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"Spark Blessing" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 17, 2019

posted Feb 18, 2019, 3:39 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

This Winter, on New Year’s Day, Marie Kondo released a new series on Netflix, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”  The series features Kondo arriving at the home of Americans bewildered by their belongings - their stuff. Sweeping in like a modern-day Mary Poppins, Kondo helps the families face their mountains of materialism, tossing and organizing and tidying her way through the chaos.

In the show, Kondo regularly introduces her hapless Americans to her trademark question, “Does this item spark joy?”  The central practice of her method involves holding up an item - say, the Hawaiian shirt your husband got for a party with friends back in 1988 (hypothetically) - and asking, “Does this spark joy?”  Kondo wants to know if the things in our lives still give us a shiver of excitement when we hold them. If not, Kondo suggests we thank the item for what it gave us and then put it in the donation bin.

This prompted a fair bit of cleaning out at my house, as I looked at books and dishes and the detritus of closets.  I don’t miss anything in the boxes that went off to the Purple Heart Donation Center. But I did wonder why I held onto them for so long?  What purpose did they serve?

Still, I wonder about Kondo’s question, “Does this spark joy?”  While practical when sorting through a closet, I think we need to ask a different set of questions.  And that thought came to me while watching the first episode of her show - Tidying Up; admittedly, the only one I’ve seen.

The episode featured a young couple with the last name of Friend; the Friend family included the mom and dad, married five years, and their two children, 4 and 2.  Like all reality television, the show opened with an interview, laying out the problem in the house. The wife explained, “He’s cleaner than I am; more organized. I feel like I came into his house and messed that up.  Right baby?” The husband nodded and rolled his eyes while his wife added, “But it was worth it, right?” He shrugged, “We got two kids out of it - that’s the answer for everything.”

That scene alone made me wonder if they needed Dr. Phil more than Marie Kondo.  For certainly I’ve learned over the years that a dismissive eye roll spells more trouble in a relationship then all the overt reasons people give for problems.  The look of dismissive contempt spoke more to the lack of joy then all the disorganized closets.

As the interview went on it came out that the couple often fought about laundry.  He worked, she stayed home with the kids, and yet they hired someone to do their laundry; which clearly made him mad.  As they went back and forth about this on camera, the husband cut off his wife, ending conversation with a “We’re different.”  Sparks; no joy.

As Kondo worked with the family, they learned her method of folding every shirt tightly, down to about the size of a postage stamp.  Dressers and cabinets and closets emptied. But it seemed like the real transformation came not in the tidying but rather in the Friends, husband and wife, spending time together, discovering long put away photos of their wedding, reminiscing on life before it became so busy with kids.  Along the way, the husband came to realize about himself, “Rachel and the kids are not getting the best side of me.”

While the show meant to market the positive effects of Kondo’s tidying up method, the organization or disorganization of the house seemed immaterial to the change between the spouses.  How they looked at each other - critical, dismissive, judgmental, defensive - presented the real problem. The husband realizing his family didn’t get his best self, learning again to work together, share responsibility as a couple, and compliment the other proved transformative.

The kind of cultural moment Marie Kondo and her spark joy mantra received made me think about a very different kind of lifestyle advice, the Beatitudes of Jesus.  Both the Gospel of Matthew and of Luke record the story, each slightly differently. In the Gospel of Matthew - which is how we usually remember the story - Jesus gave a “sermon from the mount.”  Matthew wanted the scene to replicate Moses bringing the law down from the mountain; like Moses, Jesus gave a law to his disciples, a way of blessing for us to follow.

Luke tells almost the same story.  But this time Jesus gave a “sermon on the plain,” down amongst the people who came out to hear him.  Luke’s setting may seem less symbolic than Matthew's, certainly less dramatic. But I prefer it. The “Sermon on the Mount” seemed hierarchal, Jesus coming down with the Ten Beatitudes and giving them to the hapless disciples.  But in Luke, Jesus stood with the people; Jesus with us, an act of solidarity. And I think solidarity turns out to be the central point of the Beatitudes.

(You might want to open up to our reading, which can be found on page 64 in the New Testament section of your Pew Bible.)  Jesus set out two ways of being in the world - one of blessing and one of woe. Jesus named four experiences that cause God to bless us: poverty, hunger, grief, and oppression.

Luke’s version of the story differs from Matthew's not just in the setting - mountain vs plain - but also in the kind of situations named.  Matthew spiritualized the very real conditions Luke named. In Matthew, Jesus called blest those who are poor in spirit. But in Luke, Jesus doesn’t treat poverty as a metaphor.  Instead, Jesus took his place with the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the oppressed.

I don’t know whether this sermon happened on a mount or a plain, but I think Luke captured Jesus’ words best.  Blessed are you who are poor. And I say that because the whole arc of the Bible, the whole underlying message of God’s word, speaks to this same commitment of God to be with the poor and the oppressed - the widow and the orphan in the Old Testament’s description.  God’s solidarity, God’s blessing, God’s heart - all with the poor.

Liberation theologians working in Latin America and then influencing people around the world read these stories as proof of what they called “God’s preferential option for the poor.”  But there is more to the story - the woes; what one scholar calls proof of “God’s preferential annoyance of the rich.”

Think about those woes.  “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”  In each of these woe statements, someone has already experienced something good.  Riches. Food. Laughter. Praise. But the enjoyment will not last. Even when sparking joy, it will not last.

We often overlook Jesus’ message of woe.  Naturally so; because he’s talking to us. While we can all think of someone who lives in a better house in a better neighborhood with a better view, in fact we live better off that most people in the world - so rich we rent whole storage units for our extra stuff, so well fed we try every fad diet.

We can easily get defensive in such moments, to feel judged.  I know how natural that response can be; to gird myself when I hear someone say, “why don’t you - or why didn’t you - do such and such.”  But this morning I want to open my heart to what Jesus says about me. For I know Jesus speaks to me with these woes. (He might even be looking at my Facebook feed with a new dessert every day, “Woe to you who are full of macarons.”)

It can be hard to let go of our defensiveness.  This last week I attended a lunch in which the Board Chair of America’s Black Holocaust Museum spoke to business and community leaders.  He described the work of the museum to document the lives of people of African descent, from pre-contact with Europeans, through the middle passage and enslavement, to the modern day.  He ended his talk by naming the challenges we face today in Milwaukee, America’s most segregated city. After the talk, a white man asked a question. He spoke of the excellent Boys and Girls Clubs he donated to and then asked, “How can we change the misperception of Milwaukee as segregated?”  Sometimes it’s just hard to hear what’s really going on.

A great preacher of the last century, William Sloane Coffin, once pointed to a scene in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy.  Two friends reconnected after the war, one a collaborator with the Nazi regime and another part of the French resistance.  The collaborator kept talking about his own woes, his sense of shame, until his friend interrupted, “I don’t want your guilt; I want your responsibility.”

When I set aside defensiveness, when I take responsibility, I realize Jesus is trying to tell me where God and joy can be found.  In the blessings, Jesus wants to comfort those who were poor or hungry with the promise of God’s protection. But with me, Jesus wants to direct me where I could find God - by seeking solidarity with the poor and hungry, the grieving and the oppressed.

A biblical scholar I like summed this up as, “The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God.”  I like it. “The realm of God rests among those who have nothing but God.” But I want to tease out some of the meaning.  All over the Gospel, Jesus proclaimed the “coming of the kingdom.” We pray for it all the time, “thy kingdom come.”

Now I’d use a different phrase.  Where Jesus says “kingdom of God” and the scholar says “Realm of God,” I like to use Martin Luther King’s phrase, “beloved community.”  I think all of these phrases point to the same reality. God works to create beloved community.

And the poor need it, certainly.  But also, and I realize this more and more, we can’t have a beloved community in which some are excluded because they’re too poor or too hungry or too much of this or too much of that.

Years ago, the feminist theologian Letty Russell summed up why this is so.  “Jesus' message is that he is found with the outsiders, not because they are any more righteous than the others, but because, as a group, they are the ones who help us know when justice is done and all are included.”  She went on to quote an African American spiritual, “All kinds of people around that table one of these days! Hallelujah! All kinds of people round that table! Gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days.”

The sermon on the plain comes just as Jesus began to enlist disciples for his great movement.  To the poor, he proclaimed welcome; to the rich, he made a challenge to find ourselves with the poor; to know that singing Hallelujah someday only comes when all kinds of people can gather around that one table.

Recently a critic of Marie Kondo proposed a new question in place of “Does this item spark joy?”  Instead of sparking joy, he and his wife ask, “Does it help us fulfill a greater purpose with our lives?”

Frankly, that’s a much harder question.  There’s plenty that might spark joy but doesn’t help me fulfill a greater purpose in life.  But I think that’s the kind of question Jesus asks too: does this way of life draw you closer to people who are poor, hungry, grieving, or oppressed?  For that is how to spark blessing.

Alleluia and Amen.


Feasting on the Word

  • Bartlett, David, “Woe to Us,” Journal of Preachers, 2008 (Source for the William Sloane Coffin sermon illustration).

  • Becker, Joshua, ““Does It Spark Joy?” Is the Wrong Decluttering Question,” 2019.

  • Russell, Letty, “Worrying with God,” Christian Century, 1983.

"Disciples of Hope" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 10, 2019

posted Feb 11, 2019, 12:32 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Years ago, one of my friends bought his first house, a small place in the suburbs, the perfect place for him and his wife to raise the child she would soon give birth to.  The house seemed a steal to them, but others would note the rundown character, the result of long neglect by the cankerous previous owner. They knew his reputation – the suburban sidewalk didn’t run down his side of the street because he had made such a ruckus in the New England town meetings, libertarian rants about stopping government encroachment on his land.  With the curmudgeon gone, neighbors welcomed my friends with great excitement, a burden lifted on the street.

Soon my friend started fixing up the house.  The baby’s room had very dated wallpaper, eighties floral, probably even tacky then but especially so now.  So dated, my friend started stripping it all off; the laborious task of peeling and scraping decades old paper.  He worked close to the wall, putty knife slowly revealing the plaster underneath. Which meant he didn’t notice the pattern painted on the wall, until his wife came in with an exclamation.  As he stepped back, he saw it too, a gigantic swastika. The old man was more than a curmudgeon.

Recently I found myself thinking about my friend’s experience with his first house: that shock, that surprise, that angst – “where are we bringing up our baby?”  I think of it because we do similar work in the church. Not literally peeling back wallpaper, but through our anti-racism work, we peel back all the ways our society tried to paper over hatred, oppression, and inequity.  It can be hard to see what gets revealed; we gasp as floral stories dissolve to reveal something ugly hidden underneath.

My friend thought preparing the baby’s room would be a long Saturday project; it became more, as he scrapped plaster of a hateful symbol and repaired it.  Dust and grit and sweat, all part of healing the house. He worked so that his child could grow up in a different kind of space. And I know the work for racial equity can be demanding and hard – dust, grit, sweat, and more – but we do it so that our children and grandchildren grow up in a better America.  And so, we peel back all that papers over racism in our society - and our own hearts; revealing what had remained hidden; exposing, challenging, healing.

My friend worked to prepare a room for his baby as an act of hope.  Like all expecting parents, hope caused him to work and sweat late into the night.  Hope fueled all his efforts; hope for a child he did not yet know. In just the same way - and I want to make this clear - in just the same way we work for racial equity, emotional sweat and struggle, as an act of hope, a faith in the future, an expectation of the beloved community to come.  In my bones I know: the most hopeful people in America are those working for racial equity.

The character of this hope can be seen in the story of Jesus and his earliest disciples, for they too joined a movement for justice, a hope in beloved community.  We read this story nearly every year and I think you know the broad outlines: a crowd gathered to hear Jesus preach; he taught them from a boat moored close to shore; afterwards he asked the boat captain, Peter, to set out again, to fish in the heat of day; Peter, having failed in his early morning run, demurred; “why try again;” and yet he did, and hauled in so many fish that the net nearly broke; Peter gave up his career and became a disciple that moment.

Now, with this familiar story, I want to call attention to two particular moments.  First, the failure of Peter before he became a disciple. He’d spent the early morning trying to catch fish.  He depended on a catch. And yet, he failed. In the face of his failure, Jesus’ proposal seemed ridiculous. “Why try again?”  And yet Peter didn’t stop at failure. That’s part of hope.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if Jesus had stepped into the boat of a successful fisherman, one intent on counting his fish.  Would a successful person have gone out again? No. When it comes to hope, desperate failure often shapes our most abiding hopes.

Our commitment to racial equity doesn’t come because of success, doesn’t come because America achieved some state of racial harmony.  No, we come to this work from an urgency born of disappointment, a discipleship shaped by shock. We hope in things not seen.

I know for me the turning point in my work for racial equity came when Tamir Rice died in Cleveland.  Before, I knew America must work on issues of racism. I knew it mattered. I knew we had work to do. But then Tamir Rice died.  A boy, twelve years old, about the same age as my kids, shot dead in a park because he played with a toy gun. Someone called the cops on Tamir and they arrived, firing on him even before he could respond to their words; two seconds between cops arriving and Tamir dying.  That injustice broke a part of my heart. That failure of our nation moved me from thinking anti-racism work important to making anti-racism central to what it means for me to be a Christian.

I find hope in this discipleship.  W.E.B. DuBois expressed this hope when he wrote back in 1920 - after a World War that saw African-American soldiers lynched when they returned from defending Europe.  Despite all that broke his heart, he hoped; writing, “I stare into the night that looms beneath the cloud-swept stars. Eastward and westward storms are breaking - great, ugly whirlwinds of hatred and blood and cruelty.  I will not believe them inevitable. I will not believe that all that was must be, that all the shameful drama of the past must be done again today before the sunlight sweeps the silver seas.” That’s discipleship: to know the worst of the storms, and still to hope.

Second, Peter’s reaction to his first flush of success with Jesus intrigues me.  We often overlook it. When Peter hauled in the catch of a lifetime, he fell down before Jesus.  And what did he say? “Get away from me, Lord.” Not, “thank you Jesus.” Not, “Alleluia.” But, “get away from me.”  Peter feared where Jesus would lead him, feared where miraculous hope might take him.

And I understand that fear.  For Jesus invited Peter to go into an uncertain future, a future without a roadmap, a future with no guarantees.  Peter knew how to set his lines and haul in fish. But fish for women and men? What did that mean?

Hope takes us into a future we do not yet know.  DuBois, writing a hundred years ago, spoke of the “religion of whiteness.”  He meant by that the spiritual fervor undergirding and justifying white supremacy.  But also, and unmistakably, he meant it as a critique of white churches. Our work for racial equity seeks to untangle the church from the religion of whiteness.  What will we look like after whiteness? Who will we be if not privileged by whiteness? Like Peter, we begin our discipleship, join the movement for racial equity, not sure where this hope will take us.  We hope in a future we have not seen.

We may not know the future, but we can measure the cost of not following the hope for racial equity.  DuBois ended an essay on “the Souls of White Folks” with an image of the white soul as Prometheus, the Greek god who stole fire from heaven and brought it to humanity.  As punishment, the other gods bound Prometheus to a rock where an eagle ate his liver by day; each night it grew back to be consumed again the next day, an unending terror.  Evoking this Greek myth, DuBois said, “why will this Soul of White Folk — this modern Prometheus — hang bound by his own binding, tethered by a fable of the past? I hear his mighty cry reverberating through the world, 'I am white!' Well and good, O Prometheus, divine thief! Is not the world wide enough for two colors, for many little shinings of the sun? Why, then, devour your own vitals if I answer even as proudly, 'I am black!'”

A hundred years later, we see how white supremacy makes people devour their own vitals.  We saw it this week in Virginia, where Democratic Governor Northam devoured any remaining credibility in his efforts to not admit wrong and to not take seriously the pain, experience, and counsel of African-Americans.  First, he said the graduate school yearbook picture on his page of a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit was him, but we shouldn’t think him racist. Then, he backtracked - or should I say moonwalked - that claim; saying he got confused and that he wore blackface on another occasion (as if that made it okay).  As for why the photo was on his page or why an undergraduate yearbook included a racialized nickname for him, he claimed no knowledge. Instead he tried to wallpaper over his symbols of racism; “I want Virginians to remember all I’ve done since.”

So, Governor Northam clings to power, refusing to resign.  He says, “I will not be forced from office.” But I hear the real message, “I will not be ashamed.”  And so, like DuBois’ Prometheus, Governor Northam devours his own vital credibility, gripping ever more tightly to the power of his office while losing all touch with any moral leadership; elected by the hopes of black Virginians with a promise to face the state’s Confederate legacy, he now refuses to grapple seriously or even consistently with his own past.

If Governor Northam reminds us of the moral peril of forsaking the work of racial equity, the children of other Southern white political families speak to the promise of what following hope can mean.

Lauren Stennis grew up in Mississippi, the granddaughter of a politician committed to a white supremacist agenda.  And there in Mississippi, alone among American states, still flies a version of the Conference battle flag, the infamous Southern Cross.  Ashamed of that hateful symbol, and mindful of her own family history, Stennis designed a new flag, one freed from the symbol of white supremacy.

The new flag prominently features a blue star on a field of white, surrounded by 19 other stars and side panels of red.  When Mississippi first seceded from the Union, the state used a “Bonnie Blue Flag” of a white star on a blue field. Stennis intentionally inverted that symbol; as she explains, “because I don’t celebrate that dark moment in our history, but it has to be acknowledged.”

The daughter of Alabama Governor George Wallace also squarely faced her family’s history.  Governor Wallace famously stood on the steps of the University of Alabama to personally keep out African-American students.  Now his daughter works for racial equity. “It can be hard to take all this on,” she recently said.  “I did it because I wanted my children to have a different legacy than the one that was left to me.”

These two women - raised in the political center of white supremacy - now work for racial equity, following hope into the future.  Just as my friend sweated into the night preparing a room for his baby - peeling back and revealing and then removing a symbol of hatred - these women do the hard work of facing square on the legacy of white supremacy that shaped their lives.  Can we be like them? Disciples of Jesus wanting our children to have a different legacy than the one left to us?

Les Ingram, whose death we mourned last month, came to a Council meeting a few nights before he passed away.  He’d just spent the night watching his new granddaughter, Promise. Watching the baby exhausted him; and I realize now that some of the exhaustion surely was a sign of his heart trouble.  But something else troubled him too. That evening he reflected on how much work remained to be done in America. What kind of world would Promise grow up in?

On this Racial Equity Sunday, I want us to rededicate ourselves to this work, so that black grandfathers like Les don’t think they work alone; together we can make the world for Promise a beloved community; and make real the promise of beloved community for all our children and grandchildren.  This is the discipleship of hope, hope in a world we haven’t seen yet, hope in an uncertain future, hope that we can leave a different legacy than the one left to us.

May this hope fill your hearts, give you courage in the struggle for justice, and sustain you always.  Alleluia and Amen.


  • DuBois, W.E.B., “The Souls of White Folk.”

  • Ford, Matt, “Ralph Northam’s Trumpian Lack of Shame,” The New Republic, Feb. 4, 2019.

  • Hendrix, Steve, “A new Mississippi flag has a surprising champion: A segregationist’s grandchild,” Washington Post, Jan. 20, 2019.

"Being the Church in this Moment" by Rev. Andrew Warner - Plymouth Church UCC, January 27, 2019

posted Jan 28, 2019, 3:22 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Sometimes new occasions bring out new skills, hidden aspects of ourselves we didn’t know.  Certainly, that’s what happened to me as I left Israel a few weeks ago.

Friends in Israel hired a taxi to pick me up after our dinner to drive me to the airport.  Many taxis charge 300-400 shekels, but this service would only ask 200 of me. So, I went to dinner with friends.  Kosher Chinese. During dinner, the driver called a few times because he had trouble finding the restaurant; then finally, he called to say he’d arrived.

I went out with my friend Jody, who talked to the driver in Hebrew, confirming the ride to the airport.  I had carefully saved my last 200 shekel note, the exact amount I’d need for the fare. And so, I was off with my driver to the airport.

Back at the restaurant, my friends got a call from the driver.  Where was I? And that’s when they realized I’d gotten into the wrong cab, not the one we’d hired but a random one from the street.  But since my phone didn’t work in Israel, I didn’t know it.

We arrived at the airport.  I collected my bags. And I went to give the driver my 200 shekels.  What’s this? The ride costs 400 shekels but for you, friend, I’ll only charge 350.  I thought of all the other cabbies who had tried to overcharge me in Israel. Tired of it, we got into an argument: my insisting he’d been hired for 200 and him insisting that he knew nothing of the deal.

I gave him the cash I had, said I’d see what I could do in the airport, and went off with my bags - straight to the Delta check-in.  When my friends learned how it played out, they decided I handled it like an Israeli. New moments teach new lessons.

What new moment do we face as a church?  Not just as Plymouth, but as the Church? How can we live what we will sing this morning:

let us bring the gifts that differ

and in splendid varied ways

sing a new church into being

one in faith and love and praise.

Often when it comes to talking about the future, and our adaptations to it, people make bold pronouncements, grand visions, or scary dystopias.  And yet, it can be hard to predict the future. Just think of Teresa May: as a conservative minister she advocated for Britain to remain in the European Union but now she’s leading her nation as it crashes out.

Fifteen years ago, a group of analysts at the National Intelligence Council, a think tank for the NSA and CIA, developed a set of predictions about what the world would look like in 2020, an unclassified report into what they hoped and feared as they looked ahead to 2020.  They described four possible scenarios. The first they called Davos World, one in which economic growth slowly and steadily raised the living conditions of people around the world. Another, Pax Americana, predicted America becoming the unchallenged leader of a peaceful world.  In one or the other scenario, the authors did caution that Muslim immigration to Germany might present some policy challenges. Fifteen years later, it's easy to see the understatement and misdiagnosis.

But two other scenarios sound more prescient.  The authors also foresaw the possibility an Islamic Caliphate would arise and, in their scenario, predicted the caliphate would fail at its attempt to control territory but would effectively undermine Muslim nations.  Sounds about right. And even more accurately, the authors predicted the way a “cycle of fear” would pull apart relationships between nations and within nations.

In detailing out the possibility of nations becoming caught in “cycles of fear,” the authors pointed to “Manichaean” thinking.  As they explained, “Many religious adherents - whether Hindu nationalists, Christian evangelicals in Latin America, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, or Muslim radicals - are becoming ‘activists.’  They have a worldview that advocates change of society, a tendency toward making sharp Manichaean distinctions between good and evil, and a religious belief system that connects local conflicts to a larger struggle.”  Fifteen years later, this religious Manichaeism went mainstream, as people, religious or not, turned to sharply divide their world into the good and the bad, the us and them, the blue and the red.

Predicting the future can be hard - even the people at the National Intelligence Council only batted 500.  Can prediction be anything more than a Sisyphean task?

Recently I heard Elizabeth Anderson speak to this problem.  She compared it to driving: too often we imagine that we must see the whole road, chart our course from this place to where we want to be in the future.  Much goal setting takes this as the imperative: develop the grand vision first. But, because our grand visions often miss key information, we fail. So instead, Anderson suggested we imagine ourselves driving at night.  We can only see a little ways in front of our car, still we move forward into the night.

This last year our congregation tried in a number of ways to discern a big, audacious goal for our congregation, a grand vision.  We didn’t discover it. And, at first, I felt disappointed: didn’t we need a grand vision? But then, I took to heart Anderson’s counsel: we move by faith into an unknown night.  And so, our council developed a series of modest goals - things we can actually do now - that carry us forward as a congregation. We’ll talk about these goals in our annual meeting after church today.

Before we do that, I want to think with you about the ways in which our faith gives us the light by which we move into the night, the light by which we drive.  And when it comes to the Church, nothing provides more guidance than Paul’s metaphor of us as the Body of Christ.

Paul, when he wrote to the congregation in Corinth, addressed a community deeply divided; people squared off into different factions - Paul’s people against followers of other disciples, rich against poor, Jews against converts; no one got along.  Beyond internal divisions, the congregation existed at a deeply anxious time, a grinding social revolution in which the expansion of the Roman Empire came as a loss of freedom and identity. And so, Paul wrote to a congregation divided and anxious, uncertain about each other and fearful for the future.

He spoke of the church as a body, the body of Christ.  His picked up on a longstanding metaphor for community life; at least since Aristotle centuries before people had spoken of communities as a body.  And we still do; the “body politic.” That political metaphor spoke to a sense of connection, certainly, but it also reinforced social hierarchies - the feet ought to obey the head.  Used that way, the metaphor of the body sanctified the power and control of the social elite, the head of society, over the working poor, the feet and hands.

But Paul, even as he used this metaphor, subverted it.  We read it so often we might miss it. “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.” Paul doesn’t reinforce hierarchy; he mocks it.  The less honorable we clothe with greater honor. He means our privates. Instead of telling the poor to obey the rich; he mocks the well-dressed and perfumed elite as just being - I’m not sure how plain I can say it in church - “those privates.”

Instead of hierarchy (the poor obey the rich), Paul stressed equality (stronger together).  And really, through this metaphor made the point that we can’t be complete without the other.  Many Native Americans speak of a similar concept of all life being inter-related, mitákuye oyás’iŋ.

The equality Paul speaks of in describing us as a “body” takes on spiritual meaning; it's not a body, but the body of Christ.  Did Paul mean to echo the words of communion, “This is my body, broken for you”? Perhaps, but certainly he meant to connect how we live together with the shape and direction of Jesus’ own life.  What does it mean for us to be a crucified body? A body given for others? A body rejected? A body vulnerable? A body that faces off against the powers of the world? And a body of resurrection?  New hope? New life?

Taken as a whole, this metaphor of Paul describing the church as the body of Christ imagines us as a people of equality, connection, and vulnerability.

Our body of Christ faces challenges in being the church in this moment.  I’m thinking beyond the challenge of who will teach a Sunday school class or serve on Deacons; even beyond questions of how we connect with Millennials and the generation of young people coming up after the Millennials.  I think our biggest challenge comes - as the National Intelligence Council suggested - in the cycle of fear. That cycle of fear takes us through three emotions: first of course, fear; then, self-righteousness; and finally, separation; and then back around again to fear.

As I think about the role of our church in this moment, I think God calls us to be the body of Christ in a society caught up in a cycle of fear.

Fears abound; fears of the other and fears of what will happen to those of us treated as “other” in this society.  Fears come through so much of our political conversation; and so much of that conversation can make us fearful. In some ways, Americans have always held to their fears.  James Fallows, in an essay for the Atlantic, remarked on this when he returned from over a decade living abroad.  He noted that everyone talked about how “things were falling apart.” And that Americans have talked about this forever; the first sermon about the country going to hell in a hand-basket was preached in Plymouth Colony in 1628.  We’ve long had fears; and we’ve long turned those fears against people deemed “different” and “other.”

Which is why we need to be the body of Christ; to say across the chasm of our fears, “I need you.”  Just as the hand cannot be without the eye, I need you; to make boldly clear that we need each other, not in spite of our differences but because of our differences.

Along with the fears in our society comes a sense of self-righteousness, a confidence in our own goodness and the goodness of our side.  It comes out in personal interaction, like the Taxi driver and I in Israel, both so certain of our own position. And it comes out in our society.  Last week, I knew for certain the meaning of picture of a teenager standing in his MAGA hat while a native elder played a drum. I knew that smug look, a look I’ve seen on too many faces over the years.  I was certain. But now, as more videos come out, I don’t know. I still think I’m right about that smug look; and I am also a bit appalled at how quickly I could judge someone I don’t even know.

Which is why we need to be the body of Christ.  To say in a world of self-righteousness, “I need you.”  Les Ingram, who we mourned yesterday, said as we began working on racial equity, “We are all broken.”  In no way did he deny the reality of racism, but he held it in the context of the brokenness we all experience.  As the body of Christ - the body of vulnerability and brokenness - we can be honest with ourselves: we’re not always right, we don’t know it all, and we certainly don’t have it all together.

The cycle of fear starts with our phobias, deepens with our self-righteousness, and leads to our separation - the dividing of our world into good and evil.  All through human history, people have bonded by finding a common enemy: so often people afraid come together when they have someone to hate. We can think of all the people demonized at different moments - Jews, women, gays, immigrants, people of color.  And we know the violence that comes when a society decides to exclude, to separate someone.

But as the body of our crucified Lord, we come together in the face of that injustice, in spite of that pressure to demonize and separate the good and the evil.  We come together in the name of one demonized; made into a scapegoat. In a world where fear pushes us into our separate corners, we hear, “the foot cannot be without the head.”  The world needs us to be the body of Christ, pulling together despite the pressures pushing us apart.

What does God call us to be in this moment?  The body of Christ, committed to equality, working to bring people together.  May we answer that call and sing a new church into being. Alleluia and Amen.


Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's’ 2020 Project, December 2004.

"My Jerusalem Moment" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - January 20, 2019

posted Jan 23, 2019, 12:20 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Earlier this month I visited Israel.  I’m still reflecting on what I learned and experienced on the trip because in so many ways it touched on questions of spirituality.  Which is not surprising - one can’t go to the birthplace of three major religions and not think about spirituality.

But beyond the overt spiritual moments, many mundane things about Israel struck me too.  I knew enough about Israelis and the Middle East to expect the drivers to be aggressive. But it’s one thing to expect it, and another to feel like your taxi driver wants to personally see if a camel can go through the eye of a needle.  Drivers gave no quarter when it came to the road; fearsome. In a place where two cars can’t merge into one lane, it’s no wonder we can’t find peace in the Middle East.

Even more, I didn’t expect how Israeli drivers would react to pedestrians.  As aggressive as they drive, cars stop on a dime on the mere suggestion of someone crossing the street.  You might be cut off in traffic; but walking? Everyone stops.

Now, back in America, I realize how little regard we give pedestrians.  American drivers seem to always assume the next driver will stop. I’ve heard forever about pushy and aggressive Middle Easterners; why don’t we tell stories of their decency too?  That in a nutshell was Israel - a place of expectations and surprises, where I found the aggressive Middle Easterners I expected were more decent than Midwesterners as I walked around.

Israel surprised me, not just in what I learned about Israel but also in what I learned about myself.  My visit caused me to think about spirituality. I’d heard lots of stories - the pastor who went to Jerusalem and sobbed with spiritual pathos at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; so I went with expectation: when would I have my Jerusalem moment, my spiritual moment?

I timed my visit to coincide with the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when we celebrate the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus.  I particularly love the story - the pageantry - and longed to celebrate it in Bethlehem. Epiphany, while not much of a holiday in America, is, in other parts of the world, bigger than Christmas.

Sometimes the events can be contentious in the West Bank.  Last year on Epiphany, residents of Bethlehem pelted the Greek Orthodox Patriarch with eggs and shoes because of accusations he leased church land to Jews.

This year the Patriarch decided not to come to Bethlehem; but thousands of other pilgrims came instead.  Seeing the crowds, I longed for a Disney Fast Pass. Luckily, my tour guide thought the same. She lived in Bethlehem and seemed to know everyone, including the guy guarding the door of a covenant.  He looked the other way as she sneaked us through the cloistered courtyard. Sadly, I didn’t have to disguise myself with a wimple, debuting as a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence.

The covenant had a backdoor into the Church of the Nativity, putting us in the front of the line.  Still, the supposed site of Jesus’ birth could only be entered by going down a series of semi-circular steps - basically, a funnel.  So our group merged in with pilgrims from around the world, a scrum of the faithful; what says Merry Christmas more than a Russian babushka shoving you forward?

Once down in the lower level of the church, we each got a few seconds to kneel before the “manger” until a monk pushed us on.  Many around me felt it all very spiritual; but my introverted spirit needed space.

Which I found later in the Galilee and the Golan Heights, a much more rural (and green) part of Israel. I am a city boy, but my spirit soars in wild places.  There I took in the same sights as Jesus and his disciples. I remembered how Jesus would take time apart from his friends, to go to a deserted place to pray.  Surely I found the place, the grassy hills of the Golan, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, all the towns spread out around the shore.

One of the towns, Tiberias, became the center-point of Judaism after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.  An ancient synagogue sat nearby the Roman theater. Dr. Amit Lotan, a local historian, pointed out the mosaics in the floor of the synagogue.  Jewish synagogues long held a prohibition against showing human figures, least someone think the Jews worshipped pagan deities. But there on the floor one could plainly see a picture of Helios, the sun god, surrounded by the zodiac signs.  Clearly the Jews who built the synagogue felt comfortable enough with another religion to incorporate it in their designs, to see the Greek mosaic not as a dangerous pagan element but simply beautiful ornamentation. And with the synagogue built so close to the theater, surely Jews and Romans mingled, living beside each other, praying and laughing, creating their life together.

The Jews and Pagans and Christians of long ago Tiberias knew the reality of what Martin Luther King taught.  “I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be; and you can never be who you ought to be until I am who I ought to be.”  Even thousands of years later, their foundation of acceptance can be seen in the mosaic floor of their synagogue.

Yet a major gash marred the mosaic.  A religiously motivated vandal, ultra-orthodox, had destroyed part of the mosaic.  The vandal only wanted to remember a “pure” past and so desecrated an ancient site that witnessed to a blended spirituality, or at least a spirituality comfortable with other faiths.  What a parable of today, when it seems like too many religious people only find the sacred in the pure. But I find my spirituality like the long ago sages of the Sanhedrin, who studied Torah in a building decorated with the image of Helios.

I tried the sacred Christian sites once more when back in Jerusalem.  Centuries of Christian pilgrims developed a walk through Jerusalem called the “Via Dolorosa,” Latin for the Way of Grief.  It traces the Stations of the Cross, 14 moments of Good Friday. Station 1: the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Then stations marking his painful journey with the cross, stumbling as he went, meeting people on the way to Golgotha.  Ending with death and burial.

My modern doubts kicked in when I walked the Via Dolorosa.  Station four featured a spot where Jesus stumbled, including a rock with a hand-sized pock mark, made when Jesus fell against it.  As I fit my hand in the groove, like countless pilgrims, no lighting struck. Jesus might have stumbled and braced himself against a wall 2000 years ago; but this stone was part of the wall of a building built only hundreds of years ago.

The path wound closer to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Just past the gift shop - here the trinkets come at the entrance, not the exit as in America - I turned a corner to one of the holiest places in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.  (Protestant tradition claims another place as Jesus’ burial).

A small courtyard filled with pilgrims pressed up against the church, or rather churches because the building exists with an uneasy peace between different Christian groups.  Indeed, just to the right of the main door, up twenty feet, a cedar ladder hangs on a balcony, the immovable ladder, in place since 1757. The balcony belongs to the Armenians; but the Greeks claim the cornice; and I guess the Franciscans the window.  Once a Protestant pulled the ladder back into the church but it was found, returned to its spot, and a grate installed so that it could not be moved again. Someone put the ladder there but no one can agree to move it.

(Many Christians and our church movements regularly make pronouncements about Israel.  But I wonder, if we can’t even agree to move a ladder, can we really tell Israelis and Palestinians how to make peace?)

Is that why Jesus said, “they shall know you are my disciples by your pettiness?”  But again it speaks to a challenge of spirituality today, an idea that we must fight for control of sacred space.  How odd, this idea that we can claim a piece of the sacred as ours; exert our rights over it. Perhaps that is what King pointed to in his so-called “Letter of Paul to the Americans”, the way we’ve allowed our materialism to overrun our morality.  I pulled back from the materialism of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, from this church divided among six different traditions, every inch claimed by someone - even the roof, the Coptic Christians claim it as their own; is that our vision of the spiritual, something we can have?  Ours!

I really wanted my Jerusalem moment, though; so I returned another day to the Via Dolorosa, this time for a Franciscan prayer walk on a Friday afternoon.  It began at the First Station, in an Islamic elementary school which claims to be built on the ruins of Pilate’s fortress. So there on the playground, I waited for the monks.  A crowd gathered; we would be a large procession. Looking around, I scanned the crowd, until I saw...Jesus. Unmistakable: beard and long flowing hair, white robe, sandals.

I found Jesus in Jerusalem; and I wasn’t going to make the mistake of those disciples on Road to Emmaus.  Jesus even had communion bread with him. But as I got up my courage to talk to Jesus, I realized: he would only give communion to priests and nuns, people in religious dress.  This was a harsh Savior: “the Body of Christ, not for you.

Our procession started down the lanes of the Old City; soon the alley narrowed, the crowd grew, the monks became

impossible to hear.  In the back of the crowd, I heard all the other noises of the Old City. As the Friday afternoon waned, Jewish residents rushed home from work, stopping to pick up last minute groceries before Shabbat - the Jewish day of rest that begins at sunset on Fridays.  And Muslim families rushed about too, last minute chores on their way to Friday evening prayers at the Mosques. Through the streams of people, teenage boys would try to move with their own sense of purpose. To make their way through the crowd, they say, “Hello;” not as a greeting, but a barked command: hello, hello, hello.  Teenage impatience cutting through three faith traditions.

I got back to my apartment just as night fell, Shabbat in Jerusalem.  A bustling city, the energy of Chicago, settles down to rest. Honking cars quiet.  Traffic stops. Everything slows down. As if even the bricks and mortar exhale.

Abraham Heschel, a leading Jewish thinker who supported King from the beginning, once contrasted Christianity and Judaism.  He said Christians build Cathedrals in physical spaces - like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - but Jews build them in time - Shabbat.

That evening I went out to Shabbat dinner with my friend Jody Hirsh at the home of an Israeli artist.  A varied group sat around the table, mostly Jewish, but also Ahmed, a Muslim from Houston, and myself; with a span of ages from young adult to elder statesman (literally, a retired Israeli foreign service officer sat to my left).  Our hosts blessed the Challah and passed it around the table. We ate and drank and prayed; and we talked, a lively debate inspired by a traditional prayer about the “ideal woman.” Some thought it sexist, others found it countered patriarchal ideas about women (I’m not convinced); Ahmed joined in with his thoughts as a Muslim and similar questions within his tradition.  Ahmed spoke from a progressive point of view and, through social media, he developed a broad following for a blog. Yet on his blog his identity remains hidden; he doesn’t feel comfortable being “out.” As Jesus knew, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”  But on Shabbat, people who disagreed about the meaning of scripture could sit together; people of other faiths could share blessed bread; people uncertain of being “out” at home could be themselves.


That night, as people sang the final evening prayers, I thought of Martin Luther King’s words.  “We are caught in a network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” In my Jerusalem moment, in my holy moment, I felt that sense of spiritual connection - Jewish, Muslim, Christian, young and old, each with our own understandings of faith and tradition, bound into a single garment of humanity.  Spirituality to me means those moments when our mutuality becomes tangible.

One doesn’t have to travel to Israel for such a Jerusalem moment; like my Shabbat hosts we can create this holiness of mutuality around our own tables.  Alleluia and Amen.

"Hope, Satisfyingly Unfulfilled" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 30, 2018

posted Jan 23, 2019, 12:05 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

A number of years ago our congregation held a special service on the Saturday before Easter - Easter Eve.  The worship for the service reflected some of the oldest traditions in Christianity. We gathered outside of the church, around a fire burning in a wrought iron pit.  Our prayers lifted up the hope for the light of God to guide us. Then we used the fire to light the Christ Candle - the Paschal Candle - and each of us lit our own candles as well.  We brought the candles into the church. (This particular service happened in the gym.)

Once inside, we read many of the great stories of God’s work in the world - at the beginning, creation; then, the promise to Abraham; on to the liberation of the slaves and words of the prophets; culminating in the resurrection of Jesus.  As the readings progressed, we turned on more and more lamps; a physical manifestation of God’s enlightenment of the world.

During this celebration, we heard a bit of commotion outside but we didn’t really think anything about it.  Inside we rejoiced in the promise of the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The whole service embodied this wisdom: light conquers the shadows, truth overpowers lies, love overwhelms sin.

And then we stepped back outside to learn: someone stole our firepit.  The commotion we heard during worship was someone coming into the church playground, dumping out the coals of our fire, and loading the pit up in their vehicle.  The light shines in the darkness, until someone steals your firepit.

The theft - minor, in the scheme of life - felt like water thrown on the flames of our Easter faith.  Jesus won over the powers of sin? Maybe we hung too soon the sign “Mission Accomplished.”

Sometimes I think back to that Easter Vigil Service because the dichotomy of celebrating Jesus’ victory over sin and death while being robbed seems like such a parable for our spirituality.  Can we hope, even when it seems improbable? Can we still work for justice, even when it seems like society backslides? Can we forgive, even when it seems we’ll get hurt again?

Our reading today - the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple and the reactions of Simeon and Anna - speak to how we can rejoice when the realization of hope still seems distant.  Simeon and Anna found a way to celebrate God’s liberating justice when the world around them continued to be marked - and marred - by inequality and injustice. Simeon and Anna hoped in a way that makes this often overlooked story a key to understanding the promise of Christmas.

Luke wrote the story of Jesus’ birth as a play with three acts.  First Act: promises and expectations as Zechariah and Mary hear from Gabriel and Elizabeth and Mary become pregnant.  Second Act: Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the heavenly choir sings, and shepherds come to see. Final Act: Mary and Joseph travel to Jerusalem, Simeon sings, and Anna makes a prophecy.

Our typical reading of the Gospel stops after the second act: the shepherds.  We miss the way Luke wrapped up the story in the third act. The First Act - the promises - built the expectation that John and Jesus would led a movement of change, “scattering the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly.”  The Second Act declared these promises realized, as angels sang of peace on earth.

But if we end our Christmas gospel there - with the angels and the shepherds - we miss how Luke imagined these promises coming true.  We need the Third Act.

Two new characters enter the story for the third act - Simeon and Anna.  Luke called Simeon “a man who was righteous and devout.” But the most important description remained unspoken: Simeon wasn’t a priest or Temple authority.  In a highly structured society, in which only priests could enter the most sacred precincts, Simeon stood outside the power structure. This was even more true of Anna, whom Luke called, “a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, a very old widow who never left the Temple.”  In scripture, widows are synonymous with the poor. And while we might think it pious that she lived in the Temple and fasted, we might also see her as a homeless woman who spent much of her time hungry, praying for a bit of food. Both Simeon and Anna spent their time in the Temple but existed outside of its hierarchy of power and privilege.

Simeon and Anna, along with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, lived in a world marked by exclusion.  Ethnicity, gender, age, and wealth divided up their world. And yet, when they met, they formed a community of inclusion.

I’ve already indicated some of the ways this scene in the Temple upended the expectations of class.  But I want to make it plain: there are no priests in this story in the Temple. Priests defined the Temple; only priests could enter its most central places; the work of priests was the whole reason to go to the Temple; but on this day, the action takes place among lay people, people without privilege in the Temple; and among some of the poorest people.

But even more, Luke upends the expectations of gender in this story.  (Of course, of all the Gospels, Luke shows the most concern for stories of women; nearly a third of the stories only found in Luke speak about women and their experiences.)  The gender signals in this story point in all the wrong directions. Mary came to the Temple for a ritual purification after giving birth; women went through the ritual alone but in this story, Joseph attends to her.  Throughout Luke spoke of “their purification.” Joseph stands beside Mary, they both take part in acts of purification, related not to a hierarchy of priests but to other vulnerable people like them.

So what emerges in this Third Act is a scene in which bit players rejected the dominant narrative of their society.  Instead of following the narrative of exclusion, they played their parts in a story of inclusion. Simeon and Anna each responded to this new storyline: imagining a new world birthed in their inclusive moment.

The narrative of exclusion - whether in the first century colonialism of Rome over Israel or in our modern expressions of domination - seeks to divide, control, and exploit people.  But Mary, Jesus, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna refused to follow that script. They improvised: a commoner acted the role of priest, a poor woman spoke holy words of blessing, a husband underwent the purification for women along with his wife.  Simeon and Anna didn’t wait for the dominant narrative to define the realization of their hopes; they didn’t wait for a victory Herod and the Emperor would recognize. Instead, they wrote a new story together, the beginning of the Gospel of liberation.

Chimamanda Adichie, a writer from Nigeria, recently spoke about the danger of single stories - dominant narratives - and why we need to create a variety of storylines for ourselves.  Adichie described growing up in Nigeria, a voracious reader. As she explained, “I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.  Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.

A single story can trap us into seeing our world - and other people - in limited ways.  Adichie described going to visit the village of a person - Fide - who worked in her home.  She’d been raised to think of him as very poor - as in, “eat all your food because people like Fide’s family have nothing.”  One day the family went to Fide’s village, where she saw a beautiful basket made by Fide’s brother. Adichie described her reaction, “I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

Adichie experienced the other side of this single story trap when she came to America to study.  Her roommate, meeting her Nigerian roommate, assumed Adichie couldn’t use modern appliances like stoves, lived in the bush, and danced to “tribal” music.

Do we get trapped in a single story?  A limiting story told about us in our society?  Or our family? How can we write a new story for our lives?  Simeon and Anna remind us we can escape by improvising a new story; we can all have a Third Act for our lives.

This past summer a horrific crime played out in Iowa.  Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year old college student, went for a run, never to return home.  After a month, her body was found in a field, covered in corn stalks. Police arrested an undocumented worker in town, a young man named Bahena Rivera.

The report of her missing daughter and then the excruciating discovery of her body devastated Laura Calderwood. How could she go on?

But her private grief became overwhelmed by a national narrative.  Politicians pushing an anti-immigrant narrative used the story of her daughter’s death to push for crackdowns on undocumented people.  The dominant narrative sought to divide, control, and exploit the story.

Undocumented immigrants in the town started to flee, including the family of Ulises Felix.  Ulises went to school with Laura’s youngest son. Ulises didn’t want to leave the only town he’d ever known; so Laura and her son took him in.

She felt anger, but not toward an entire group of people.  Still, Ulises living in her home challenged some of the story she constructed about what happened.  The investigators spoke of Rivera as “demonic.” But slowly she began to hear other stories about him.  Ulises grew up on the same farm; his parents often fed Rivera; and Ulises’ cousin dated him and bore his child.  The stories complicated Laura’s view of Rivera, causing her to see beyond the awful thing he did.

And, as complex as her emotions may get, she sets them aside because she now has two boys to care for, her son and Ulises.  The three of them are writing a new story for their lives, one of grace and grief and forgiveness and hope.

I find Laura’s story gives me hope.  Not because everything happened perfectly, not because everything got resolved, but because in her grief she refused to be broken.  Instead of playing out a dominant narrative of exclusion, she, like Simeon and Anna before her, improvised a new story of inclusion, welcoming into her home Ulises.

As we turn from 2018 to a new year, what new stories can you improvise in your life?  What narratives trapped you? What Third Act can bring together the story of your hopes?

May you, like Simeon and Anna, come to say to God, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  Alleluia and Amen.


"Prepare the Way" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 16, 2018

posted Dec 24, 2018, 9:03 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Those of you connected with me on social media have seen a lot of pictures this fall of my baking.  I’ve always baked a lot, but this fall I started using Instagram to share photos and then post them on Facebook.  Just this week: an eggnog cake with white chocolate ganache and a hot red high heel shoe made from vanilla flavored candy and filled with a peppermint buttercream.

This fall, someone I didn’t know started to follow me on Instagram.  Flattered by the attention, I looked at his Instagram account: hoping for a fellow cook, maybe a chef even; no luck, a dentist.  So basically, he saw all these posts of surgery desserts and thought, “potential customer.”

Even worse, a company called “King Size” started sending me their catalogue of clothes, sizes up to 9XL.  I know I’m not petite, but King Size? I prefer to think of myself as Queen Size.

It doesn’t take much to set off a sense of self-judgment; and this can be particularly true in December, when it can feel like obligations press in and that everyone else lives a better version of life, and with the year drawing to a close, delayed goals turn resolutions into recriminations.

To make this sense of self-judgment worse, we hear in Advent John the Baptist’s cry, a doomsday voice warning, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  What a curmudgeon; people went out to see him in the desert and he just greeted them with “who warned you, you brood of vipers.” With John the embodiment of Advent, you’ll understand why no one says, “Merry Advent.”

And yet, I realize I need more of John’s message in my life.  Not because his is the new fad diet - forget Paleo, it’s honey and locust in the New Year.  But because the real message of John is one I need in my life: repentance.

In religious circles, we often get caught up in judgment and, because of that, John can sound like too many a pious person, judgmental.  But at heart, John didn’t judge. Instead, he called for repentance, for change. And that’s what I need in Advent - less judgment, more repentance.

We first heard John’s voice echoing the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

  make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

  and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

John looked back to a particular moment in the history of God’s people and saw the similarity to his own day.  Isaiah spoke to a people demoralized by war, to a nation defeated, and a people forced into exile. He heard God promise an end to the devastation.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Isaiah foretold the return of the exiles, the end of the oppression, the succor of the vulnerable.

The power of this prophetic metaphor may escape us in our age of superhighways and city streets laid out in simple grids and Google maps to guide us lest we get lost.  But Isaiah and John both lived in a time when travel took people through rough country without clear paths. The way back from Babylon to Jerusalem wasn’t clear: so Isaiah called for a path to be prepared.

John didn’t experience a physical exile; instead he felt like a refugee in his own country.  Luke emphasized this sense of estrangement by listing all the rulers of the land: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas.  These men, tyrants each in their own way, made John feel like a person out of place in his own country. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” John said; because he wanted some way to come home from his existential exile.

And so, he called for a scouting expedition: find the way, make the road, clear the path, for the refugees in their own country.  This call still resonates today. What keeps us from coming home? What circuitous routes do we face? What tall mountains stand in our way?  Into what valleys might we stumble?

These are Advent questions; not of judgment but of change.  What keeps us from coming home? And how can we prepare the way so others can come home too?

John then turned to the practical work required to prepare the way.  When the crowds asked him what to do, he said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  For all John’s fiery language, his actual demands were shockingly modest, “share.” John cared most about how we treated other people.

He underscored this with the questions of the tax collectors and the soldiers.  “And we, what shall we do?” The “and we” comes across as imploringly tentative because tax collectors and soldiers colluded with the oppressive regime.  John could have denounced the tax collectors as mountains of corruption that must be brought low; he could have called the soldiers valleys of villainy to be paved over.  But John didn’t turn people into problems.  Instead, he called them to repent of their behavior.  “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  In a broken world, in a society that made him a refugee in his own land, John sought to heal the relationships between people, to make right what was done wrong between people.

In Christianity, we’ve long focused on sin as a problem between a person and God, a spiritual crisis.  But John reflected a different kind of wisdom, an understanding of repentance more common among our Jewish sisters and brothers.

Rabbi David Blumenthal wrote about this distinction between Christians and Jews.  He noted that Jews don’t have a concept of confession to a religious authority - no priest who prescribes penances and pronounces absolutions.

Instead, Judaism embraces a number of actions an individual takes in the process of repentance; Teshuvah is the word in Hebrew.  Teshuvah: it literally means, “returning.” Rabbi Blumenthal names five “steps” for returning:

  • Recognition of what was done wrong

  • Remorse

  • Desisting from the action

  • Restitution if possible

  • and then, Confession directly to God.

Rabbis long before Blumenthal saw this journey of repentance as a continuous spiral, a continual process of recognition, remorse, change, restitution, and confession.  But the rabbis also made clear the central role of stopping the troublesome action. John knew this too: the rich must stop hoarding and start sharing; the tax collectors stop overcharging and act with equity; the soldiers stop exploiting and start protecting.

What would John call you to stop doing in your relationships?  What to start? How could you help people return home to each other?

Sometimes people do amazing work to prepare the way of the Lord; and no recent story amazed me more than the efforts of Daryl Davis to help heal people of the brokenness of racism.  Davis, an African-American musician, spent the last thirty years befriending people in the Ku Klux Klan; and through his friendship he brought 200 people out from under the sway of racist ideology; he cleared a path out from the wilderness of white supremacy.

It began with a chance meeting in a bar, after one of his sets.  A white man liked Davis’ style; and as they talked, the white man at first confessed to never having shared a beer with a black man; and then he confessed to belonging to the Klan.  This led them to a series of conversations over time until friendship with Davis led the man to leave behind the Klan.

And it started Davis on a journey of meeting Klansmen around the country.  I’ll quote him at length as he described what it meant to sit down at meals with white men who professed hatred of him.  He said:

“[Conversation] began to chip away at their ideology because when two enemies are talking, they're not fighting. It's when the talking ceases that the ground becomes fertile for violence. If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy — it doesn't have to be about race, it could be about anything...you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you're forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you're forming a friendship. That's what would happen. I didn't convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.

Davis did John the Baptist work, working for equity in a wilderness; the Advent work of preparing the way for repentance.  Davis made it possible for white people estranged by their racism to finally come home on a highway paved by friendship.

It may be hard for us to imagine doing work like Davis; but there are other ways to make a way.  A group of three musicians in Israel became concerned with the partisan and ethnic divides in their country.  They decided to try bringing people together to sing, at an event they call Koolulam. The name comes from a conjunction of the English word “cool” and the Hebrew word for all, “kulam.”

Thousands of strangers gather together at Koolulam events, where the organizers divide people into three groups: baritones, altos, and sopranos.  (I’m not sure what happens to the tenors.) Each group learns their part in a popular English or Hebrew song - just a 45 minute rehearsal - and then the mass choir sings it together.  Videographers and drones capture the singing; afterwards they post a music video of the concert.

People across the spectrum come out to participate - secular Israelis and the ultra-orthodox, even Christians and Muslims.  A recent concert brought together leaders of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities; people who didn’t know how to speak together learned to sing together.  On the last day of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, an interfaith crowd came together to learn and sing together Bob Marley’s “One Love.”

One love, one heart

Let's get together and feel all right

As it was in the beginning (one love)

So shall it be in the end (one heart)

That’s not a reality in Israel-Palestine right now, but singing helps prepare the way.

As one of Koolulam’s founders explained, “this event is a type of social prayer - we want people to pray for each other and with each other...the music is not the issue, but rather it’s the tool to bring inspiration to those who come into Koolulam as strangers and go out as a group with a new creation - a song.”

Davis and the founders of Koolulam each saw the brokenness in their society; they found a way out of no way, a path to clear between people, allowing people to return home to each other.  John the Baptist and this Season of Advent call us to this work of repentance: facing our divides and finding a way to clear a path. May you do this work in your life until

Every valley of despair shall be filled

And every mountain of pride and hill of fear be made low,

And those with crooked thoughts brought into line,

And our rough relationships be made smooth.

Alleluia and Amen.

"Holy Hopes" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 9, 2018

posted Dec 24, 2018, 8:38 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Years ago, I adopted a rule for movies: I don’t watch films in which the gay guy dies.  I decided on this rule years ago after watching one particular movie, Yossi and Jagger, a 2002 film by Israeli director Eytan Fox about soldiers on the border with Lebanon.  Jay and I started watching it late one night, but he’s not one for subtitles after a long day at work. But somehow the subtitles had the opposite effect on me; reading also concentrated me on the visuals of the film, drew me deeper than if I only half listened to the dialogue.  So while he went to bed, I kept watching as this amazing story unfolded of these soldiers and the hidden love between two of them, Yossi and Jagger. Throughout the film, Jagger’s love transforms Yossi. And then, in the last few minutes of the film, an attack by militants claimed the life of Jagger, leaving Yossi bereft.  I was utterly unprepared for this. In tears, I woke Jay up, devastated by grief; in the morning I made my rule: no films with gay guys dying. I’ve kept to it: avoiding every Brokeback Mountain in order to watch every adventure of Hurricane Bianco, the drag queen superhero of several recent films.

For a while I thought myself unique, but then I learned about the Bechdel Test; a test which asks if a work of fiction or film has at least two named women who talk together about something other than a man.  This seems like a low threshold, but only about half of all films meet this criterion.

Of course, if we applied this test to scripture the result would be even worse.  Many strong women can be found in our sacred stories - Deborah, leading the Israelites to war; Ja’el, defending herself from assault; but even when their stories lie side-by-side these women don’t talk to each other.  The only Old Testament exception that I can think of is Naomi and Ruth at the beginning of their story. In the New Testament we have just one story too - Mary and Elizabeth. A thousand sacred pages and only these two conversations between two named women talking about something other than a man.

At least we read of Mary and Elizabeth every year!  And this year, as I prayed about this story, I came to see the spiritual lessons in this story of friendship and hope between Mary and Elizabeth.

I’m struck first by the overall movement of the story between the three scenes we heard Katie read this morning.  First, alone, Mary learns of her pregnancy. Then, she goes to see Elizabeth. And with Elizabeth, Mary sang of God’s goodness, the Magnificat.

There are many ways to imagine that first scene.  We could portray it dramatically and dangerously - the male angel breaking in on the vulnerable Mary, a man suddenly appearing in her bedroom.  But I think of this story differently. In part because, in my experience, men who leap through the air wearing feathers… well, “angel” is just Hebrew for gay.

But even more because this story feels more like an interior monologue.  Mary might have retold it as if an angel burst onto the scene, but I think it really happened in the quiet recesses of her mind, in the silences in which she felt her body changing, in a strange confidence that flooded her heart, telling her, “do not fear.”

And so, Mary wondered, “could it be true?”  With this question she went off to see her relative Elizabeth, wanting to know from her, “do you think it’s true?”  And then with Elizabeth, Mary comes to say, “I know it’s true.”

Read this way the scenes take us from the intimacy of our deepest thoughts, to conversation with a close friend, to a public proclamation.  And, in a way, these stages parallel how many deal with pregnancy: first the very intimate news, then shared more widely in later trimesters, and made public in the arrival of a baby.  Mary birthed hope.

We talk often about the Holy Spirit.  But perhaps we’d be better to say a Holy Hope.  For a Holy Hope operates in her life: first intimately in her heart, then in conversation, and finally in proclamation.

What hopes do you carry in your heart, too tender to share?  What hopes do you dream about with friends, still new and fresh?  What hopes can you proclaim, regardless of what others think?

Just as I want to reframe the annunciation scene as a moment of intimate self-knowledge, I think we can find another message in Mary heading out to see Elizabeth.  Our tradition - and I’ve done this too - portrays Mary running in some fear to Elizabeth; “she made haste to the hill country.”

We could certainly read this story as one of a pregnant teenager running away from home out of fear for what her family and her fiancé would say and, even more, do.  Plenty of women around the world today face such fears. But Mary is one of the most developed female characters in the Bible, one whom we see at several points in her life; depicting her as afraid and fearful underscores some problematic ideas of women’s autonomy.  (Human Trafficking insights?)

Progressive Christians have long realized how a focus on Mary’s virginity sets up problems about women’s sexuality; in a similar way, I think focusing on Mary’s fear creates problems about women’s autonomy.

So, if not for fear, what else could make Mary run with haste to the hill country?  Joy. Mary came to know of the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth. Perhaps an angel, perhaps gossip in the village, perhaps her own insight from her last family gathering.  But I think joy hastened Mary’s steps, excitement moved her, a need to share the hope.

The Gospel’s description of the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth suggests that Mary came to support Elizabeth.  The angel told her, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”

And Elizabeth could certainly have needed support.  Just before our readings today came a scene in which Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah hears his wife will become pregnant; this shocks him so deeply that he won’t speak again until the birth of his son.  Which means Elizabeth lived in a remote village, with a disgraced priest of a husband, who remained emotionally distant during her high-risk pregnancy. Her husband’s silence left Elizabeth with no one with whom to share her growing joy.

So, Mary ran with haste with her own amazing insight: not to tell Elizabeth she was pregnant, but to celebrate with her the joy of her news and the miracle of an impossible possibility.  Joy, not fear, quickened her feet; a desire to confirm Elizabeth’s good news.

And just as she approached, Elizabeth saw Mary’s flushed face and something inside her realized Mary’s own pregnancy.  Elizabeth confirmed Mary’s unspoken hopes; “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

This conversation between Mary and Elizabeth forms the crucial bridge between Mary’s secret hope and her public witness.  We know the power of such conversations with dear friends; the people who help confirm our hopes, the friends who hold our joys, the conversations which nurture our dreams.

In this case, Mary and Elizabeth help each other recognize the Holy Hopes in their situations.  Each gave the other what they most needed: community and connection. Mary and Elizabeth experienced isolation - Mary with a hope too tender to share, Elizabeth with a husband too silent in the moment of her greatest need for companionship.  Mary remained through the remainder of Elizabeth’s pregnancy; remained through the husband’s silence; only leaving when Zechariah spoke again after the birth of his son. Together, Elizabeth and Mary made a community of hope. And each helped the other see the connection between what they experienced and the grand project of God; as Elizabeth said to Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Through conversation they connected each other to the larger story of God’s salvation.

What hopes do we nurture in our friendships?  How do we reach out to form community and connection?  Who do we help to know themselves as blest?

The Holy Hopes growing in Mary and Elizabeth moved them to realize that God would keep the promises of liberation.  Like the person who wrote our morning psalm and countless people before, Mary sang of the confidence that “My help comes from God who made heaven and earth.”

Sometimes I think the demur image of Mary I grew up on - Our Lady of the Downcast Eyes - was a patriarchal distraction from her revolutionary words.  Her God scattered the proud; and when she sang this did she look to Elizabeth, so often teased by others for her barrenness? Her God cast down the mighty from their thrones; did she look at the oppressive soldiers of King Herod and the legions of Romans?  Her God filled the hungry and sent the rich away empty; while she sang did she bring food to the rural poor she lived among? Demur hopes did not shape Mary’s song; rather, she spoke with a revolutionary confidence in the power of her God.

The Magnificat not only pointed to the revolutionary project of God, not only linked Mary and Elizabeth to it, but proclaimed the trustworthiness of God.  None of these promises seemed true yet - the proud still strutted, the kings still oppressed, the hungry still wept for emptiness. But Mary could so trust in God that she could hope in what she did not see.

And in this we see the power of God to work through people forming community and connection.  The friendship of Elizabeth and Mary put the wind in her lungs to sing. That Holy Hope carried her into an uncertain future with profound confidence.

I love that four women lit our Advent Candles this morning; four who’ve know each other for a long time, four who’ve helped each other sing and hope and celebrate and cry.  Like Mary and Elizabeth, they witness to the power of friendship to make us lift our voices in hope.

Who can help us sing of our hopes?  Who can fill our voices with revolutionary confidence?  What friendship can move us to proclaim God’s liberation even when it remains unseen?

Mary and Elizabeth can be our spiritual models of how to gestate hope in our spirits.  Like Mary we can move from a tender, intimate wonder; to a shared conversation that knits us in community and connects us to God; to a profound proclamation because of friendship.

This Advent open your hearts to angelic voices.  Share your hearts in deep friendship. And let loose your tongues in revolutionary hope.  For together we can be transformed by Holy Hopes. Alleluia and Amen.

"Anchored in Hope" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 2, 2018

posted Dec 24, 2018, 8:04 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

This morning we start a new spiritual season - Advent.  Advent anticipates the birth of Jesus. It waits for the coming of joy.  Often in our cultures and homes, Christmas overwhelms the season of Advent.  And I confess I started listening to Christmas music before I’d even bought my Thanksgiving turkey.  But this season of anticipation and waiting can teach us much about ourselves and the power of hope.

While Christmas warms our heart with a baby, Advent’s sacred stories talk about more troubling ideas and issues - apocalypse and fire, an endangered teen mother running to the hills, and terrifying angels who burst onto the scene.  A thoughtful person once said:

“The stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscapes of dashed dreams.  They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation. Many prefer the major notes of joy and gladness in the Christmas stories to the minor keys of Advent.”

And our readings today certainly fit that mold.  We heard Jesus say, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Yet I wouldn’t want the minor keys of Advent - and all the imagery of destruction - to distract us from the beauty and hope of these texts.  Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the graphic imagery of catastrophe, I want to reclaim the hope hidden in apocalyptic stories. This is the spiritual challenge of Advent: to find hope in stories of catastrophe, to find our own hope in times when life feels desperate.

First, I want to return to the original meaning of the word apocalypse.  It’s come to mean fire and destruction, the end of the world. But originally the world apocalypse meant to uncover.  The apocalypse revealed the truth. And so, an apocalypse was only a disaster when we’re committed to lies, a revelation only bothers us when we want lies to cover up the truth.  An apocalypse happens when we see and know a hidden truth; the apocalypse - the great one - happens when God reveals the truth of creation.

Moments of revelation can be hard.  This fall Tomas went off to college in the Twin Cities.  We’ve missed him. And then he came home for Thanksgiving.  I had forgotten this one particular habit Tomas has. When I’m asking about something he doesn’t want to talk about and even more when it’s advice he doesn’t care for, Tomas will imitate me, “yeah-yeah-yeah.”  So frustrating; “when do you go back to the Twin Cities?”

After Tomas annoyed me, Jay and I started talking.  And I didn’t like what Jay was saying. “Yeah-Yeah-Yeah.”  And in that apocalypse, I knew where Tomas learned it.

In Advent, our sacred stories point to apocalypse too; not to scare us with cataclysm but to uncover the truth.

Second, we can only see and know the Advent truth if we understand the desperation faced by the people around Jeremiah and Jesus.  We heard these words - just a few lines - out of the context in which they were spoken. So, we need to remember when Jeremiah and Jesus spoke.

Jeremiah lived back in the 6th century BC - before Buddha taught in India and Socrates in Athens.  And at that time the people of Jerusalem looked around at a hostile and dangerous world. A foreign power long-menaced the nation and had recently attacked the country.  Jeremiah probably wrote after the sack of Jerusalem, after the defeat, after the forced exile and relocation of people to camps back in Iraq. People mourned freedom lost.  They endured trauma in the present. And they feared the loss of any future for themselves.

In this moment of profound distress, Jeremiah spoke, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  To a people who grieved the past and couldn’t believe in a future, Jeremiah spoke of hope and promise.

A similar dynamic - distressed people and prophetic hope - unfolded when Luke remembered Jesus’ words.  Jesus too spoke to a people who lived at a tenuous time in the life of Israel. But the desperation of the people became even more pronounced when Luke wrote down the gospel.  Luke remembered Jesus’ words at time when insurgents against Rome liberated Jerusalem, declaring a free state again for the first time in centuries. Those same insurgents soon turned their knives against each other.  At the same time, a revolution happened in Rome - in the course of one year four emperors held the throne, each new one killing the other. War and reports of war sailed across the empire; Rome and Jerusalem burned. People fainted for fear.  They endured turmoil, faced death, wondered what would come of them.

To a people filled with anxious foreboding, Luke remembered Jesus’ words, “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

I’m sure we each know the taste of despair at moments in our lives.  But Jeremiah and Jesus spoke to people who not only faced it personally but saw and knew it all around them, a communal despair.  We’ve had those moments in our own nation too. Recently I read a reflection by Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation, he spoke about the effects of white settlement on his people in Wyoming and Montana, the steady replacement of buffalo with cows, open spaces enclosed in wire and fencepost.  He said in 1932, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

A sense of communal despair haunts that phrase; “after this nothing happened.”  Chief Plenty Coups spoke to the loss of meaning and purpose his people faced. And that’s what happened to Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ people too.

How do we respond to those moments when we lose meaning and purpose; when it seems like time can go on but nothing that matters happens?  In those moments, can we experience Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ apocalypse? Uncover a hidden truth, see and know the promise? Hope, for the Kingdom of God is near?

Now, I want us to really focus on those particular words of hope Jeremiah and Jesus spoke.  Jeremiah spoke of God fulfilling promises made to the people of Israel; God promising, “in those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”  Here’s what I think Jeremiah does with these words. To a desperate people, he calls them to imagine what could happen. But not really just to imagine, but to also extrapolate from what God has already done in the past, that the God who once freed the slaves of Egypt would save them again.  And even more than to extrapolate, to improvise. For when we forget our future, when we’ve lost the script of our lives, hope moves us to improvise.

Jesus called people to see and know hope.  Even now, even in a desperate moment, Jesus said God’s promises were coming true.  He proclaimed this through the metaphor of the fig tree. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”  The fig tree wasn’t just a random plant for Jesus to point to; it represented peace in Jesus’ day. As if after telling a story about the threat of terrorism, I spoke about a dove. You would know it was more than just a bird, but a hope of peace.  And so, Jesus said, “see the changing fig tree, it sprouts, know that summer is near, peace comes.” Jesus woke people up to the signs around them, the first buds of summer, the holy beginning to grow. Hope sees and knows.

Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow did this work of hope in his own day - improvising, seeing, and knowing.  He found a way to lead his people during a difficult time, preserving their heritage, rooting them on their land, finding ways to navigate a changing world.  He told his people, “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education, you are the white man's equal; without education, you are his victim, and so shall remain all your lives.”  Chief Plenty Coups knew the despair of his people; and he improvised a new future, found a new hope.

I think Chief Plenty Coups would have agreed with Wendell Berry who said:

“[Hope] will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask

for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land

and your work.  Be still and listen to the voices that belong

to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.  

Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.

Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.”

Advent promises hope.  And yet I want to face the danger that hope can often just feel like an “opium of the future” that distracts us from what’s broken now.  That’s why it matters that Chief Plenty Coups didn’t deny the reality of loss - “after this nothing happened” - but he also worked to see and know how God would keep the promise, finding hope on the ground of his sacred land.

I’ve certainly known people to use hope like an opium of the future.  But Advent hope isn’t a drug, a delusion. And the distinction can become clearer with an analogy Thomas Aquinas once made.  Aquinas described the natural hope he saw in animals.  A rabbit rushes by and the dog hopes to catch it.  I see this hope every day with my dog Duchess. The peanut butter jar opens and she quivers with hope, she drools hope.  But a spiritual hope works differently; a spiritual hope operates more by memory and understanding.  As one person described this hope, “it accompanies us on the full journey of our lives.  It connects our past with our future. By hope we reach from one to the other. Hope holds us in our time.”

Natural hope moves the dog to action - chasing the rabbit or begging for the peanut butter.  But spiritual hope does something else. The Apostle Paul called hope an anchor, when he wrote, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

Jeremiah and Jesus and Chief Plenty Coups knew the importance of hope as an anchor.  When the sea buffets our boat, we need an anchor to keep us secure. When despair rocks us, we need an anchor to keep us in place.  Jeremiah anchored himself in the promises of a God who liberated the captives. Jesus anchored himself by seeing the buds of peace and knowing the signs of change.  Chief Plenty Coups anchored himself to his land and improvised a new future.

We live in a time that can feel catastrophic, from weather to politics.  Many Americans feel anxious about our future, fearing each other across our political barricades.  White nationalists exploit this fear; and we see too often that fearful people turn to violence. And so white terrorists have killed more Americans in the last five years than anyone motivated by ISIS; and every day comes new stories of peril, like a Jewish scholar’s office vandalized with swastikas.

Advent calls us to hope against this fear, to hope against this terror, to hope against this despair.  While darkness seems to gather, on the first Sunday of Advent we light a candle. We anchor ourselves in hope.

This weekend former President George Bush died; for all I disagreed with him, I know hope anchored him too.  I heard it as I watched his inaugural address, when he said:

“I do not mistrust the future; I do not fear what is ahead. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless.”

May we be anchored in hope.  Alleluia and Amen.


In addition to Feasting on the Word,

  • Beechy, Leonard, “On the Lectionary,” Christian Century, Nov. 17, 2009.

  • Pinches, Charles R., “Hope to Live in Hope,” Christian Century, July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Do you see us?

  • Do you hear us?

  • Do you see Christ in us?

  • Do you claim us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will change your name,

You shall no longer be called

Wounded, outcast, lonely, or afraid.

I will change your name,

Your new name shall be

Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one,

Faithfulness, friend of god,

One who seeks my face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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