Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bankrupt Without Love

So don’t worry about me, or about the rough week Eugene Peterson had. Do worry about those LGBTQ Christian kids who continue to experience stigma, rejection, and even contempt in their own Christian homes, churches and schools. Worry about what the events of last week taught them.
--David Gushee (Religious News Service)

A sad story here, about fear and homophobia in evangelical Christian circles.  When a reporter asked Eugene Peterson (translator of The Message and prominent evangelical) about his 2017 views on marriage and marriage equality, Peterson indicated his willingness to celebrate a marriage between committed same-sex partners.  This marked a significant shift for him, and offered some encouragement to other evangelicals tired of the old line and eager for fresh practice and inclusive sacrament.

Then the backlash.  Publishers threatening to blacklist Peterson's books.  Other evangelicals condemning their onetime hero for embracing weakness, heresy and worse.

So, he backed off.  He retracted the original statement.  

David Gushee writes that the real victims here, always the victims in this kind of thing, are the kids who "experience stigma, rejection, and even contempt" in their homes, churches and schools.  Is this the best Christians can do?  Heaping contempt on kids?

Clearly it's not.  Because I see it every day, every week in my ministry, and in my church.  I see same-sex couples raising loving kids.  I see all kinds of kids growing up in a culture of profound respect, reverence for difference and affirmation.  And I see LGBTQ Christians--of all ages, from all cultures--discovering deep reservoirs of kindness and courage in Christian faith and practice.  (By the way, the same-sex weddings I've officiated have ROCKED MY WORLD!)

So, from The Message, 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, 
I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
If I speak God’s Word with power, 
revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day,
and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, 
but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
If I give everything I own to the poor 
and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, 
but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. 
So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, 
I’m bankrupt without love.

Poem: "Inclining Towards Peace"

a poem by Dave Grishaw-Jones

We are flawed and fearful,
Tossed in seas both real and imagined,
Convinced of our guilt, yet hiding
From others we long to prove responsible
For everything wrong, everything askew in us.

When history and circumstance fling us
Upon the gritty shores of Ninevah,
We are still flawed, still fearful,
But facing a new choice, a chance
To speak an honest, hard word to a strange people.

You don't make peace with friends,
Says the wise and tired warrior.
You make it with unsavory enemies.
This is the peacemaker's calling.
And so we sit together, beneath the one tree,

Communicating with the ones we fear,
Imagining our equality before God and earth,
And inclining towards peace.
There is no other promised land than this:
This inclining is the promise itself.


Monday, July 17, 2017

Blurring the Difference

In yesterday's sermon, I explored Jesus' use of parables as a teaching tool, raising consciousness and provoking new orientations of spirit and practice.  The Prodigal Son.  The Good Samaritan.  The Rich Man and Lazarus.  The Sheep and the Goats.  Yesterday, we read the Parable of the Sower.

Jesus is no fool.  He recognizes the empire all around him, its awful grip on cities and communities, its militarized bullying of children and families, the poor and the broken.  But that Roman Empire is challenged, contested in Jesus' ministry and in his teaching.  Just as it's challenged, contested by Moses and Jeremiah and Isaiah and Mary of Nazareth.  Almost every one of Jesus' parables provokes a kind of crisis--in which disciples have to choose.  Will we allow Caesar's kingdom to run amok across the lives, the futures of our communities?  Or will we orient our lives around the gracious and unmanageable kingdom of heaven?  The true Power in the universe, Jesus says, is Love. 

What Pat Robertson's been doing for decades, and what Donald Trump's doing now, is blur the difference.  Donald's kingdom is God's kingdom, after all.  Pat's Club is God's club, after all.  Who needs the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven?  Jesus' teaching is an inconvenience for guys like Trump and Robertson.  Jesus' gospel stands in the way of a world-wide empire of the benevolent American businessman.  So Donald Trump robes himself in Pat Robertson's flag and Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s gospel.  Blurring the difference.  Because who really reads the Sermon on the Mount anymore, really?

And they all expect the rest of us to shut up.  To just close our bibles, tune out Jesus.  And shut up.

Well, no way.  No way.  There's a verse in the Gospel of Mark that goes like this: "If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea."  It's kind of tough, this verse.  But I think it's about the proud among us who pretend to lead the people, who promise divine blessing, but ignore the deep truths of Jesus and Moses, Ruth and Mary, Jeremiah and John.  Pat Robertson and Donald Trump are duping God's people, causing decent folk to stumble, and perverting the gospel of love and liberation in the process.  "It would be better..."

Sermon: "Fertile Ground for the Kingdom of God"

A Meditation on Matthew 13:
"Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams."


Millet's "The Sower"
There’s a painting in Boston, at the Museum of Fine Arts, called “The Sower” by Jean Francois Millet.  With a name like that, you almost have to be a painter.  Jean Francois Millet.  He was a 19th century Frenchman, the founder, I believe, of the Barbizon School of French Realism.  And in a lot of ways, Millet’s painting of “The Sower” is as compelling as Jesus’ parable itself.  Go home this afternoon and look it up online.

Millet’s sower is a small figure, moving across what appears to be a parched and stony landscape.  But he moves happily, energetically, flinging his precious seed just the same, one hand dipping into his satchel and the other letting seed fly.  Wherever.  Sowing as sowers do.

And there are stones in his way, and the earth is scorched and cracked beneath his feet.  So it’s not real obvious that all this flinging’s a winning proposition.  It’s not real obvious what the return will be on the sower’s time and energy and love.  And in Millet’s painting there are a dozen black birds—a dozen hungry black birds—wheeling overhead and eager to pounce on any seed that doesn’t quite make it.

This is a parable, it seems, about the kingdom of God, the generosity of God, the grace of God.  The sower is undaunted.  Jesus’ sower.  Millet’s sower.  He’s undaunted, unfazed by the long odds of making things grow out there.  In Jesus’ hands, in Millet’s hands too, the kingdom of God is a kingdom of daring love and abundant grace and a thousand risks taken with no guarantees at all of return or reward.  The generosity of God.  That’s the kingdom.  There’s grace in the sower’s stride, in the sweeping extension of his arm as he flings his seed.  Flinging.  Always flinging.  Always flinging.

Some of that seed, some of that precious seed is undoubtedly going to fall on the road; we know it will.  It’ll lay there at the surface of things, unable to go deep, and the birds will have their fill.  And some of that seed’s going to sprout quickly, enthusiastically even, but put down no roots, make no commitments; and it’ll wither just as fast as it bloomed.

And, of course, some of that seed’s going to fall among weeds, and well, the weeds will have their way.  We know these things are true.  We know how the world works. 

But Jesus’ flinger flings, just as Millet’s sower sows, just as God’s lovers love.  And for all the stones in the field, for all the weeds at the edges, for all the hungry birds wheeling above, the sower’s grace shines under stormy skies.  The sower keeps on sowing.  The flinger keeps on flinging.  The lover keeps on loving.  And sometimes, sometimes, the seed finds its home; sometimes the seed finds good earth, fertile land, a deep and welcoming heart.  And when it does—when grace lodges in a humble heart—well, then, God’s harvest comes in.  God’s harvest comes in, plentiful and rich.  God’s harvest, Jesus says, is beyond our wildest dreams.      

So let’s just start there.  With the generosity of God.  With the amazing grace at the heart of God’s kingdom.  Maybe you’ll go home this afternoon, find Jean Francois Millet’s painting online, and print off a copy.  Put it up on your refrigerator or above your desk or on your bathroom mirror.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.  Whether the stock market’s up or the market’s down.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.  Whether you’ve hit a wall or a professional dead-end, whether you’re at a creative peak or an emotional low.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves.  Whether the movers and shakers of the world are inspiring confidence or colluding in shame.  The sower sows.  The flinger flings.  The lover loves. 

In his painting, Jean Francois Millet adds a sprinkling of seed—midair, just released from the sower’s outstretched hand.  And it’s possible to believe that good things, generous growth, lively living things will come.  A harvest.  When the seed finds its home.  When the seed finds a humble heart.  When the seeds rests in God’s good earth.  I guess that’s what great paintings, great parables do.  They provoke possibility.  They inspire wonder and curiosity and promise.  Maybe that sprinkling of seed will find its home.  Maybe this good news is ours to cherish.  Maybe the harvest is coming in.


Of course, to say that a parable provokes possibility is also to say that a parable creates a kind of crisis in our spiritual lives.  Inevitably.  You see, Jesus isn’t fooling around.  Jesus is itching for a harvest.  To say that he inspires wonder is also to say that he offers us choices, critical choices around lifestyle and ethics, important choices around practice and priorities.  The kingdom of God isn’t just a sweet idea for Jesus; it isn’t just an image of a better world to come.  The kingdom of God is a lifestyle, a way of living and breathing and loving, in the very midst of God’s very present and very amazing grace.  How are we going to do that?  How are you and I going to live and love and eat and drink and organize and prioritize in a world governed and infused and shaped by grace?  Parables provoke possibility.  Parables create a kind of crisis.  These aren’t pithy one-lines.  These aren’t Instagram memes.  The kingdom of God isn’t just a sweet idea for Jesus: it’s got to be a lifestyle, it’s got to be a practice, it’s got to be discipleship itself.

When you follow me, Jesus says to his disciples, you’re going to live in two worlds at the same time.  Two worlds at the same time.  This is so important, I think, so radically important for 21st century church.  Jesus says to you and me: When you practice discipleship, when you follow me, you’re going to live in two worlds, two kingdoms at the same time.  And this is the context, I think, of all his parables.  The parable of the prodigal son.  The parable of the good Samaritan.  The parable of the sower today.  We live in two worlds.  We live in two kingdoms.  We live in two empires, at the same time.  And that’s some tricky business.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Bethlehem, West Bank

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Monday, July 10, 2017

Stay Woke: Stop Criminalizing Black Men

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sermon: "Trusting Jesus at the Point of No-Return"

A Meditation on Matthew 11:
"Come to me, all of you that are weary..."


This Jesus knows.  This Jesus knows that investing your life in peace means provoking your share of conflict.  This Jesus knows that cherishing life, really cherishing life, means carrying a cross.  This Jesus knows.  So he offers himself to us.   COME TO ME.  TAKE MY YOKE.  LEARN FROM ME.  We don't have to walk this way alone.  We bear no cross alone.  This Jesus promises us his comfort, his courage, God's companionship.  LEARN FROM ME, he says, AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.  That's Jesus this morning, that's his gospel, for you and for me.  LEARN FROM ME, he says, AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.

So I want talk about that this morning.  I want to talk about TRUSTING JESUS AT THE POINT OF NO-RETURN.  What it means for you and me to turn it all over; what it means for you and me to take that yoke, Jesus’ yoke; and what it means to invite Jesus to the center of our centers—when the struggle overwhelms us.   

You see, that’s where Jesus finds us this morning.  That’s where Jesus finds his disciples.  The struggle out there is overwhelming.  The powers, the principalities are mighty.  The crowds are already hungry and the seas are just starting to rise.  COME TO ME, Jesus says, ALL OF YOU THAT ARE WEARY AND CARRYING HEAVY BURDENS.  We’re worried about our planet.  We’re worried about our kids.  We’re worried about our government.  And we’re worried that our little faith might not be enough.  Jesus knows all this.  Jesus recognizes the struggle.  COME TO ME, he says.  TAKE MY YOKE, he says.  LEARN FROM ME, he says, AND YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.

So I want to talk about TRUSTING JESUS AT THE POINT OF NO-RETURN.  I want to talk about the struggle that faith inevitably generates in our lives, even in our hearts.  I want to talk about the companionship of God, the renewal of our spirits.  And I want to talk about taking Jesus up on his offer.  What kind of rest is he talking about?  What kind of peace is he promising?    


Mural: Bishop Richard Allen
In the heart of Philadelphia, in the heady days of the late 18th century, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones reached their own point of no-return.  And maybe you know their story.  They were gifted men, the two of them, and they belonged to St. George’s Methodist Church.  Which is still there, in Philadelphia.  They had devoted their lives to God and they cherished freedom and service.  But they were black men, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones.  And the movers and shakers at St. George’s were increasingly uncomfortable about the growing number of freed black men joining their church.

It was sweet, after all, to include blacks; but the movers and shakers at St. George’s weren’t so sure about trusting them or ordaining them or taking any kind of direction from them.  This is an old story, right, but a contemporary one as well.  Inclusion’s kind of sweet, but collaboration, cooperation, communion’s asking maybe a little too much.

So St. George’s decided to build a balcony in their sanctuary, to accommodate their growing membership; and they designated that balcony for Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and their black brothers and sisters.  And that was, for Richard Allen and Absalom Jones at least, the point of no-return.  The two men led a walk-out in 1787, and soon moved into a church of their own, creating in the process a movement we now know as the African Methodist Episcopal church.  An American first.

Balconies might work well in sports arenas, or in libraries, or in congress, but for Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, they’d never suffice in the church.  It was their point of no-return.  In Jesus’ church, we’re brothers and sisters, one body in Christ.  In Jesus’ church, we all matter, we sit in one circle.  In Jesus’ church, we recognize the same image of God in every single, every unique, every colorful human being.  That’s what they believed in 1787.  No balconies in Jesus’ church!  And that was the beginning of the AME tradition in this country.

The Rev. Traci Blackmon in Baltimore
Traci Blackmon told us this story just last week, in Baltimore, during the UCC’s 31st General Synod.  I hope you get to know Traci Blackmon.  She’s the UCC’s new Executive Minister for Justice & Witness Ministries; and she’s a powerful and fearless leader in our 21st century church.  She told us, last week, about visiting Philadelphia and St. George’s Methodist Church recently, and meeting the pastor of that congregation.  This is the church, mind you, that Richard Allen and Absalom Jones left in 1787.

When the pastor took Traci into the sanctuary, this same pastor pointed up to that same balcony, where the church had relegated its black members in the 1780s.  And he told Traci that every Sunday, before preaching, he looks up to that balcony and asks himself who’s sitting up there now.  In 2017.  Who’s sitting up there now?  Traci Blackmon paused at this point in her sermon—so the rest of us could catch up with where she was and where she was going.

See what that Philadelphia pastor’s saying?  See what he’s asking of himself, of his church?  He knows his church history.  He knows his American history.  So every Sunday, every single Sunday, he looks up to that balcony and asks: Who are we segregating in America these days?  Whose voices are we dismissing these days?  Whose children are we slighting?  Who are the disenfranchised, the silenced, the invisible these days?  Who’s in that balcony now?


In Baltimore last week, Traci Blackmon thundered on from there, making all the necessary, all the prophetic connections.  She found her voice, Traci did, in Ferguson and St. Louis in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement.  So she knows what’s she’s talking about.

She called out all the balconies that need to be desegregated, still, in America.  She called on the church—our United Church of Christ—to be at the forefront of deconstructing balconies that protect the wealth of the very few at the expense of the very many.  She reminded us that global warming is a balcony crisis: that the poor pay the heaviest price, that peoples of color will suffer most, as seas rise and storms blow and leaders refuse to take science seriously.  And she reminded us what happens every day in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, Oakland and Cleveland: how black kids and brown kids live in American balconies, how their schools are defunded and their parks left to waste, how their healthcare’s at risk and their jobs pay a pittance.  Who’s in the balcony now?  Traci insisted that we know who’s in the balcony now.  And it’s time for God’s church to take the balconies down.  I mean, this was some preaching.

And you know, all along, Jesus’ disciples have been hearing the same kind of preaching.  He’s been talking about balconies all along.  He’s been talking about injustice and segregation all along.  He’s been talking about the ways religion sometimes designs the balconies, and about the ways the privileged justify the balconies and defend them and then refuse to see them at all.  Jesus’s been talking about balconies.  And more than that, he’s been calling folks out of those balconies to sit at God’s table and feast on God’s abundance and share in the work and wonder of God’s kingdom.  This is the great gospel project, of course, the kingdom, the kin-dom of heaven: to imagine and then to enact a beloved community, a sisterhood of abundance, a brotherhood of respect.  And it means calling folks out of those balconies and it means taking the balconies down.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

In Support of Issa Amro

Friday, July 7, 2017

Peacemakers: Breaking a Sweat