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"Cloud of Witnesses" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - November 5, 2017

posted Nov 8, 2017, 4:37 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

On All Saints Sunday we celebrate the truth proclaimed in the Letter to the Hebrews.  “For we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.”


But this Sunday, amid ever new revelations of sexual harassment and abuse of power, it seems like we are surrounded by a great cloud of creeps.  Harvey Weinstein seemed a cliche of Hollywood misbehavior, but former President George H. W. Bush and the chief of the NPR newsroom?


I took special note of the accusations against Kevin Spacey, the lead actor in House of Cards.  People long rumored about Spacey’s sexuality but he always demurred when asked if he was gay.  Then another actor came forward with a story of Spacey assaulting him as a teenager.  Spacey responded by announcing, “I choose now to live as a gay man.”


Spacey tried to distract the world from his abusive behavior by painting himself as a marginalized man; tried to make the story about him being gay instead of him assaulting a teen.  Dan Savage said it best when he responded, “I’m sorry, Mr. Spacey, but your application to join the gay community at this time has been denied.”


And yet, it’s worth pausing to consider just what Spacey did in his “gay defense” move.  Of course, at one level, he reiterated the homophobic stereotype of gay men as pedophiles.  But beyond this, he did what all the famous men recently accused of sexual assault have done: try to distract us.


We can see a deeper pattern in Spacey’s actions, what I’d call a “rhetoric of domination.”  First, the domination: Spacey used his position of power - as an adult, as a celebrity - to get away with criminal behavior.  According to the accusation, Spacey physically picked up a teen, carried him to a bed, pinned him down, and sexually assaulted him.  He literally overpowered the teen.  Spacey used his power to get what he wanted regardless of the emotional and physical harm he caused.  And then the rhetoric: when caught, Spacey tried to claim a disadvantaged status to deflect attention from his responsibility for his actions.


Jesus faced something similar in the Gospel; confronting the “rhetoric of domination” spouted by religious leaders and political authoritarians.  Just think of Jesus’ trial before Governor Pontius Pilate.  Pilate decided to execute Jesus because it was politically expedient.  Pilate abused his power as judge, sending a man to his death whom he knew to be innocent.  It perfectly captured the way the Romans dominated people under their control.  But then Pilate added a rhetorical defense: he stopped to publically wash his hands and declared, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”  Only the rhetoric of domination could find a judge executing innocent people not responsible for his actions.


And yet, despite all of Pilate’s efforts, he couldn’t dominate Jesus.  Pilate whipped him.  Jesus still spoke the truth.  Pilate nailed him to a tree.  Jesus still prayed to God.  Pilate thought he won when Jesus died, but still Jesus lived, risen from the dead, unable to be permanently dominated.


The rhetoric of domination which sought to ground down Jesus thought the shame of crucifixion would end him.  We know the ways a domination system works to silence people, just think of the people abused by powerful men who get shamed when they come forward.  But Jesus refused the rhetoric of domination, refused its logic of shame.


And he can be our model now.  As the Letter to the Hebrews said, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”


Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” overcame the rhetoric of domination he faced, standing against the abuse of power, rising above those who sought to silence him with shame, triumphing over all the powerful people who sought to entomb him.


And this Sunday we celebrate not only Jesus’ triumph but all those saints who followed in his way, the people who ran with perseverance, women and men who like Jesus confronted the rhetoric of domination.


This All Saints, as I look to that cloud of witnesses around us, I’m struck by the life stories of three women: Ona Judge, who escaped enslavement; Elizabeth Jennings Graham, who fought segregation on public transit 100 years before Rosa Parks; and Anna Pauline Murray, who stood among the “firsts” in several fields.  By faith, each of them lived courageous lives fighting domination.  These women can be our saints in our struggles for justice today.


Ona Judge grew up enslaved by George Washington.  Martha Washington considered Ona a “favorite” slave and made sure Ona attended her when the Washington’s moved to Philadelphia during his first term as President.  In Philadelphia, Ona met free blacks and saw the possibility of escape.hqdefault.jpg


Escape involved risks.  Not only capture, but also the loss of connection to her extended family.  Then Ona learned the Washington’s planned to sell her and her relatives, breaking the family among many different plantations.  And so one day - probably assisted by Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church - she escaped.


George Washington mounted a massive search for Ona, a search he never abandoned.  As a fugitive, Ona remained on the run for most of her life, a person whose freedom remained undocumented, always worried by the knock on the door.


She had clearly broken the law, including the Fugitive Slave Law which George Washington had signed as President.  And one can hear that in the ad Washington placed in the newspapers, “Absconded from the household of the President of the United States on Saturday afternoon, Oney Judge.”  The rhetoric of domination labeled Ona a law-breaker, a fugitive, an illegal; someone who showed the temerity to steal herself!  But Ona knew the real crime: her enslavement.  She fought the domination system of her day even to the point of defying the President and his laws.  And in that she’s a saint for us today, showing amazing courage in her willingness to confront the rhetoric of domination.


Next in our great cloud of witnesses I see Elizabeth Jennings Graham.  She lived in and around New York City during the 19th century.  Elizabeth’s father became the first African-American to hold a patent; his concerned a new process for dry cleaning.  Income from the patent and his business allowed her father to liberate her mother from slavery.  Both her parents taught Elizabeth the importance of learning and the necessity of direct action to change society.


Elizabeth’s moment came unexpectedly one Sunday morning.  She played the organ for her congregational church.  Running late, she hopped on a streetcar.  But the conductor demanded she get off his segregated car.  When she refused, the conductor used force, even calling on a cop to help, pushing her to the ground.


Elizabeth sued the streetcar company and, in 1855, won a judgment against it.  The company was one of four companies operating streetcars in New York City; it took another ten years before lawsuits would force each of them to desegregate.  But the actions of Elizabeth set in motion the desegregation of transportation in New York City.  She would not allow her dignity to be compromised; even when pushed into the ground, she would not be shamed, but rose up again to fight for her rights.  Elizabeth refused to bow to the rhetoric of domination which sought to confine her to the back of the streetcar; and the voice she raised for her rights would reverberate long after.


One more saint speaks to me this morning: Anna Pauline Murray, known to her friends as Pauli.  Pauli grew up at the start of the 20th century, grew up as an orphan raised by extended family in North Carolina.  She succeeded in her segregated school, graduating with distinction, the kind of student easily accepted to the North Carolina College for Negroes.  But she didn’t want to go there.  For even from a young age, she found ways to resist the dominating logic of segregation.  She walked to avoid segregated transit and she skipped movies rather than sit in segregated balconies.  Now, ready for college, Pauli looked north.


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But there she found new limits.  Columbia, her dream college, accepted blacks but not women;  Barnard took women, but cost too much; Hunter College offered free tuition, but only for New York residents.  Pauli moved in with relatives in New York City, attended high school for another two years, and then finally began her studies at Hunter.


After college - and skimming by in the Depression - Pauli got involved in the early Civil Rights Movement, getting arrested in Richmond, VA.  Fighting unjust laws led her to apply to Howard Law School.  There, as one of the few women, she rose to prominence.


A classroom debate arose about the strategy to defeat Plessy v. Ferguson, the “separate-but-equal” decision.  Most classmates argued for the conventional wisdom of chipping away at the “equal” portion of the decision, questioning whether an all-black school was equal in resources to an all-white school.  But Pauli spoke for a different approach, challenging the “separate.”  Ten years later her professor remembered her argument when he stood before the Supreme Court; he argued that the “separate” education violated the constitution in Brown v. Topeka.  That moment captures something essential about Pauli: “[she was] both ahead of her time and behind the scenes.”


Her legal acumen led her to pursue further graduate work at Harvard.  But Harvard sent her a “Jane Crow” letter which explained “women need not apply.”  Pauli wrote back, in humor that both spoke to her wit and witnessed to her pain.

“Gentleman, I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements,

But since the way to such change has not been revealed to me,

I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds on this subject.

Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?”


Pauli continually challenged systems, pressing against the rhetoric of domination she faced as an African-American and a woman.  But also against less visible forms of discrimination.  For her funny comment to Harvard hid in plain view her own struggle with her gender identity.  Pauli had in fact sought for years to find a medical way to become the man she felt herself to be.  But all she could do was choose a sort of boy’s name - Pauli - while still referring to herself with female pronouns.


Later, after the highwater mark of the 1963 March on Washington, Pauli suggested in a speech that women organize a Women’s March on Washington.  While the press seemed shocked by the idea, Pauli’s imagination caught the attention of Betty Friedan.  Together with a few others, they launched the National Organization for Women.


A decade later, Pauli’s own spiritual quest led her to seek ordination from the Episcopal Church, even though the Episcopal Church didn’t ordain women at the time.  Pauli tried anyway.  And just as she graduated, the church changed its position, making her one of the earliest women ordained in the Episcopal Church.


All of these moments in her life demonstrate a unique ability to imagine a future others can’t see.  Pauli saw beyond the rhetoric of domination to imagine a new world, saw beyond the injustice of her day to anticipate a world that could come.


This Sunday look to our great cloud of witnesses, women and men who followed in the way of Jesus, confronting the rhetoric of domination.  See the courage of Ona Judge, the uncompromising dignity of Elizabeth Jennings Graham, the imagination of Pauli Murray.  May these saints and others guide you as you run with perseverance the race set before you.

Alleluia and Amen.








Sources:

  • Kumar, Rose, “The Power Principle and Kevin Spacey,” Huffpo, Nov. 2, 2017 (Accessed Nov. 4, 2017)

  • Never Caught

  • Wikipedia, “Elizabeth Jennings Graham” (Accessed Nov. 3, 2017).  

  • “St. Pauli,” The Atlantic, April 2017 (Accessed Nov. 1, 2017).


"Reformation 500th" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 29, 2017

posted Oct 30, 2017, 1:09 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

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Recently the New York Times reported on something many of us see in youth we know: the rising rates of anxiety.  


It affects people like Jake, one of the teenagers the Times interviewed.  Jake’s anxiety hit him in his junior year.  As a bright student, high school involved three AP classes, competing athletically, and traveling with his model UN club.  It seemed like a lot, but “he’d never really failed at anything.”  And yet fear of failing ate at him, at first motivating him to push himself and then immobilizing him with stomach pains, headaches, and a crippling fear.  His mother described it, “[he] ran 150 miles per hour into a brick wall.”  


The Times article went on to describe Jake’s path to healing as well as that of several other teenagers; read it if you’re interested.  But this morning I just want us to notice this reality of anxiety in our culture.  It’s not just overwhelmed teenagers but many of us, of all ages, who struggle with stress and worry and anxiety: jobs, relationships, finances, change, and the possibility of war.  And sometimes the only way we can find to deal with it is through unhealthy and addictive behaviors.  


Think of moments when you’ve felt that anxiety; that sensation of running 150 miles per hour into a brick wall.  Or moments when people you love have felt that kind of anxiety.


And I ask you to do so because we can’t understand the Reformation without getting in touch with our anxieties and their’s.  Historians often speak of the role of the printing press in the Reformation, and it undoubtedly played a role, but anxiety played a far more important role; and in fact, I don’t think we can understand the Reformation without knowing the anxiety.  Martin Luther’s most profound spiritual insights came as a way to deal with the anxieties in his heart and those of his neighbors.  Indeed, we could think of the Reformation as a profound theological reflection on anxiety.  

Anxieties during Luther’s time centered around questions of heaven and hell.  This can seem very different than the anxieties of our own age.  But behind the big letter words of heaven and hell lay concerns we know in our own hearts: judgment and merit.  Ideas about judgment and merit powered the incredible intellectual and spiritual revolution of the Reformation.


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The concerns about heaven and hell can be seen in the art of Luther’s age, peices like Hieronymus Bosch’s famous, “The Last Judgment.”  In Bosch’s graphic painting demons and bizarre creatures torture ‘the wicked’ with all sorts of devilish devices.  And such were the fears in Luther’s heart, fears of damnation.  


The fear of hell could become so real that people felt themselves endangered even before death.  Luther often described fighting demonic powers, defending himself by prayer and singing.  But sometimes his battle with the devil became so real that he resorted to physical means of defense. Early on, while sequestered at the Wartburg Castle, Luther felt the devil in the room with him while he sat writing at his desk.  Grabbing his inkwell, he spun around and threw it at the wall.   


While that story is largely legend, it speaks to the anxiety in Luther’s heart: the very real sense of damnation and the almost tangible awareness of the demonic.  Luther and his neighbors worried intensely about being judged by God, found inferior, and sent to some awful place.  


And so religious leaders started selling “indulgences,” essentially a get-out-of-hell licence.  The licence would absolve the bearer of any consequences for sins.  It offered a way for people to deal with their anxiety, but it only increased the anxiety for those too poor to afford the indulgence.  How could they merit salvation?


We know the power of these anxieties about judgment and merit in our own day.  Maybe not judgment about hell, but certainly judgments about success, social status, merit, making it.  


Martin Luther developed three key ideas to the Reformation, ideas which touched directly on the anxiety he felt in his heart: total depravity, salvation by grace alone, and the priesthood of all believers.  Each of these ideas can be problematic, but I want to look with you at them in terms of how they helped Luther face his anxiety and how they might help us too.


No Reformation idea needs reframing more than the idea of total depravity.  It remains controversial today, if only because it sounds so dour to call everyone depraved.  Luther didn’t mean that everyone was the worst of the worst.  But rather that sin is real and has an effect on everything we do.  


We normally think of depravity as some big sin: Harvey Weinstein.  But Luther had in mind all the small moments we sin.  Things that never make the headlines, like things that get stolen from church.  One recent theft here particularly bothered me.  After the renovation of the church, we put a plunger in each of the six new bathrooms.  But last month, when the daycare let me know about a clogged toilet, I had trouble find any plungers; we were down to one plunger.  Which means that five people took used plungers from the church.  Who steals a used plunger?  Total depravity.  


We can get a better idea of what Luther meant by total depravity if we relabeled it as “no one is perfect.”  Paul spoke to this same issue when he wrote his Letter to the Romans.  Some in the church thought they were better than others, closer to God, perfect even, without sin.  And so Paul made the point, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  


This insight matters to me.  When I feel bad for something I’ve done wrong, it helps to remember that I’m not the only one.  And when someone else hurts me, it helps to remember nobody's perfect, including me.


Much of the push of anxiety comes from the need to pretend to be perfect.  Much of Luther’s anxiety came from his early attempts to be perfect so he could get into heaven.  And much of Jake’s anxiety came from his attempts to be perfect so he could get into the college of his dreams.  And for both, the quest for perfection led to a crushing anxiety.  So, relish in Luther’s insight: we’re not perfect and we can stop pretending we are.  


No one’s perfect, Paul said to the Romans.  And in the very next breath he added, “[We] are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift.” Luther would rediscover this theological insight: salvation doesn’t come from something we do, we don’t earn God’s love, but instead it comes as a gift, a grace, an undeserved surprise.


We need this insight too.  Because it comes as counter-cultural wisdom to our society.  We live in a nation so focused on merit, entitlement, and notions of who deserves what that we’ve coined a new term: meritocracy.  We tell ourselves that our success is built on our own merit, our own effort.  And explicitly and implicitly we act as if people are poor or face challenges because they didn’t try hard enough.


The idea that we can “do” things to merit our status underlies our division of the world into saints and sinners: the saints earn their place, the sinners failed to do so.  But the world can never be so neatly divided.  


A few days ago I took a couple of youth to Pathfinders to do a service project.  Some youth who go to Pathfinders’ Middle School had broken windows; in a moment of rage they had taken rocks and thrown them into windows.  This had happened more than once.  So our project involved collecting the rocks.


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Afterwards, Julie Bock from Pathfinders told us more about the situation.  She described one of youth who broke a window.  On a nice day in September, a 13-year old girl had sat outside to eat her lunch, taking off her shoes and setting them beside her.  A boy in her class ran by and teasingly snagged the shoes.  A chase ensued; the girl became increasingly enraged, and by the time she had chased the boy completed around the building, she yelled, “I’m done.”  With that, she picked up a rock and hurled it into a window, shattering it.


Too often we end our stories of teens and trouble there, writing it off as another story of a teen who deserved the trouble she got herself into.  But Julie worked to understand what motivated the youth, to figure out why she became so distraught.  


The shoes the girl wore that day belonged to her brother, a brother killed during the summer.  The girl wore the shoes to feel close to him.  And when the boy took them, all her grief at the taking of her brother bubbled over into rage.


When Paul and Luther speak of salvation through grace they mean something like the grace this teenage girl found in Julie.  The grace that sees more than what we do right or what we do wrong; the grace that sees the full context of our lives; the love that sees beyond both our best moments and our worst ones.  To be seen that way is a gift, one that frees us from shame and the fear of failure.


God’s grace, Luther said, doesn’t come because we’ve earned it, not because we’ve done something right.  But rather God’s grace comes because we need it, needing that love just like a teenager grieving her brother needs compassion.  Not earned, but grace freely given.


The idea that nobody’s perfect and that all need God’s grace undercut the hierarchies of Luther’s day.  I want to make this clear: the idea that everyone messes up is profoundly equalizing.  As is the idea that no one can earn special rank.  Both ideas put everyone on the same foundation, equal before God and each other.


The Reformation shook hierarchies: in the church, it shook the hierarchy of popes, bishops, priests, and people; and in politics, it shook the hierarchy of king, noble, merchant, and peasant.  


Within the realm of church, Luther articulated the idea of equality as everyone being called to ministry, a priesthood of all believers.  He drew on passages like that of Peter’s First Letter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  


Luther’s concepts hold together: don’t worry about being perfect, don’t think about earning love, and now that those worries don’t hold you back, do something.  


Too often we think of “ministry” as something an ordained person does.  I once met with a visitor to our church who loved the congregation, but found it very jarring to have lay people read scripture and offer prayers.  He said to me, “That’s what a minister is supposed to do.”  Exactly, and in our tradition, we’re all ministers, all called to do holy work in whatever way we can.  


Tony Robinson once explained this helpfully as, “Every Christian has the capacity to know and experience God directly and to be a mediator of God’s grace to his or her neighbors and to the world.”


The three key concepts of the Reformation work together.  First to relieve our anxiety.  We don’t have to be perfect.  We don’t have to do it on our own.  And then to ask a question: without worrying about perfection and without worrying about earning God’s love, what then do we want to do with our life?  Who do we want to be without anxiety ruling our hearts?  Who do we want to be in the freedom of God’s grace and love?


Alleluia and Amen.



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Sources:

  • Denizet-Lewis, Benoit, “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 11, 2017

  • Still Speaking Writers Group, “A Study Guide For the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation,” UCC Resources.

"Where Your Heart Is" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 15, 2017

posted Oct 16, 2017, 8:42 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

The other week a Slate Magazine headline surprised me, “NFL Dishonors the Nation.”  Slate trumpeted it as a national disaster, adding foreboding international implications.  You know I can’t look away from politics.  Even if it was just another opinion piece about flags and anthems.


But then I read, “The New Orleans Saints beat the Miami Dolphins 20-0 in London today, effectively killing the idea of American exceptionalism for good. The drab, penalty-marred affair at Wembley Stadium caused irreversible damage to the Special Relationship, and America’s strongest ally has no choice now but to abandon her floundering former colony and avoid embarrassment by association.”


I had missed watching this game - I know that surprises you - but the article made clear how the Saints trounced the Dolphins.  The worst moment came when the Dolphins attempted a wildcat formation; that’s where another player switches places with the quarterback on the snap.  Derived from some plays by Pop Warner in the 1920’s, the wildcat formation depends on a bit of subterfuge.  And yet when the Dolphin’s tried it, their quarterback Jay Cutler stood off to the side with his hand on his hip.


Cutler stood that way, statuesque, throughout the play, which of course ended badly for the Dolphins.  As the commentator explained, Cutler's hands-on-hip pose perfectly captured his insolent attitude in the game.  His heart simply wasn’t in it.


His heart simply wasn’t in it.  We use our hearts as a metaphor for all sorts of emotions: love, certainly, but also the feelings of commitment, passion, generosity, devotion, hopes and dreams.  Our hearts break.  Hearts soar.  Hearts ache.  Hearts open.  And, just ask the Grinch, hearts grow.


This year for our Stewardship Campaign - the annual campaign to support the work of Plymouth Church in our congregation and community - we want to look into our hearts.  Because the practice of extravagant generosity is a matter of the heart.  And so this fall we’ll think about “where your heart is.”


This connection between the heart and money comes from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, a bit of which we heard today.  Jesus taught, “For where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”


As we begin to think about our hearts and our money, I want to focus on the story of the Golden Calf because it engages many of the issues we face with our own treasure.


In brief: the slaves of Egypt escaped into the desert, led by God and Moses.  But then Moses went up onto a mountain to pray; after forty nights and days they get worried.  So they decided to make a golden calf, an idol, to worship.  Aaron, the older brother of Moses, helped devise a plan and soon people were bowing down to their new idol.  God heard the commotion.  It didn’t go well.


Now you may wonder: Where did escaped slaves come up with enough gold to make a statue of a cow?  Earlier in the Book of Exodus we learned that the Pharaoh, after God struck down the firstborn of all the Egyptians, decided finally to let the Israelites flee.  The Egyptians were so glad that they gave their former slaves gold and silver and precious stones.  Once the Israelites fled with this loot, the Egyptians changed their mind and pursued them.  Which probably means that what the Israelites called liberation, the Egyptians called looting.  But either way the runaway slaves ended up in the desert with a lot of treasure.


The Bible, though, doesn’t worry much about how the Israelites got their money; instead, it focuses on what they did with it.  And this is a faith question: what are we doing with our treasure?


What the Israelites did unfolds in just a few verses - the making of the Golden Calf - but became the paradigmatic story about idolatry.  I want to look at three things: their fears, their folly, and their falsehood.


The Israelites made the Golden Calf because of their fears.  You can hear that fear in what the people said to Aaron, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”  Moses and God led them out of slavery; liberated them.  But with Moses gone, the people got worried about who would lead them now.


Worries multiplied in their hearts.  What would happen now?  What would happen next?  Would there be enough?


And so they sought to turn their treasure into comfort, to use their wealth to make them feel secure.  It makes me wonder today: is our relationship with our own treasure measured by fear?  Fear of enough?  Fear of loss?


I don’t mean to suggest that fear is always wrong.  Fear, certainly apprehension, can save us.  But I also know fear can also control us.  And particularly so when it comes to money.


A number of years ago, I read a study about people and money.  Researchers wanted to know what people needed to earn in order to feel secure.  And so they interviewed lots of people about their income and what they felt they needed to earn.  Across the income spectrum, people reported that they needed to earn 20% more to feel secure.  If they earned $20,000 a year, they just needed $4,000 more to make it.  If they earned $80,000 more, they just needed another $16,000 to make it; across the board.


That study made me think more seriously about tithing.  Tithing is the practice of giving 10% of your income to charity.  Jay and I aren’t at 10% yet, but we’re getting closer.  And what I’ve learned is that as a spiritual practice it gets me out of the 20% more habit; instead I try to figure out how to live on 5% less, or 6% less.  I still wonder about paying for college and saving for retirement and all the other big financial questions.  But instead of worrying how to get more, I try to figure out how to give more.


Fear lead the Israelites to folly.  Aaron led the way.  The story of the Golden Calf brings to the foreground the simmering tension between Aaron and Moses, the competition that marked so much of their life together.  Aaron saw the fear of the people as his chance to take charge.  “Take off your rings of gold,” he told the people, “and bring them to me.”  He used the gold to cast the Golden Calf.


We ought not miss the fact that the people, in the midst of their fear, were generous: they gave their gold rings.  But Aaron called forth generosity for the wrong reason: to make an idol, a faux God.


The Bible, in telling this story about Aaron, passed along a critique of religious leaders.  Aaron became the father of the great line of priests in Judaism; the line of Aaron would lead the Temple in much the way the line of David took the throne.  And so Aaron represents the “priestly” class.  He never quite got what Moses did; and so now in our story he gladly made an idol for the people.


Aaron took the gold from the people to make the Golden Calf; presenting it as an act of faith, he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  We can hear the almost right language. Instead of calling this the story of the Golden Calf, we might call it the tale of Aaron Leading People Astray.


For I think the Bible retold this story about Aaron as a warning and a caution that priests and pastors don’t always get it right, that the priestly vision represented by Aaron and Biblical faith by Moses are not always the same.


Now I realize this may be an odd thing to say when I’m asking you to give your gold rings to Plymouth, but this warning about folly matters.  Aaron built the Golden Calf out of people’s fears.  Real generosity comes from your own heart, your own passion, your own commitments.  Stewardship isn’t about funding the priestly vision, but getting in touch with the deepest passions of your hearts.


The fears of the people and the folly of Aaron led everyone into a great falsehood.  Aaron built a large altar and declared to the people, “tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”  The narrator filled in the details, “they rose up early on the morrow and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”


The Bible in many places condemned idolatry: the worship of objects as if they were divine.  But the larger point is not about statutes (or beautiful stained glass) but about our relationship to the divine.  Are we worshiping God?  Or some shiny distraction?  Some mimicry?


This is how Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago, took this story.  In his Large Catechism, or book of instruction, he noted, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.”


And so having just said that generosity arises from the depths of our hearts, I want to add: to what does your heart cling?


The ancient authors of the Bible worried about people clinging to idols but in modern times we might think in new ways about the kind of things we cling to: Is it the flag, which we cling to with an unflinching patriotism?  Is it the Bible, which we hold onto with an unthinking naivete?  Perhaps both; but I think our most likely idol in America today is our own individualism, our “self,” and our own self-righteousness.  Today in America the Israelites would undoubtedly say, “I brought myself out of the land of Egypt, by my own bootstraps!”  Idols are famously fragile; and perhaps nothing exhibits more fragility than American individualism.


Radical individualism promises to make us happy; but the promise is as false as the word of a Golden Calf.  Researchers can actually study this, as they did at the University of Zurich.  Researchers tested to see how “happy” people were before a study and did MRI scans of their brains.  Over the course of the study, participants received $25 a week.  Half were told to give the money to someone else; the other half were asked to spend it on themselves.  At the end of the study, the researchers found the group giving away money were much happier than those who got to treat themselves to something every week.  And I think that’s because the act of giving money away meant their hearts reached out to other people instead of clinging to their own desires; they held fast to others instead of grasping themselves.


This Stewardship season, I would hope you can ask several questions of yourself.  First about fear: does fear govern my relationship with money?  Next about folly: am I following someone else’s vision or my own passion?  And lastly about falsehood: what does my heart cling to?


Generosity means setting aside our fear, claiming our passions, and drawing close to others.  I hope that is where your heart is.


Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:

  • Greene, Nick, “NFL Dishonors Our Beautiful Nation With Saints-Dolphins Game,” Slate, Oct. 1, 2017.

  • Jacobson, Rolf A., “Moses, the Golden Calf, and the False Images of the True God,” Word and World, Spring 2013.

  • Reynolds, Gretchen, “Giving Proof,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 17, 2017.

"St. Francis Day" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 8, 2017

posted Oct 9, 2017, 11:36 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

On Monday morning before he left for school, David asked if I’d heard about Las Vegas.  His phone gives him breaking news updates.  He was the first of us to know what happened; the gruesome count of 58 killed and five hundred wounded from a shooter perched on the 32nd floor of a hotel.  


I started reading about Las Vegas as soon as my guys headed out the door.  I wanted to understand what happened, of course; but also, why?  Why did this happen?


Much of what I read felt familiar.  I’d read similar stories after similar shootings, more times then I care to remember: the slowly emerging details, the gripping firsthand accounts, the calls for gun control and the warnings from gun enthusiasts to not politicize it all.  And after each of these, political leaders send out their “thoughts and prayers” and held very public moments of silence.  But I’m tired of this scripted response.  Not another moment of silence.  Maybe what I need is a moment of screaming: to let loose the anguish of 58 souls lost and hundreds hurt, to make sure God hears the people’s cry, a communal shout of “why?”


I’ve come to see - as I said after the mass shooting at an Orlando gay bar - that these awful events come from a toxic masculinity.  Walter Kim, a journalist for Harper’s Magazine, pointed to this when he wrote, “I fear the #LasVegasShooter acted on that most chilling and empty of all-American motives.  To set a record.  To be number one.”  


We might attribute an ideological motivation to a mass shooting: radical religion, racism, some bizarre animus, or confused paranoia.  But almost all mass shooters are male.  And instead of dividing mass shooters into Jihadists, racists, etc, I think we can see all of them as embodying a toxic understanding of what it means to be a man.


I’ve come to see how we express our gender as a kind of performance art.  We make choices, adapt roles and costumes, follow scripts.  Which is perhaps why the word “person” and “personality” come from the Latin word for mask.  Gender is but a mask we show to the world; a script we chose to follow.


I realized this early on as a gay man.  At one point I tried to follow the straight-script.  I did all the things I thought straight men did.  Back then, fearing I was gay, I tried to find all sorts of ways to act straight.  I was in college, so I thought the most straight thing I could do was join a fraternity, to be a frat boy.  Turns out living in a house of forty men doesn’t make it easy to be closeted.


When I came out, I realized I needed a new way of being.  I’m ridiculously uncoordinated, but when I came out I felt I needed to learn to snap.  Another script.  


The ways I tried to live out an early 90’s script for being gay seem funny to me now.  But sometimes our gender scripts, our gender performance, turns toxic and destructive.


Last year, a boy brought a loaded gun to Whitefish Bay High School.  He wanted to sell it to one of his friends.  I’ve known this teen since he was in elementary school, knew his family and some of his story as an African-American adopted into a white family.  He got caught with the gun because he and his friend posted a video of themselves playing with it in the school bathroom, mugging for the camera in a gangster-style parody of manhood.  Looking tough, but behind their performance lay insecurities: what it felt like to be a person of color in an overwhelming white school with no African-American teachers, with all the questions of identity adoption can raise.  So he mimicked a kind of masculinity performed in our culture, the badass with the gun; and yet I still saw the boy who loved gymnastics.


Writ large in a tragedy like Las Vegas or in countless, hidden ways, our scripts of what it means to be a man or to be woman can turn toxic and destructive.


St Francis, whose life we celebrate this day, can speak to the ways we can learn a new script, learn new ways to live out our genders.  We normally focus on stories of St. Francis and the animals.  Brother Wolf.  Sister Moon.  Preaching to the birds.  And while those stories can be spiritually uplifting, this week I’m struck by earlier stories in the life of St. Francis in which he found a new way to be a man.


Francis was born to Pietro and Pica.  The father, Pietro, made his living selling fabrics; a cloth merchant.  Business took him far from Assisi; he missed the birth and baptism of his son.  Pica, the mother, gave her baby the name Giovanni, or Jonathan, a name which meant “gift of God.”  But when Pietro returned from his travels, he decided to change his son’s name to Francis, which literally meant “Frenchman” or “Frenchie.”  This change in names captures the way his life would be a struggle about identity.


As a teenager, Francis became famous for both his charm and his recklessness.  Later people would say of his young adult years, in rhyming verse, “He was raised shamefully amid all sorts of folly, and as he grew up he surpassed those who raised him in even worse folly.”  Much of that folly involved leading other teens into trouble with the town authorities.   


Francis’ father wanted him to join the family business as a cloth merchant; but Francis aspired to be a soldier.  This was the age of chivalrous knights; but also a time of tremendous cruelty, from crusades against foreign lands to shameless and constant violence between neighbors.  The town of Assisi came under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire; a fortress loomed over the town.  But the rising middle class merchants like Francis’ father banded together, stormed the fortress, and murdered the aristocrats.  The nobles that survived fled to nearby Perugia.  


Several years later, the exiled nobles recruited forces to retake Assisi.  Francis joined the soldiers defending Assisi, resplendent in new, shiny, expensive armor.  The soldiers left singing:

Nothing cheers my soul like the cry of ‘Charge!’

And the cry ‘Help!’ echoing loudly --

Nothing is so welcome as to see the lowly and the proud

Lying in a ditch together…


The forces of Assisi captured a Perugian stronghold; victory seemed in hand.  But the Perugian forces made a massive counter strike - shock and awe moment - that overwhelmed Francis and the soldiers with him.  Bodies littered the vineyards; the Perugian soldiers killed the few survivors.  Except for Francis and a few other wealthy men; the expensive armor saved him.


The captive Francis was thrown into a prison.  Francis’ prison cell was an underground vault, cold in the winter, stiflingly hot in the summer, almost always dark; many didn’t survive.  After a year, his parents successfully negotiated a ransom.  Francis came back as a shadow of his former self: emaciated, so weak with fever that he shook, no doubt today we’d call it PTSD.  


But still he wanted to be a knight, to play out the script of masculinity, a role of “Macho Bravo Guano.”  


Once more, Francis tried on the scripted role of masculinity in his culture.  An illness caused him to miss out on Pope Innocent III’s draft of men for the 4th Crusade.  So instead, he volunteered as a mercenary in the army of Walter the III.  The nobleman wanted to recapture his kingdom in southern Italy and Sicily from the Germans.  


On the way to muster with Walter’s forces, Francis came across a knight.  The knight made a dejected sight: impoverished, wounded, and now walking slowly home.  Meanwhile, Francis looked stunning in his fresh and new uniform, once again wearing his shiny and expensive armor.  Like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Future, Francis saw in the dejected knight what he would become, where his pursuit of nihilistic violence would lead him.  Converted, he gave the impoverished knight all his fine clothes and fancy armaments.  


Meeting his future self in the form of the poor knight changed the direction of his life.  Soon he turned back from war and headed home.  Like an actor who forgot his lines, Francis struggled with what to say and do back in Assisi.  He threw away the old script, his culture’s expectations of male bravado, but it took time for him to improvise new lines.  Who would Francis be?


His life after meeting the knight took on a new character and direction.  He kept giving away his belongings, leading to an irreparable break with his father.  (You don’t have to be a Freudian to see the irony in a cloth-merchant father whose son keeps giving away his clothes.)  He began a new life marked by a vow of poverty, a life of devotion, and a desire for community.  


All of which represented a stark change in his way of being a man.  Before, as a provocateur and a wannabe soldier, he treated everyone in his life as his audience and backup cast, spectators to his own heroic show and bit players in his own drama of triumph.  But, starting with the knight whose own story challenged him, Francis began to look beyond himself to see the vulnerability of other people in all their beauty and grandeur and uniqueness.  As another saint would say, he found himself “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”


Francis lived in a way very different than the other men around him.  Several times he tried to meet Muslims and to sail to Africa; he finally succeeded during the 5th Crusade.  The Muslims forced the Christians out of Jerusalem shortly after Francis’ birth; the crusades in his day tried to reconquer the area.  During the 5th Crusade, Christian forces attacked Egypt.  


When Francis came to the crusader camp, he met the kind of men he could have become.  Recently the crusaders had captured eight Muslim spies, whom the Christians tortured by cutting off their noses, arms, ears until the captives looked like “bloody scarecrows.”  The Christians were winning the battle, but Francis saw they had lost the moral war.  He preached to the soldiers “that to pursue the battle any further would be disastrous for those calling themselves Christians.”  


The soldiers and their bishop general didn’t listen.  Having defeated a garrison, they charged over the desert into a trap.  Saracen forces encircled them, killing five thousand crusaders.  This pattern of success and defeat would reoccur many times until finally the Muslim forces trapped the Christians on their ships in a muddy portion of the Nile River.  


During this time, Francis visited the Sultan Malik al-Kamil, a nephew of the more famous Saladin.  While the other crusaders couldn’t see the humanity of their opponents, Francis engaged the Sultan and his court in respectful dialogue.  Neither Francis nor the Sultan converted the other, but they left with a sense of profound respect for each other.  Francis took home a horn presented to him by the Sultan, which he used to call his fellow monks to prayer.  And the Sultan gave permission for Francis and his monks to travel freely throughout his lands.   


I treasure that image of Francis and Malik meeting together; each devoted to their God, each respectful of the other’s humanity.  It represents the apotheosis of Francis’ quest to be his own man.  For in meeting with the Sultan, Francis defied all the expectations of what it meant to be a man in his culture.  His culture expected him to either fight with a sword or to be so obnoxious in his efforts to convert Muslims that he would be martyred.  But Francis wrote a new script for himself, a new performance; one in which he saw the humanity of other people and his own connection to them, a new way of being in which he lived as one “tied in a single garment of destiny.”  


Too often we get trapped in the scripts our culture writes for what it means to be a man or a woman; performances of masculinity that turn toxic or of femininity that turn demeaning.  Francis started off trapped in a toxic masculinity too.  But he threw away his script, stopped living the life of men expected in his culture, becoming a new kind of person, one who saw deeply the humanity of others.  May the life and example of St. Francis inspire us to live as boldly as he did, finding new ways to express God’s love in our gendered lives.  Alleluia and Amen.



Sources:

  • Cataldo, Lisa M., “Religious Experience and the Transformation of Narcissism: Kohutian Theory and the Life of St. Francis,” Journal of Religious Health (2007).

  • Gonzales, Justo L., “St. Francis Was Right After All,” The Living Pulpit

  • Johnson, Galen K., “St. Francis and the Sultan: An Historical and Critical Reassessment,” Mission Studies (2001).

  • Spoto, Donald, Reluctant Saint: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi


"Food Allegories" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - October 1, 2017

posted Oct 4, 2017, 1:08 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

I belong to a cooking club that meets several times a year; something we’ve done for nearly two decades.  We pick themes for the meals.  Inspiration can come from a country’s cuisine, a particular food, a special season.  And over the years a few recipes became trademark favorites.  We can’t gather in the fall without sharing an Apple Tart Tatin, the French dessert of caramelized apples baked underneath a flaky crust but then, when served, dramatically flipped, which can leave an uncareful novice covered in hot apple caramel.


But of all my favorites foods, pride of place goes to Irish Soda Bread.  In my mind, nothing beats a freshly made Irish Soda Bread; still warm from the oven, topped with some butter.


In fact, I like this bread so much that I’ve nicknamed it the “Irish Friend” of our cooking club.  So we’ll be planning a menu - say Indian with a host of traditional foods and then I’ll suggest we add our “Irish Friend.”


Tasting Irish Soda Bread brings back memories of our group, the texture of the bread reminding me of the richness of relationships.  And this happens for all of us with special foods; foods that remind us who we are, where our people come from, our story.  And these special foods not only tell a story but define belonging; eating the food means you belong.  I know a husband who wasn’t really part of his wife’s family until he showed he could eat lutefisk.  (Personally, I would have tried family therapy.)


Food not only nourishes us but evokes memories and defines belonging.  Which, of course, we know as Christians since one of our most important rituals involves symbolic foods.  Bread.  Cup.


How we share communion often reveals something about who we are as a community.  Paul made this point to the Church in Corinth.  He began that letter by noting the divisions within the community, saying, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’”


And now, later in the letter, he returned to this theme of divisions.  The people in Corinth held a church picnic when they got together to share communion; the bread and cup were part of a larger meal.  Except in Corinth, everyone just ate their own food: one person feasting on steak while another went hungry.


Paul saw the way they lived together as a community, and what they shared together beyond the bread and cup of the sacrament, mattered.  And so he didn’t hold back but said, “For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”


So Paul reminded the church - and by extension reminded us - of the meaning of communion.  That through the bread and cup we symbolically come to be at table with Jesus, hearing him say, “Do this in remembrance of me.”


Paul wanted the quality of our relationships and the character of our community to be done in remembrance of Jesus.  To not just dunk a bit of bread in a cup, but to show in the way we live together that our lives themselves remember Jesus.  Frustrated with what he saw in the lives in the Corinthians, he said, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”  And we ought to wonder: what would he say about our lives?  About the life of our community?

 

As you think about that question, I want to suggest some of the ways the bread used in communion may help us remember what it means to be in community.

Michael Pollan, the premier commentator of American foodies, once wrote at length about bread - both how to make it and what it means to make it.  Pollon pointed out, for instance, that bread is an ingenious way to transform grass into something delicious and flavorful.  We take a particular kind of grass, wheat, and grind up its seeds; mix the resulting flour with water, salt, and yeast; and we get something amazing.


Humans lived a long time before someone thought to bake a loaf of bread.  According to Pollan, the first loaf of bread rose in Egypt.  People had been eating porridge - essentially wet grass seed, a mush; yum!  Sometimes people cooked the porridge into simple cakes; matzah.  But then someone left a bowl of this slurry porridge out.  It began to froth and bubble.  The Egyptians didn’t know it but yeast multiplied in the porridge and fermented the dough.  And the dough grew in size; a miracle.  And then someone thought to bake it.  But unlike the other hockey puck cakes, a revelation of taste: crunchy on the outside but luxuriantly soft on the inside.  Even better, the bread provided far more nutrients than the soggy grass seed.


The discovery of bread lead to a revolution; and more specifically, the discovery of bread fueled the rise of the first complex human civilizations.  Bread, as Pollan would say, remains deeply connected to society.  We think of making bread as the action of one person; today, Steve working away at the communion table.  But Steve’s work today depends on a long chain of hidden actors: the farmer who grew the wheat, the miller who turned it into flour, and the countless bakers who passed on the knowledge of their art.  To taste bread is to savor the work of countless people who made it possible.  It is the work of a civilization.


Which is why Julia Child once said, thinking of us Americans and our Wonder Bread, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”


Today, when you come to communion, you will have a chance to taste the bread of any number of civilizations.  And when you do, I hope you savor the long line of people who made that bread possible.  To taste the bread of communion that way is to open our hearts to the community behind the bread, to realize our connection to the bakers, certainly, but also the farmers and millers and the centuries over which national recipes developed, to see ourselves in a long chain of connection back to that first Egyptian whose porridge spoiled into some wonderful bread.


So much of what passes for spirituality focuses on our individual relationship with God; a “me-and-Jesus” mentality.  But communion - this ritual centered in bread - calls us to see our connections to people: those in the pew next to us, those around the world, those who came long before.


Jesus, when he took the bread, said, “This is my body.”  I had that statement in the back of my mind when I read something interesting from Pollan.  He’d just observed, “Alveoli are what bakers call the pockets of air that make up the crumb [or moist, tender, interior of the bread].”  Alveoli.  I knew that word; those are the sacs in our lungs that fill with air, that tender place where our blood exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide.  Both the body and the bread have alveoli.


And those pockets of air make the difference between bread and porridge, between amazing and mush.  The pockets form during the rising and baking process; when flavorful gas gets trapped by the gluten molecules.  Over 200 flavonoids can be found in bread; literally the air gives the flavor to bread.


Which means the flavor comes from what’s not present, from the gaps, the spaces, the intangible.  This also seems true about the spiritual life; that what matters most can’t quite be pinned down, but comes in the gaps, in the spaces, the air, the Spirit.


And remember those gaps happen because the gluten forms bonds which capture the air.  The more elastic the gluten, the bigger the gaps will be; and the better the flavor.  But if the gluten doesn’t develop properly then it breaks and the air all collects underneath the crust, one big air pocket.  It makes an interesting allegory to our community.  How elastic are our bonds?  Can we stretch?  Hold our differences?  Make space between us for the Spirit?


When you take communion today, can you taste the crumb and savor the Spirit?


Pollan, when he set out to make his loaf of bread, used a recipe from the famed San Francisco bakery Tartine.  The master baker at Tartine, Chad Robinson, published his recipe.  It runs over thirty pages for a basic loaf.  (This is why many people don’t bake!)


But his recipe really comes down to one key ingredient: the starter, a mixture of flour and water in which yeast and bacteria take root, much as they did millennia ago in some Egyptian’s porridge.


And the starter starts with just flour and water mixed together by hand.  By hand matters because all the yeast and bacteria we need to make bread just live on our bodies.  I like thinking of God’s love as a bit like the yeast - something wild, that exists all around us, there on our hands, ever present.


Once the yeast and bacteria get established in the starter, then it needs to be tended.  The starter - much like a pet - needs to be fed.  But it also needs to be used, because it keeps doubling in size.  So you either bake with it or toss some of it out.  All the time.


Which also sounds like God’s love: bubbling away, doubling every time we look, and really demanding that we make something of it, lest it go to waste.


You can use a little bit of the starter to leaven the dough for bread.  Or you can use a lot.  It doesn’t really matter.  The more yeast you add, the faster the dough will rise.  But sometimes you don’t want it to happen quickly because the longer it takes then the more flavor you get in the end.  Either way, the starter yeast acts to transform the dough, fermenting the flour, building gluten, giving rise to something wonderful.


Sometimes I hear people lament that they don’t believe as much as someone else.  We can wish our relationship with God felt as abundant as it does for someone else.  “I just have a bit of faith,” we might say with embarrassment.


But what if we saw that bit of faith, however much we feel in our hearts, as God’s starter, God’s leavening love, that would transform us: fermenting, building, giving rise to the wonder of our soul.


Can you taste that promise of transformation in communion this morning?  Taste the bread, knowing that God’s love will transform you as surely as yeast changes porridge into bread.  Taste the bread, knowing God’s love acts as the starter of community.


Favorite foods remind us of our past, our relationships, our story.  This morning may communion remind you of Jesus and what it means to live in community.  Alleluia and Amen.




Sources

  • Borst, Marilyn, “A Better World Commuion Sunday,” Called to Worship, (2011).

  • Buchanan, John M., “Shared Meal,” Christian Century.

  • Davis, Stephen T., “Mercy Creates a People,” The Reformed Journal, (1989).

  • Fine Cooking, “The Science of Baking with Yeast,” accessed Sept. 29, 2017.

  • Pollan, Michael, Cooked.

  • Sifton, Sam, “Sourdough Starter,” New York Times, (March 23, 2016).


"Vocation in Life" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 24, 2017

posted Sep 25, 2017, 11:08 AM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Oct 4, 2017, 1:11 PM ]

This summer much of our family conversation centered around colleges.  Tomas and I toured many different schools and in-between talked about what he wanted to do.  It’s one of the big questions of his senior year.


In our church tradition, we often frame these questions as questions of “calling” and “vocation.”  What is God calling you to do with your life?  What’s your vocation?


One of the most succinct definitions of calling and vocation comes from Frederick Buechner.  He said, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”  Buechner’s definition suggests that we find our calling at that place where our joy and the world’s need intersect.  


And yet, finding that place of intersection is not always easy.  My conversations with Tomas took me back to my own senior year.  Back then, I wanted to go to work for the CIA.  The CIA had a large office in our town and my scoutmaster worked there.  Growing up outside of Washington DC made it seem like a natural thing to do, especially for a patriotic kid interested in politics and world cultures.  I felt “called” to work for the CIA.


But then I went away to college.  I learned more about our country’s foreign policy.  For instance, my scoutmaster hadn’t mentioned the assassinations of foreign leaders.  And I discovered the religion department professors asked the kind of questions I most cared about.  I learned something about my greatest joy; my sense of call shifted; I became a pastor.  


Many of us have similar experiences of feeling called to one profession and then shifting, even shifting abruptly.  Jay worked for a large animal vet in southern Indiana - cows, pigs, and horses.  He felt called to become a vet.  At the same time he accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship.  Turned out the Navy didn’t need large animal vets.  So on his first day his commander decreed, “thou shalt be an engineer.”  Some of us are called; some pushed.


Which means that even as we have this conversation about schools and careers at home, I’m mindful of the way a person’s sense of call can change, sometimes radically: from CIA analyst to pastor, from large animal vet to engineer.  


The question of calling and vocation is not limited to families with high school seniors of course.  It’s a lifetime question, one we come back to in many ways.  Where do we find our greatest joy?  Where do we sense the world’s deepest needs?  

Earlier this month, I talked in a sermon about a distinction David Brooks has made between “resumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”  Resumé virtues get you your job; eulogy virtues get you a life.  I continue to think about this distinction Brooks makes.  Too often the question of calling focuses on resumé virtues.  What work are you called to do?  But we need to ask a deeper question, one of eulogy virtues: what life are you called to live?


This turn from seeking resumé virtues to eulogy virtues can completely reorient a life.  Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on a French Chef who wants to return his Michelin Stars.  This is unheard of in the foodie world.  Three Michelin Stars epitomize success for a chef; the capstone of a career.  


And yet, Chef Sebastien Bras decided to turn down the honor.  As the chef explained, “[I want] to give a new meaning to my life.”  He wanted to move away from the model of hyper-perfection and honor-bound tradition that defines the Michelin rating.  As he further explained, “Food should be about love — not about competition.”  


Brooks would understand this movement from competition to love as the movement from resumé virtues to eulogy virtues; to want something more from life than success.  Too often our culture assumes that success in a career - getting those Michelin Stars - can make us truly happy.  But in reality, as Brooks says, “The ultimate joys are moral joys.”  


So when it comes to defining a calling and a vocation, perhaps we need to adapt Buechner: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest moral joy meets the world’s greatest need.”


The moral joys, or the eulogy virtues, might be named as love, integrity, compassion, courage, hope, service, wisdom.  To seek these moral joys means to live with a focus on purpose and meaning instead of chasing after happiness and success.


We easily know how to work on our resumé virtues.  We go to school.  We intern.  We seek mentors, find jobs, work hard, network: all of these can develop our resumé virtues.  But how do we tackle those ultimate joys; not success but service, not knowledge but wisdom, not competition but compassion?


It can be harder to know how to pursue eulogy virtues, to seek after the ultimate joys.  But Brooks suggests a path, starting with a quote of Montaigne, who said, “We can be knowledgeable with other people’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other people’s wisdom.”  As Brooks elaborated, “That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information.  It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.”


A resumé lists all our accomplishments - I did this and then I did that.  Resumés always paper over those awkward moments - the job that ended quickly, the too long of a gap.  But often those experiences we paper over in a resumé form the basis of our eulogy virtues.  


I remember a resumé I once reviewed for a non-profit.  It looked like a ladder of success from college, through promotions and new opportunities.  And then, after a gap, came a series of gigs delicately dressed up as “consulting.”  What lay behind this?  I learned about the illness that filled in that gap year and how it lead to a reordering of life, a desire to live near family, and a new sense of what mattered.  The resumé charted out knowledge; but there, in the gap of the resumé, lay wisdom.  


The meaning of our lives doesn’t come from our successes but from how we handle our vulnerabilities: the lessons learned in adversity and grief, the challenges presented by limitations and failures, the wisdom gained from unplanned moments.  And so, we might need to rethink the Buechner quote once more.  Perhaps we need to say, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest needs develop in you the world’s greatest moral joys.”  


All of which can be seen in the life of Abraham, whose story centers around the recurring promise of God.  Four times God called to Abraham with promises of greatness; and Abraham followed God despite all the hardship each of these calls involved.  And through them, we glimpse not just Abraham as a man called by God but Abraham as someone whose limitations, vulnerabilities, and uncertainties became a source of wisdom.


At first God said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Abraham immediately left his homeland.  When called, he went.  But we often stop reading the story there, so we miss the irony of what happened next.


Called to be a blessing to the nations, Abraham ended up going down to Egypt.  According to the Bible story we heard, Abraham and Sarah were in their seventies.  And yet Abraham, as he approached Egypt, worried that the men would find his wife attractive and thereby decide to kill him in order to take Sarah.  Abraham’s gallant solution?  He decided to pass Sarah off as his sister and then let the Egyptians take her off and sexually exploit her.  God intervened.  The Pharaoh learned the true relationship between Abraham and Sarah.  And so he cast them out, saying, “What is this you have done to me?”  Hardly a blessing for the nations; and that’s even before we imagine what Sarah had to say about all of this.    


A call or a vocation doesn’t make our limitations go away.  Abraham remained a deeply troubled man; indeed, according to the Bible he later tried once more to pass Sarah off as his sister.  The call to greatness didn’t magically make all these moral problems go away.  But the call exposed them.  Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “The beginning of worthwhile living is thus the confrontation with ourselves.”  And so Abraham’s call began with a confrontation with his own limited moral choices.


In the remaining stories of God making promises, we hear Abraham name his increasing doubts.  When God promised “your reward shall be great,” Abraham argued back, “what will you give me, for I continue childless.”  When God came back with a promise of heirs and that even one hundred year old Sarah would yet bear a son, Abraham just laughed like a hopeless man.  And when God called for Abraham to sacrifice that son, a dejected Abraham marched up the mountain.  


If Abraham represents what it means to live a vocation, we might want to chose something else.  And yet it speaks to the way our notions of success don’t match well with the impact of a call.  Abraham was called to have more children than stars in the sky.  He died with just a few; and at least one of those, Ishmael, estranged from him.  But now over half the world counts itself his spiritual descendants.  Resumés shimmer with the successes we can claim, but our greatest impacts maybe ones we never see, ones the world never celebrates.


At least twice the call stories of Abraham reflect disturbingly on God.  At one point, God promises to make Abraham great and then lulls him to sleep.  As Abraham sleeps, God whispers to him, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be slaves.”  What kind of God promises greatness and whispers slavery?  Such a question only becomes more pointed when God called on Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  What kind of God promises a child and asks such a thing?


There’s much to say about the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice, but today I’m just struck by the ways these stories raise the question of God’s trustworthiness.  Abraham, deep in his soul, must have faced that question: Can I trust God?  


David Brooks talked of the way the limitations and uncertainties of life can become the touchpoints of wisdom.  But Abraham makes clear the real question that arises when life sets us back on our heels.  Can I trust the power of the universe?  


In Abraham we can see the gritty reality of a vocation.  His greatest needs met the world’s ultimate joys, revealing his limitations, leaving him uncertain of his impact, and testing his trust.  And yet Abraham tried to answer the call of God in the way he lived his life.


Langston Hughes spoke about this in his poem about a mother advising her discouraged son.  She first said her life hadn’t been a crystal stair but she still went on; she encourages her son to do the same, saying:

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.


Whether we’re planning for college or reflecting on our life, we can move from thinking of resumé virtues to eulogy virtues.  Which means asking ourselves, “How do my greatest need develop in me the world’s moral joys?”  And means saying to each other, “I’m still climbing even when life ain’t a crystal stair.”  Alleluia and Amen.





Sources:

  • Bilefsky, Dan and ELIAN PELTIER, “Acclaimed French Chef to Michelin: Take My Stars, Please,” New York Times, Sept. 21, 2017.  

"Killing on the Commode" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 10, 2017

posted Sep 25, 2017, 8:40 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”.jpgI find myself increasingly drawn to art museums and especially contemporary exhibits. This means I’m always dragging my family to “interesting” shows, ones where the art doesn’t always seem like art. They make predictable comments. Standing in front of a massive white canvas with what looks like a single dot of paint from a spray can, someone will invariably say, “How is this art?”


So, I learned to turn this into a game. We see which of us can find the most bizarre example of art in the museum. Top honors goes to Jay, who was first to see a porcelain urinal displayed on its backside underneath glass. “How is this art?”


The piece on display was actually a reproduction of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 installation, “Fountain.” Many in the field of modern art considered Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” a turning point. At the beginning of the 20th century, the art world struggled to define what counted as art. The ancient regime of juried shows was giving way to a much broader understanding of the creative arts. At the same time, the pointlessness and destructiveness of World War I left many questioning the standards and styles of bourgeois-capitalist culture. Duchamp entered the urinal as a test and a protest of those standards. As the exhibit note beside the Duchamp’s urinal explained, “It epitomizes the assault on convention and accepted notions of art.”

And while all that might be true, it’s also true that for long afterwards, someone in our family would come out of the bathroom to announce, “great modern art in there.”


Obviously, perspectives differ on whether it’s just a urinal on ridiculous display or a pissotière d’art.


Perspective matters. I thought of this while reading the story of Ehud. As we heard today, he killed the king of the Moabites. He used a knife hidden against his thigh. And he caught the king in a private moment - actually while the servants thought the king was on the privy. What are we to make of this murder on the toilet, this foul-play on the privy? Is this gruesome tale just another example of the violence of the Bible? One more exhibit against a cruel Old Testament God? Do we look at this story just as my guys looked at Duchamp’s art, asking, “How is this holy?”


We ought to ask this question of all our Bible stories. But it becomes a particularly important question to ask of our most troubling passages, “How is this holy?” If there is one thing I hope our children and youth learn in church school, it’s asking this question. And to ask that question knowing we may say, “It’s not holy” or that we might find a holy meaning we didn’t expect.


But first I want to share my bias. I think people too often set the Bible on a pedestal - “the holy book.” And then, when we read a story like that of Ehud, our first response can be to reject it. I imagine people reading this at home, coming to Ehud’s violent murder, and saying to themselves, “I can’t stand this violence. Time to watch Game of Thrones!” The Bible’s too violent; and so we watch Cersei Lannister. In a culture that entertains itself with stories of violence, we doth protest too much about the Bible.


I find it better to pay attention to all the ways Bible stories are just ancient episodes of the same kinds of stories we tell today. So instead of offering a Bible study, I prefer to think of myself as doing fan commentary. And I’m a fan of this particular show called the Book of Judges. And Shonda Rhimes who produced “Judges” does several interesting things in this episode.


Judges took place in a troubled time for the Israelites. After successfully escaping slavery in Egypt and settling in the promised land, they began a pattern of suffering and redemption, of oppression and liberation. Foreign powers - like Moab in this story - conquered them and then they regained their freedom. I wanted you to get a sense of this cyclical pattern which is why our reading included two of the many times the Israelites did evil and were redeemed.


The story today sets up Ehud against Eglon. Our translation says “Eglon was a very fat man” but the word literally means “calf.” And so some people take his name to mean “fatted calf,” a name suggesting that the king will be sacrificed like an animal on the altar but also a name which pokes fun at a foreign king oppressing the Israelites. “Remember that fat cow on the throne?” And so we could picture Eglon as a Jabba the Hut, his royal “fatulence.” But others think the name Eglon was more positive, evocative of a Bull, as if Eglon were “beefy” or even a beefcake. He was the only foreign king “strengthened” by God in Judges; so even the divine seemed to like the beefcake king. So was Eglon a fat cow or a beefcake?  Perspective matters.


And then there’s Ehud, the left-handed guy. The word we translate as left-handed really meant “withered right-hand.” It focused on disability; Ehud as deformed. But there’s more to it.  There are very few left-handed characters in the Bible and all of them come from the tribe of Benjamin (I’m left-handed; I know them all.) It’s a recurring pun in the Bible, because Benjamin meant “son on my right hand.” So Ehud’s the left-hand man of the right-hand men. At the same time, the Bible describes the occasional left-hand characters as strong warriors; the Seal Team 6 of Israel. They were hard to handle in a fight, a bit like a left-handed pitcher in baseball. So, just as we could see Eglon as either the fat cow or the beefcake, we can see Ehud as the broken man or the great warrior.


Ehud immediately set about making a sword, really a dagger; our translation calls it “two edged.” This was the height of technology at the time. Previously people had used curved swords sharpened only on one side. Ehud used the newest technology though; two-edged. But the Hebrew for a sharpened edge really means “mouth” as if the edge is really teeth cutting a person. So it says Ehud fashioned a two-mouthed sword. Two-mouthed. A perfect description of the way Ehud will speak out of both sides of his mouth when he meets Eglon.


Ehud appeared before Eglon as a loyal subject, bringing the taxes Israel owed the king. And then he went to “the sculptured stones near Gilgal.” This was a renown place of prophecy. We could imagine the sculpted stones as something similar to Stonehenge, a sacred set of ancient stones. Ehud went there, to the place of prophecy, then returned to the king as if he had a divine message. This gave him a pretext to be alone with the king.


Close listeners might have caught the way Ehud changes what he said to the king. First, he spoke deferentially to the king. “I have a secret thing for you, O King.” Eglon thought the secret thing to be a prophecy from Gilgal. Once the room was empty, Ehud dropped the honorary titles, “I have a secret thing for you from God.” Eglon rose; perhaps in protest of being spoken to as if they were equals. And that’s when Ehud brought out his hidden sword, the secret thing.


All this happened behind the locked doors of the chamber. The servants thought Eglon locked the doors because he was using the toilet, “answering the call of nature.” Ancient audiences would have smirked; just what kind of throne did the great king sit on? And of course the ancient Israelites chuckled to think of their foe, the one who conquered them, killed on his commode.


While we may smile at that too, the ending appalls us: Ehud flees the scene of the murder, gathers his forces, and kills ten thousand other men from Moab. In fact, the Hebrew word used to describe those men closely resembles the description of Eglon - 10,000 fat cows or 10,000 beefcakes.


Which brings us to the big question: what does this mean? And more pointedly, does God condone violence?


On the surface yes, this text seems like it justifies violence. But how this story presents this tale of murder matters. First, there is the ambiguity about the main characters: Eglon, the fat cow or beefcake; Ehud, the man with a withered-hand or the warrior with a secret advantage. Such ambiguities make me wonder about the model of masculinity in this text. These men are also parodies of the terse male hero. And the parody makes me wonder: what does it mean to be a good guy? Does it mean stabbing a man on the john?


Action movies often raise the same kinds of questions about masculinity. While they seem like overt celebrations of manhood, some actually parody and question what it means to be a man, or at least a good man. Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven was written during the midst of the Vietnam crisis but not produced until the early 1990’s. The film shocked people at the time for its violence.


One scene in particular stands out.  Clint Eastwood’s character - supposedly the good guy - has cornered his nemesis in a bar. He shoots an unarmed man and kills another in the back; then he stands over his cowering enemy, who says, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this.  I was building a house.” And the supposed hero says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” The camera frame shifts but we hear the gunshot.


Eastwood, who came to fame as the heroic loner bringing justice to the wild west, produced this enigmatic film which undermined the simple morality of the classic western. It confronted us with the brutality of violence until we come to see the viciousness of the good guys no different than that of the bad.


I think this story of Ehud raises similar questions about violence: Is Ehud really good? Does violence achieve anything? One clue as to what the author thought comes from the fact that Ehud was never called a Judge, the honorific given to the good leaders. Nor did God ever speak to him. Even more, the context of the story matters; for Ehud’s violence didn’t achieve any lasting peace, just one brief pause in a long cycle of violence. Indeed, the vicious humor of Judges continued week after week. The episode after Eglon’s murder on the throne featured violence by an ox-prodder and after that by a tent peg. All that violence achieved rest but not peace. Reading it can make us see the failure of violence to achieve any lasting solution.


And in an even larger context: Ehud’s people, the tribe of Benjamin, gave rise to King Saul, the failed king of Israel. Eglon’s people, the Moabites, gave rise to Israel’s King David and by extension to Jesus. Those Benjaminites who laughed at what Ehud accomplished would yet be ruled by Eglon’s descendant. Who laughed last? And no wonder one of Eglon’s descendants knew, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”


We don’t like to face the questions raised by Ehud’s violence: Are the good guys really good? Does violence achieve anything? But we need to ask ourselves these questions.


A few weeks ago a caravan of ISIS fighters, their wives, and children left their last stronghold in western Syria and headed to another ISIS controlled stronghold. American warplanes have bombed both the road out of the desert and the route back, leaving the eleven buses and ambulances stranded. I think of us as the good guys in this fight, but what does this cat-and-mouse game with the wounded and the wives of ISIS say about us?


It feels too much like hearing Ehud and Eastwood say over their victims, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”


The shocking violence of Judges, and of this particular tale of killing on the commode, makes us ask, “What’s holy about this?” But I think this story of Ehud forces us to ask this question of violence in general - “What’s holy about this?” - and especially of our good guys.


Alleluia and Amen.


Sources:

  • Christianson, Eric, “A Fistful of Shekels: Scrutinizing Ehud’s Entertaining Violence.”

This was a particularly important resource for me.  Christianson pointed out the Eastwood film.

  • Kraeling, E. G., “Difficulties in the Story of Ehud,” Journal of Biblical Literature.

  • Sasson, Jack, “Ethically Cultured Interpretations: The Case of Eglon’s Murder (Judges 3)”

"#godspriorities vs. #pompositygospel" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 3, 2017

posted Sep 25, 2017, 8:31 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

A few weeks ago, I looked ahead at the calendar and realized that on Labor Day Weekend I wanted to preach about the meaning of work, about the Christian concept of vocation, the spirituality and purpose of labor.  I picked our reading from the Gospel of Matthew based on recommendations for Labor Day readings.  Everything seemed set.


And then, over the course of August, a number of things happened to change what I heard in the Gospel of Matthew.  I began to pay more attention to the way Jesus talked about wealth.  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”


This change from a focus on work to wealth (or from labor to capital) started with the amusing disaster of Louise Linton’s tweets.  As you probably remember, Linton and her husband, the secretary of the treasury, used a military jet to fly down to Fort Knox, where America keeps its gold.  Cabinet secretaries normally travel on commercial airlines; military jets are only meant for urgent travel.  What could be urgent about checking our gold stash?


Linton reveled in the excursion.  She shared a photo of herself stepping off the plane, name dropping all the fashion designers she wore.  #rolandmouret, #tomford, #hermesscarf


The post did not garner Linton the praise she wanted.  No, instead people commented negatively, including Jenni Miller, who tweeted, “Glad we could pay for your little getaway.”  Linton lashed out, saying she and her husband paid more in taxes than Miller and saying Miller was “adorably out of touch.”  So, first Linton luxuriated in her wealth and then used it again as a defense against critique.  It did not go well for Linton.


And soon people began to ask why the Secretary of the Treasury had to take an emergency trip on August 21 to see America’s gold at Fort Knox.  He made the one-day trip to a spot of totality for the eclipse.  That frivolous use of government resources has now generated an inspector general investigation into the misappropriation of funds.  #adorablesurprise


All of which would have not surprised Jesus.  He knew, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  So, is your heart wrapped up in a Hermes Scarf or do you seek treasure in heaven?


One would think a pastor would clearly seek just treasure in heaven; but this week also brought attention to Joel Osteen, leader of a Houston megachurch who preaches a prosperity gospel.  Basically, the prosperity gospel advises that we can get wealthy by praying to God; and conversely that we know we’re blessed by God if we are wealthy.  If we’re poor it's just because we don’t want to be wealthy; we haven’t, as Osteen proclaims in his book, claimed our ‘best life now.’  #hermesjesus.


As flood waters rose in Houston, Joel Osteen tweeted out his prayers.  But, despite having the largest church in Houston, he didn’t open the doors of the sanctuary to those who needed, well, sanctuary.  Soon Osteen faced his own twitter storm.  My favorite post came from a satirical Christian website that spoofed Osteen with the headline, “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of [His Book,] ‘Your Best Life Now’.”  A photo showed the SS Blessed passing people.  And commentary explained that Osteen shouted to people clinging to their roof tops, “God wants His best for you! Enlarge your vision, develop a healthy self-image, and choose to be happy!”  #pompositygospel.


Linton and Osteen experienced the truth of something else Jesus said, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”  While I laughed at the news of Linton and Osteen, I realize we face that same question too.  Much will be expected of us too.


Our reading today comes from one of Jesus’ longest discussions about his expectations for disciples: the Sermon on the Mount.  The Beatitudes - “blessed are the poor” - is the most famous section of that sermon.


Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount consciously portrayed Jesus as a new Moses.  We’re meant to hear the whole Sermon on the Mount as like Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

Throughout, Jesus’ sermon reflected key Jewish concepts, even in its very structure.  Rabbis in the time of Jesus spoke of three pillars of the Jewish faith: study, prayer, and doing good.  Jesus followed this same pattern.  First, he taught the disciples the deeper meaning of scripture; a section in which he says, “you’ve heard it said but I say to you.”  Then he taught them how to pray; the Lord’s Prayer.  And know, in our section today, he turned to the theme of “doing good.”


Jesus developed the theme of doing good by creating a series of dualisms: treasures on earth vs. treasures in heaven, light vs darkness, God vs. wealth.


He drew these distinctions sharply.  “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  Jesus wanted his disciples to choose God’s priorities over worldly priorities.  We can’t do both according to Jesus.


Much of the critique of Linton focused on her trolling of Jenni Miller.  But perhaps we ought to look more at where she went: Fort Knox.  What does it mean for the government to horde gold while we continue to cut and to underfund programs that help the poor and vulnerable?  Much like Joel Osteen praying behind his locked facade, we want to know if people chose God’s priorities over material priorities.  What matters most to us in our lives?  And do we even have a sense of God’s priorities for us in this life?


Years ago, David Brooks wrote a column which helped me think about that question of what matters most.  He distinguished between resumé virtues and eulogy virtues, explaining:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”


Or, in other words, resumé virtues get a job but eulogy virtues make a life.


Brooks makes his distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues without the sharpness of Jesus.  And yet I think similar insight propels them both: what priorities will define our lives?


While Joel Osteen tweeted out his piety, very different stories of help and heroism unfolded in Houston.  Many received well deserved coverage, including the actions of “Mattress Mack.”  Jim McIngvale, who owns several furniture stores, opened his stores to people in need.  He didn’t wait for anyone to ask him for help.  Instead he tweeted out his offer: shelter and food.  He sent out furniture trucks to pick up the elderly and disabled.  He provided food; three meals a day.  And through his actions he directly helped 400 people.


McIngvale’s response demonstrated tremendous generosity.  But also foresight.  McIngvale, when he built his stores, constructed them on raised beds of concrete.  He built them to withstand floods; he built them knowing he could shelter his neighbors in need.


He’s wealthy, no doubt; but what will be said about Mattress Mack isn’t how much he made but how much he gave.  McIngvale showed what matters most in his life.  What matters in ours?


And as we wonder about that question, it helps to think about what matters most to God.  Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, leaves it implied instead of answered.  We each need to find our answer to that question of what matters most to God.


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I find my answer in Baptism.  Of course, the babies seem to me like the greatest treasure of heaven.  But also, because I think baptism reveals the priorities of God.


Samuel Wells, the chaplain at Duke University, once reflected on the Baptism of Jesus.  He called attention to three moments in that story: the heavens were torn open, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus as if it was a dove, and a voice proclaimed, “this is my beloved.”  Each of these speaks to who we need to be in relationship with these children we baptize (and indeed, who we need to be in relationship to all people).


The Heavens Opened: Wells points out that we often tell people, “the sky's the limit.”  But in baptism we celebrate the heavens opened.  We need say, “there’s no limit to who you can be.”  But those can’t just be words.  Because limits do exist in the world - inequality, broken institutions, patterns of prejudice, and systems of white supremacy.  So, to truly say “there are no limits” then we must work for justice.


The Spirit Descended: Jesus needed the spirit, not just around him but in him, because of the hostility he would face in his quest for justice and equity.  People would dismiss him, friends come to despise him, even to the point of deadly betrayal.  But God’s spirit descended on him and never left him.  Just as God showed solidarity, we’re meant to show solidarity with all those who are vulnerable.  That sense of urgency we felt in our hearts this week when Houston flooded was God’s spirit calling us to solidarity.


And a Voice Proclaimed, “You are my beloved.”  When we baptize our two Madelyns this morning, we’re giving voice to God’s proclamation of amazing love for these two girls.  Baptism doesn’t make God love them - we don’t believe that.  Instead for us, baptism makes clear what is always true: God adores them.  And God adores each of you.  And all people.  But God needs us to give voice to the love: by baptizing people, by proclaiming through our actions, and making clear even when people can’t believe it: you mean everything to God.


I think these are God’s priorities.  We’re meant to make clear there are no limits to your life, God’s spirit will always be with you, and most of all, God adores you.  These treasures of God can’t be held in a vault; the treasures of God only make sense as what we share with neighbors near and far.


We live in a culture obsessed with fame and fortune; a world of #hermesscarf.  But God calls us to another set of priorities.


This last week Taylor Swift released her new song, “Look What You Made Me Do.”  I’m not sure what I think about it.  But one scene in particular caught my attention.  At one point in the video, Swift sings bedazzled in diamonds and riches, literally bathing in a tub of jewels.


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At first, I thought the image ridiculous.  And then I noticed the one dollar bill beside her in the tub.  One dollar; the amount in her lawsuit against the man who groped her.  Swift acted courageously in her testimony: she spoke vulnerably about the impact of the assault and remained resolute when lawyers tried to make her seem “unreliable, petty, and fake.”  Throughout the case she acknowled

ged how her own privilege allowed her to pursue justice.  And that awareness made her doubly clear about her need to be both a model and an advocate for other vulnerable women.


Swift’s lawyer described the meaning behind the $1 lawsuit, saying, “The single dollar I ask you to award her... is of immeasurable value. It means no means no. And it tells every woman that they will determine what is tolerated with their body.”


And so, in her new song Swift appears surrounded by all the trappings of tremendous wealth plus one single dollar.  It looked to me as if that one dollar meant more to her than all the diamonds, justice far more important than jewels.  Like Mattress Mack, Swift knew what mattered to her and what mattered to God.


This week I want you to ask yourself those questions.  What matters to you?  What matters to God?  Alleluia and Amen.


Sources


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

I am so tired of waiting,

aren't you,

for the world to become good

and beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

and cut the world in two--

and see what worms are eating

at the rind.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


Alleluia and Amen.




Sources:

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



Sources


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