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"Belonging: Zombies, Vampires, and Werewolves vs. the Shepherd," Sermon by Andrew Warner, April 15, 2018

posted Apr 17, 2018, 2:35 PM by Andrew Warner



Last Friday, Friday the 13th, I found myself thinking of all the scary characters of our imagination: zombies, vampires, and werewolves.  These creatures, which populate our screens, disclose something of our fears. And yet zombies, vampires, and werewolves speak to different kinds of fears.


I first encountered zombies in high school.  We’d stay up late watching one or another of the Living Dead movies, in which the zombies come after the living, hungry for their brains, and the haplass humans retreat behind barricades, safe until they realize one among them got bitten and now transforms before their eyes into a living dead person.


Only much later did I start to wonder about the meaning of these movies and how the fright factor of the zombie spoke to real social anxieties.  While vampires and werewolves haunted us for centuries, zombies rose only very recently, in the 1960’s.


The 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead defined the genre.  In that film an unlikely assortment of people hide out in a farmhouse.  The people in the house hear that posses of night riding vigilantes have organized to kill the zombies but they face a more immediate danger: the zombies outside the house.  Throughout the night everyone succumbs except for Ben, an African-American. As dawn breaks, the posse of rural whites arrive. Ben steps out, saved. But the men see Ben, mistake him for a zombie, shoot and kill him.  “That’s another one for the fire,” a man in the posse says as the film ends. That scene echoes with the shootings of innocent African-Americans - most recently an African-American teenager shot at for asking directions outside of Detroit.


Beyond that intense scene comes a more general notion of the threat posed by “others.”  The horde of ravenous zombies most want to take our brains, the thing we can’t give without losing ourselves.  They threaten our very essence. Walls must be built to keep them out!


The zombie speaks to our fears of those who don’t belong: they ought not be here, they might take what’s mine, only a wall will protect me.  These fears can quickly become racialized; after all, the 1968 classic came as a sci-fi expression of white fears after the late 1960’s inner-city riots.  And it does not take much of a leap to see a connection between the fantasy of zombie hordes and the description some give of caravans of immigrants.

But zombies don’t just speak to racist fears.  Remember the news of Charlottesville; a horde stumbling through a city at night, men shouting “blood and soil,” seemed like a group of zombies, people who’d lost their souls and seemed mindless in their hatred, an alt-contagion that might infect us all; Night of the Living Fascists.


And it’s this ability of zombies to represent our fears of the “other” that makes them so compelling: zombies represent whatever we think doesn’t belong in our community, a horde threatening our identity.


Zombies might be the most popular monster on our screens, but I find I resonate more with the older fright creatures: vampires and werewolves.  Vampires, who first appeared in the sixteenth century, represented European fears about Jews. Why else would vampires fear the cross? Or, echoing some of the ugliest old stories, why else would they want to drink blood.  But more recently vampires took on our worries about sexuality, coming across as both dangerously and provocatively bisexual. After all, as Naomi Alderman said, “They’ll bite anyone.”


Contemporary lore pictures vampires and werewolves as enemies.  But I’m more struck by what these creatures share: both can pass.  Werewolves, at least in the recent tellings of their stories, particularly struggle with what it means to pass.  They seem so human, except on full moons, almost like us, but not. And so they suffer with what it means to pass: Will someone find out my secret?  Will some discover the beast hiding inside of me? Would they accept me if they knew?


These questions make vampires and werewolves much more complex characters than zombies.  Brad Pitt as Louis in Interview with a Vampire struggles with his identity and the burden of his desire, becoming a sort of self-hating vampire who kills other vampires and tries to live on animal blood, vampire chastity.  In a similar way, the series Teen Wolf explored the coming-of-age struggles of erstwhile werewolf Scott McCall in high school.


I know what it’s like to be in high school and feel terror: what happens if people find out?  And I know many people feel this way long after High School. Undocumented people. Those carrying trauma.  Anyone with a shame too heavy, a hurt too deep, or a hope too tender yet to share, who find themselves acting like a fraud because they worry, “If you knew, then I wouldn’t belong.”


While zombies speak to our fears of the dangerous other, vampires and werewolves speak to our fears about ourselves: our own secrets, our own fearful identities.  Zombies represent all those we don’t think belong; vampires and werewolves our fears that we don’t belong.


The popularity of zombies, vampires, and werewolves in our imagination speaks to our continual anxieties about belonging.  Do they belong? Do I belong?


These questions do more than keep us up at night.  Because these are fundamentally spiritual questions.  Many of us think of the differences among churches as differences on social questions: this church welcomes gays, that one doesn’t; this church believes in reproductive choice, that one doesn’t; this church advocates undocumented people, that one doesn’t.  But the real debate in Christianity concerns belonging: how we answer the question of who belongs and who doesn’t. The struggle to define who belongs runs through the history of the earliest church in Jerusalem and through every church today. Belonging is the theological question we continue to debate.  And that’s because, as the great preacher Howard Thurman said, “In the great huddle we are desolate, lonely, and afraid. Our shoulders touch but our hearts cry out.”


If zombies, vampires, and werewolves express our fears about belonging, then a hope comes to us in our morning Psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd.”  Because this psalm fundamentally speaks of belonging.


We so often read the Psalm in the midst of memorial services that we might forget that it speaks primarily of the living, constructing in everyday ways the care and protection of God, who feeds and shelters and leads us.  The very structure of the Psalm suggests the way God surrounds us. We translate the Hebrew word for Yahweh as God in our text, but this more personal name for the divine begins and ends the Psalm, so that even as we wonder if we belong, Yahweh enfolds us, behind and before.  And in-between, the Psalm turns to speak even more personally to God: you, you anoint my head.


But instead of speaking of this Psalm generally, I want to look in a very close way at one particular verse that speaks to me about belonging.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”


While I’ve often puzzled over this verse, my recitation of the Psalm often rushed from one familiar line - “the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” - to familiar line - “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”  But, when I think of belonging, I can imagine this verse with all its visceral tension. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of all those who think I don’t belong.”


I can’t help but hear this as a gay man.  Everyone knows the phrase “to come out.” LGBT people have long used it to describe that moment of sharing your secret, revealing one’s identity. Many LGBT people can tell dramatic coming out stories.  But the real drama isn’t in coming out, it’s in the coming home. For often it’s easier to come out than to come home. My grandmother’s greatest fear when I came out is that I would be like her brother Greg: who came out in the 1960’s, moved to San Francisco, and never came back.  She worried I’d come out but not come home. And that fear of not belonging - that if we were really known we wouldn’t belong - is really the fear that if we came out we couldn’t come home.


Which makes this verse a healing balm: you prepare a table for me.  When we wonder if we belong, God prepares the table; God who knows who we are prepares for us to come home.


Recently I heard Brene Brown speak of the connection between belonging and being at home with ourselves.  Dr. Brown, a social scientist, pointed to the way in which our lack of authenticity drives our loneliness.  Brene Brown made her point as a series of questions, saying:

“What if loneliness is driven, often, by changing who we are, being “perfect,” saying what we’re supposed to say, doing what we’re supposed to do? What if loneliness is driven in part by our lack of authenticity — that I can go to a party, and I can be the belle of the ball and come home completely disconnected, lonely, anxious, because never once during that experience was I myself? I was who I thought they wanted me to be.”  

In asking these questions, Brene Brown came to the realization that “your level of true belonging can never be greater than your willingness to be brave and [authentic].”


God prepares a table; even if no one will sit with us, God prepares a table where our deepest self belongs.  God calls us to come out and come home; to be authentic and know that our true brave self is welcome at God’s table.


This invitation comes in the presence of enemies.  It certainly makes the act of showing up into an act of bravery.  But I think it also challenges our attempts to create barriers and walls, to divide the world of insider and outsider, friend and foe.  God prepares the table with the zombies in the room; and even greater horror, wants us to dine with zombies beside us.


In doing this, God challenges our standard attempt to deal with our need for belonging.  Because I think we try to create divisions of insider and outsider out of an attempt to create a sense of belonging, to define a community where we belong, to base our belonging on a communal act of exclusion.


Again, Brene Brown names this pattern, saying, “we’ve sorted ourselves into ideological bunkers. And what’s so crazy is how that social demographic changing — of sorting into those ideological bunkers — tracks exactly with increasing rates of loneliness. And so I would argue that nine times out of ten, the only thing I have in common with the people behind those bunkers is that we all hate the same people. I call it ‘common enemy intimacy.’”


And yet, like people hiding in a farmhouse from zombies, common enemy intimacy does not engender a real sense of belonging.  As scary as the zombies may be, hatred doesn’t make us feel like we belong. Fear may push our shoulders together but our hearts still cry out.


Which makes God’s action revolutionary, seating us in the presence of our enemies, pulling us out of our bunkers and beyond our walls.  God wants us to see our connection to all other humans, to know ourselves not just as God’s child but as part of a huge family of God’s children.  To realize this sense of belonging is to find that our cup overflows.


Horror movies and fright shows use zombies, vampires, and werewolves to name our existential fears: Do they belong?  Do I belong? But God, our good shepherd, moves through the story of our lives; or, as Martin Luther King, said, “The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history.”  He’s right; God our good shepherd makes clear, “No matter what, you belong.” And God challenges us, “No matter what, they belong too.”


For when we feel the fear of the zombies - they don’t belong - or feel the anxiety of the werewolf - do I belong - know this: God, our shepherd, prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.  God says you belong. God says they belong. And for the promise and challenge of that invitation, I say, “alleluia and amen.”




Sources:

  • Alderman, Naomi, “The Meaning of Zombies,” Granta Magazine.

  • Clapp, Rodney, “Attack of the Zombies,” Christian Century, Feb. 8, 2012.

  • Denysenko, Nicholas, “Retrieving a Theology of Belonging,” (note, article comes in two parts), Worship, 2015.

  • Friend-Jones, Russell, “In the Presence of My Enemies: The Phenomenon of Prejudice,” The Journal of Religious Thought.

  • Graham, Renee, “What ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Taught me About Race,” Boston Globe, July 21, 2017.

  • Tippett, Krista, “Brene Brown Interview,” On Being, NPR: Feb. 2018.  Available Online.

  • Thurman, Howard, A Strange Freedom, p. 21-22.

"Undocumented Resurrection" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 1, 2018

posted Apr 4, 2018, 8:58 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Do you ever find yourself well outside your comfort zone?  I did last Sunday, as I got ready to walk the runway at a fashion show.


My friend Dana - the same one who got me to try yoga (you’d think I’d learn) - organized a fashion show to raise money and awareness for the fight against human trafficking.  The show featured real couture. One designer created a dress that looked like something out of Star Wars. Two models wore versions of the dress, one in white and one in black; each dress had a large hoop raised up over their backs which they held with their arms.  Stunning and impractical; then, as they walked the runway, the women dropped their arms, transforming the outfit into a full-length ball gown; and then, once further down the runway, they pushed off the bottom skirt to reveal a cocktail dress. Amazing.


So why was I at a real fashion show?  Before the couture, Dana had three groups of people walk in the show - youth, community leaders, and a survivor of human trafficking to help raise awareness.  I was one of the community leaders. My job was to walk down the runway in a t-shirt for Dana’s organization, Foundations for Freedom. You would think that would be easy.


I arrived early so that I could practice with other community leaders.  That’s when I started to panic. Everyone else had some smooth moves for the runway.  My anxiety only grew as the room filled with hundreds of people. Standing behind the curtain, waiting for my turn, every introverted cell in my body tensed up.  I knew I didn’t belong. But then my turn came; I had to walk.


I already lack rhythm.  But add stress: not pretty.  Or, pretty awkward. On top of it, my face turned beet red.  I knew it was bad when I saw Tomas laughing - and filming. Great.  (If you see him in a new car, you’ll know how much that video cost.)


All I wanted to do was cross behind the curtain again.  But as I neared it, the MC stopped me. Denise had ahold of me.  No running. And she teased me, “Pastor, will you pray for me?” But I didn’t know what to say because I was too busy asking Jesus to save me.  (Jesus get me off this runway.)


In that moment, I felt mortified.  But when I finally got back behind the curtain, I realized: I survived.  And I came to see it as a moment of resurrection: despite the power of my anxiety, I lived; despite my fears, I came through; despite mortification, I survived.


Often in church we talk about the resurrection of Jesus as a grand version of what I experienced: Jesus moving from death to life again.  And we spiritualize it into a story of rebirth. We just sang “Now the Green Blade Rises,” an old hymn of our tradition, which puts this spirituality into verse: Love is come again like wheat that rises green.  The hymn speaks to one aspect of the resurrection of Jesus: renewal.  We rightly claim those moments when we overcome fear and death as resurrection moments.


And yet, there is more than just rebirth in this story.  In the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus did not happen in a political vacuum.   The resurrection came as God’s witness against the dehumanizing forces of oppression and injustice.  Just think of the last days of his life: a mob seized him while he prayed, prepared to lynch him; false witnesses lied about him, creating a pretense of justice; soldiers mocked him, calling on him to prophesy; the state labeled him a criminal, an insurrectionist king; friends abandoned him, ashamed to be seen with him; and he died, nailed up as the Romans did to all other traitors.


The Romans used crucifixion to make a political point.  They didn’t crucify citizens; Paul, arrested decades later in Jerusalem, got spared torture and crucifixion because he had his citizenship papers.  But Jesus was undocumented. He didn’t have papers. He couldn’t prove he belonged. And so Governor Pilate turned Jesus into a public spectacle.


Governor Pilate’s capricious use of power became evident when he judged Jesus.  The Gospel portrayed Pilate offering the crowd a choice of Jesus or Barabbas; Pilate seemed baffled by the anger at Jesus.  As the crowd shouted - “crucify him” - Pilate asked, “why, what evil has he done?” And yet when the crowd still demanded Jesus’ blood, Pilate agreed without much thought, handing Jesus over to be whipped, beaten, and killed.  I want to underscore this: Pilate stood indifferent to justice, condemning a man whose innocence he believed to die ignominiously.


The whole story of Jesus’ death, from the abandonment of friends like Peter to Pilate condemning a man he knew to be innocence, speaks of the power of death.  Not just death as an end of life, but Death as a power, a force, an Empire that destroys relationships, corrupts character, and distorts reality. When the disciples looked on Jesus on the Cross, broken, it seemed like all the forces of Death had won.


And yet, even in the act of the women coming to the tomb, we know the Empire of Death couldn’t win.  Because the Empire didn’t just want to kill Jesus, but to destroy and to scatter. The women refused; Death had no force over their love.  And so they came and found Death couldn’t stop Jesus either. Staring into emptiness, they realized Death’s dehumanizing power had lost. O Death, where is your sting?  O Grave, your victory?


The Gospel of Mark originally ended with this story of the women visiting the tomb; they hear of Jesus’s resurrection but they don’t see him.  The resurrection remained undocumented. Instead, the Gospel ended with a cryptic line that invited a natural question. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  The resurrected Jesus must be found.


Traci Blackmon, one of the leaders of our Christian movement, recently spoke of where we can find him.  She began by asking, “How as resurrection people do we minister to those who have been relegated to Golgotha?”  And then she went on to say, “Yes, Jesus is off the cross. But Golgotha was a burial ground of skulls and bones and people who had been discarded, people who couldn’t even get a borrowed tomb.  What do we do as people to minister to those who have been relegated not always physically but spiritually to Golgotha?”


Rev. Blackmon’s question focuses us back on the people affected by the Empire, people dehumanized and demeaned, those who feel the sting of Death.  Where do we see people treated with indifference? Suffering false accusations? Treated unjustly? I see it in the treatment of undocumented people, people like a Congolese woman and her daughter.


The mother and her seven-year-old daughter fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Before she fled, the mother had taken refuge in a Catholic Church in her home country, fearing for her life and that of her daughter.  Then she found a way to get from the Congo to Mexico. From there the mother and daughter walked into the United States. They surrendered themselves at the border, claiming asylum.


ICE agents at the border reviewed the claims of the mother.  They deemed her story credible and agreed she had a legitimate fear of harm if she returned to the Congo.  But, while they further reviewed this case, they decided to separate the mother and the child, keeping the mother in a detention center in San Diego and sending her seven-year-old daughter to detention in Chicago.


Now, remember, ICE agents have concluded that the mother and the child will likely receive asylum.  But ICE decided to make an example of this mother and child; separating them to opposite ends of the country in order to discourage other people from seeking asylum.  And ICE has kept them apart for months; a seven-year-old child alone in a strange place, a continent away from her mother, for months. What would crucify a parent more than hearing the cries of your child?  This family is experiencing the dehumanizing power of Empire; the forces which once made a public example of Jesus now make one of a mother and her child.


When the Empire tried to crush Jesus, even on the cross he signified his power to overcome.  The Empire wanted to make a spectacle of him, to break him down, to isolate him. But on the cross, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at his mother and best friend, saying to them, “Mother, behold your son; and son, behold your mother.”  He created family ties in the midst of an Empire trying to destroy all his bonds.


Jesus’ victory over the powers of Death compelled his disciples to seek out and build family bonds, to see as sister and brother those they had formerly seen as alien and threat.  And so we find Peter visiting the home of the centurion Cornelius - the man who commanded the troops who killed Jesus - and there in the house of his one time enemy, Peter realized, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  Where Death sought to isolate and demean, the grace of Resurrection created new bonds.


This is happening for undocumented people in our country.  Just last weekend, a congregation in New York City went public with its commitment to shelter Aura Hernandez from deportation.  She grew up in Guatemala but came to the United States after several family members were murdered. Now, fourteen years later, Hernandez faced deportation, which would separate her from her US born children.  A congregation became her shelter, the stone walls physically manifesting the commitment of women and men in the church to be her family, tía y tío a su hija.


The Gospel story doesn’t document where the resurrected Jesus can be found, but I know where to look: in those places were strangers call each other sister and brother.  For resurrection comes as God’s answer against the force of dehumanization.


God’s resurrection answer can’t be separated from the law.  The religious and political authorities brought Jesus to trial for all the illegal things he did.  They had much to chose from. Jesus touched lepers. He talked to women as his equal. He ate with tax-collectors.  He sheltered the accused. And he worked on the day of rest. So the authorities labeled him a criminal, an illegal.  And he was: Jesus lived as one outside the law, in the shadows of Empire.


But God resurrected Jesus.  One detained as illegal, redeemed.  One crucified as a non-citizen, raised to glory.  One buried outside the city, brought into the Kingdom of God.


The same resurrection grace moves through people today.  People like Moises Escalante, whose name means Moses the Climber.  Born in El Salvador, Moises’ father abandoned the family and then his mother left for work in the United States, leaving Moises to care for his younger siblings.  Eventually the family scraped together enough money to make the journey to America, crossing illegally.


He found work and then married, gaining his papers after a long period in the shadows.  Moises used his new status to help other undocumented people, supporting organizations in America and going on peace missions to war-torn areas of El Salvador.  This work led Moises Escalante to help start the New Sanctuary Movement, the same movement advocating for people detained like the Congolese mother and providing shelter for people like Aura Hernandez.


We are called to follow Moises; to follow the resurrected Jesus; to join the movement of resurrection: not just the saving of one person, but joining into community as one people who save together.


And really that’s the resurrection grace I experienced on the runway.   I was there because I understood my life as connected to people being trafficked.  And I was there because God connected me to sisters and brothers, who could laugh with me at my awkwardness and love me even as I failed and let me know I really did belong.


Go from this place to look for the resurrected Jesus.  Discover Jesus, the undocumented one of God, transformed into glory.  And find Jesus wherever people live as sisters and brothers to each other.


Alleluia and Amen.

 




Sources:

"Cosplaying Messiah" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 25, 2018

posted Mar 26, 2018, 11:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC


Cosplay (v) - dressing up as a character from a movie, book, or video game, especially one from the Japanese genres of manga and anime.


A few weeks ago the results of my ancestry.com DNA test arrived.  To be honest, I took the test hoping for something interesting or unusual to show up on the family tree.  My sister-in-law had recently unraveled a family secret. Her grandmother left Germany in the 1930’s to pursue a career on the stage in London and then America.  But in the attic was a trunk the grandmother kept anyone from looking in and commanded be burned on her death. For years, my sister-in-law carted around the trunk: too curious to burn it and too committed to her Grandmother to open it.  But, eventually, curiosity won. Inside were the mementos of a hidden life - a German Jew who reinvented herself, first in Britain and then America.


I wondered if I’d find something similar in my DNA, a hidden history.  So I waited for my results with anticipation. And when they came, I learned I’m really white, WASPy white.  90% of my ancestors come from Great Britain, immigrated to America 300 years ago, and apparently only married other old Brits.  Basically, I’m more English than the Queen; after all, her people came from Hanover. Germans.


My family suggested I look to see if I could get a British passport, or even become a “peer of the realm.”  Sadly, I only qualified as a “queer of the realm.”


The longer I sat with my DNA results, I kept coming back to the story of my sister-in-law’s grandmother.  Are we only who our DNA says we are? Or are we who we reinvent ourselves to be?


This question reminded me of an insight Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his book Between the World and Me.  In the book he never speaks of “white people” but only “people who understand themselves to be white.”  By this phrase he called attention to being white as a socially created identity, not rooted in DNA but an invention, an on-going reinvention actually, given that who counts as white changes from generation to generation in America.


As I continued to mull this over, I realized the spiritual stakes of this question.  To imagine my identity coming from ancestral DNA makes me passive; I have no control over what chromosomes I inherited.  But to see identity as a question of invention, to know that who I am comes from who I understand myself to be, makes me active.  And so while getting my DNA results was fun, I’ve come to see there is a more important question than “Where do I come from?” And that more important question is, “Who am I going to become?”


The Gospel of Mark imagines Jesus living with this question: who am I going to become?  Unlike the other Gospels, Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere. His ancestry, his history didn’t matter to Mark.  It’s all about how Jesus will reinvent himself.


And in our story today, Jesus so clearly picks up the role of Messiah, reinventing the poor kid from Nazareth as God’s chosen one, costuming himself with thick layers of tradition. Jesus’ performative actions come to the fore in entrance to Jerusalem.  He played the role: dressed like a king; making sure to have the right prop, a colt; and even having his disciples act like the retinue of royalty. Jesus mimicked all the projections of power used by conquering heroes. And yet, even as he cosplays his way into Jerusalem, Jesus points to a different way of being heroic.  He not only reinvents himself as Savior but also reinvents the meaning of salvation.


I’ll turn to that reinvention soon, but first I want to sharpen the opening question, “who am I becoming?”  Seeing Jesus play a role, seeing Jesus as performing, invites us to look at the roles and performances in our lives.  What roles do we play in our families? What role do we take amongst our friends? Do we conform to the expectations put on us because of our sex or race or orientation?  When do you find yourself stuck in a role you don’t want?


I can certainly think of times I feel constrained by a role I play.  And this can be true from the roles we play in our families to the parts we play in society.  For what is racism, but typecasting people for a performance they don’t want to enact.


Jesus showed how to reinvent ourselves and to reinvent our roles in society in our story.  (And I want to acknowledge that my reading of Jesus’ role was shaped by reflections shared in our “Building Resilience for Racial Justice” program this Lent.)


We almost always jump into this story of Jesus entering Jerusalem at the point when the crowd proclaimed him king.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We even enacted this part of the story at the beginning of worship.  But, when Mark told the story of this day, he focused a third of the story on all of the things Jesus did to prepare for entering Jerusalem.  When we want to change our roles, we need to prepare.


Jesus gave detailed directions to the disciples on how to requisition a colt; to look like a king, he needed the right animal.  Focusing on the animal, we might miss the question of power and domination that hangs over this part of the story. Romans, soldiers, and imperial powers regularly took what didn’t belong to them; requisitioned, appropriated, stole.  But Jesus makes clear from the outset the plan to return the animal. “If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” While Jesus acts like a king, he does so without replicating the dynamics of power (taking).  And in case we miss the fact that he returned the colt, the story doesn’t end until he returned to Bethany, bringing back the burrow he borrowed.


In saying this, I want to underscore the particular way that Jesus prepared.  He paid attention to power dynamics. Kelly Germaine recently wrote about how hard that can be in a reflection on what she calls the “White Spiritual Bypass.”  Speaking as a white person, she described the way she found herself and other white people trying to bypass the pain and experiences of other people. As she said, “I struggle to trust myself, because of how frequently I see us as white people prioritizing our desire to avoid anxiety over the literal lives of people of color.”  Just as a highway whisks us by a poor neighborhood, we bypass the reality of oppression in order to reach our destination of hope and joy.


Jesus didn’t look away; he knew any performance of kingship had to address the threat of exploitation.  So from the beginning, he looked out for the danger areas of pain, how what he did could affect someone else.  In the roles we play in our family, in our work, in our society, do we attend to the pain we may cause? Sometimes in a family, there’s one person always out of step; do we see how our role as “golden child” affects the other?  Or do we see how our performance of masculinity affects another? Or the script of race? The play of wealth?


Jesus rode into Jerusalem with people shouting praise.  Mark described the crowd throwing down their cloaks to create a red carpet for Jesus.  They treated him like a celebrity. But we know what comes next, the same people will denounce him less than a week later.  Sometimes scholars want to suggest two crowds existed in Jerusalem, one that praised Jesus and one that denounced him. But from what I know of human nature, I think not; after all, even his disciples abandoned him.  No, in this performance we see the fickleness of acclaim.


To sustain himself with the boom and bust of approval, Jesus needed to discover the inner core of himself.  Valarie Kaur, a Sikh civil rights activist, discovered her core through her work after 9/11. A white man angry at Muslims killed her uncle.  She began to travel the country to help organize people of color and religious minorities to combat hatred and extremism. Eventually her journey confronting extremism led her to call the man who killed her uncle.  He said, “I'm sorry for what happened, but I'm also sorry for all the people killed on 9/11.” Valarie wanted to hang up on this man who would not take responsibility for his actions; but her aunt kept her on the phone.  Her aunt said, “This is the first time I'm hearing you say that you feel sorry.”  As she reflected on her aunt’s ability to speak to her brother’s murderer, Valarie saw how her aunt’s faith in the dignity of every human allowed her to see how a man full of hate was himself wounded and trapped.  Sikh values at the core of her aunt’s heart gave her the strength to see this. Whenever we want to reinvent ourselves, we need to strengthen our core, so that we don’t depend on the approval of the crowd but on our own inner convictions.


Once in Jerusalem, Jesus did something that confused the disciples and might well confuse us to this day.  While it was not the season for ripe figs, Jesus decided to curse a fig tree that had no figs.


Puzzling over this bit of Jesus’ performance reminded me of something Margaret Wheatley once wrote regarding the willingness to be disturbed.  She spoke of the importance of being curious about what other people say and in particular to pay attention to what we don’t understand. As she explained, “Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs.  If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position.” How does Jesus’ shocking performance make us aware of all the invisible expectations in our own roles?  And how do the roles we play in our families and society surprise other people? Or do we just play out the script society gave us?


Mimicking a conquering king, Jesus went to the Temple, where he famously overturned the tables of the money changers.  He acted like a king: issuing orders, enforcing his rule. We often pretend that the issue was the mixing of money and faith; as if the Temple just needed to be spiritual.  But like the White Spiritual Bypass I mentioned earlier, this misses the problem of what was happening in the Temple. The money changers exploited the poor, charging unfair exchange rates.  The Temple also maintained all the records of debts. We wouldn’t be far off the mark to imagine these moneychangers in the Temple as subprime financiers - rapaciously lending - or check cashing stores - providing a service at an exorbitantly profitable rate.


Jesus responded with anger.  “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’ but you have made it a den of robbers.”  Jesus didn’t get angry about the presence of money, but in the abuse of power to cheat and exploit the poor.  His anger reminds me of the anger Audre Lorde once described; “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”  She also explained, “It is not anger… that will destroy us, but our refusals to stand still, to listen to its rhythms, to learn within it, to move beyond the manner of presentation to the substance, to tap that anger as an important source of empowerment.”


Jesus’ anger might be even harder for us to hear than his curse of the fig tree.  And yet it invites us to listen in a new way to anger, to listen to it as an expression of frustration at injustice, to find in it the witness of pain.  And it might make us wonder: what happens to our own anger? If we’re not angry, where did our emotion go? And when will it erupt?


Yesterday I ran into many Plymouth people at the March for our Lives, which began at the Courthouse and ended at City Hall.  I couldn’t take part in that march for gun violence prevention without thinking of Jesus’ Palm Sunday march. During the rally at the beginning of the march, I saw a woman dressed up as a Statue of Liberty and another person as Superman.  They reminded me we are all called to cosplay too; to be like Jesus, to cosplay messiah.


I saw Jesus in the young adults who spent weeks preparing for this march, cognizant of the shock of a school shooting but also aware of the all-to-often threat of violence many young people face on their streets and in their homes.  I heard Jesus in youth like Amaya Chheda as they spoke with strength from their core. And in the nation’s capital where another eleven year old named Naomi Wadler showed deep strength in core while naming all the unheralded African-American youth who have been killed by gun violence.  I marveled at crowds calling for disrupting our politics of the possible. And felt the disturbing silence that brooded over Washington DC after Emma Gonzalez invoked the names of her classmates. I witnessed Jesus in the anger of youth at growing up with “red drills” and the inaction of our society after seventeen deaths at Parkland and seventeen deaths already this year in the City of Milwaukee.  To me, they were cosplaying Jesus.


DNA may give an answer to “where do I come from.”  But the more interesting answers come from the question “who am I going to become?”  This Palm Sunday, remembering Jesus’ performance long ago and the youth who cosplayed him yesterday, I want to find my answer in acting and living like Jesus.


Amen.




Sources:

I consulted the New Interpreter’s Bible, Feasting on the Word, and:

"Work of Art" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 11, 2018

posted Mar 12, 2018, 2:29 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Our reading this morning contains one of the first scripture passages I memorized by heart, “You are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.”  


I came across the verse while reading a Lenten devotion decades ago during a time when I struggled deeply with what it meant to be gay and Christian.  At a time when I was drowning in homophobia, this verse came like a life preserver thrown just to me. “You are God’s work of art.”


The verse, which I repeated even when I didn’t believe it, came as an assurance of love and grace.  No matter what people said, I was God’s work of art. No matter how I felt, I was God’s work of art.  And even if everything felt as surreal as a Salvador Dali painting, I was God’s work of art. And so I held onto that life preserver, reciting it until I memorized its truth.


Now, all these years later, it comes quickly to my mind, still etched on my heart, but I realize all the different messages I hear in this verse.  


At first I focused on the electric words, “You are God’s work of art.”  I think these words electrified the first readers of the letter too, because the letter came in the midst of a large, contentious, and divisive fight in the early church.  Some followers of Jesus thought his message only belonged to Jews; converts would have to become Jewish first before becoming followers of Jesus. Others welcomed Gentiles into the movement of Jesus.  


We largely ignore this conflict when we read the New Testament today; often we only have the voice of those who advocated for the inclusion of Gentiles.  But nonetheless this tension divided friends and families. The Apostle Paul’s greatest friend was Barnabas; they went everywhere together, until Paul started welcoming in the Gentiles.  At that moment, they went their separate ways: Barnabas to remain in Judea and Paul to travel on to Gentile cities like Ephesus and ultimately Rome itself.


Our letter - either written by Paul or one of his followers - addresses Gentile Christians.  The “you” in this letter is not simply people in Ephesus; but the Gentiles who wondered if they really belonged.  The “you” in this letter is all of us who’ve felt excluded and judged, shamed and outcast, on the wrong side of the line or the wall.  “You are God’s work of art.”


One of the challenges of reconciling being gay and Christian centered on the issue of pride.  In the LGBT community, coming out meant proclaiming gay pride. But in the church, pride got cast as sin, a deadly sin in the Catholic faith of my childhood, and the oft-named root of all sin.

But, “You are God’s work of art.”  How can we not take pride in ourselves when God so clearly delights in us?


Christian tradition often lifted up humility as the “correct” virtue.  But I realized the limitations of humility early on. Humility leaves us unable to question tradition; because it whispers in the heart, “Who are you?”  Humility leaves us unable to stand up to bullies; because it whispers, “Who do you think you are?” Humility traps us in destructive relationships; because, “Why would you deserve better?”


Certainly pride can be sinful, but the lack of pride can also be sinful.  I thought of this recently when a female pastor I know said, at the beginning of March, women’s history month, “I’m done apologizing.”  She didn’t mean that she’d never do anything wrong; but too often she found herself rushing to apologize for things she never did, taking responsibility that wasn’t hers, saying “I’m sorry” just to smooth over a rough relationship.  And so instead of apologizing further, she came to claim the pride, “I’m God’s work of art.”


This is the kind of meaning I long found in this verse; a call to be proud of who we are, to know ourselves as God’s treasure.  Each of us - in our beauty and our imperfections - art. Each of us - in our rich diversity, with toned muscles or wrinkles, good hair and no hair, whatever the shape and size, every orientation from sensual to asexual, all of us, all that makes up our personhood, all of it - God’s treasured work of art.


But, as I lived with this verse, I found my heart moving from the opening phrase to the closing one, from “You are God’s work of art” to “created in Christ Jesus for good works prepared beforehand.”


The message “You are God’s work of art” can come as a healing, restorative word.  But, as one Biblical scholar said, this doesn’t mean we stop doing anything, as if “the Christian life simply means relaxing by the swimming pool, sipping drinks with little umbrellas jutting out the top.”  


By no means.  Instead, Paul moves from assurance to action, from promise to purpose, from works of art to work to do.  


As the scholar says: we can think of that work as the “opportunity for us to live out lives we were destined to live.”  And that’s long left me with a question: what’s my purpose? What am I meant to do? Am I living the life God calls me to?  


An old essay by Frederick Buechner shaped my thinking on these questions.  He wrote about the “Journey to Wholeness.”


Buechner observed all the ways the world can wear us down:


The world floods in on all of us. The world can be kind, and it can be cruel. It can be beautiful, and it can be appalling. It can give us good reason to hope and good reason to give up all hope. It can strengthen our faith in a loving God, and it can decimate our faith. In our lives in the world, the temptation is always to go where the world takes us, to drift with whatever current happens to be running strongest. When good things happen, we are in heaven; when bad things happen, we are in hell. When the world strikes out at us, we strike back, and when one way or another the world blesses us, our spirits soar...In other words, we are in constant danger of being, not actors in the drama of our own lives, but reactors. The fragmentary nature of our experience shatters us into fragments.


Many of those experiences are the very ones which make us crave the blessing, “You are God’s work of art.”


And there are people who responded to the brokeness and fragmenting pressure of the world with a sense of dignity; certainly Jesus did.  As Buechner explained, “All his life long, wherever Jesus looked he saw the world not in terms simply of its brokenness - a patchwork of light and dark calling forth in us now our light, now our dark - but in terms of the ultimate mystery of God’s presence buried in it like a treasure buried in a field.”  And elsewhere he explained further, “To be whole, I think, means, among other things, that you see the world whole.” I think he means that you don’t see brokenness; it’s there, undeniably; but that you see beyond brokenness, beneath brokenness, into brokenness; finding that hidden mystery, whole and holy.


Buechner didn’t claim that he had perfected wholeness.  Rather, wholeness was something he sought, not something he had, something he glimpsed in others, not something he grasped fully himself.  But he did see it in some other people; a kind of compelling spirit that set them apart, which even with their human imperfections, felt like wholeness.


I first glimpsed wholeness in my grandfather.  As a child, I listened to him tell lots of stories; he had one for every occasion.  But now, as I look back, I realize that I remember those stories because my grandfather spent so much time talking with me.  He was the one who would get down on the beach to build sandcastles, the one to let me play in his electrical shop, to teach me how to crack walnuts open while telling stories of picking nuts in Texas.


But I also remember how my grandfather responded to me when I came out.  My family and I went through some rough years before things started evening out.  As we got back to normal, I would test the limits. And one of those times was when I showed my parents and grandparents pictures of me in drag.  I left it to them to wonder if this was a one-time thing or a new passion; as I said, I was testing some limits.


My grandfather looked at the pictures of me decked out - my outfit include a faux pearl necklace - and said matter-of-factly, “Nice pearls.”  (This was a much nicer comment then one of my friends, who said, “Well don’t you Barbara Bush.”). It felt to me that my grandfather had said, “I see you, all of you, and however you try to be you, I love you.”  


I think our great work might well be a journey toward wholeness.  To learn to see the world, other people, and ourselves beyond all the brokenness that presses in on us, to see underneath all the fragmentary moments, to find a hidden wholeness.  


And for me this means that I not only need to hear “You are God’s work of art” but I feel called to say to others, “You are God’s work of art.”


Recently, because I continue to sit with this verse, I heard a third meaning in it.  For a long time I thought the author of Ephesians wrote of “God’s work of art” as a reference back to the first creation story, that moment when God the creator decided to make humankind in the divine image.


Many theologians have written about all the implications for humans as the “image of God;” this concept roots ideas of the inherent worth of people, of human dignity.  


Then I started puzzling over the middle of this sentence, “created in Christ Jesus.”  Now of course the author could have meant that Jesus was mystically present at the moment of creation.  But I wonder: perhaps the author meant we were created in the saving work of Jesus. So that this verse looks back to creation and forward to redemption: we were and we shall be God’s work of art.


I like this way of understanding the verse because it changes this life into an experience of God’s creative work in me.  Too often Christianity gets mired into a narrative of purity and purity lost; but what if we experienced it as God’s continual shaping of us, the artist layering depth in the paint, the sculptor chiseling away.  What would it mean to see those hardships we all face, the challenges that rock us to our core, as part of the process of becoming God’s amazing works of art? Was this why Paul said, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God”?


I know this: I’m going to keep holding close in my heart this word of God, “You are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus, for good works prepared beforehand.”  May you keep that word in your hearts and share it with all you meet. Amen.






Sources

In addition to Feasting on the Word and The New Interpreter's Bible, I consulted:

  • Buechner, Frederick, “Journey toward Wholeness,” Journal of Theology, 1993.

"On Empathy" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - March 4, 2018

posted Mar 5, 2018, 1:03 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Mar 6, 2018, 9:56 AM ]

The other day a short article appeared in the New York Times about the federal agency which issues green cards and citizenship.  President George Bush created the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services back in 2005.  The new agency reflected President Bush’s commitment to seeing our nation as a community of immigrants.


As he said shortly after creating the agency, “America's welcoming society is more than a cultural tradition, it is a fundamental promise of our democracy. Our Constitution does not limit citizenship by background or birth. Instead, our nation is bound together by a shared love of liberty and a conviction that all people are created with dignity and value. Through the generations, Americans have upheld that vision by welcoming new citizens from across the globe -- and that has made us stand apart.”


This commitment of President Bush to building a welcoming America came out in the mission statement of the agency, “Securing America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.”


But, as the New York Times recently reported, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service recently deleted all mention of our heritage as a “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement; instead the new language focuses on “protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.”


Now I realize the language of America as a nation of immigrants doesn’t capture the experience of Native Americans and African-Americans.  But it feels to me like something significant got lost in this “update” to the mission statement.  How can an immigration agency forget we are a nation of immigrants?


What happens when we forget?  In this case, the act of forgetting the immigrant history of most Americans comes with a profound lack of empathy for current immigrants.  This same federal agency which forgets our immigrant histories now stranded over a hundred Iranian Christians and Zoroastrians in Austria: the families sold everything and left but now exist in limbo, unable to go home and unable to immigrate.  In some cases, immigration officials split up families - sending parents to America but detaining their 23-year old son, who said, “I wish this nightmare ends, that I can open my eyes and see my family.”  Forgetting costs us our empathy.


Turning from the news to the Bible, I find a moral vision rooted in remembering, an ethics built from empathetic memory.  Our first reading this Sunday recited the Ten Commandments, the great rules of God.  Often preachers focus on the Ten Commandments as a list of rules with the explicit question, “Did you keep this or that rule?”


But instead of a moral checklist, I want to look at the Ten Commandments for what they cause us to remember about ourselves and God.  The call to remember comes out directly in the commandment about resting on the Sabbath.  We heard, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”  People held in slavery never got rest; you can’t have free time if someone claims to own you. And so in the desert, free at last, the Israelite refugees from Egypt heard God make plain: honor the sabbath, take rest and give rest to all with you, because you remember what slavery was like.


Just as God evoked the memory of slavery specifically in the commandment to rest and provide rest to others, so too the experience of slavery shaped all of the Commandments. The connection to the experience of slavery can be seen in the last five commandments, the so-called “second tablet,” that primarily focus on relationships between people.  Thou shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.


When we first read these commandments, they may not sound like rules arising from the experience of slavery.  But then if you remember what happened in our own country, you realize these rules create the very kind of protections people held in slavery lacked.  Let one example from Frederick Douglass suffice; he wrote, “My own wife had a dear cousin who was terribly mangled in her sleep, while nursing the child of a Mrs. Hicks. Finding the girl asleep, Mrs. Hicks beat her to death with a billet of wood, and the woman has never been brought to justice.”  The Israelites experienced the same in Egypt; and so the slaves of Egypt, once they got free, heard God make plain this commandment: thou shall not kill.


Continuing to work our way backwards, we can see the insight of freed slaves in the fifth commandment, “honor your father and mother.”  Slaves knew that enslavers would honor no family relationships; the marketplace broke apart parents and children over and over again.  But in the desert, the women and men escaping bondage heard God say, “honor family relationships.”


I already talked about rest, the commandment most overtly connected to the experience of slavery.  But you might wonder how the remaining three commandments relate: thou shall have no other gods before me, thou shall not make graven images, or use my name in vain.  Even these commandments can not be separated from the experience of slavery.  The enslavers demanded devotion: honor me, bow down to me.  But in the desert the God of Freedom made clear: take no one as your master.


And to drill down on just one of these commandments, consider the rule against “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”  We often take this as a rule against cursing.  But just think about the way God’s name was invoked to support the practice of slavery.  Indeed, too often religion gets used to justify the otherwise unjustifiable.  And so, do not take the Lord’s name in vain, do not use God to justify the unjustifiable.


The Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt.  And in the desert they heard God shaping their moral universe based on the memory of their enslavement; remember you were slaves once, so do not call anyone master; remember you were slaves once, so rest and give rest to others too; remember that you were slaves once, so do not kill or covet like the enslavers do.


Memory can shape our empathy, but we ought to be clear about the challenges we face being empathetic.  Earlier this year I spoke about our ongoing need for Martin Luther King’s wisdom.  King once said, “Never let another man bring you so low as to hate him.”


After worship a church member stopped to acknowledge the challenge of King’s words.  Our political divisions can make hate seem rational.  The other side, whichever side, can move us to disgust.


I’m not offering a quick solution to this dilemma because I don’t have one; there are people I find it hard to feel empathy for, people I find difficult to hold in the light of God’s love.  And yet I see the spiritual danger of limiting my empathy. If our empathy rises from memory, we must ask, "What shall we remember?"


Recently I reread an old story that brought this problem home to me.  The story came from Dante’s lurid poems about hell, the Inferno.  I know a fascination with Dante may seem odd, especially since I don’t believe in a classic notion of hell.


In Dante’s telling, people get the afterlife their hearts desired; people like Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri.  These two leaders of Pisa schemed their way to power; but in a Game of Thrones plot twist, the Archbishop betrayed the Count.  Ruggieri then locked the Count in the Tower of Hunger along with his four sons, leaving them all to starve to death.


As one can imagine, the Count deeply desired revenge.  As Dante said, “I saw two souls together in a single hole, and so pinched in by the ice that one head made a helmet for the other.”  And pinched in tight, one head behind the other, Dante realized the Count chewed at the nape of the Archbishop, “a famished man… gnawing his loathsome dinner.”


Dante interrupted the meal of the count to hear his tale.  The Count wiped his mouth on the hair of the Archbishop and then described how the Archbishop betrayed him, his horror at the sound of the door locking him into an upper room of the tower.  The predicament froze the heart of the count, “I did not weep; I had turned to stone.”  Meanwhile his sons, seeing their father chew his hand, offer their own bodies, “Father, it would give us much less pain if you ate us: it was you who put upon us this sorry flesh; now strip it off again.”  In wretched order the Count saw his sons die, until the last son implores him, “Father, why don’t you help me!”  Desperate hunger blinded the Count, until he died groping along the floor to locate his dead sons.  Having told his story, the Count resumed his meal, as Dante said, “grinding it as a mastiff grinds a bone.”


This graphic moment captures the hell vengeance creates in our hearts - an insatiable hunger.  Indeed, the Count seems as locked inside a hunger of hatred as he once was in the tower.


And yet even as he told this story of unmitigated fury, Dante suggested another outcome could have been possible.  The Count told his story with allusions to the last night of Jesus - the upper room, the son offering his body, and the cry that resounded like Jesus’ from the cross, “Eli, Eli, Father, Father, lama sabachthani, why don’t you help me.”  Dante doesn’t suggest that the Count could have ended his sufferings by seeing his similarity to Jesus.  But he might not have died with the feeling of absolute abandonment, with bitterness freezing him into a locked embrace with the archbishop.  Could remembering Jesus on the cross moved his heart from vengeance?


But Dante didn’t tell this story for us to re-imagine the fate of the Count.  Instead, he pressed us to face the danger of our own unforgiving hearts.  And he did this by acting out his own rage.  The pilgrim of hell responded to the Count’s story by calling for retribution.  He denounced the city, “Ah Pisa! Foulest blemish on the land,” and called for River Arno to so flood the city that every last resident would perish.  Dante raged against Pisa for killing the Count’s innocent children; but now he wanted the residents of the city to pay for the Archbishop’s debauchery.


Dante’s condemnation of Pisa might strike us as justified: punish the city.  But I think he vented his over-the-top vengeance to call attention to our own hatreds, the ease as which we can slip into them, until we find ourselves, like the Count, locked in by the hunger of hatred.


In many ways a modern parable of hatred and empathy plays out in the new film, “Black Panther.”  (Last time I talked about a movie I got in trouble for spoiling the whole film; I’ll try to choose my words carefully.)  The movie centers on the conflict - and competing visions - of King T’Challa and his cousin Erik Killmonger.  Both must grapple with the reality and the memory of the Void, the loss caused by enslavers. An understandable anger burns in Erik Killmonger, driving him to seek vengeance; and this hatred destroys his relationships and turns him into the very people he despised, until at last he sounds like a British imperialist promising “The sun will never set on our empire.”  King T’Challa undergoes his own transformative quest - everyone must see this film so I can talk about it - in which he must decide what kind of man he will be: one ruled by fear or empathy.  Resolving that question didn’t come through the battle scenes but through confrontations with his past and learning how the memory of the Void would shape his future.


Like King T’Challa, we face choices between allowing hatred or empathy to rule in our hearts.  A woman recently wrote about her childhood bully, a boy who made her miserable for years.  She wanted him to have an awful life; even long after they ended up in different grades, she would occasionally google him, hoping for the worst, to savor the ways her life worked out and his fell apart.  And then one day she learned he had died at 25, killed in a drug deal gone bad.  She learned the details, “His friends said he was so terrified in the weeks leading up to his murder that he’d slept with a hammer under his pillow. I was haunted by what I imagined his final moments were like, by how scared he must have been. I cried for the boy who had made me so miserable.”  Now, instead of being satisfied by revenge or karmic justice, she’s realized that both the victim and the bully need help; she came to empathize.


As we face choices between hatred and empathy in our lives, what would it mean to take the Ten Commandments as our spiritual guide?  To remember in a way that enlarges our hearts?  To take our hardest moments not as sources of our greatest resentment but a call to our deepest love?  To allow empathy to arise from memory?


Amen.





Sources:

  • Douglass, Frederick, “My Slave Experience in Maryland,” National Antislavery Standard, 1845.

  • Hawkins, Peter S., Undiscovered Country: Imaging the World to Come (Hawkins’ commentary on Dante helped me find new meaning in the Inferno).

  • Jordan, Miriam, “Subtle Edit in Mission at Agency for Migrants,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 2018.

  • Ibid, “Spurned by U.S. and Facing Danger Back Home, Iranian Christians Fear the Worst,” New York Times, March 1, 2018.

  • USCIS, “Press Release,” Mar. 27, 2006 (PR quoted President Bush).

  • De, Ruiter, Geradline, “I thought my bully deserved an awful life. But then he had one,” Washington Post, February 22, 2018.

"On the Wilderness" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 18, 2018

posted Feb 21, 2018, 3:19 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

One day earlier this winter, my family realized our dog Duchess wasn’t well.  She didn’t greet us at the door, didn’t wag her tail; our happy lab had become lethargic.  Duchess only wanted to lay on the couch.  We figured Duchess suffered from the dog equivalent of the flu.  And so we petted her and comforted her.  And everyone felt bad to see her hurting so.


The next day Jay took her on a walk; and then - quite literally - the truth came out.  A Christmas tree ornament.  What she so enjoyed eating hadn’t sat well with her.


I could imagine how the tree looked from Duchess’ perspective: basically, a toy chest; laden down with plush things that didn’t look that different from her own toys on the floor.  Why not take a fresh one?  So I immediately moved all my needlework ornaments up higher on the tree; moving temptation out of reach.


Beyond such precautions, what did Duchess feel about this?  Many dog owners think their dogs feel shame when they do something wrong.  Numerous videos of “guilty” dogs can be found on YouTube.  But what did Duchess feel?  Not much more than indigestion, according to researchers.  In one study, a researcher had dog owners forbid their dog to eat a treat; then, when the owner left, the researcher either gave the treat to the dog or hid it.  Then she told the owner that the dog either ate or didn’t eat the treat.  Owners reprimanded or praised the dogs accordingly; but interestingly, the dogs who hadn’t eaten the treat looked more remorseful when reprimanded, leading researchers to conclude that the guilty look of a dog is just a technique to reduce conflict with humans.  And so, in case you’re wondering, that look on Duchess’ face wasn’t guilt, just her gut.


My experience with Duchess eating off my Christmas Tree made me think about another forbidden fruit: Adam and Eve in the garden.  That story hangs over Lent, a paradigmatic story of humans succumbing to temptation; with Adam’s original disobedience answered by Jesus’ final obedience.  But it also set up expectations of God’s judgment as swift and severe: break the rule, get banished.  It led us to imagine God just waiting for us to break a rule and to fear the eternal implications of judgment (up or down).  Viewing God this way encouraged a piety that is no more sincere than the look of guilt on a dog’s face; a spirituality of shame.


But an alternative story of temptation comes out in the tale of Jesus in the desert; and this story can help move us beyond shame to a spirituality of vulnerability.


The Gospel of Mark described the temptation of Jesus in the briefest way possible.  One moment he rose from the water of the Jordan; headed to the desert; and then before we can really wonder about that, he started preaching in Galilee.  And yet, one senses that this moment in the desert affected all of what came next.  In the wilderness, Jesus discovered something of both his humanness and his holiness.  As one commentator said, “Jesus carried a bit of wilderness around with him.”


Mark’s vision of Jesus in the desert alludes to other stories.  Jesus “was with the wild beasts;” like Adam and Eve, naming all the animals in the garden.  Jesus “was in the wilderness for forty days;” like Moses and the Israelites on their quest for freedom.  “Tempted by Satan, the angels waited on him;” like the prophets before him.


And just as the wilderness moment connected Jesus to the past stories of the Bible; we can also see our own connection to him in the desert.  Because we know those moments of wilderness.


Several times I visited the Badlands National Park in South Dakota; a dramatic, almost lunar, landscape formed by the slow erosion of what once was ocean and marshland.  Not desert, but certainly arid and desolate.  You can see for miles without seeing anything at all.


Alone in the Badlands, I become much more aware of sound - the wind, certainly; but also, because of the way the soil captures noise and the lack of many creatures, the absence of sound.  A beautiful loneliness in which you hear your own heartbeat; or is it soulbeat?


But not everyone’s wilderness looks like the Badlands.  Some experience it not as desolate, not as a desert; but as a jungle, a jumble of verdant life.  There the cacophony of sounds fills the mind and chases away the thoughts.  The vines entangle.  You can know you’re lost without seeing where to go.


And just as we can imagine the physical geography of the wilderness, we know even better the emotional terrain; the craggy loneliness of the Badlands; the overcrowded overwhelming jungle in which everything seems entangled, and life itself at once abundant and suffocating.


We might visit a physical desert or jungle; but we rarely choose the emotional terrain of wilderness.  Like Jesus, we get driven to it.  Think of Jesus, rising from the waters of the Jordan, hearing a voice from heaven say “This is my beloved” and seeing a dove, a sign of peace.  That happy moment changed in a blink.  The peaceful doved morphed into a pursuing hawk, chasing Jesus; and Jesus found himself changed from beloved son to terrified prey; a mouse chased by a hawk.


Our emotional wilderness comes like that hawk.  A diagnosis changes us.  An infidelity wounds us.  A hidden addiction becomes undeniable.  A day at school turns to tragedy.  And in a flash we find ourselves in a wilderness not of our choosing.  A moment when we realize we can’t control the outcome.  And, perhaps most desperately, a time when in the silence of the desert or sounds of the jungle we long for the voice of God.  Until we want to scream into the wilderness, “Where is God in this?”


What happened to Jesus in his wilderness remained hidden in Mark.  And yet we can see the effect of the wilderness on all of what came afterwards.  Jesus left the wilderness to question the assumptions of his society, to overturn established traditions, to reach out to the outcast.  As one Biblical commentator said, “Mark is using this stark story to preview the rest of the Gospel, in which Jesus is the wild beast who refuses to be domesticated into the household of conventional religion.”


The experience of wilderness changed Jesus.  Taken somewhere he didn’t want to go, he came to question all the assumptions of his life.  You can hear that wildness when Jesus spoke, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you.”  You can see it when Jesus surprised people by his welcome of sinners and tax-collectors.  We know he became a different person because of the wilderness, just as wilderness moments can change us.


Jesus could only come to this by facing the danger that exists in the wilderness.  Mark named it as Satan, but I might give that power a different name: shame.  Shame stalks our emotional wilderness.  Shame is such a tricky devil.  The people who ought to feel it, never do; leaving us to wonder, as the defendant once asked his merciless tormentor, “Hhave you no shame?”  And too often, those who ought not to feel it become immobilized by shame.


Mark said that while Jesus faced the devil of shame in the desert, he also experienced angels waiting on him.  Just as I reimagine Mark’s Satan as our shame, I think of the angels in a different way too, as new beginnings.  Fresh starts waited on Jesus.  For that’s what we need in our emotional wilderness: a fresh start, a new beginning.


It feels to me that shame pushes us to divide the world into good or bad.  And, of course, shame makes us feel like we’re on the wrong side of that division.  But the angels offer a fresh start, a new beginning, a chance to understand ourselves beyond a simple division of good and bad.


Oscar Wilde - to quote from the LGBT scriptures - knew a lot of living in the wilderness.  And he once quipped, “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious.”  And I would add: the most charming people I know all have a wilderness story.  And when you struggle in that desolate terrain, your view of charming and tedious often changes.


Jesus certainly came out of his wilderness finding Mary Magdalene charming and the chief priest tedious.


Forty days of fresh starts gave Jesus a different relationship with God.  Too often conventional religion, domesticated faith, speaks of a judgmental God: that up-or-down judge.  As one person explained to me, this view imagines “God as a kind of austere Puritan presiding over life as if it were an old-fashioned spelling bee - one mistake and you’re out.”  (And before such a God, I would do about as well as a dyslexic asked to spell onomatopoeia).


But in the wilderness, Jesus questioned all the assumptions of his world.  And in the grace of waiting angels, in a new beginning each day, he found God didn’t care about our mistakes or our misfortunes.


As another preacher once said, “God is always more interested in our growth than in our innocence, which never was the issue anyway.  No, it is not our mistakes, not even their number, that matter most to God.  It is what we do with them.”


President Lyndon Johnson, after he left the White House, once reflected on the Vietnam War.  He said, “I never felt I had the luxury of reexamining my basic assumption.  Once the decision to commit military force was made, all our energies were turned to vindicating that choice and finding a way somehow to make it work.”  How tragic the unexamined life!  How many lives were lost because Johnson couldn’t imagine a new beginning?  


Jesus’ wilderness, and especially those forty days of new beginnings, taught Jesus to always be open.  Instead of allowing an assumption to rule his life, Jesus practiced a constant reflection, symbolized by returning again and again to remote places, remaining in touch with his wilderness.  The most open-hearted people I know faced wilderness moments they didn’t choose; like Jesus they came to embrace reflection and every day as a new start.


An openness to new beginnings turns us from shame inducing judgements toward vulnerable reflections.  We come to see reflection as something we do constantly; a bit like doing dishes.  One washes the dishes and puts them away, but soon again, they pile up.  (I know this sounds hypothetical; but it’s real life for Jay - I make such a mess in the kitchen that the dishes are never done.)


Shame makes mistakes and misfortunes a terror.  But vulnerability claims them as moments on the road.  Shame can be a danger of our emotional wilderness.  But angels of new beginnings await in the desert too.  The wilderness changed Jesus into an open-hearted person, someone who offered a fresh start to all the people he met.  And our wilderness moments can be transformative too: gifting us with a spirit of vulnerability, open to others, knowing all need new beginnings.


Amen and Amen.


Sources:

  • Brennan, William, “Your Dog Feels No Shame,” The Atlantic, Mar. 2018.

  • Enniss, P.C., “Stewards of our Mistakes,” Journal for Preachers, 1988.

  • Feasting on the Word (Lectionary background articles for Lent 1 B).

  • Taylor, Barbara Brown, “Four Stops in the Wilderness,” Journal for Preachers, 2001.

"What Do You Notice?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 11, 2018

posted Feb 14, 2018, 2:29 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every year I watch the Super Bowl.  Others in my house root for teams; I’m there for the wings and chips.  But also the commercials.


This year one of those commercials affected how I imagined the scripture reading we heard today.  The Gospel of Mark sounded like one of those Super Bowl commercials.  The camera pans to Peter, James, and John standing on the mountain with Jesus, rugged guys in the woods.  And then, as Mark explains, “Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” And then Peter turns to the camera, “Tide Commercial.”


But another commercial caught my attention even more: the use of Martin Luther King’s stirring Drum Major Instinct sermon to sell Ram Trucks.  In the speech, King reflected on the story of James and John, on the way down from the mountain, asking Jesus for positions of authority in his kingdom.  The disciples utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teaching.  And King zeroed in on this in his sermon, speaking of the “drum major instinct” inside all of us that pushes us to be praised, to be first of all our peers; that desire to have position of power.


King talked about the way advertisers appealed to our drum major instinct in their ads, saying:

“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.”

Ram Trucks didn’t include King’s comments about car advertisers in the commercial. Instead they lifted King’s evocation of true greatness that comes from service to others: loving somebody, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, trying to love and serve humanity.


Ever since the commercial aired, people came out against its use of King’s sermon to sell trucks.  Such irony: King’s sermon on disciples not understanding Jesus misused by people who didn’t understand King.  In that aftermath, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How did someone not notice King’s critique of advertisers?  How did someone not notice this would be problematic?”


Today, I want to think with you about the spiritual practice of noticing.  To me this word links together two defining practices of our faith.  The practice of prayer involves noticing; so does the work of justice.  We are called to be disciples that notice.


Our Gospel lesson from Mark makes this point by telling stories of the ways the disciples failed to notice what was right in front of them.  We heard first of Peter rebuking Jesus because he didn’t understand his teaching.  But I’m more interested in the second story, up on the mountain.


Jesus liked to pray in remote places.  This time he took Peter, James, and John along with him to pray up on a mountain (the same people he will take with him to the Garden of Gethsemane).  This time the disciples see something amazing: Jesus changes before them, seemingly glowing from within, radiant in prayer.  As Jesus spoke in prayer, it seemed as if Moses and Elijah were right beside him, the three of them talking and praying together.


Even decades later Peter would vividly recall what he saw, writing to friends, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  He received honor and glory from God when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”


But at the time, when he first saw his friend seemingly transformed, Peter felt terrified.  Throughout the Bible, fear was the typical response to a divine manifestation.  Peter felt that; and in his fear, Peter came up with a solution.  “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”


People often comment on why Peter made this particular suggestion; but I want to call attention to something else: this moment where Peter tried to turn his discomfort into a solution.


It reminds me of something I often see in difficult conversations.  Just at the point of discomfort, people turn to problem solving.  Haven’t you felt that too?  You share something, make yourself vulnerable; and the other person responds with advice, the classic, “Well let me tell you what you should do.”


This also happens in conversations about race and racial justice.  The other day I went to a book group with Rhonda Hill, our preacher last Sunday.  We were talking about white supremacy and a white person in the group rushed for a solution, asking Rhonda, “What can we do?”  And Rhonda paused to note in a gracious way the pattern of rushing towards solutions.  Instead, she asked the person to slow down, to feel the pain.  As Rhonda said, “African-Americans have been dealing with this for four hundred years; just listen to the pain.”


Peter used his initiative and action as a mask to cover his fear.  But what would have happened if instead Peter noticed his discomfort?  Too often, like Peter, discomfort leads us to ramble on when we might instead just listen.


In this case a voice from heaven thundered, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”  God dramatically entered the story; I’m sure a terrified Peter was even more scared.  But notice: God offered no new insights to Peter, James, and John.  Instead, God called their attention back to what they had missed.  “Listen to him.”  Presumably, the disciples had been hearing Jesus talk all along; hearing but not listening.  Now God redirects them to notice what Jesus said; to listen.


This reminds me of a quote from Oscar Wilde, who once said, “At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till art had invented them.”  As Wilde said, the fog had to be noticed in order to be seen.


God, like an artist, called the disciples to notice Jesus.  That day up on the mountain didn’t mark the moment when Jesus became something great; not his transformation into the divine.  Instead, the perception of the disciples changed up on the mountain; they noticed what was always true.


Recently, prodded on by my friend Dana, I started taking yoga for the first time.  Dana both leads the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee and serves as associate pastor of a Pentecostal church.


Our yoga teacher designed the class for novices.  She will describe the way we will do a yoga flow, moving from one pose to the next, flowing from cobra to downward-facing-dog to warrior; all of which takes me to the edge of my coordination.  Sometimes I think the only pose I’ve mastered is quizzical-dog-face.  And while everyone else does a yoga flow, mine looks more like a yoga fumble.


Dana and I were talking between yoga sessions; she described how she experienced the graceful movements of our yoga practice as a form of praise.  Sun salutations to Jesus.  I confessed to Dana: I’m in the back of the class and while everyone else does the half-moon pose, I’m praying, “Jesus don’t let me fall over.”


Thankfully our yoga teacher keeps repeating phrases like “notice your body,” “stretch to your limit,” and “take this pose at your level.”  The apostle Paul said in Romans that the Holy Spirit prays inside of us with sighs too deep for human words.  Noticing my body feels like listening to the Holy Spirit praying.  Notice your body.  I live in a culture which treats the white male body as the norm, the universal.  But I’m the only white man in my yoga class.  And far from feeling my body to be universal, I feel my limits.


God entered the story of the Transfiguration to call the disciples to notice; I think noticing is God’s movement in our soul.  “Notice your body,” my yoga teacher reminds me; and it comes as a word of grace: discover your limits, find your strength, remember to breathe, stretch to your limit.


What did the disciples notice about Jesus?  His odd language about a suffering and dying Messiah.  This ran opposite of their expectations.  People in the time of Jesus thought of a Messiah in terms of military strength and victory.  Peter gave voice to this when he rebuked Jesus; he expected Jesus to win, not to die; to conquer, not to be crucified; to lead a military parade, not a march to Golgotha.


The Transfiguration story didn’t explain the reason for the crucifixion.  Indeed, I sometimes even wonder if Jesus understood the reason, as his cry on the cross sounded both dejected and confused.


But it gave the disciples a chance to see Jesus holding together two concepts: suffering and glory, his prediction of rejection with the profound affirmation of heaven’s blessing.


Jesus invited the disciples to join in that crux of suffering and glory; “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”


Yet we often misunderstand Jesus, thinking that “taking up a cross” means any kind of suffering.  We forgot that the cross and crucifixion represented conflict with the Roman Empire, confrontation with the power of domination and oppression.  And so the cross was not some private woe but a vigorous and public pursuit of social justice that resisted the power of domination and deception.  We can find the cross in all our work for racial justice.


A sense of glory sustained Jesus in that work.  Not glory in the sense of fame.  And certainly not glory in the sense of angels playing harps.  But glory that came in heaven’s assurance, “with you I am well pleased.”  King spoke of that glory at the end of his Drum Major Instinct Sermon, when he imagined himself saying to Jesus, “Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”


This week we will begin the Season of Lent, a time when we focus in a particular way on what we can do to follow Jesus.  This Lent, I hope we each take to heart the call of God to notice; noticing the way God is moving in our hearts and the need for justice in our world.


Alleluia and Amen.






Sources

King, Martin Luther, “Drum Major Instinct,” widely available online.


"On our Congregational Goal" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church - January 28, 2018

posted Feb 5, 2018, 9:33 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every year I make a New Year’s resolution.  Mostly, it goes badly.  And soon into the year I realize I’ll never manage to achieve my goal.


This year, I decided to try something different.  Instead of aiming high, with a resolution for radical change or trying some dramatically new direction in my life, I would aim low.  Forget aspirational goals, I told myself: try achievable.


So as New Year’s approached, I looked around the house for a goal I could realistically achieve.  A “done in a day” project.  Even better, a “done by brunch” project.


I came up with the perfect idea: cleaning out the fridge.  First, it needed to be done; one of those cleaning tasks that I tend to put off to next time; every time.  Second, I could actually do it.  And I could move into 2018 having already accomplished my goal for the year!  Perfect.


It started off well; I was nearly done even, when I started to wash the glass shelf in the fridge.  I carefully lifted it out of the fridge and took it over to the sink, gingerly placing it in.  As I started to wipe it down, the shelf exploded into a thousand pieces, sending bits of glass all the way into the family room.  It looked like a hail storm had struck my kitchen.  None of the glass bits were sharp - this was safety glass - but the mess went everywhere.  I stood at the sink, surrounded by my disaster of a resolution, thinking, “This is a bad omen.”


I’m still finding little bits of glass - on top of the microwave, on the window frame, under the stove.  So much for done by brunch.  Sometimes, no matter if our goal is aspirational or achievable, we fail.


Our congregation set an aspirational goal three years ago.  We wanted to grow the size of our worshipping community - the people gathered on Sunday morning for worship - by 5% each year.  But, despite our efforts, we did not achieve our goal.


We adopted this goal against a backdrop of churches shrinking around the country.  The Pew Research Center began documenting this phenomenon over the last decade, christening it the “rise of the nones,” as in the rise of those who mark ‘none of the above’ when asked about their religious affiliation.  The “nones” represent the fastest growing segment of the spiritual landscape in America, with one-fifth of adults now identifying with no religious tradition, a trend led by the one-third of Millennials who think of themselves as “none of the aboves.”  Our goal called us to grow our worshiping community at a time when more and more people were opting out of spiritual traditions.


We knew achieving this goal would require us to learn and adapt in new ways.  Several leaders in our congregation attended workshops at the Wisconsin Conference on how to grow churches.  The retreat leader explained that most churches look like old castles - foreboding, imposing, and a bit mysterious.  It’s not at all clear what goes on inside the castle.  And so, the retreat leader explained, growing our church would require getting outside the castle: making new friends in our neighborhoods, holding events out in the community, and most especially, inviting people to join us in the castle for worship.


Three years later, I remain convinced that the basic lesson remains true: to grow our congregation, we need to get outside the castle.  A number of things proved successful: for instance, last Spring we organized a talk by Dr. Erin Winkler of UWM at the Shorewood Library on “How Children Learn about Race.”  Almost everyone who came shared our values but didn’t belong to our congregation.  The event got us outside the castle.  We’re holding more of our programing and events in ways designed to engage people beyond our own membership.


And yet we clearly found a place of struggle: inviting friends to church.  I know some of you have invited friends to worship.  But many more have told me how uncomfortable this makes them feel.  Or how few people they know are looking for a church.  While we didn’t reach our goal; I think our need to learn how to invite friends remains a clear growing edge of our congregation.


But something else became clear over the last three years.  As mentioned in the annual report, much of the decline in our worship attendance can actually be traced to the smaller size of our aging households: whereas five years ago in a household of two older adults, we now have a widow; or five years ago in a household of four people, now the kids are off to college.  In years past we balanced these changes in our households by incorporating young couples.  We did better than most congregations in attracting Generation X.  But now we’re missing millennials; people in their twenties to mid-thirties remains our biggest challenge to recruit.  The question of how we connect with millennials and the generation after them will remain long after we move on from this recent goal.


How should we respond to our failure to achieve our goal?  How should we respond to the ongoing challenges we face?  While these sound like practical questions, they really get at the heart of who we are spiritually.  The response to failure is a spiritual matter.  It tests our capacity for hope.  And yet, as people of faith, we are people of hope; we hope in things not yet seen.


This weekend our sisters and brothers in the Jewish faith gathered to celebrate the Crossing of the Red Sea.  As you may recall, in that story the slaves of Egypt escaped.  But the army of Pharaoh pursued them right up to the Red Sea.  Caught between the soldiers and the sea, Moses’ experiment in freedom seemed like a failure.  And then, unexpectedly, the people found a way through the sea; they escaped while the pursuing soldiers perished.


The prophet Isaiah, at a desperate time that equaled the peril faced beside the sea, heard God say,

“Thus says the Lord,

  who makes a way in the sea,

  a path in the mighty waters,

I am about to do a new thing;

  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

I will make a way in the wilderness

  and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43)


Now our situation is nothing like that at the Red Sea or faced by Isaiah; but remembering them, we’re meant to hope, to have faith God will find a way out of no way.  I realize this might sound like a pollyanna response.  So let me say something about the reasons for my hope.


First, I know the polling of public opinion signals major challenges for churches.  But really, after the 2016 election, who believes polls?


Honestly, the demographic trends facing us are sobering.  But things can change unexpectedly.  I often think of a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote to a friend in 1822 with the boast, “There is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian!”  Unitarianism was a fast growing spiritual tradition when he made this boast; but he failed to foresee Joseph Smith and the Mormons, the Great Awakening, the Social Gospel Movement, Pentecostalism, the rise of the Black Church, the arrival of Catholics.


But perhaps more to the point, I think of the fate of independent bookstores.  Years ago it seemed that the rise of Amazon might close every brick-and-mortar bookstore.  And yet, as Harvard Business School recently reported, independent bookstores are growing, with the total number of stores increasing 35% since the Great Recession.  Ryan Raffaelli studied what happened and found three factors key to the growth of independent bookstores: community, curation, and convening.  Independent bookstores provided community for their customers.  They curated books: not just recommending best sellers but getting to know people well enough to recommend the odd book and the overlooked title.  And finally, the bookstores brought people together for book clubs and game nights and public conversations, acting as a convening hub of conversation and relationships.  Plenty of people wrote the obituary of bookstores; but there are now more independent stores than there were ten years ago.


In the lead up to adopting our goal, church leaders talked about our congregation as a “boutique” size congregation.  We can do some things very well, but we’re not able to do everything.  And so we’re more like an independent bookstore than we are like a Barnes and Noble.  We may not have the largest church school, but we have one where the adults will know your child’s name.  And, like an independent bookstore, we can focus on community, curating, and convening.


I know the sobering statistics about Christianity can make it feel like a dark time.  It could make us feel depressed, as if the church were in the tomb.  But, as a friend recently pointed out to me, a womb can be as dark as tomb.  I think our best days are yet to come; we are in the womb of a moment of change, hoping for what we have not yet seen, worshiping a God who is about to do new things.


And my hope comes from the Gospel.  I believe the message of the Gospel matters for us, for our community, for our world.


Today we heard again the same gospel reading that we heard last week.  This was not a typo.  Rather, I heard another message in the Gospel that I had to bring to you.  And it concerns the identity of the four disciples Jesus called: Peter, Andrew, James, and John.  Those names have become so familiar to our ears that we miss how they might have sounded in Jesus’ day.  Three of these names sounded very Jewish: Peter, James, and John.  But the name Andrew came from Greek, a foreign name.  To the first people hearing the Gospel it sounded like Jesus called as his disciples Peter, James, John, and Farrokh.  From the very beginning, the message of Jesus brought people together across lines of identity, ethnicity, and politics.


I have hope for our future because I know we’re doing Gospel work when we talk about racial justice.  We’re doing Gospel work when we look at issues of bias and prejudice that keep us from living as the community Jesus calls us to be.


This has always been hard work, something Paul’s letter well captures.  We might not relate to the specific of the dilemma Paul faced: what to do about food sacrificed in pagan temples.  But we can relate to the community conflict.  Some people reasoned that since the pagan gods were not real than the food from their temples was acceptable to eat.  This position particularly mattered to the wealthy, for they were the ones invited out to dine at the houses of wealthy pagans; the wealthy defended their right to eat pagan meat.  The working class were too poor to afford meat; they judged the wealthy for eating food from pagan temples.


Instead of engaging in a logical debate about right and wrong, Paul moved the conservation to ethics.  He said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  So he set aside the logical arguments to focus on what his neighbors needed.  If eating meat troubled the conscience of one of his fellow church members, he’d rather not eat meat than cause them to lose faith.


Now the point is not that we must give up bacon to grow the church.  But rather, living into the diverse and beloved community of Jesus requires us to love boldly.  We don’t need to win logical arguments; we need to learn to love profoundly, broadly, deeply.  And to say to our friends outside this church, “Would you join me in a community of love that embraces diversity?”


We did not reach our three year goal, but I remain hopeful because I know we’re striving for the Gospel.


This New Year’s Day, after cleaning up, I sat down to read a book about Julia Child, my gourmand inspiration.  Julia famously took classes from the Cordon Bleu Institute in Paris.  But I hadn’t known before: she completely failed her final exams.  She did not succeed at first, but persevered.  Imagine what the world would have lost if she stopped at that first disappointment!


Our three year congregational goal did not work out as planned, but I remain convinced there is yet more light and truth to break forth in God’s beloved community.  Alleluia and Amen.




Sources


"On Changing Lives," by Andrew Warner, January 21, 2018

posted Jan 26, 2018, 1:57 PM by Andrew Warner

The most recent Star Wars film - “The Last Jedi” - marked a new understanding in how the force works.  Spoiler alert; if you haven’t yet seen this film: cover your ears.


A long time ago in that galaxy far, far away, the force operated as a divine energy, a balance of good and evil; a cosmic energy of life that gave mystical and magical powers to those who could wield it.  The Jedi learned to use the good side of the force; the Sith learned to use the evil side.  Jedi and Sith lived as yin-and-yang to each other.


The power of the force became clear in the earliest Star Wars movie, a New Hope.  At one point an Imperial Commander on the newly built Death Star boasts of the power of his station to resist any rebel attack.  He told Lord Vader, “This station is now the ultimate power in the universe.”  Darth Vader counter, “Don’t be too proud of this technological power you’ve constructed.  The power to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the force.”  When the commander sneered, Darth Vader used the force to choke the commander from across the room.


This supreme power of the force - more powerful than any technology or gun - continued right through to the present film, where Luke used the force to broadcast his visage across the galaxy to do battle against his nephew.



While the power of the force remains unchallenged, the way that one learned to use the force radically changed.  In earlier movies, people had to learn how to master the force through long years of study and practice.  Luke traveled to Dagobah to apprentice with Master Yoda, learning seemingly pointless things on the way to becoming a Jedi Master.


But now, in this latest movie, ritual and tradition get dumped for instantaneous insights and hidden knowledge that only needs to be dramatically released.  Rey comes to a sacred Jedi island to learn from Luke, but where Yoda taught Jedi lore, Luke only talks about the pointlessness of ancient myths.  Meanwhile, Rey grabs a lightsaber to become a self-taught prodigy.  While Luke apprenticed, Rey had a eureka moment.


Yet the most telling moment of change came in a scene between Luke and Yoda.  Luke, in his anger at the Jedi tradition, planned to burn down a sacred tree containing ancient Jedi books.  When he stopped, an apparition of Yoda appeared, and with a wave of his wand destroyed the holy site.  To a shocked Luke, Yoda said, “Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.”


Stars Wars, while set in that galaxy far, far away, reflects the shifting attitudes in our own culture.  We value immediacy and instantaneous change over long sought and hard earned knowledge.  Just think: years ago Julia Child became famous for her book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”  But now we have the Food Network promoting “Speedy Gourmet: 30 Minute Meals.”  Or, in politics: people wonder why we elected someone with as little political experience as Donald Trump; but the truth is voters have picked the least experienced candidate in every presidential election for decades.  Just as Clinton had more experience than Trump, so to did McCain have more than Obama, Gore more than Bush, and the first Bush more than the first Clinton.


And so we not only watch the instantaneous emergence of a new master Jedi on Star Wars, but we expect in so many ways for immediacy to govern better than experience.  This shift in how we acquire knowledge matters and it affects how we understand change in our lives.  A focus on instantaneous knowledge sets up an expectation that change can be immediate.  And this comes in contrast to an older focus on knowledge as earned by effort and study: change that only comes with time.


In the United Church of Christ, we talk about “changing lives” as one of core commitment.  This Sunday I want us to think about what we mean by changing lives.  Does change come as a dramatic insight or from a lifetime of work?


This morning we heard stories from both testaments that speak to change happening immediately.  In our first story: Jonah appeared suddenly in Nineveh, announced God’s plan to destroy the city, everyone immediately converted, and God decided to be merciful.  Likewise in the Gospel: Jesus came along and four men dropped everything to follow him immediately.  And from these stories we might conclude discipleship comes as a “eureka” moment of self-discovery.


The model of instant change can be very powerful: the moment when you see yourself in an utterly new way.  The energy and power of such a eureka moment seems at play in the Jonah story.  Even when we read the whole Book of Jonah, nothing prepares the reader for the sudden and overwhelming reaction of the people of Nineveh.  Told they have 40 days before the end, they work to make everything right with God.


Donna Schaper, a United Church of Christ pastor at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, wrote about this instantaneous moment of conversion in Jonah.  Jonah’s message created a sense of urgency in the people; “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  People who are poor and vulnerable in our society experience a sense of urgency all the time.  Evicted: where will I sleep?  Hungry: what will I feed my kids?  Undocumented: will I be deported?


But most of us here today don’t live with the urgency of such questions.  As Schaper pointed out, “The well-off and comfortable do not know what urgency is!”  And, as a result, we may very well need moments that bring us up short, that make us realize our privilege, and make us know in the depth of our bones “this must change.”


Schaper shared her own prophetic moment, when someone’s words shook her.  As she explained: “Once, when I told a friend that I was feeling a bit burnt out, she caught me up short by responding, ‘You ain’t even been lit.’ That phrase brought me to my Nineveh.  It brought me to a place where I could say, ‘I have forty days to get this life and God thing together.’”


I can think of those kind of moments in my own life.  My commitment to work on issues of racial equity came in a flash like that.  Back in 2014, a twelve-year old boy named Tamir Rice played alone in a park with a new toy pistol.  Someone called the police.  They arrived and shot him dead before their car even stopped.  Watching that video, thinking of my own 12-year old son, changed me.  It impelled me to work on racial equity.


I could organize the story of my life around such eureka moments: the moment I came out, the moment I knew I couldn’t be Catholic, the moment I meet Jay, the moment we decided to have children.  Eureka moments serve as the punctuation in our life stories.


And yet, even as I can think of eureka moments that seemed to change my life, I know lots more happened in the background.  The story from Mark’s Gospel seems at first blush another eureka moment.  The story simmers with all its immediacy.  “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”  But this moment of instantaneous discipleship doesn’t end the story; the whole gospel unfolds after it.  Instead of just one powerful moment of insight, the disciples must go on a long, transformative journey in which they continue to fail and fall.


The dramatic insight of the disciples would take them a lifetime to implement.  Which reminds me of a story once told about John Wesley.  A woman came up after one of his revival sermons, to challenge him, saying, “Sir, I’ve heard you preach that sermon before!”  To which he responded, “Yes, but it's a good one.”  The disciples had one good insight and they spent a lifetime trying to live by it.


Jesus talked about something new, the Kingdom of God.  This only gets mentioned twice in the Old Testament, but now Jesus and his disciples can’t stop talking about it, a 100 times in the New Testament, one good idea they couldn’t stop repeating.


In Jesus’ telling, the Kingdom of God contrasted with the powers and principalities around him: corrupt Herod, colonizing Rome.  Where Herod and Rome based their claim to greatness on the cities they built, Jesus would make it on the basis of the community he pulled together.


But building a true community doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes repeated effort and action.  Malcolm Gladwell once wrote about people who do amazing things, Outliers.  In that book he noted that such people spent 10,000 hours learning their craft, repeating again and again until they really learned how to do something.  Those 10,000 hours may seem tedious, repetitive, and boring.  But change is built on it.  Think of the disciples: after their eureka moment meeting Jesus, they had to spend their 10,000 hours with him and his message before they got it.  Change didn’t come in an instant; instead they had to take that insight and figure out how to live it day after day.


The reinforcing role of both eureka moments and the tedium of repeatedly learning struck me in the story Christian Picciolini told of his conversion from white supremacy to embracing love.  Picciolini - a loner as a teenager - came under the sway of neo-nazi skinheads; when the leader and many adults were arrested for assault and battery, Picciolini found himself heading up a white supremacy group at the age of 16.  He engaged in cruel and hateful actions back in the 1980s and 1990s.


He described in a recent interview the way rage affected how he saw everyone.  At school, he picked fights just to feel tough.  One day he twice punched an African-American student.  The second time, he left school in handcuffs.  But not before tussling with the African-American security guard and using racial slurs in shouting at his African-American dean.


Later he said, “It was a moment where I started to recognize my own weaknesses because I had recognized that my fears had overcome me.  I didn’t know these people.  I had never had a meaningful interaction with them; but yet, I was ready to blame them for everything that was wrong in my life, especially how angry I was at my parents… And I took it out on two people that really tried to help me at that moment, and I didn’t recognize it.”  Now, looking back on his life, Picciolini sees that awful day as a eureka moment; in an instant he saw the debilitating power of fear that held him hostage.


As powerful as that moment was, it only began the process of getting his life back together.  Five year later, having left the neo-Nazi movement, Picciolini began putting his life back together again.  He found a job with IBM installing computer systems.  On his first job, IBM sent him back to his old high school to install a network.


The security guard didn’t recognize him; but Picciolini decided he needed to make amends.  As he explains, “When I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned around and recognized me, he took a step back because he was afraid.  And all I could think to say was, ‘I’m sorry.’  And after speaking for a while and finding enough words, he shook my hand, and he embraced me, and he made me promise that I would tell my story.”


Picciolini went on to do just that: telling his story of a movement from fear to love.  Eventually he founded a group called “Life After Hate” which helps others leaving the neo-Nazi movement, bringing people out from underneath the hate-filled storm of white supremacy.


His changed life depended on two things: both a eureka moment and a repeated commitment, lived every day.


This is a truth we need to remember: we need both moments of eureka and the long repetition that makes change take hold in our lives.  We can’t change lives without both.


Even the Last Jedi, for all that it celebrated instantaneousness transformation, gave a surprising but often missed nod to the importance of ritual, tradition, and time spent mastering a subject.  When Yoda told Luke that Rey possessed all the knowledge in the sacred books, it seemed as if he meant she possessed it in her heart.  But towards the end of the movie we see Rey open a drawer; tucked inside were all those boring old books.  Yoda had spoken one last riddle to Luke; Rey literally possessed the books.  And, we can imagine, her spontaneous insight into the force will be balanced by the hard-worked learning over time.


May we learn to embrace both the wisdom that comes like lightening, the eureka moments, and the knowledge that we can only learn slowly over time, repeating until we know it in the depths of our bones.  Alleluia and Amen.







Sources:

  • Davies, Dave, “A Former Neo-Nazi Explains Why Hate Drew Him In - And How He Got Out,” Fresh Air, Jan. 18, 2018.

  • Saiman, Chaim, “Why The Last Jedi Is More ‘Spiritual’ Than ‘Religious,” The New Republic, Dec. 27, 2017.

  • Schaper, Donna, “Jonah 3:1-5,10,” Feasting on the Word.


“On Martin Luther King’s Insight on Love” by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - January 14, 2018

posted Jan 16, 2018, 2:18 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

I remember when my school system began observing Martin Luther King Day.  In Virginia, where I grew up, the state had long celebrated “Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Day” in January.  Virginia legislators decided to merge the two holidays together, giving us “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Martin Luther King Day.”  Need I say, this made for a confusing school assembly.


In the Virginia of my youth and elsewhere people struggled with how to remember and honor Martin Luther King.  We might take guidance from the remarks of President Ronald Reagan when he signed legislation creating Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday.  Reagan had long opposed the holiday, but he decided to support it once the legislation passed with veto-proof majorities.


At the signing ceremony, Reagan said:

Traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true, and in his words, “All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘... land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.’”


This Sunday, thirty-five years later, we continue to face this call to both acknowledge the way racism still affects America and to rededicate ourselves to King’s movement of liberation and freedom.


I’m sure we all have our own stories of how we’ve seen the continuing legacy of racism, both here in America and around the world.  Two come to my mind this morning.  Just last week, clothing retailer H&M advertised a sweatshirt for sale.  The photo depicted an African-American child in a green sweatshirt emblazoned with the slogan, “Coolest monkey in the jungle.”  Major companies like H&M have layers of marketing experts and managers; none of whom thought this was a bad idea that repeated racist tropes.


The photo reminded me of another story from last year, the racist taunting of Everton Luiz at a soccer match in Serbia.  Luiz grew up in Brazil but now plays professional soccer as a midfielder in Serbia.  During a championship game, the opposing team started chanting “monkey” whenever Luis took the field.  Ninety minutes of harassment.  Finally, near the end of the game, he started to cry; and in frustration he flicked off the people yelling racial slurs at him.  The opposing team - who did nothing about their fans - now reacted to Luiz, forming a scrum of hate,

pushing and shoving him, as if he was the problem.  Afterwards, Luiz reflected on what happened, “What shocked me above all was the attitude of the other team. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, they supported that type of behavior.”


Last week in our series on Race and Bible, we heard about an insight from Debbie Irving, who compared racism to a school yard bully.  There are three roles in a situation of bullying: the bully, the victim, and the bystanders.  Educators know that an effective anti-bullying campaign


involves getting bystanders to become allies, people who interrupt and stop bullying.  Irving concluded, “If Racism were a person, it would definitely be a bully.  Opportunities abound for white people to move out of the bystander role and into the ally role in an effort to prevent racism from getting fueled and refueled every day.”


H&M had too many bystanders and not enough allies on its management team.  And likewise, Everton Luiz faced too many bullies and bystanders instead of allies in the stadium.  Given the way racism continues to mar our country, I think our challenge is to become effective allies.


Moving from bystander to ally requires spiritual strength.  I find that strength in going back to the writings and words of Martin Luther King, who saw with clarity the beauty and tragedy of our country.


After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King and other leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to continue the struggle for civil rights.  The group organized with the goal “to save the soul of America.”  Sometimes white people ask me why our church is working on issues of racial equity.  “Shouldn’t we do something less political and more spiritual?”  But King reminds me that questions of racial justice are ultimately not legislative questions, not political questions, not social questions, but soul questions.  The people chanting “monkey” at Everton Luiz and the bystanders who said nothing revealed something about their souls.


Confronting racism as a spiritual problem led Martin Luther King to develop a spiritual answer: love.  Again and again in his writing and his words, King came back to the power and gift of love as the ultimate answer to spiritual crisis we call racism.


At the beginning of his work, during the fight against segregation on buses in Montgomery, King framed the struggle for civil rights in terms of love.  He said, “There is the danger that those of us who have lived so long under the yoke of oppression, those of us who have been exploited and trampled over, those of us who have had to stand amid the tragic midnight of injustice and indignities, will enter the new age with hate and bitterness… We must blot out the hate and injustice of the old age with the love and the justice of the new.”


King called love “the most durable power in the world,” the only power capable of addressing the spiritual problem of racism.  Thus he explained, “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that.  Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.  Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.  Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”


Yet in talking about love, King faced many challenges.  Love can sound weak, passive, sentimental, and inconsequential.  It left many asking how King could talk about love in the face of Bull Connor’s firehouses or after bombs exploded or beatings.  So King explained what he meant by love nearly every time he spoke.


First, he made clear that love wasn’t some gushy feeling, some Valentine emotion.  Early on he said, “In speaking of love… we are not referring to some sentimental emotion.  It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense.”


And later he added:

So that when one rises to love on this level, he loves men not because he likes them, not because their ways appeal to him, but he loves every man because God loves him.  And he rises to the point of loving the person who does an evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.  I think this is what Jesus meant when he said ‘love your enemies.’  I’m very happy that he didn’t say like your enemies, because it is pretty difficult to like some people.  Like is sentimental, and it’s pretty difficult to like someone bombing your home; it is pretty difficult to like somebody threatening your children; it is difficult to like Congressmen who spend all of their time trying to defeat civil rights.  But Jesus says love them, and love is greater than like.


And second, he continued to return to the spiritual importance of love.  As he said, “I have seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South.  I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizen Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.”


King demonstrated the brutal honesty of love: he didn’t hold back from naming the injustice and immorality of racism in America.  He called out sheriffs and congressmen and neighbors for the way hate disfigured their souls.  Love didn’t mean silence.  Rather it meant a kind of radical, transformative, revolutionary act; both seeing the potential of the person and demanding that they live up to it.  King’s love saw that we are more than the sum of our fears; and King’s love demanded that we live as the better angels of our nature.


Love caused King to truly see people in all their brokenness and possibility.  This comes through in an anecdotal piece he wrote about “the gift of love.”   He described a series of youth he met in Chicago, teens with nicknames like Tex and Goat.  “I met these boys and heard their stories in discussions we had on some long, cold nights last winter at the slum apartment I rent in the West Side ghetto of Chicago.  I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”  King invited the youth to take part in the Freedom Movement, coming down to Mississippi to use nonviolence to work for civil rights and then bringing their skills back to Chicago.


King described the marches for fair housing and opportunity in Chicago.  “These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse, but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs.  They did not reply in words or violent deeds… their only weapon was their own bodies.  I saw boys like Goat leap into the air to catch with their bare hands the bricks and bottles that were sailed toward us.”  The gift of love embodied by these teens in Chicago revitalized King for his own work transforming and redeeming the soul of America.


On this anniversary of King’s birth, I am convinced that love remains the only power able to defeat the spiritual crisis of racism.  I saw this enduring power of love demonstrated by a mosque in western Arkansas.  Back in 2016 - during the height of the presidential campaign - three vandals spray-painted swastikas and other hateful messages on the doors and walls of the Al Salam Mosque, a mosque whose name means “peace.”


Immigrants like Hisham Yasifi founded the mosque.  Yasifi came to America after growing up in a refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria.  He thought all of America would be like what he saw on Beverly Hills, 90210.  Western Arkansas must have came as a shock.  He lived Beverly Hillbillies in reverse; Arkansas 90210.  Yet Yasifi came to love his community; he celebrates Feb. 11, the day he came to the United States, as his birthday.  As a stateless person, a refugee, he lived without a home; America gave him a country.


The three vandals grew up in the town Yasifi settled in.  Abraham Davis always felt like an outsider.  No one expected very much of Davis; and he fell to all their expectations.  It was said of Davis, “Something was lodged in Abraham from the beginning, like a shard of glass in his heel.”


Davis got involved with the vandalism without much forethought.  A friend invited him over; another joined them; as the men drank, one of them started talking about American soldiers wounded and killed by IEDs in Afghanistan.  Davis’ friend proposed the hate crime as retribution.


Davis felt regret as soon as he woke up, but he only began to acknowledge what he’d done when arrested.  He wrote the mosque to take responsibility and to apologize.  The leaders of the mosque met and decided to forgive Davis.  Yasifi explained his thoughts about this.  “Someone messes up and it sticks with him all his life.  Even if he tries to become a good man, the community says to him, ‘You are a bad man!’ They encourage him to be a bad man.”  Yasifi, in a way that King would surely recognized, decided to practice love.  Not to like or ignore what Davis did, but rather to love enough to see beyond Davis’ worst day and demand that he live up to his greatest potential.  In many ways, Yasifi and the leaders of the mosque were the first ones to love Davis enough to expect the best of him.


Yasifi demonstrated the power of love, not just to transform Davis, but also to preserve his own dignity in the face of oppression.  On this King weekend, aware of the on-going way racism mars our country, may we rededicate ourselves to King’s belief in the enduring power of love.   Can we love like King and Yasifi?  Is there someone you don’t like - in fact someone whose behavior you abhor - that you could hold in the light of God’s love?  For when hatred and fear seems to rule, love remains the power that can cast out fear, because love sees our potential and demands we live up to it.  Alleluia and Amen.





Sources:

  • Racist Serb fans torment Brazilian footballer Everton Luiz,” BBC, Feb. 20, 2017.

  • Gomer, Justin and Christopher Petrella, “Reagan Used MLK Day to Undermine Racial Justice,” Boston Review, Jan. 15, 2017.  Link.

  • King, Martin Luther, A Testament of Hope, edit. James Washington.  Quotes from p. 8, 11, 47, 62-63, 139, and 514.  

  • Tavernise, Sabrina, “The Two Americans,” New York Times, August 26, 2017.

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