages were banned.  The Lovings drove up to Washington, D.C., to get married.


A few weeks later, Mildred and Richard were asleep in bed.  Acting on an anonymous tip, a sheriff and two deputies burst into their home, shined flashlights in their faces, and demanded of Richard, “Who is this woman you’re sleeping with?”  Mildred answered, “I’m his wife.”  Richard showed the D.C. marriage certificate but it didn’t matter to the sheriff.  The Lovings were arrested and taken to jail.


The Lovings pled guilty to breaking the law against white people marrying non-whites.  A judge gave them a choice: they could leave Virginia and not return for twenty-five years or they could go to jail.  The Lovings moved to Washington, D.C.


The judge also expounded on the law, claiming God’s own mandate for banning interracial marriage.  He said: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with his arrangements there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”protest.jpg


There is much one could say about the judge’s comments.  Not the least of which is the ridiculous of a white judge in the Americas talking about keeping the races to the continents God intended.  But more significantly, the judge’s comments in the Loving case point to the deep interweaving of Christian theology and white supremacy.  People have invoked Almighty God to justify discrimination and oppression for four hundred years!  But we are now talking about white supremacy and racism for what it is: a heresy.


Because actually God Almighty’s book talks in a number of places about interracial marriage.  Today we heard one of those stories as our first reading, the marriage of Boaz and Ruth.  Boaz was an Israelite; Ruth a Moabite; and these two traditionally didn’t marry.  But Boaz fell in love with Ruth.  According to the marriage laws at the time, Boaz first had to make sure no other men had a claim on Ruth’s hand in marriage.  And so, he posed a question: would anyone like to marry a widow and thereby take control of all her dead husband’s property?  Many of the men in the village thought they would.  But then Boaz reveals Ruth’s identity as a Moabite.  None of the men want to marry a foreigner.  Three thousand years later, their disdain comes through.  Boaz’s neighbors wanted to preserve their racial purity.  This clears the way for Boaz and Ruth to marry.  What I want you to hear in this old story is the prejudice against Ruth as a foreigner on the one hand and then what God does through the marriage of Boaz and Ruth on the other.  Ruth becomes the ancestor of King David.  Israel’s greatest king descended from an interracial marriage.  This sacred story rejects any notion of racial superiority and instead claims interracial marriage as part of God’s great plan of salvation.


After several years in Washington, D.C., the Lovings filed a motion to overturn their conviction on the grounds that Virginia’s law violated the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.  The Supreme Court ruled in their favor unanimously.  Getting to that unanimous decision required the court to look squarely at notions of white supremacy.


Lawyers for the Lovings struck at the very core of racist ideology: the belief that people could be classified into distinct racial groups on the basis of biology and that these groups ought to be kept apart.  Many people at the time thought interracial marriage was an issue affecting just a few people.  But in reality, the ban on interracial marriage rested on white supremacy.  And all the Jim Crow Laws - all the separate but equal masquerades - were intended to keep racial groups apart so they didn’t become intimate.


In making their case before the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Lovings connected the ban on interracial marriage to the long history of racial classifications.  And this review showed how arbitrary racial classifications could be.  Thus, in 1705 Virginia defined anyone with one-eighth African ancestry as black.  But it changed in 1785 to be anyone with one-quarter.  Which meant that some black people became legally white with the passage of a law.  It changed again in the 1930’s when Virginia defined as black someone with any African ancestry.


We don’t often talk about the arbitrary nature of racial classifications.  And yet who’s “white” and who’s “black” has changed overtime; race is a socially constructed reality.   Trevor Noah, in his recent memoir Born a Crime, pointed out the ludicrous nature of our social constructions.  He grew up under Apartheid in South Africa, a system of white supremacist laws that included odd distinctions like ruling a Chinese person black and a Japanese person white.  Noah writes:

“I always like to imagine being a South African policeman who likely couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese but whose job is to make sure that people of the wrong color aren’t doing the wrong thing. He sees an Asian person sitting on a whites-only bench: ‘Hey, get off that bench, you Chinaman!’ ‘Excuse me. I’m Japanese.’ ‘Oh, I apologize, sir. I didn’t mean to be racist. Have a lovely afternoon.’”


White supremacy rests on the belief in real distinctions between racial groups, biological difference, and in the superiority of one over the other.  Loving v. Virginia not only ended the ban on interracial marriage but challenged our country to see the very arbitrary nature of racial categories themselves.  In doing this, Loving pushed us into a revolutionary place.  As Thomas Williams recently wrote, “The idea that we must rise above racism is an admirable one. The idea that we must rise above race is a revolutionary one.”


Many of us are more familiar with thinking of the social construction of identity in terms of gender.  We know the norms and expression of gender to be socially constructed.  People speak of gender fluidity and the performance nature of gender expression.  What would it mean to apply these same concepts to race?  To speak of its social construction, of racial fluidity, and racial performance?  But people are beginning to ask these questions.  You can hear it in Ta-Nehisi Coates phrase, “People who understand themselves to be white.”


As someone who understands himself to be white, this idea presents me with several questions.  All of which come down to this: how am I managing my whiteness?  Because if race is a social construction (and not just a biological given) then I need to think about how I act white just as I might think about how I act masculine.  As we come to the end of this year-long study of white privilege, this is the question I want to think about: how am I managing my whiteness?


Fifty years ago, the Loving v. Virginia decision set aside the idea of biologically based racial classifications.  And yet, we’re still trying to live into the impact of this decision, not just on interracial families and transracial families but on all of us as we understand the construction of race in America.


Mildred and Richard Loving were ordinary people but they did something extraordinary in their refusal to live by the social constructs of race in their day.  Their love, and their redefinition of themselves, created so much more possibility for all of us who have come after.


I say this mindful that the Loving v. Virginia decision became a key precedent for the decision on same-sex marriage.  Mildred Loving could see that her court case could be used this way.  And so, on the 40th anniversary of the Loving decision and shortly before her death, she said:

“I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”


Mildred and Richard Loving lived their lives in a way that created more possibilities for those who came after them to live theirs; what an embodiment of true love.  And on this fiftieth anniversary I wonder: can we love as bold as the Lovings?  Can we challenge beliefs that seem written in our DNA?  Can we take responsibility for managing our whiteness?  Can we embrace what Loving, and loving, are all about?


Alleluia and Amen.










"Great Balls of Fire" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - June 4, 2017

posted Jun 5, 2017, 10:42 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Jun 5, 2017, 2:07 PM ]

pentecost bird.jpg

This week, as I thought about Pentecost, I couldn’t get the old Jerry Lee Lewis song out of my head:

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain

Too much love drives a man insane

You broke my will, but what a thrill

Goodness gracious great balls of fire


Lewis wrote the song with romantic love in mind.  But the words also speak to the disruptive, overwhelming, life-altering experience of God’s spirit.  Certainly, the first disciples experienced the Holy Spirit as a force which shook their nerves and rattled their brains.


But, if I’m honest, I can’t separate this song from the movie Top Gun, the eighties classic about Tom Cruise as an ace fighter pilot named Maverick.  Maverick and his co-pilot Goose sang “Great Balls of Fire” at a moment in the story when everything seemed to be going well.  Maverick, who often didn’t “fit,” felt at that moment a profound sense of belonging.  Surrounded by his best friend's family and his girlfriend, the troubled life of the Maverick seemed finally settled.  Of course, it didn’t last.


Just as Maverick sang “Great Balls of Fire” at this perfect moment of belonging, the Holy Spirit infused the disciples on that first Pentecost with a feeling of belonging.  We can feel like Mavericks in our own community, we can feel like people who don’t fit, but the Holy Spirit’s fire works in us, making us breathe deeply till we know in the depths of our being that we belong.


I’m in many discussions these days about the challenges we face as a city, a state, a nation.  We all have ways to name and describe what’s going on.  I think we face a crisis of belonging.  Much of our politics centers around the question, “Who belongs?”  And many of us wonder in our hearts, “Do I belong?”  Recent events made me realize this: we face a crisis of belonging.


The bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, particularly focused me on the issue of belonging.  A suicide bomber killed twenty-two people and wounded many more in the explosion.  It rends the heart to read the bios of those killed in the terrorist attack.


My family thought of our friend Dave Budd who lives in Manchester with his two daughters - a teenager and a young adult, the Ariana Grande demographic.  As everyone who knew anyone in Manchester did, we reached out to Dave.  They were alright.


While that gave me relief, even more I treasured his reflection, just a day after the attack on his city.  His email ended with, “The secret to [getting on in our world] is to turn the other cheek and give my Muslim neighbor a great big hug and ask if he’s got any curry going spare.”


There’s just something in that closing line - any curry going spare; it’s both an especially British way to say it and evocative of a real connection with his neighbor, a real belonging together.


I continued to think about this as news emerged about the suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, a son of Libyan refugees.  He grew up in Manchester; a family friend described him, “He was always friendly, nothing to suggest (he was violent). He was normal, to be honest.”  At some point Abedi became radicalized, embracing the violent ideology of ISIS.  The bare details and the trajectory of his life hardly make sense.


A number of researchers have looked into how people become radicalized.  And what they’re coming back to is the issue of belonging.  The youth and young adults who become radicalized felt as if they “belonged nowhere.”  In the research, radicalized youth and young adults felt marginalized by both Western culture and their heritage culture; hence, belonging nowhere.


Denmark leads the way in figuring out how to turn youth and young adults away from violence.  Ahmed, a Somali immigrant living in Denmark, described all the ways discrimination and alienation from his own heritage caused him to become radicalized.  The Danish police intervened; but not to arrest Ahmed.  Instead they partnered him with another Muslim named Mahmoud.  He remembers Mahmoud telling him, “You can still be a Muslim and have a prosperous future in Denmark.  You can be an asset to society, not a liability.”  Mahmoud spent a long number of months helping Ahmed feel that he belonged.


Imagine how different our world look if we communicated to people, “You belong!”  Imagine what would happen if we asked our Muslim neighbors if they had curry going spare.


Just as I tried to digest the news from Manchester, word came of the awful attack in Portland, Oregon.  As widely reported, Jeremy Joseph Christian began screaming anti-Muslim remarks at a black teenager and her hijab-clad friend on a commuter train.  Several men tried to stop him.  He lashed out, killing two people and seriously injuring a third; a brutal, hate-fueled attack.


Christian is just the most recent in a rising number of radicalized whites embracing a violent nationalism.  We might not know the specifics of how Christian became radicalized, but I think the underlying issue probably comes down to marginalization, the feeling of belonging nowhere.  I certainly get that sense reading even just a few of his Facebook diatribes, which have no coherence other than his own sense of grievance and isolation.


Christian projected his own feelings outward, trying to make two teenage girls feel as if they didn’t belong, to shame and isolate them, to make a black girl and a Muslim girl feel like they weren’t Americans.  Which made the actions of the bystanders even more important: Christian shouted that they didn’t belong, but the bystanders stood with them.


In court Christian called his actions “patriotism.”  But the true patriots were the men who stood up to say the two teenagers belonged, on the train and in America.  Nicholas Kristof, reflecting on this, described the men who protected the teens as “dying on the battlefield of American values.”  He went on:  

“What the three men in Oregon understood... is that in a healthy society, Islamophobia doesn’t disparage just Muslims, racism doesn’t demean blacks alone, misogyny hurts more than women, xenophobia insults more than immigrants. Rather, we are all diminished, so we all have a stake in confronting bigotry.”


I appreciate the way Kristof honored the men in Portland for standing up for the best of American values.  They made clear - at the cost and risk of their lives - that hatred and bigotry would not define who belonged in America.


And while appreciating that, I want to look at this same moment spiritually; to look at two different ways of spiritually understanding belonging.  Because there were really two very different understandings of belonging at play in Portland.  Christian - the murderer - thought people must conform to his views in order to belong.  The men and teens on the train embraced each other regardless of their differences.  If we face a crisis of belonging, then we ought to be clear about what it means to belong.  Must we conform?  Or do we embrace amid our differences?  Hug and see who has curry going spare?


Our scripture readings today speak to the two approaches to belonging.  The Babel story presents itself as a story of the very origins of human culture.  But we ought to pay attention to what we even now hear in the name: Babel, Babylon.  The ancient Israelites told this story as a spoof on Babylon.  In the story, the people of Babel decide to build a huge tower to proclaim their greatness.  And by this, they said, “[We will] make a name for ourselves.”  Biblical scholars note that the concept of a name meant a cohesive cultural force; they wanted to bind themselves together, in conformity.  We can rightly guess all the inequalities in this work: those who baked the bricks were not the ones to live in the tower.  But this inequality remained hidden under a projected unity: we belong because we all talk the same.  Babel, in this sense, was a colonial project: forcing people to assimilate into its dominating culture.  White supremacy works the same way: making “whiteness” the norm, making assimilation the only way to succeed, and building on a foundation of conformity.  You belong if you conform.


It didn’t go well for Babel.  And the Israelites, who so often struggled under the domination of the Babylonians, must have treasured this story of Babel-Babylon’s demise.  Traditionally, we think of God’s punishment taking the form of “confusing the tongues.”  But I think it was a liberation from the dominance of Babel.  Enslaved brickmakers were freed to go their own way and worship on their own.  Diversity didn’t come as punishment, but rather as a sign of freedom: each person could tell their own tale.  And it fact that happened to Babylon: the Persians conquered Babylon, allowing the Jews to return from their exile.  That’s how I read this story of Babel - our God of liberation breaking apart a Babylonian supremacy and letting people go free.


If Babel comes as God’s “no” to domination, then Pentecost provides God’s vision of community.  Babel concerned domination; the longing of a king to build a tower to make a name for himself.  (Is it going too far to say he wanted to build a tower with his name on it?)  But Pentecost tells a very different kind of story: that of people no one would ever consider for greatness.  Pentecost tells of people who didn’t “fit,” who were “Mavericks,” who didn’t belong; and yet they came to be the center of a new kind of community.


You get a whiff of the prejudice in the reaction of the crowd.  “Are these not Galileans?”  The crowd assumed the Galileans must be drunk.  We know that kind of racial prejudice, the kind that expresses shock, “Oh, you’re a sober Galilean?  Oh, you’re such an articulate Galilean!  Why we all understand you.”  (This crowd did everything but reach out and touch Peter’s hair.)


And yet the miraculous happened.  “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”  Usually our tradition focuses on this miracle as a gift of the Holy Spirit that allowed Peter to communicate the Gospel.  Speaking in tongues as a method of conversion; our tradition put the focus on conversion.  But what if it was not just a means to an end?  What if the gift of speaking all those languages were really part of God’s vision?  What if the unity among all those diverse people was in fact the point of it all?   What if all those Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs standing together was, in fact, the point of it all?


Pentecost points to a different kind of belonging than Babel.  In Babel, people belonged because a system of domination enforced conformity.  But on Pentecost, people belonged not because they were smart, or wealthy, or white, or the same; but because God loved them all.


I think we face a crisis of belonging.  We long for the Maverick-Goose moment from Top Gun, that moment when we sing “Goodness gracious,” and feel in the depths of our soul that we belong.  On Pentecost, we find the Holy Spirit shaking nerves and rattling brains.  Because God longs too for us all to belong together.  Regardless of our different cultures, to belong together.  To hug each other and ask, do you have any curry going spare?


Alleluia and Amen.







  • Bodo, Lorand, “Excluded: The Sense of Non-Belonging and Violent Radicalisation in the UK,” August 7, 2016 (accessed May 31, 2017).

  • “Everything We Know About Manchester Suicide Bomber Salman Abedi,” The Daily Telegraph, May 26, 2017 (accessed June 2, 2017).

  • Ferandez, Eleazar S., “From Babel to Pentecost: Finding a Home in the Belly of the Empire,” Semeia.

  • Kristof, Nicholas, “On a Portland Train, the Battlefield of American Values,” New York Times, May 30, 2017.

  • Lewis, Jerry Lee, “Great Balls of Fire.”

  • Lyons-Padilla, Sarah et al, “Belonging Nowhere: Marginalization and Radicalization Risk Among Muslim Immigrants,” Behavioral Science and Policy Association

  • Mansel, Tim, “How I was De-radicalized,” BBC World (accessed May 31, 2017).


"Nothing Can Separate Us" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - May 21, 2017

posted May 31, 2017, 1:36 PM by Plymouth Church UCC


Recently I started thinking about doing one of those DNA tests which help you explore your ancestry.  But as soon as I started thinking about it, I heard stories of people surprised by the results.  Like the friend who thought of himself as Italian but found out he hadn’t inherited any of the Italian DNA from the family tree.


The case of a cop in Michigan surprised me even more.  The cop, about my age, grew up thinking of himself as a white man with some Native American ancestry.  His father didn’t share much about his ancestors, only to say some of them belonged to the Blackfoot Tribe.


Some people thought his name - Cleon - sounded black, but he looked white so the cop didn’t think much about it.  That changed when his daughter came down with a genetic disorder associated with African-Americans.


A genetic test revealed the cop’s ancestors were European and African.  The cop found his identity, who he thought he was, thrown into a whirlwind.  Now he’s suing his police department for racial discrimination and creating a hostile work environment.  He claims supervisors and fellow officers made racial taunts; the city says Cleon initiated these comments and, before he learned of his African ancestry, often made racist comments.  This is a Dave Chappelle show come to life.


And yet Cleon’s case points to a larger question we all face: who are we?  Does our skin, our DNA, our cultural heritage determine our identity?


This kind of question - who are we? - lay behind Paul’s testimony in the Letter to the Romans, especially in the chapter we heard today.  Our reading began with Paul making a distinction between “the flesh” and “the spirit.”


Modern Christians often struggle with Paul’s language.  It sounds dower, body-shaming, as if Paul didn’t want us to enjoy and delight in our bodies and the physicality of life.  But reading Paul as if he were a prude misses the point of his argument.


Paul faced a dilemma: how do we talk about sin?  Many people in his day wanted to talk about sin as something “those people” did.  As if to say, “We’re holy; but they over there are sinners.”  And this current still runs deep in our own culture.  Too often we think, “We’re good; but ‘those people,’ whoever those people happen to be, are bad.”


So when people divided themselves between the good people over here and the bad people over there, Paul came along with a new vocabulary to talk about sin: the flesh and the spirit.  Suddenly the divide between good and bad, which had been projected onto other people, came to reside in us.  Paul wanted people to say of themselves, “I am both good and bad; both saint and sinner.”  Or, as Paul wrote elsewhere, “I live in the flesh; in faith I live.”


But this insight - that we are both saint and sinner - can be hard for us to see about ourselves.  Just think how hard it is for us to talk about the dynamics of racism or homophobia or Islamophobia that affect us.


Recently I got into a conversation with an Evangelical pastor from the western suburbs.  The pastor was trying to say he was welcoming of gay and lesbian people.  I pushed back because, as I read on his website, the church believed homosexuality incompatible with the Bible.   In fact, I said that it seemed to me he was homophobic.  He took great offense at this.  “That’s an awful thing to say about someone; I’m not homophobic,” he insisted.  “But you won’t marry gay and lesbian couples, will you?”  “Of course not.”  Our conversation didn’t come to agreement.  But it reminded me how hard it can be to hear when someone points out our involvement in oppression.  We want to think of ourselves as good people; but really, we’re saints and sinners at the same time, the good and bad can both be found in us all.


Paul knew this.  He framed sin as something so central to our experience that it was the very skin on our bodies, our flesh; an inescapable reality that shaped how we interacted with the world.  This can be hard to realize.  But Paul wanted us to know that we are bound up in the brokenness of the world.  We can no more escape the reality and structures of oppression and prejudice then we can escape our own skin.


Many of us faced these uncomfortable truths in our “Dismantling White Privilege” curriculum.  Certainly I found myself reading about white privilege and seeing uncomfortable truths about myself.  Thinking about white privilege and the justice system reminded me of my own teenage experience.  I worked at a Boy Scout Camp down in southern Virginia during the summers.  During days off from the camp, my friends and I explored the mountains.  An older staff member told us about a fantastic place to go swimming: a good-sized stream ran across a series of limestone bluffs, creating deep pools in the weathered rock.  One problem: it was on private property.  We set off, eight of us, parking our cars at a distance from the farm and creeping over the fence.  It was magical; and we were having so much fun that we didn’t notice the police arrive.  Eight white teenagers; we got off with minor tickets and a stern talking too.  I can imagine how differently it would have played out with eight black teens trespassing in rural Virginia.


And I think of the time a white UWM student stayed at our house to watch our dogs while we went on vacation.  Coming home late one evening, he realized he’d locked himself out of the house.  We were camping so he couldn’t call us.  And he couldn’t wait because of the dogs.  So he popped the screen off of a basement window, forced it open, and crawled inside.  All the while a neighbor stood at her sink, washing dishes.  The student was sure she saw him.  But she never called the cops.  I guess in Whitefish Bay, people don’t get suspicious about what white folks are doing.


We don’t want to think of ourselves as prejudiced, or as benefiting from racism, or our good neighbors as racist.  And yet, there it is when we look searchingly at our lives.  Because the good and the bad exist together, we are saints and sinners.  Which is why Paul spoke of sin as close to us as our flesh: something we can’t pretend doesn’t contain us.  


And yet, even as Paul evokes the image of sin being as close to us as our skin, he made clear the power of God to transform us.  That move to speak of God’s transforming power was the first of the four unison readings that punctuated our scripture lesson: “But we are not in the flesh; we are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us.”  Paul’s being playful with his language.  We are not in the flesh.  Well, of course we are.  But Paul wanted to make clear the more powerful reality shaping our lives: we are in the Spirit.  And the rest of our reading explored what it meant for us to be reshaped by the Spirit.


As an adoptive father, I’ve always loved the words Paul used to explain the Holy Spirit.  “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  We all know what it means to live with a spirit of fear, that quiet dread, that active anxiety, and those unspoken phobias which contort our soul.  Fear of the other, fear of our own inadequacy, fear of the unknown; it powers the prejudice and oppression in the world.


And in contrast to this, Paul spoke of a spirit of adoption.  Someday I’ll just preach on this verse, but today I want to just note the contrast between fear and adoption.  Adoption involves choice and gift.  It is the choice of the birth parents to place a child; it is the gift received by the adoptive parents of a treasured child.  Adoption is the gift of a home to an orphan and the choices faced to make sense of identity.  While the spirit of fear constrains and constricts; the spirit of adoption opens us to the choice and the gift of life.


Paul went on to say, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  At one level this suggested a connection to the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, our abba, who art in heaven.”  But I’m also aware of how Paul upends the patriarchal culture of his day.  In Paul’s world, family relationships were ruled by the father of the house; his children were whomever he called “son” and “daughter.”  But Paul upends this hierarchy.  Our relationships are now determined by the youngest, by the child calling out “Daddy.”  The family and relationships are not defined by power and authority; but by the cry of a child.


The spirit of adoption, that spirit which defines relationships not on the basis of power but on the witness of the vulnerable, works inside of us.  We live as a mixture of good and bad, saint and sinner, flesh and spirit.  Our hope comes from the spirit working to heal us.  “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”


We’re working through deep issues of power and privilege in our congregation, trying to look at our own implicit bias, and facing the ways racism and structural inequality affects us.  In this moment, I find assurance in the Holy Spirit speaking through the inadequacy of our own speech.  We don’t know what to say.  The spirit speaks through our stammers.  We don’t know what to say.  The spirit speaks through our tears.  We don’t know what to say.  The spirit speaks through our uncertainty.


Last weekend we had Dr. Erin Winkler and Ex Fabula back to Plymouth to think with us about the issue of how children learn about race.  During the Q&A after her talk, a mom asked Dr. Winkler how to talk with her children when she herself wasn’t sure what to say.  “We don’t have to have all the answers.  In fact, we can’t wait; we can’t wait until we know everything to start talking about race.  Instead, our children need to see us struggling with the questions.”  Dr. Winkler’s short answer spoke a lot of truth: when we face hard questions, we don’t need to wait for the perfect answer.  Instead, people, and especially our children, need to see us struggling with the questions.  Andrew, whom we baptize today, doesn’t need perfect parents and perfect godparents.  Andrew, like all our children, instead needs to see and know imperfect parents and imperfect godparents who struggle with the real questions of life; people through whom the spirit speaks in our weakness.


And lastly, even as Paul made clear that we were not as good as we often think we are, even as Paul made clear that prejudice is as close to us as our skin, he gave hope.  Not just that we are children of God.  Not just that the spirit is working through our weakness.  But that we can’t be kept apart.  The spirit of God will knit us together no matter what. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


I use these words as an assurance of pardon whenever I offer it in worship because it speaks so completely to me of the power of God to transform and overwhelm the brokenness of our lives.  We could paraphrase Paul with all the realities in our world that seek to break apart true community.  For I am convinced that neither racism, nor privilege, nor inequality, nor incarceration, nor phobia, nor prejudice will be able to separate us from the love of God.


Cleon, the white cop, was shocked to find out he was part African.  But it also shocked him to realize all the prejudice he had never noticed before.  I pray that he comes to experience the Spirit - adopting him as God’s own child, working through his weakness - till he knows the healing the Spirit brings.  Cleon wasn’t sure about his identity after he learned more about his flesh.  Paul wants us to know the spirit matters more for our identity.  Who are we?  Beloved children of God.


For the great spirit, the holy spirit, the adoptive spirit, brings us all in, regardless of our brokenness, renewing and restoring.  And for that I say, “Alleluia and Amen.”






  • Eligon, John, “A Sergeant Who Learned He’s Part Black Says He Faced Racist Taunts at Work,” New York Times, May 12, 2017.

  • Meharg, Gwen, “Spirit of Adoption” (artwork)

  • Wright, N.T., “Commentary on Romans,” New Interpreter's Bible.


"True Freedom" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - May 14, 2017

posted May 19, 2017, 12:39 PM by Plymouth Church UCC


Too often we approach the Bible with such reverence - “God’s holy book” - that we miss how deeply the struggles of people in the Bible match our own.  The story may be two thousand years old; but we face the same dilemmas.  

Just think about this story: it began with a girl ensnared in human trafficking who longed to be free; it concerned some outside agitators who arrived speaking about justice and got arrested by the authorities for disturbing the peace; and then it moved to a prison, where Paul couldn’t sleep and where a jailer attempted suicide.  

I want to read this story of Paul in Philippi very closely because it's such a modern story.  We know more than we want to about these issues: human trafficking, incarceration, suicide.  This ancient story about issues we face today can teach us something essential about what it means to be a disciple.  What does Jesus call on us to do?  Especially, what does Jesus call us to do in the face of daunting issues like human trafficking, incarceration, and suicide?  

Part of the answer will lie in a tension scripture creates between slaves, masters, and freedom.  This story wants us to ask, “What does freedom look like?”  

The story of the slave girl introduced the tension between slaves and masters and the question of freedom.  Today, we’d speak of this girl as someone being trafficked.  She was a girl; the original Greek makes it clear by calling her a term used for child-slaves, paidiske.  This child earned money for her male masters by prophesying; a child forced to turn divine tricks.  

A few years ago, Rev. Marilyn Miller, president of MICAH, preached here on this story and she made clear the parallel between this young girl and the too many young girls and boys trafficked in our community.  Human trafficking remains a major issue in Milwaukee; as reporter Colleen Henry noted last week, Milwaukee ranks third in the nation for the intensity of human trafficking here, tied for Las Vegas as a hotspot of child prostitution.  

The enslaved girl turned to Paul for help.  At first, he ignored her.  It’s hard to see the reality of trauma and suffering caused by trafficking.  As Colleen Henry said in her report, the average age of someone to begin being trafficked is 13.  13!  News stories detail what this looks like: a parent began prostituting a daughter for drugs; in another, a relative promised to help a runaway teen but instead sold her to a pimp.  We shrink from these stories.

And Paul did at first too.  But the enslaved girl kept calling out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.”  Now the scripture said Paul got annoyed.  Was it because of the hectoring?  Or because the slave girl forced him to see his solidarity with her?  “We’re both slaves - me to those men and you to your God.”  

Her message moved him to act.  Paul prayed; she no longer prophesied.  But I think the healing actually began in her own advocacy for herself.  Trafficking, enslavement, took away her freedom, took away her control of her own body, negated her agency as a person.  In this story, we hear her claiming her own sense of self back: asserting her own determination and agency over her own body.  

Over my years volunteering with Pathfinders, I’ve learned that help rarely works when it aims to rescue.  That was the first impulse when it came to human trafficking: how do we rescue these youth.  But youth rescued often go back onto the streets.  Lasting change comes when our help empowers people to assert their own agency.  The lingo of people confronting human trafficking speaks of the need to “recognize, respect, and respond.”  Colleen Henry, in her story on human trafficking, profiled Nancy Yarborough, a former street worker who now works to help girls and women leave.  She begins by giving out purses filled with hygiene products and resource cards, including her own information.  Yarborough initiates a relationship and then nurtures the agency of the girls and women she meets.  

And likewise two thousand years ago.  We just get a snippet of their interaction, but I think it shows us something important about freedom.  Freedom is grounded in our own agency over our lives.  As it did for the enslaved girl in Philippi, the path to wholeness begins when we assert our own agency.  And it reminds me that my work as a disciple is grounded in a commitment of helping people claim their own authority over their own bodies and destinies.  

When we think about what we mean by our commitment to justice I think it comes down to this vision of agency, of empowering people to have determination and control over their own lives.  It’s why we’re committed to social service organizations that feed and shelter people who are homeless; it’s why we advocate for policies and budgets that address systemic inequality; and it’s why we face our own internalized racism and privilege.  This is freedom work; ensuring people have true freedom and agency over themselves.

Paul’s help for the enslaved girl landed him in prison.  As the girl worked to free herself, the slave masters turned their anger on Paul.  The enslavers made the accusation, “These men are disturbing our city.”  Such accusations have rattled authorities ever since.  Think how many times Martin Luther King got derided for disturbing the peace, how many protesters in Ferguson got called out for disturbing the peace, how often people who advocate for justice get denounced for disturbances. As if everything was perfect until someone pointed out the oppression.

And so, Paul landed in prison.  The mob almost lynched him.  And as it was, he got stripped naked in the street, beaten with bats, locked in the bowels of prison, with feet chained to a wall.  Scripture said that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.”

Those brief words capture a lot of anguish.  Naked, beaten, and chained to a wall, Paul and Silas can’t sleep.  Could you sleep your first night in prison?  Anxiety, worry surrounded them thicker than the night.  People in ancient Rome often went from the prison to the slave market.  They kept awake because they did not know what might happen next.  Desperate, they began to sing to each other the psalms they knew by heart; psalms like we read this morning.  One could even imagine Paul saying, “From whence will my help come?”  And Silas answering, “Our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”  That psalm moves from anguish to confidence, even joy; Paul sang to Silas, “God will keep you from all evil; God will keep your life.” And Silas responded, “God will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore.”

And throughout the rest of the story we find this rising note of joy.  The practice of prayer itself seemed to open their hearts to joy.  We often think of prayer in terms of what happens: answered prayers are the safe return, the healthy baby, the long-sought job received.  But Paul and Silas point to another, and I think more important, aspect of prayer: the joy.  For me prayer isn’t so much what I say.  Instead, when I pray I experience it as my heart opening to God.  My prayer isn’t the thoughts and questions and hopes I pour before God.  No, to me, prayer is God pouring into our hearts; pouring in joy.  

This moment in the story could easily be skipped over; that’s part of the reason why we stopped to read a psalm in the middle of it.  But it's also poignant.  Paul and Silas, at their most vulnerable moment, the time when their lives seem most endangered and when they existed like enslaved people bound in the dark; in this great desperation, Paul and Silas radiate joy.  We’re meant to see the contrast between their fetters and their freedom.  In their joy, they embody a radical freedom beyond the touch and blow of oppression. And it's why they are the most free people throughout this story.  God’s joy in their hearts made them free men wherever they went.

During this incarceration, the bizarre happened: an earthquake.  Scripture doesn’t say God sent it; but it must have felt miraculous to Paul and Silas.  Not so much to the jailer.  The jailer felt the earth move and heard the doors popping open.  He knew the prisoners would flee.  He knew the authorities would hold him accountable.  He knew he’d lose his job or his life.  And because of what he knew, the jailer moved to take his own life, to commit suicide.

In that awful moment of crisis, the jailer could not see any options for his life.  He became trapped by all the things he thought he knew.  And enchained, most of all, by his fears.  Enslaved to his anxiety.  

Paul prevented the suicide by calling out to the jailer.  “We’re all here.”  The jailer, sword in hand, unable to see any options for his life, paused long enough to ask, “Bring me light.”  So real was his worry that he couldn’t see the people around him.  

The jailer shown the light on Paul’s joyous face.  He must have wondered how this prisoner, about to enter the slave market, could look so free.  And so the jailer asked, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?”

Again, this story wants us to see the tensions between slaves and masters so that we ask who is really free.  In this moment the jailer, holding Paul and Silas as if they were slaves, now greets them as his masters.  The jailer, master of the prison, switched roles with Paul and Silas, the inmates of the jail.  “Save me,” he asked.

Paul spoke up.  “Believe on the Master Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  These words could sound like empty banality on another person’s lips.  But there in the depth of the prison, coming from the bruised face of Paul, it sounded like the key unlocking doors of possibilities for the jailer.  The jailer had wanted to kill himself because his world crumbled and he didn’t see any options for his life.  Paul opened for the jailer a new life, one in which the old patterns of domination and oppression, the old master and slave hierarchies were upended, one marked by transformed relationships.

The jailer began to embody those new transformed relationships with his former prisoners.  One can sense how physically damaged Paul and Silas were from the abuse they suffered; scripture describes the jailer taking them, because their once shackled feet were limp; the jailer washing them, because their bodies were bloodied; and the jailer bringing them up, because they could not walk.  

The jailer tended to them.  Earlier in the night, the jailer had been ready to kill himself for fear he was alone.  But now the jailer tended to Paul and Silas, fed them at his table, and discovered he was not alone but in fact surrounded by a new community.  

In this interaction of Paul and Silas with the jailer we see another aspect of freedom: the ability to transform relationships.  Freedom didn’t mean Paul and Silas striking out on their own; their freedom sent them back into relationship with the jailer.  They were able to prevent his suicide and help him see options for his life.  

The story of Paul and Silas had begun this morning with their trip to the house of prayer in Philippi; now, out of jail, they finally reached that small house church.  I imagine them now arriving with new people - the former slave girl, the former jailer, people once bound but now freed.  Perhaps sitting together in prayer gave Paul the insight that, as he would later write, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; but all are one in Christ Jesus.”  

And certainly he looked around that small church, seeing what freedom meant: the agency of our own bodies, the joy poured into our hearts by God, and the transformation of our relationships.  

I want to discover that freedom in our own time too.  It’s why I work for justice.  It’s why I pray to God.  And it’s why I gather with you in worship.  May we learn from Paul and Silas to embrace the freedom God brings to all our lives.  Alleluia and Amen.


- Covenant House, “Largest-Ever Research Studies Find One-Fifth of Surveyed Homeless Youth in the United States and Canada are Victims of Human Trafficking,” PR Newswire, April 2017.

- Eilers, M. Kathleen, “Acts 16: 16-40,” Interpretation, April 2007.

- Nes, Adi, “Untitled” from Prisoners Series, 2003.

- Sensenig, Jennifer Davis, “Joy in the Jail: Reflections on Acts 16: 25-34,” Vision, Fall 2014.

"Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 23, 2017

posted Apr 24, 2017, 10:36 AM by Plymouth Church UCC


If the first disciples listened to punk rock music, then they might have sung to themselves the hit Green Day song, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”  I can just see them singing, sorrowful after the death of Jesus:

I walk this empty street

On the Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Where the city sleeps

And I'm the only one and I walk alone

Green Day’s song comes as part of a trilogy on their album “American Idiot.”  Throughout the album, the main character is “Jesus of Suburbia.”  Earlier the album booms with the energy of Jesus being in the City through the song “Holiday.”  That song included the great chorus,

I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies

This is the dawning of the rest of our lives

And of course, that chorus speaks to the reason the first disciples followed Jesus.  He spoke to them of a new dream, a dream of God’s hopes for humanity, a dream far different from the hollowed lies of the pious propagandists.

The disciples hoped Jesus’ dream would lead to a new dawning; they moved with the hope “this is the dawning of the rest of our lives.”

But that dawn turned to naught in the death of Jesus.  Hopes impaled.  Dreams drained.  Life crucified.

In the aftermath of Jesus’ death, the disciples scattered.  A few people may have rumored about Jesus still living; but Cleopas and many others took their broken dreams and wandered away.  Green Day’s song speaks to what they felt; after the excitement of Maundy Thursday, revolution in the air, Jesus passing around the wine; then came the crushing hangover.  Like a man hungover after a binge, Cleopas shuffled away from Jerusalem, singing with Green Day:

Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me

'Til then I walk alone...

Have you walked that boulevard?  At night, wondering what happened?  In the day, lost?  Walking or driving without knowing where you were going?  Cleopas walked that way, pushed along by disappointment, harried by loss, longing for just a few more minutes of his old life before it all fell apart.

One commentator referred to the disciples as experiencing “anesthetizing shock.”  I like his phrase.  “Anesthetizing shock.”  Stress leaves us in that stunned condition.  It can happen at the death of a loved one; we go through the motions of existence, caught between a reality we cannot bear and hope we know not real; that disbelieving state when the scent of our loved one lingers in the air and we swear they could come back in the door at any moment.

As Cleopas and his friend walked along, alone in their anesthetizing shock, a stranger joined them.  He asked them about their sadness.  Dumbfounded (and a little bit insulted), Cleopas asked, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know?”  And though Cleopas walked with broken dreams, in that moment he entered a new kind of dreamscape.  For the story, as Luke told it, sounds like the recounting of a dream.

Cleopas, his friend, and the stranger walked along as the disciples shared their disappointments.  “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped; it lingered in the air like mist, the fog of a soap-opera dream sequence.  But the stranger began to explain to Cleopas and his friend a new interpretation of what happened and how it connected to all the prophecies from ancient times.  Like a dream, Cleopas remembered talking with the stranger but couldn’t repeat what he was told.

Cleopas and his friend invited the stranger to lodge with them for the night.  But then, as happens in dreams, roles and expectations suddenly reversed.  Cleopas the host became Cleopas the guest.  The stranger offered hospitality began to serve them.  The stranger took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.

Reality hit: this is Jesus.  But jolted out of their dream, they awoke: alone.  The Jesus of their dream disappeared.  As the shock wore off they asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

It intrigues me that this question comes as the first time in the story that Cleopas and his friend speak to each other.  Until this point, they existed in a shocked silence, a parallel paralysis, speaking to the stranger but not talking to each other, moving through life, alone together; but now, awoke.

Can we really count this dream-like encounter as a resurrection experience?  Can we believe it?  It seems so much like what we hope for when we lose a loved one - one more meal together, one more conversation where we hear the words we most long to hear.  And yet we see the effect of the resurrection in the lives of the disciples: they move from shocked isolation to heart-warmed community; not just the two of them, but they go back to Jerusalem, back to their friends, ready to say, “This is the dawning of the rest of our lives.”  The dream lived on.

And so in Luke’s Gospel, the great proof of the resurrection isn’t in touching Jesus but in this movement of the disciples from isolation to community.

Often we want proof before we believe something.  When we doubt someone, we say to them, “prove it.”  These days of course we’re debating all sorts of facts; and now we even have to have marches in support of science.  Because even when we can prove things, some people don’t believe it.  But as much as we long for proof, Luke gives us something else.  A dream.  Strangely warmed hearts.  A messiah mirage.

Many people of faith seem so strident in their truth claims; thunderously claiming to have the absolute truth.  But I like how Luke tells the story.  He spoke of the resurrection as one would a dream - a dazed account of an elusive Jesus, the truth always just out of grasp, enlightening but fleeting.  (After the news this week from the Navy, we could even say that Jesus is harder to keep track of then an aircraft carrier.  He went north to Galilee.  No, he went south to Emmaus).

I treasure this elusive Jesus, the now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t messiah, who comes to the disciples as in a dream and awakens them to their community of friends.  I know what Cleopas felt.  My most profound spiritual experiences came like dreams - that unexpected insight, the numinous moment, a mystical feeling of blessing; all real but fleeting.

And so, I appreciate the confusion of Cleopas, who having encountered Jesus seemed to still be rubbing the doubt from his eyes as he said, “Were not our hearts burning?”  He can’t quite believe it.

Many of us have found ourselves in similar places.  Experiencing the sacred; but not sure if we believe how the sacred gets translated into dogmas and traditions.  Maybe we could start calling ourselves Emmaus Christians.  And more importantly: perhaps we could stop thinking of faith as a matter of knowledge and instead open our hearts to faith as a matter of dreams.  How does Jesus speak in dreams to you?  How do you dream resurrection?

But I’m also interested in that moment when Cleopas’ dream and Cleopas’ reality collided in communion.  That was the ‘aha’ moment when he realized Jesus lived.

Was it just the act of taking bread and breaking it - that everyday motion - that made the stranger seem like Jesus returned?  I’ve known those moments when some everyday thing can remind me of someone I’ve lost.  Every June I plant red geraniums in front of my house.  I don’t particularly love red geraniums.  But when I see them lining the front of my house, it reminds me of my grandmother; I loved her and she loved red geraniums.  So I plant them every year for that moment when seeing them transports me back to the child I once was walking up her front steps.

Was communion like that for Cleopas?  The breaking of bread reminding him of all the meals he ate with Jesus - that time with the 5000, that time with the tax-collector, that last time…  Did the memory of all those meals come back to him?

Or did Cleopas realize - as bread and cup passed from hand to hand - that he was not alone?  Not alone, because Jesus was with him.  Not alone, because his friend was there.  Not alone, because a community of friends awaited him.

Tugged by memory and awareness (the past and the presence), Cleopas knew in a way he could not prove, “my redeemer lives.”

What happens for you when we break bread and share cup?  I know one thing that happens in my house.  I get asked, “gluten-free bread again?”  And I know my family aren’t the only ones who dip the bread into the cup and think, “This what Jesus tastes like?”

But we use gluten-free bread because not everyone can eat gluten.  Just like we use grape juice because not everyone does well with wine.  And so the gluten-free bread and the Welsh's make it so everyone can be included.  We celebrate communion as inclusively as we can; because it’s not a moment to isolate people but a time to bring us all into community.  And when I realize that then I think, “This is Jesus.”

What we experience in communion - the taste of inclusion - speaks to the whole purpose of church.

Recently I learned a bit of the story behind the word “parish.”  I grew up Catholic; and that’s what we called our congregation, a parish.  The word comes from a Greek word, paroikia.  It's an odd word because it really means two very different ideas in English.  On the one hand, it can mean neighbor; literally, those who dwell near by.  But at the same time, it can mean sojourning or dwelling in a strange land, literally a refugee; and in some cases, the word is used as a euphemism for slavery.  So this one word, paroikia, close to parochial, means both neighbor and stranger.  It’s odd; and yet what a great reminder of what a church, a parish, a congregation ought to be: a community inclusive enough to bring in neighbor and stranger.

Cleopas became a disciple of Jesus early on.  He believed in the Jesus dream.  But then came death.  And Cleopas stumbled about as a man of broken dreams.  Til that amazing day on the way to Emmaus when he dreamed Jesus again.  And found him in community.

How many Cleopas-like people stumble around us?  How many sing to themselves:

Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me

'Til then I walk alone...

Friends, I pray “We shall be like those who dreamed.”  Dreamed like Cleopas, dreamed of Jesus bringing the lonely into community, bringing people to a table that included them all, so that in the broken bread and shared cup they could know, “I no longer walk alone.”

Alleluia and Amen.

Works Consulted

I particularly drew on Dreams and Reality by R. Goetz for this sermon.

  • Alison, James, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 41-44, 104, 121. For the Easter A resources on Andrews, Susan R., “Holy Heartburn,” Christian Century, 1999.

  • Buechner, Frederick, “The Secret in the Dark,” The Longing for Home

  • Colon-Emeric, Edgardo Antonio, “Consorting with Aliens,” Christian Century, 2005.

  • Feasting on the Word

  • Goetz, Richard, “Dreams and Reality,” Christian Century, 1993.

  • Goetz, Ronald, “Picturing a Vanishing,” Christian Century, 1990.

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