Tuesday, December 6, 2022

HOMILY: "Lonely Like God"

A Meditation on Genesis and “The Creation”
Sunday, November 20, 2022
Community Church of Durham

1.

“I’m lonely,” says God.  “So I’ll make me a world.”

It’s a brave and a risky thing—creation, creativity—making things of your dreams and your loneliness.  It’s Beethoven composing in his own darkness, or Toni Morrison writing novels in hers.  Or this Great God Almighty rolling the light around in his hands, and setting the sun ablaze in the sky, and gathering the left-over pieces in a shining ball, and flinging the moon against the darkness.  What’s always moved me in James Weldon Johnson’s interpretation of Genesis; and I think it’s a pretty wonderful and faithful interpretation, by the way; what’s always moved me is this notion of God’s solitude, this divine loneliness.  Theologically, spiritually, it’s a potent and provocative intuition.  That creation itself is conceived in that loneliness, in God’s own aching for communion and community.  “I’m lonely,” says God.  “So I’ll make me a world.”

All that God creates, then, every ecosystem, every watershed, every life that God imagines and births into being: all creation is called forth into communion and community.  Valleys and mountains.  Rainbows, green grass, and little red flowers.  We miss the genius of all this, and the genius of God, I think, when we think about forests as markets to be developed, and farmland as an investment to be exploited.  All that God creates is called forth into communion and community.  Oceans and the rivers that feed them.  Osprey riding gusts of wind and the fish below, an unknowing banquet.  Sunlight and photosynthesis, chlorophyll and the greening of the earth.  All that God creates is called forth into communion and community.  Not a spread sheet to be manipulated, but a feast to be celebrated and shared.  

So God spits out the seven seas.  Communion.  And God waves his hand, for the fish and fowl, for the beasts and birds.  Movement and motion.  Communion.  And God bats his eyes, don’t you love this; God bats his eyes, and the lightning flashes.  God claps his hands, and the thunder rolls. Communion.  The world itself, the spinning planet of seas and skies, forests and fields: all of it is tossed into being, hurled between darkness and light, all because God is lonely.  Great God Almighty is lonely.

And that loneliness builds, you heard it, that loneliness intensifies in our poem this morning.  For all God’s joy in creation.  For all God’s choreography and movement.  For all God’s yearning and blessing.  Still God aches.  Still God grieves.  Still God needs.  “And he looks on his world / with all its living things, / and God says: I’m lonely still.”  I’m lonely still.  Whether it’s in the original Hebrew of Genesis, or in the haunting experience of James Weldon Johnson and the Black Church in America—this God, our God, Great God Almighty reveals himself, herself, God’s self, in vulnerability, loneliness and longing.  To know this God is to know this God’s vulnerability, loneliness and longing.  

And I want you to think with me, for a few minutes, about the kind of faith, the kind of Christian practice that draws on God’s vulnerability.  I want you to wonder with me about the kind of discipleship that risks such vulnerability and loneliness, that embraces it.  How might that change us?  How might that change the church?  What kind of tenderness, what kind of courage, what kind of communion might come of a radically vulnerable church?  

2.

Last month in Alabama, I found myself thinking of James Weldon Johnson, this poem of course, but also “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as I walked the strange and heartbreaking paths of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.  I know a few of you have been there, to the Memorial; and others will go soon.  It opened in 2018, as the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of Black Americans terrorized by lynching, racial segregation and Jim Crow culture.  Daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, pastors, neighbors.  Generations terrorized.  

At its center, at the Memorial’s center, on a gentle Alabama hillside, hundreds of steel boxes, one for each county where lynching took a life, bear witness to thousands of black Americans who died at the hands of white mobs, racist teens, vigilante posses.  Thousands of them.  Thousands of names.  Thousands of stories.  It’s hard to even describe what it’s like to walk those paths, to see those names, to imagine all those lives and families and dreams shattered.  By cruelty.

It's just about impossible to wander through a Memorial like that and not weep for all that hatred, for all that heartlessness, for all that violence.  In Montgomery, I watched friends around me moving slowly, wiping tears and even rage from their eyes.  And as a Christian, as a believer, as a disciple of Jesus, I have to confess I found myself weeping as well for God.  Because I believe in the God who creates us for communion.  Because I believe in the God who calls us forth to be our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper, the refugee’s advocate and the poor man’s friend.  And in my soul I feel that God grieves first for all that hatred, it must be so; that God weeps loudest for all that violence, that God bleeds and suffers and dies with every lynching, and with every poor kid starving, and with every bomb exploding, and with every angry fist balled up and ready to strike. 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

HOMILY: "His Mother's Apricots"

A Meditation on Isaiah 11 (Advent 2)
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Community Church of Durham

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

1.

A decade ago, during my first trip to Bethlehem, I met Zoughbi Zoughbi—same name, first and last—a Palestinian whose family has lived and thrived and struggled to survive in Bethlehem for generations on end.  I’d heard about Zoughbi Zoughbi and his commitment to conflict resolution and Gandhian nonviolence and youth empowerment in the West Bank.  And I was so, so eager to watch him work.  

But Zoughbi wanted me to see the fruit trees first.  His mother’s apricots.  This seemed very important to him.  Before we talked about conflict and peace.  Before we visited his remarkable community center.  So we drove out of the city that afternoon, just a mile or two, and Zoughbi led me, by the hand, into his family’s orchard.  His mother’s apricots.  I learned then that Palestinian culture, Palestinian religion, Palestinian health is grounded in place, in that place.  Palestinian families are deeply and gratefully people of that land.  So my friend Zoughbi Zoughbi led me by the hand into his family’s orchard, his mother’s apricot trees, and the almond and olive trees he grew up climbing with his friends, and pruning and loving and harvesting with his cousins.  Like generations and generations before them.

It was a late afternoon in the West Bank, and the sunshine was warm and golden on the land.  At one point, Zoughbi noticed an old man, another Palestinian farmer, tenderly pruning an apricot branch just up ahead.  “Watch him!” he said, grabbing my forearm.  And there was a tear in his eye.  “Watch the way he touches it and knows just which branch to cut!  What love!  What love!”  And we stood there together, in the orchard just outside of Bethlehem, silently watching that old farmer pruning that old tree.  Almost like we were in church watching the priest bless the bread.  Or the groom kiss the bride.  It was a sacramental moment.  

And it struck me just then that Gandhian nonviolence begins, it always begins, in this reverence for life, this love for the land.  Particular places.  Holy ground.  There was no way I’d ever understand Zoughbi’s work apart from his devotion to those trees.  To heal the conflicts among us we must imagine a future together.  And to imagine a future together we must cherish the land beneath our feet, the paths we make together, and the trees that have always longed to feed us all.

You’ve seen in this morning’s insert that Zoughbi and his Palestinian colleagues are encouraging preachers around the world to “preach Palestine” this Advent season.  To take a Sunday and tell their stories.  To invite support, encourage solidarity.  And there are so many stories—heartbreaking stories—to tell.  The demolition of Palestinian homes continues across the West Bank—in violation of international law.  The confiscation of Palestinian lands accelerates dispossession and replaces old Palestinian villages with modern Israeli settlements.  And in Gaza, years and years of hostility have crippled the Palestinian economy, broken the spirits of a generation, and destroyed hospitals, schools beyond imagining.  

So I want to honor my friend and his big, big heart with this morning’s sermon; and I want to lift up his people’s pain, his people’s yearning for freedom and peace.  But when I asked him recently where I should begin, where that cry for freedom comes from, Zoughbi said to me: “The trees, Dave.  The trees.  Tell them about my mother’s trees.”  And thinking back to that afternoon, all those years ago, and his joy in that orchard, his weeping for the old farmer’s craft—I’m convinced that he’s right.  As he often is.  The heart and soul of Palestinian culture going back generations isn’t grievance, but love.  The heart and soul of Palestinian resistance to this day isn’t bitterness, but love.  And I want to tell you, it’s a sacramental love, a love that I’ve seen in my friend’s eyes, and so many others over the years—walking their orchards, shaking olives off their trees, challenging occupying armies to lay down weapons, and singing songs of joy. 

2.

During that first visit in 2008, after some time in the orchard, we returned to Zoughbi’s car.  But, before getting in, he pointed beyond the trees, to a huge concrete wall, looming now in the distance, slicing through the West Bank, carving Palestine into ghettos.  At that point, the wall was four or five years in the making.  What it’s doing, Zoughbi said, is cutting off Palestinian farmers, Palestinian families from their trees, from their lands and their livelihoods.  By design.  Slab by slab, acre by acre, town by town.  Its architects once called it a security wall, but it’s always been an instrument of division, a strategy of despair, a way to separate Palestinians from one another and their dreams.  An apartheid wall.

And indeed, in the years since that first visit, I’ve seen that the wall now slices through Zoughbi’s orchards.  He can’t take friends to walk those precious paths anymore.  Now the wall cuts off his children from the trees their ancestors loved and pruned and harvested every fall.  It also prevents pregnant women from getting to hospitals they need in dire emergencies.  There’ve been deaths.  And it prevents husbands from living with their wives and seeing their kids every night.  Family separation.  And it forces some Palestinian workers to drive 60 miles to a job that’s just a mile away.  It’s an apartheid wall, and its intention is to demoralize and discourage whole communities.  That’s what walls do.  

The next time I visited Zoughbi, in Bethlehem, his family had been without running water for 21 days.  In fact, the whole city had been without water for 21 days.  Again, by design.  Israeli policy.  In the hills around Bethlehem, however, Israeli settlements—illegal by any measure of international law—build huge apartment complexes and lush green playing fields, with more than enough water to feed the Zionists who’ve come to occupy what used to be Palestinian villages and orchards.  To occupy and possess.  To colonize and settle. 

And here’s the part our Palestinian friends want us—in the American church—to understand clearly and directly.  This is an occupation that we Americans continue to bless and subsidize: gifting Israel upwards of 3.6 billion dollars every year in economic, military and security assistance.  Most of the weapons Israel uses to enforce that occupation (again, illegal by any international legal standard): most of those weapons are made and paid for in America.  Most of the technology Israel uses to control checkpoints and intimidate families and incarcerate children—it’s designed and paid for in America.  

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

HOMILY: "Turning Toward Home"

A Meditation on Matthew 3 (Advent 1)
Sunday, November 27, 2022

1.

O John the Baptist.

He’s that crazy cousin you invite for Thanksgiving every year.  If you’re lucky he wears that wacky red and green Christmas sweater he likes; but it’s a better bet he shows up with that camel’s hair wrap-around and a wide leather belt around his waist.  John the Baptist doesn’t disappoint.  And every year you know he’s the one who’ll bring the wildest, weirdest side dish.  No sweet potato casseroles for John the Baptist.  No pumpkin pies.  O no.  Just a side of fried up locusts and wild honey for dipping.  

And you can be sure, when it comes time to give thanks, when it comes time to go round the table and everybody’s got something kind and sweet and (well) thankful to say—you can be sure John the Baptist will use his airtime to break all the rules.  “PRE-PARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!  PRE-PARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!”

The point, of course, is that the Baptist in the river is an odd keynote speaker for our Advent celebration, for this season of new beginnings and opening hearts.  But almost every year this is exactly where Advent begins, this is exactly how our new liturgical year turns the page.  Deep in the wilderness with John.  Knee-deep in the Jordan River with John.  Who’s out there declaring not that God is coming, not that God’s promised one is on the way—but that the Kin-dom of Heaven is already here.  The Kin-dom of Heaven is already here. 
2.

“Repent!”  There’s the word you wanted to hear this morning.  “Repent!”  But you know, it doesn’t have to be a nasty, sneering, pompous preacher word.  “Repent!”  John’s saying if the Kin-dom of Heaven is already here, if the Kin-dom of Heaven is among us right now, if the Kin-dom of Heaven is in our midst, in our neighborhoods, homes and churches, well, then it might to timely for us to turn toward it.  To watch for it.  To tune our hearts to its music and possibility and promise.  And that, my friends, is what Advent’s all about: tuning our hearts to God’s love song, turning our lives to God’s promise in our midst.

The Hebrew word for repentance is a lovely word in fact: “TESHUVAH.”  You might say that with me: “TESHUVAH.”  It’s not a threat, not at all.  In fact, “TESHUVAH” conveys something of an intention to return, an intention to return home.  Think: the Prodigal Son (for example) who’s lost, lost, lost; lost in a thousand ways.  And he’s without a sense of direction, without hope in a world that seems mean and lonely.  And he’s made some bad decisions.  But the Prodigal Son finds a prayer—even in his weary, weary heart; he finds deep within this intention to return home, this sense that someone’s waiting for him there.  At home.  And that’s “TESHUVAH.”  That turning, turning toward home.  That’s the moment John’s singing into existence for all of us, on his riverbank, in that wilderness.  “PRE-PARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!  PRE-PARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!”

The radical affirmation here—tucked away in John’s wild manner and unrelenting spirit—is that the Kin-dom of Heaven is already here, the Kin-dom of Heaven is among us right now.  And somehow, somehow—that’s our calling, our vocation, your mission and mine.  To live in that Kin-dom here and now.  To welcome that Kin-dom into the world here and now.  To embrace it in our relationships, in our choices, in our music, in our mission.  The Kin-dom of Heaven is already here.  The Kin-dom of Heaven is among us right now.  

But how are we to believe that?  And how are we to receive it?  In a world where hate moves young men to shoot up nightclubs?  In a world where violence stokes alienation and distrust and drives us from any possibility of union and unity?  What does it mean to affirm, to celebrate, to lean into the belief that the Kin-dom of Heaven is among us even now?  

Friends, that’s the Advent Question.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

A THANKSGIVING GREETING: "For the Tenderhearted"

Thanksgiving Week 2022

Dear Friends,

Wherever you are this week -- at home in New Hampshire, on the road with the beloved, spending time quietly to yourself, or gathering with a larger crowd -- I greet you with the Peace of Christ and the Love of God!  And I am thankful for you, for our life together in the church, and for the challenging, bewildering, affirming Gospel that claims us.

The news this week is dire -- from Colorado to Virginia -- and my heart breaks for so much violence among us.  So much despair, and distrust between peoples.  I share this heartbreak with so many of you, and I can't imagine facing such a world without the steadfast friendship of a brave and tenderhearted church.

It seems to me that the central moment of Jesus' own life -- of his ministry on earth -- may have been the moment he gave thanks for his friends.  In one account, he does that as he's breaking bread, recommitting his life to God and freedom.  In another, he's kneeling to wash their feet.  But there, with so much danger swirling round, Jesus looks around at them, takes it all in, appreciates the perfectly imperfect community they've created, and gives thanks.

Perhaps this, too, is where we begin to repair the torn fabric.  Perhaps this, too, is where we begin to turn toward nonviolence, repentance and grace.  In gratitude.  In thanks.  For one another.

So this Thanksgiving...I give thanks...

For a church of the tenderhearted.

For a community of children whose eyes shine with delight.

For the love you show one another--in seasons of delight and despair.

For your open arms, open minds and open doors.

For your courage in grieving injustice.

For your steadfast hope in facing the future together.

For your generosity with spirit, time and resources.

And for the God who persists in gathering us, and loving us, and moving us to service.

May you rejoice in the love that awakens thanksgiving in our hearts.  And may you receive, in your many spirits, the ever new and ever renewing gifts of God's grace.  By such grace, we move forward, a united church, to sing songs of joy and peace, to lay down every weapon and grievance, to build the kin-dom of heaven.  On earth.  On the Seacost.  Among us.

Happy Thanksgiving to you, my friends.  Rejoice!

Dave Grishaw-Jones, Pastor

Sunday, November 13, 2022

HOMILY: "Lazarus at the Table?"

A Meditation on Communion
Sunday, November 13 / The Season of Creation

Note: I didn't get to preach this sermon, not this morming anyway...due to a bunch of things (wonderful things, actually) that happened in worship.  But I offer it up anyways, as a meditation on communion and our shared practice of discipleship, abundance and truthtelling in the church.

1.

Our celebration of communion is many things.  For starters, it’s a sacrament of presence—the presence of the Risen Christ in our ordinary lives and ordinary habits, and especially in the breaking of bread at a common table.  When we break this loaf and offer it freely and without judgment to one another, we dare to believe that Jesus is beside us, within us, among us.  Whatever the hunger in our hearts.  Whatever the sadness in our spirits.  Whatever the injustice we face.  We are known, and we are blessed, and we are fed.  So communion is a sacrament of presence.  I hope you open your hearts to that gift this morning, that presence in your life.  The Risen Christ among us.

And we might add this to that: that communion is also our witness to the resurrection.  Our witness to the resurrection.  Now we’ve got a hundred different ideas of what resurrection means, and what Jesus’ resurrection means for the world.  And I imagine we’ve got a thousand provocative questions about resurrection, and the power of love over death, and the promise of new life and healing and wholeness when the world seems so broken and unfair.  Important questions, every one of them.  And still the resurrection is something like a master metaphor for the Christian story, for the faith that gathers us at the table this morning.  And when we break bread here, when we open our eyes here, when we feed one another here, we lean into the mystery of it, the untamable wonder of it, the irrepressible promise of resurrection.  Not because we grasp the resurrection in our minds.  Not because we can articulate, precisely, the mechanics or the love that sets it in all motion.  But because we dare to practice resurrection together—because we dare to entrust our lives to a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  When you reach out for the bread this morning, you are leaning into the resurrection.

So it’s a sacrament of Christ’s presence, holy communion, and it’s our witness to the resurrection.  And all of that is gathered up in a sacred practice, a shared practice that unites us in a particular kind of community.  We commune together.  As wildly diverse as we are.  As strangely different as our stories are.  For all of our questions, and all of our doubts, and all of our fears and vulnerabilities and worries about somehow not belonging.  All of that angsty stuff dissolves at the table of the Risen Christ.  All of that diversity is gathered up in glory as he breaks bread for you and me and everyone else in the room.  So the presence of God, and the mystery of the resurrection: it all shines in the passing of bread from hand to hand, in the smile of a friend extending to you our common cup, in the rainbow church singing HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST, HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST!

Again, I don’t want to presume to tell you what to believe about communion, and I don’t want you to feel there’s a right way to think about it, or a theologically precise way to interpret what’s happening here.  You’ve got your questions and doubts, and I’ve got mine.  But—all that’s to say—I really do hope you’ll open your eyes and hearts to the mysteries of Christ’s presence in this feast, and to the despair-defying resurrection that animates us together, and to the gifts of community among us.  This broken bread and this common cup: they invite you to open up your life, release your fears, see with your heart, and walk alongside the Risen Christ.  You are meant for this.  You are chosen for this.  Ordained for it.  Holy communion.

2.

But the parable Jesus tells this morning and the particular way David Ervin interprets the parable in his own stirring composition—well, I wonder if this might add yet another dimension to our practice.  To the sacrament.  Even a crucial, urgent dimension to Christian communion in the 21st century.

You know, before we get to that parable, it’s worth noting that this theme of economic practice, this critique and concern over economic injustice shows up over and over again in Luke’s gospel.  It’s there in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, of course; and it’s there in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, too.  How might we practice generosity and imagine faithful and equitable communities of sharing—in our families, villages and faith communities?  How do we counter the empire’s narrative of scarcity and fear, with God’s story of abundance and love?  It’s perhaps the central theme of Luke’s gospel, and Jesus’ teaching there  

And it’s not just about economics or policy, right?  Lazarus represents a holy human being, a fragile human being, a hungry human being—made in the image of God.  And Jesus wants us to know that how we share our lives with Lazarus, how we include Lazarus in a human commonwealth, how we care for Lazarus’ wellbeing is a spiritual thing.  To fully embrace the amazing grace of our amazing God, to fully enjoy the wonders of our wonderful Creator, to live freely and fearlessly upon the earth—has so very much to do with watching for Lazarus, and knowing who Lazarus is, and bringing Lazarus to our table, and building a world with Lazarus where Lazarus doesn’t have to beg and plead and suffer alone anymore.  

Does this make sense to you?  For Jesus—like the Hebrew prophets before him—economics and spirituality are two sides of the very same coin.  So to speak.  Abundance is the language of grace, the practice of hope, and perhaps the face of Christ’s resurrection among us.  On the third rock from the sun.

But David’s anthem is some kind of wake-up call, right?  If we continue to turn away from abundance as a spiritual practice, we desensitize our souls to the wonders of creation.  As if creation is a zero-sum game, a lottery you only win if you’re lucky.  If we continue to deny Lazarus’ place at the table, if we continue to blame Lazarus for our political woes and despair, we waste our passion on consumption and our creativity on materialism.  And if we give up on tundras and oceans, coral reefs and climate refugees, we give up on ourselves.  We give up on hope.  And that’s a spiritual thing.  That’s a chasm that will hurt our generation and every generation for years and years to come.  The chasm, Jesus says, is sad and serious business.
 

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

ELECTION DAY: "A Pastoral Letter"

Tuesday 5 pm

Friends, siblings, partners in ministry,

I imagine you've voted already, and if not, I imagine you're on your way.  If--by some chance--you're undecided as to whether it's worth it, I hope you'll take a breath and make a plan to head out soon.  In a season of distrust and cultural conflict, splitting families and communities across the continent, voting is one of the most constructive choices you can make.  Democracy requires full participation and active engagement.  It says HOPE.  It says WE CAN.  It says THERE'S A FUTURE FOR US ALL.

So I urge you NOT to allow the purveyors of chaos to distract you.  They have many reasons for peddling cynicism and dissuading us from participating.  They're hoping you'll sit this one out, and let desperate and divisive candidates move easily to the front.  I'm not one to tell you how to vote (or for whom)--but I am certainly urging you to resist their disspiriting rhetoric and anti-democratic program.  You should vote.  We all should vote.  Every one of our voices should count.

Last month, with some of you, I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, for the first time.  On that bridge, in 1965, civil rights activists joined school children, elders, shopkeepers, teachers, religious leaders and hundreds of others to confront the forces of violence intimidating voters of color and restricting democratic participation to favor white elites.  John Lewis and so many others crossed that bridge twice, insisting that nonviolence and faith could and would overcome anti-democratic and racist currents in American life.

In 2022, that bridge is still being crossed, day by day, election by election.  Sadly, there are still many (far too many) among us who would use every means available to deny equality, to restrict voting rights, to rig the system in favor of white nationalists and their corporate benefactors.  In the name of all that is fair and just, we must not sit idly by.  We must step into the flow of history, onto the nonviolent path of democratic engagement.  And we must vote!

One last thing...it's possible that the results of today's election will prove maddening, even disheartening to us.  A former president--undermining democratic practice on all fronts, and pushing candidates who do the same--may step back into view as a viable candidate in 2024.  Among us, especially those of us in the church, hopelessness is not an option.  God refuses to yield the future to authoritarian despots and warmongering emperors.  On the other side of this election, the country will need churches like ours to stand firm and tall as beacons of resilient and defiant hope--grounded in the ways of love and nonviolence, committed to compassionate resistance at every turn

If that's what comes of this election, I'll be there looking for you on the other side.

Yours in hope and heart,

Dave Grishaw-Jones
Pastor
Community Church of Durham, UCC