Archive for Sermons

Ecotones – Rich Transition Zones in the Life of Faith (Winton Boyd) 11.25.18

“This seems to be at the heart of being a progressive Christian today; living in these edge spaces, these transition zones that provide rich opportunity and insight.  It is in these in-between spaces, these ecotones of faith, that we have the opportunity for growth, for evolution, for engagement in a way not possible before, and potentially not possible afterwards.”

Audio version of Ecotones

I’d like to begin by opening a little window into the way some pastors and worship planners think.  Today is a gift.  It is one those less common years in which we have a Sunday after Thanksgiving that is not the beginning of Advent.  We’re not a highly liturgical church, but we do track with both Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter every year.  But, because our lives are shaped by the cultural calendar (Thanksgiving) as well as the liturgical calendar, this is a gift.  We are able to enjoy worship and life together on this Holiday weekend but in an ‘in between’ sort of way.  Not really Thanksgiving, not full-on Christmas.  Not quite holiday time, but not ordinary time either.  Not ‘stuff your face’ Thanksgiving living, but not yet time of a New Year’s Resolution to lose 10 pounds either.  Not harvest music but  just edging into Christmas carols (unless your 105.1 FM).

And of course, as a church, Orchard Ridge is entering an in between time: between settled, stable ministry and an emerging future.  Not yet the end of an era, but not yet a new era.  Today then becomes a good day to give thanks for transitions and to remember how rich they can be in our own life of faith.

A number of years ago we had students from the Crossing – the ecumenical UW Campus ministry we support -come and share stories from one of their immersion trips to Costa Rica.  One of the aspects of their trips that always caught my attention was their time with a farmer seeking to help expand or rebuild critical habitats in his country.  His location introduced me to the concept of a geographical transition zone known as an ecotone.

For most of us, this word, ecotone, is a new even if the concept is not.  It is coined from a combination of eco (ecology) and tone (from the Greek tonos or tension), in other words, a place where ecologies are in tension.

  • For example, it could be a transitional area of vegetation between two different plant communities, such as water and grassland.
  • It could be the zone between alpine mountainous areas and the forests below.
  • It could be a salt marsh or delta.
  • It could be the zone between the rainforests and surrounding agricultural land.

The important aspect about an ecotone is that it has some (but not all) of the characteristics of BOTH bordering biological communities, but also contains species not found in the overlapping communities. In fact, some organisms need this transitional area for courtship, nesting, or foraging for food.

One writer even noted, “Evolution does not occur within a stable ecosystem. Adaptation and growth happen only when the ecosystems come together.”

The Science section of the New York Times lifted up a study of birds known as greenbuls, in Cameroon, as an example that  … “ecotones are evolutionary hotbeds, sites of intense natural selection that can drive the evolution of new forms of organisms…”

“By discovering what may be species-generating regions alongside the rain forest, researchers have provided a new scenario to explain the longstanding mystery of how the world’s many tropical species in rain forests — animals, plants and others — evolved. … It is easy to dismiss these habitats as neither pure rain forest nor pure Savannah,” but if we ignore these transition areas we will miss out on a key source of biodiversity.  [http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/01/science/rain-forest-fringes-may-harbor-the-engine-of-evolution.html]

At the same time, people in other disciplines have seen this ecological occurrence as part of a broader system of understanding – and use the term ‘ecotone’ within literary genres, scientific and artistic disciplines, or other modes of thought.

Indeed, there is a magazine titled, Ecotone( https://ecotonemagazine.org). They note that ecotones are ‘a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.”  In one issue, they shared stories of how individuals lived in their own ecotones, including:

  • An adopted person who inhabits a transition zone between families and even cultures …(Ecotone Map)
  • A number of people navigating High School social groups
  • A gay woman who wrote – “I move between men and women easily, have a wider perspective maybe.” (Ecotone Map)
  • An immigrant, noting that he is a native of Los Angeles, but the daughter of West Indian parents with family still living on the islands.

One could say that our interior ecotones, and we all have them, are the places within us where we experience this meeting of multiple spiritual biologies.  This internal landscape embraces the good from multiple sources, holds it, and, often when we least expect, transforms our apparent failings and shortcomings into the white combs and sweet honey of new, improved choices and ways to live. So often these are soulful places we cannot name; places of alchemy where recycling, cleansing, and evolution occur; places of grace. (adapted from the writing of Faye Orton Synder in The Geography of Grace)

This invites own reflection on those outward transition periods and realities in our own lives.

  • Living between one career and another and the rich questions of purpose and meaning we explore.
  • Living between relationships with both the grief and the growth that are possible.
  • Stages in our faith as we leave one tradition or one way of thinking but before we’ve settled into a new way whereby we ask significant and valuable questions of belief, commitment and community.

These ‘interior spiritual ecotones’ come with both discomfort and possibility, uncertainty and energy, excitement and melancholy.  Paying attention to how we hold these transitions is a worthy spiritual practice.  Being in a community of faith that doesn’t try to force us out of these transitional realities is a gift.

Our Christian and Biblical tradition is simply loaded with people inhabiting and learning from these social, emotional and cultural ecotones.

  • We see Jesus leaving Galilee and walking through Samaria – a cultural no man’s land between Judea and Galilee – demonstrating God’s grace in a way new to both sides of the divide. Indeed, some of the most poignant stories and teaching parables are set against the backdrop of these in-between zones.  These include the story about the Good Samaritan aiding the wounded traveler, as well as the Samaritan woman at the well who challenges Jesus’ definition of who’s worthy of grace.  His very life – sometimes by choice and sometimes unknowingly, is embodying evolution in religious thought and action.  His willingness to stay in this spiritual ecotone helps his ministry gain traction.
  • We read of Paul traveling to Athens — the belly of the beast for Roman philosophy — where he explores how the way of Jesus can be different and more real than either his own Jewish community or the skeptical and slightly belligerent Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. In his courage, he’s modeling the ways in which the life and teaching of Jesus evolves, adapts and transitions to meet people of all kinds.  His pursuit of this overlapping intellectual space helps the Jesus movement become real to the world beyond Galilee.
  • We read of Philip — thinking he knew the faith — as he literally walked into a Eunuch from Ethiopia. As a Eunuch he was an anomaly of a man in so many ways; sexually, culturally, and religiously.  With him Philip learns that the gospel of love and grace is actually larger than he previously knew.  In this encounter are the seedbeds of change as Christianity will one day live in harmony with religious impulses of all kinds.

This seems to be at the heart of being a progressive Christian today; living in these edge spaces, these transition zones that provide rich opportunity and insight.  It is in these in-between spaces, these ecotones of faith, that we have the opportunity for growth, for evolution, for engagement in a way not possible before, and potentially not possible afterwards.  However, they do call for a certain kind of patience, an element of trust.

 

One of the great theologians of the 20th century was – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French philosopher and Jesuit priest.  Part of his genius was the way he allowed theology and paleontology to inform each other.  His abandonment of a literal interpretation of Genesis in favor of allegorical and theological meanings in the 1920’s put him in the cross hairs of the Roman Catholic Church.  Undaunted, he spent a lifetime living in theological and biological ecotones; recognizing that his love of science and his faith in God both grew and thrived because of his wrestling with the both.  He paved the way for other leading minds and devoted hearts that inform our progressive tradition; people such as Thomas Merton, Matthew Fox, Annie Dillard and Richard Rohr, to name just a few.  Today, the Episcopal Church celebrates April 10th as his feast day.

 

Amidst all of his writing, digging and dialogue, he was a poet as well.  I’d like to end with is poem “Patient Trust,” which reminds us of the good work God being done at each stage of our transitions.  We’ll follow the poem with a bit of silence for you to silently name the edge spaces in which you are currently living; and for you to offer a prayer for guidance in your own life.

 

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of the Spirit.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time. 

And so I think it is with you,

Your ideas mature gradually—let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time…will make of you tomorrow. 

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

 

 

 

Life and Death, With a Sprinkling of Humor (Winton Boyd) 11.18.18

We talk often in the church about how the ‘children’ are the future. We love a joyful baptism and the way it reaffirms a life stream that beckons from deep within each one of us.

But I have come to believe that it is the combination of birth and death that makes a church community healthy and real. And unique.

Audio version of this sermon

Sacred Text from John 14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also…

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

 

So, this is my last sermon in this series, The Puzzle We Call Faith.  I knew when I was sketching out this series that I wanted to talk the importance of death in the life of a congregation.  It’s not a common sermon theme, so I thought it would be helpful to share a precious and somewhat comical experience around a particular death.  Bruce Gladstone, who works hard to match choral music to theme – looked at me and said, ‘really?  Death and humor?

Believe it or not, if you hang around a group of pastors, it won’t take long for someone to talk about how much they value doing funerals.  As a profession, we have the opportunity, and the gift really, to be present with people and families as life on this earth comes to an end.  Coupled with the real, and at times riveting, grief, preparing for funerals can be a lovely, even liminal time.  Pain, honesty, love and even humor band together in a way that rarely happens in our everyday lives.  In a practical way, extended families often work hard to gather together for a day or two and all the activity that comes with memorializing a loved one.  In a spiritual sense, the core ethos of one’s family is often celebrated, cherished, and nurtured.  A grandfather gets to hang out in a special way with grandchildren.  A child returns home from a foreign country and is reminded of their roots.  Little ones, dressed uncomfortably in new clothes, feel the warmth and joy of the renewed attention given to them by cousins from cities far away.  At its best, it can be an amazingly beautiful time.

Agrace Hospice Fitchburg has a wonderful tradition.  When someone passes away at their facility, families are offered a procession from the deceased’s room to the entrance of the building where a funeral home will take the body for cremation or preparation for a funeral.  As the body is wheeled on a gurney, family and close friends follow.  Sometimes music is played or a hymn sung.  Always a beautiful quilt is placed over the body.  Always the staff of the entire facility stands at attention as the procession passes, honoring life — whether or not they knew the person — before they leaving the Hospice Center’s care.  It is one of the most moving rituals I’ve ever encountered.  Simple. Respectful.   I’ve taken it to the facility where my father finished his life; others in the church have taken it to other care facilities.

But I have one beautiful memory of a day at Agrace that occurred between the time of death and that ritual.  As is often the case, a dear loved one in this congregation died in the early morning hours and their spouse wanted to wait for their children to drive into town for that ritual.

So, in those few hours of waiting, a group of 6-7 sat in the hospice room with the newly widowed spouse.  This group knew and loved the deceased better than anyone else.  Over time, the conversation turned to the previous several months. It was roundly agreed that in their dying months, the newly deceased friend had been, quite simply and bluntly, an irascible and ornery spouse. Not on purpose, not out of ill will. But in the final months, living, and dying, was hard, and it was no surprise that the person who got the brunt of it was the spouse.

In time, the story telling turned into joking and ribbing and making fun of that very much loved, but very much deceased, body still on the bed.  The laughter emerged freely and became cathartic.

I found myself in awe that a group could both cherish and ridicule their dear friend in that moment. I found myself in awe that in the wake of death, that tight knit circle did not shy away from honesty, and did not hide their love. It was like the time period was frozen forever in a transcendent space.

It was possible because both the deceased and his spouse had been deeply loved by these family members and friends for decades.  There was no way 6 months of bad behavior would ever compete with a life time of gratitude, love, affirmation, and service to the world.

But it was also possible because this group did not fear death.

  • There was little talk of meeting Jesus, but there was a profound and honest claim on Jesus’ promise of peace.
  • There was little need to debate what was meant by “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” to know that our future beyond our earthly death was filled with the promise of God’s presence, grace and love.
  • There was little effort or need to prove any religious truth. There was little need to confirm what awaits us after our death.  Rather, the group celebrated a long life rooted in the trust that in the end, all would be well.  Grace would be sufficient.

I know that time was a gift for each of us in the room that morning.  A gift of life and humor in a sad and transitional time.

One of the myths people hold about pastors is they know what to say to someone facing death. Mostly that is not true. Mostly, no one knows what to say as their final hours, or the final hours of a loved one, draw near. What I have learned, however, is that when we face our mortality, when we come face to face with the real knowledge that our earthly existence is ending, most of us claim a faith that is transcends doctrine.

This liminal time rarely centers around a set of beliefs about God, heaven, Jesus or anything else.  Rather, in this time our basic spiritual orientation, the nature of our trust in the Holy, comes to the fore.  While it is informed by our religious background, it is rarely about doctrine.  Rather, time after time, I’ve heard words of gratitude, words of peace, words of comfort and stories filled with laughter. I’ve seen communities — sometimes quite small — gather in those sublime moments.  What fear there is seldom centers on what comes after death.  If it exists, it is the fear that a loved one might suffer prior to death.

And from early on in my career where my life was all ahead of me, until now when I am more likely to preside over the service of someone my age, this engagement with death has been an amazing gift.  Often emotional and overwhelming.  But so often rooted in a deep sense of peace.  A deep sense of love and a willingness to let go of all anxieties, grudges, or regrets.  It reveals the true essence of how someone has lived and is usually a reminder to their loved ones how precious life is here on earth.

I can say, without a doubt, that I have been blessed to be part of a congregation where death is rarely feared.  I don’t for a minute minimize the grief and loss that comes with losing a loved one.  I don’t minimize the pain and emptiness that often follows death.  I don’t suggest untimely or difficult deaths are part of God’s specific purpose or will for someone.  But I don’t remember a time when someone felt their loved one – the deceased – was worse off because they passed on from this life.

We talk often in the church about how the ‘children’ are the future. We love a joyful baptism and the way it reaffirms a life stream that beckons from deep within each one of us.

But I have come to believe that it is the combination of birth and death that makes a church community healthy and real. And unique.

It is a gift to experience both.

Our text today comes from that point in Jesus’ life when he knew his own death was imminent.  He was trying to offer comfort to his loved ones, his most devoted friends.

Don’t be troubled.  Receive my peace which passes all understanding.  I’ll not only prepare a place for you, but you will also have an advocate, a companion. (John 14)

He was naming that death is not the end of life, it is not the end of our connection with loved ones.  The relationships continue, albeit in new and often mysterious ways.  The connection, the trust, the hope, and the power that we gain from our relationships are not only real, they are honored and held by our God even through death.  “Nothing,” the writer of Romans wrote, “will be able to separate us from the love of God.”  And because we come to know God through community and human connection, it is often through each other that we feel God’s peace in real and life giving ways.

For one spouse, coming up for communion was an emotional but powerful point of linkage with her deceased husband of 60 years.  Sacraments with the Holy One connects us to our deceased loved ones.

For a young child, a periodic visit to the garth brings a sense of knowing and love for a father who passed away many years ago.  Walking on God’s sacred ground connects us with those whose bodies have returned to the earth.

For another, a drive in the country near where parents grew up and lived brings a sense of nostalgic joy and appreciation for life shared over decades.  Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will separate us from God’s love known in our loved ones.

A community like this is worth cherishing; where we have the beautiful interplay of life and death.

There is a wonderful litany that I have used at every funeral I’ve officiated since I was introduced to it in 2005 at the memorial service for Eleanor Fairchild.

In the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.   In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer, in the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn, and at the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us, as we remember them. (Source unknown)

Most of us spend most of our time with those of our own age group. As such, we find ourselves talking about medical procedures or we may be talking soccer schedules, retirement plans or college choices.  But, in a community of faith, a motley gathering of all God’s critters in the choir, we can share this whole life journey together.

The bustling young person, filled with possibility and an overscheduled life is given a huge gift when as older friends experience the many changes involved in aging.  At other times, the aged person is brought to tears with a smiling baby being baptized, or as an elementary school child sings their heart out at Christmas. No one can articulate what happens in tehse interactions.

We live mortal lives, all of us. But, in the church, in a community that honors both the living and dead, that lives without fear for the future that is beyond our knowing – this kind of community offers us glimpses of transcendence.  Here and now.

“I was there to hear your borning cry”, one of our favorite hymns goes.  “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.”

May we cherish that whole journey together.  In love.  Without fear.  In community.

Words Matter, Until They Don’t (Winton Boyd) 11.11.18

Earlier this year, I heard a story about baby boomer grandparents.  More than any other generation before them, baby boomers have resisted the term ‘grandpa or grandma, grandfather or grandmother.’

The author of the story remarked,

“however mightily my peers may pine for grandchildren and adore them when they arrive, some don’t want to acknowledge being old enough to be dubbed Grandpop or Granny.  Such names conjure up gray hair and orthopedic shoes, along with a status our society may honor in the abstract but few boomers actually welcome. We too often won’t use hearing aids, even if we need them. We may not claim the senior discount at the movie theater.  We don’t want these wondrous new creatures calling us names that signify old age, either.

Thus, I know a grandma who goes by Z.

And one who has zero Italian ancestors but nonetheless dubbed herself Nonny, a variant on Nonna, because it felt distinctive.

And a … woman named Suzanne Modigliani, whose daughter’s friends used to abbreviate that to SuMo. Now, she’s GranMo.

Me, I went retro and called dibs on Bubbe, the traditional Yiddish word for grandmother — though I never used it for my own grandmothers, in an era more disposed to assimilation.”  

It was a funny story, but was a reminder that words matter.  In more serious ways too.  In Java and Jesus the last couple of weeks, we’ve been listening to a podcast on the theme, “Christian.”  A fundamental question has been asked.  Do you identify yourself as a Christian?

It’s a good question.

Would you use the term Christian to define yourself?  If not, what term might you use?

Follower of Jesus?

A spiritual person?

A seeker?

A person of faith?

A progressive religious person?

A progressive evangelical?

At different times in my life here, I’ve used all those.

We know why this question is so hard.  Words help shape the world we know, the path we follow.  At a certain point, words that carry multiple and often conflicting meanings begin to feel limited and we seek other terms.

As protesters, Protestants, we exist within a tradition of the WORD.  Preaching is prominent in Protestant traditions because it is a reflection on the centrality of God’s word in our midst.  (Other traditions prioritize sacraments, music, etc.).   Locally, this congregation was organized around ‘word and sacrament’ several decades ago, designing a sanctuary around the communion table and the Bible and the Cross.

We have always seen ourselves as a church open to all.  In the early 90’s, we realized that the language of that welcome was super important.  In fact, the Open and Affirming movement across the UCC has been very specific to say that to be an official Open and Affirming church one must say MORE than all are welcome.  At first, it was language of welcome to Lesbian and Gay people.  But our language evolved – first to Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual; then to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender; then to all of that plus those of all Gender identities.    Soon, inviting us to include our preferred pronouns on our name tags will be the norm.  The spirit of the commitment has never changed – a welcome to all regardless of who you love.  The words we’ve use to express this has evolved.  Words matter.

We were organized as a community based mainline church, evolved into a Liberal Protestant church and now are most often referred to as a Progressive Christian church.  We continue to evolve in naming our identity both to ourselves and to the wider world.

  • Community and mainline indicated both not Catholic or Lutheran, but also a thoughtful approach to faith.
  • Liberal named that we are neither evangelical in they way it had become known, nor theologically conservative. It spoke of open minded, theologically flexible.
  • Progressive speaks to the open minded but adds an element of heart and ritual – a recognition that faith is not just about ideas, but is more embodied.  Again we’ve evolved, and we know that no one term is adequate.

Java and Jesus itself started because words matter.  In 2004 a group of us read the book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.  After reading that, we took on the writing of John Shelby Spong.  Both are theologians who reframed Christianity and some of its central beliefs in new language.  More importantly, their adaptation of traditional language gave our faith new energy.  New words were not only about language, but about helping us access the Holy.  They either gave us new words or redeemed old language for us. Christianity grounded in a belief system was presented as rooted in relationships.  Creeds and their attempts to articulate the faith were blown open.  The names and images for God multiplied enormously.

  • In light of this, we’ve explored all kinds of language for the prayer Jesus taught us.
  • We use a baptismal formula that lifts up the character of each person of the Trinity rather than simply using the traditional language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  More than just rebelling against male language, we’ve chosen a formula that speaks to how we understand the Holy in our lives.
  • We’ve expanded what we mean by “Sacred Text” to include non-biblical material.

And by and large, this is all fabulous. While imperfect, it helps us adapt our faith in ways that are lifegiving and soul stirring.

Until Christmas time when I usually get an earful because we sing a traditional carol with newly adapted language.  Inclusive language and expansive images for God are fine until

O Come let us adore him becomes O come in adoration. 

Language is good until it gets in the way.  (Sidebar – please remember more about this sermon than a defense of traditional Christmas carols!)

That visceral, passionate response speaks of a larger truth we would do well to explore all year.  We rail against updated Christmas carols and Biblical translations, I believe, because doing so impacts powerful and spiritually important memories, experiences and connections.

If we mine our own biblical tradition, of course, we remember that there is a difference between “words” and “your Word” or “The Word.”

  • Your word is a lamp unto to my feet.  A light unto my path.
  • In the beginning, was the Word.  The Word then became flesh and lived among us.

The Word is about life, it is a means of knowing God.  In Greek the word is LOGOS and it points to relationship.  In the Hebrew Bible it was shorthand for a deep affection, adoration and faithfulness to God.  In the New Testament it expands to include embodiment, enfleshment – as in Jesus.  As in all of us.  It is so much more than our spoken language, so much more than the words we use to describe ourselves or the world.

The inadequacy of language to capture our experiences is a reminder than even at its best it is a small window, sometimes a very small portal, to a much larger way of knowing.  It is for this reason that most of those who’ve had powerful religious experiences cannot describe them.  Most of us who’ve had a sense of transcendence in our life find it impossible to articulate.  We grow when we are in a community that doesn’t demand we name them, but DOES honor and make space for such heart felt, embodied experiences.  The Word become Flesh.

One of the dangers of prizing language our tradition (what did we call it, Progressive Christian?) is that in the process we forget this critical way of knowing that is beyond words.  We get so focused on correct language, we can lose sight of the faith, the passion, the yearning, and the longing beneath the words.

On our civil rights trip, we learned that the folks who risked life and limb to march from Selma to Montgomery for the right to vote became known as ‘foot soldiers.”  I would never call myself a soldier.  Especially not an effort that was explicitly nonviolent.  But as one of our guest speakers said to us in Birmingham, for many people of color, this was, and still is, war.  Rather than focusing on the militaristic imagery that ‘bothers’ me, I think I’m being asked to pay attention to the experiences, and the way of knowing and being that give rise to that language, appreciating that no words would ever do justice for what those folks were willing to do because of their faith.  Words matter because they invite us into something much larger.

I have a book titled, “Naked Spirituality:  A Life with God in 12 simple Words.” I’ll never forget when our daughter Kythie saw it on the counter and asked, ‘if there are 12 simple words, why is the book 288 pages?”

That memory reminds that if this is a sermon about a faith expression in the world that is beyond words, I’d better at least slow down my talking soon:)  I’d like, in fact, to shift to a few pictures.  Pictures coupled with simple questions that I think help us explore how and why our words are limited to express the depth of our faith commitment.

Pictures

Can language ever articulate our hopes for the next generation?

 

Can our rhetoric ever capture the hopes we have for this country.

 

If these hands could speak, what stories or memories would they share?

Minolta DSC

How does the language of the earth to speak to our soul?

How do you experience God?

 

Words matter,

Until they substitute for heart, for gut.

Until they become wall of safety behind which we hide.

Until we lose sight of the fact that the words are never the essence, but rather they point to the essence.

Until they become all that we have.

May we pursue the language of our faith diligently as we seek to honor the breadth of God’s love.

May we hold that language lightly as we open our hearts, our bodies, our souls to that love expressed in the world.

 

 

We Walk in the Footsteps of the Faithful (Winton Boyd) 11.4.19

We are all a product of our own collection of saints.  Our greatest sin would be to deny their faith and to suggest we’ve created our particular lives on our own.

Hebrews 12 The Message (MSG)

Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!

This is the 7th in the Series, The Puzzle We Call Faith

When Tammy and our children moved here in 1999, Madison was foreign to us, and Orchard Ridge UCC was a very different kind of church for me.  The bumper stickers around town on the cars were more to our liking than in the conservative bible belt of California; and the simplicity and lack of pretentiousness of the congregation refreshing.

If there is any consistent piece of advice given to people starting a new ministry in a congregation it is ‘go slow.’  Don’t change things all at once.  Spend a year learning the routines, and most of all, building relational trust.  But another, far more important truth lies at the root of this advice.  No matter how gifted one is as a pastor, no matter how brilliant and outstanding we are in our own minds, the central truth is that the Spirit of God has been present long before any of us showed up.  God does not enter the building because we – any of us – have a new idea, a great vision or a heart for mission.  If God is present everywhere all the time, our task is ALWAYS to ask, ‘how has the Spirit been working in this place before I arrived?’  And just as importantly, God isn’t leaving this place because any one of us leaves.

This truth was brought home to me in the same period I was announcing my resignation earlier this year.  In January and February, I was called upon to officiate 3 funerals. I had never met 2 of the deceased, and had met the third person only once.  I was called upon to do the service because each of them had a previous, historic connection to this church and its ministry, even though they’d never attended in my tenure.  Connections that, in all cases, preceded me.

One of the great gifts of this intense stretch was the opportunity I had to hear powerful stories of trust and faith at Orchard Ridge before my time.

I heard a young adult, whose grandmother was buried here, say that in her heart and mind, Tim Kehl would always be her ‘pastor.’  She had attended often until she was 8 years old.  Even though she’s lived in Iowa since that time (she’s now in her early 30’s), the impression this church made on her is powerful and poignant.  To an 8-year-old.

I heard a middle age woman from that same family talk about how her family had dinner at the home of Dan Apra at least once a week for over a year when she was a teenager.  Her mother had died young, her father and Dan were close, and his ministry of presence and companionship had a powerful impact on her ability to process that loss.

I heard a young adult male, about 30, whose mother had died, say how important it was for he and his sister to have the funeral here at ORUCC, because ‘our church’ is so open and welcoming and he knew that his mother would feel welcomed even though she no longer professed the Christian faith.  I was struck that someone who hadn’t stepped foot in this place more than once in my 20 years (at the funeral of his grandmother), still referred to this as ‘our church.’

Not too much later, I got an email from our founding pastor, Norm “Jack” Jackson.  He wrote, “What had potential in 1956 seems solidly missional in 2018 at Orchard Ridge… I feel like an old great grandpa beaming at the maturity and mission of ORUCC.”  What a blessing to have a founding pastor, now close to 90 years old, still praying for us, celebrating with us, embracing our ministry all these 60 years after his departure.

It was a profound gift to be presented with the deep, All Saints Day truth.  The ministry of this church has comforted the grieving, given space for those spirituality moves outside orthodox Christianity and touched the imagination and wonder of a child.  God has been with us, all the time.  Our task today is to do our work faithfully and lovingly, building on the God before me and trusting the God who follows me.

We walk in the footsteps of the faithful.

We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, the great text from Hebrews proclaims.  Or as Eugene Peterson’s version says, those great pioneers and veterans cheering us on!

The question for us today is not ‘do we have saints who’ve walked before us?”  It is, “who are the saints that have journeyed ahead of us, even if they are now part of the spiritual cheering section, the mystical gathering of spirits.  We’ve named some of them today.  We benefit from their spoken and unspoken wisdom.  We benefit for having watched their lives, read about their lives, or absorbing stories of their lives.  Our work for justice today, hope for tomorrow are a continuation of their efforts.  Their work.  Their sacrifices.

Who were those ‘someones’ who taught you about compassion – with their lives and their words?

  • Who sparked an imagination in you that has evolved into your adult faith journey?
  • Who’s love for beauty, grace and God caught your attention and held your heart?
  • Who demonstrated how to gracefully hold the challenges of raising families and pursuing meaningful work in the world?
  • Who stood beside you in your darker hours, when you needed more compassion, more openness, more space to figure out how to focus your own life?

We are all a product of our own collection of saints.  Our greatest sin would be to deny their faith and to suggest we’ve created our particular lives on our own.

Just as importantly, every church has a collection of saints that blazed a trail for ministry today.  Most of them were not pastors.  This truth, and this gift, was at the root of our “Next Generation Initiative” between 2007 and 2010 – when we revamped our staff, our program and our building.  The generations before us stepped out in faith to start this church.  In celebrating our 50th anniversary, we asked, “what is our call into the next generation?”  The presence of this cloud of witnesses is evident in every song we sing, every text we read, every prayer we utter.  We were taught, we were guided, we were even endured, by someone before us.

We note this every time we bury ashes in our garth; how comforting it is to sit in an area where the names of faithful people are present.  Some of us remember those folks, but even if we don’t, they speak of a longstanding stream of faith into which we have stepped.  Indeed, it might be a good exercise for all of us, when we are feeling discouraged or overwhelmed with life to take 5 minutes to sit in that garth.  To absorb the ordinary and unassuming faith present in those lives.

We walk in the footsteps of the faithful.

And maybe most importantly on this incredibly challenging and significant election week in our country, our work for the common good and for justice and equality and for EVERY social cause we care about, builds on the faith and grit and tenacity of those who’ve gone before us.

Most of you know that a group of 23 of us traveled through the south last weekend on a Civil Rights Bus Tour.

Sometime soon, that group will offer some sessions to share reflections and impressions from the trip.  But one of my takeaways was seeing anew how any of us who care for justice, who seek to live faithfully, and who desire to make our communities places of equality and hope can never forget those pioneers who’ve gone before us.  What the civil rights movement called the ‘foot soldiers.’  Ordinary men and women; and frankly children also, who believed in God’s strength, trusted each other, and gave their time and their hearts and in some cases their lives to make this a better place for us all. And in many cases, the goal was quite simple – to assure people the right to vote.

The beauty of taking a trip like this is there are role models of every sort imaginable.

  • Yes, orators who filled pulpits with soaring rhetoric and passion. But so much more.
  • College and high school students who sat at lunch counters day after day for months for the right to be served. And business owners who did what they could to allow such sit ins to continue because they believed segregation laws were wrong.
  • Children who marched from Selma to Montgomery on behalf of their parents so that those parents wouldn’t lose their jobs.
  • Musicians, black and white, who made both joyful and passionate music together in Memphis and other small towns, transcending the segregation laws with the language of the soul.
  • Politicians and organizers who read the culture and the media with savvy, planning events for maximum publicity locally and across the nation. Those marchers in Selma knew that the blunt and aggressive tactics of state troopers waiting on the other side of the bridge would help communicate the brutality of white resistance for the larger nation.
  • Teachers and coaches who mentored children of all colors, who believed in the profound importance of education despite awful conditions by anyone’s standard.
  • White activists in the south and across the country who left their families or their studies or their jobs to support voting rights efforts, to attend trainings, to offer logistical wisdom.

So, we who long for justice, we who work to get out the vote, to oppose legislation, to offer sanctuary, to save the planet, to teach children of all ethnicities – we walk in the footsteps of the faithful; the many, many, who’ve gone before us.  And even more poignantly as we sit here on the eve of yet another critical national election day – those who walk before us remind us we are much stronger than any force that opposes us.

Who are those ‘foot soldiers’ for justice that have inspired you?  Were they public figures or people you’ve known personally?  What issues and relationships animated them?

You can’t sit in a church in Montgomery and not realize that the generations of prayers and pray-ers faced their own version of intense, hate filled culture wars.  We still wonder how to hold the tensions of a bold faith and a comfortable American life.  We pray for courage.

You can’t stand outside a small hotel in Memphis where King was shot and not sense a level of despair that rivals any concern we have today.  At each turn, we are trying to learn how to be more faithful, bolder in our ally-ship.  We have a long way to go.  We pray for strength.

You cannot walk through a lynching memorial and see names from 800 counties across this country where lynching occurred and not sense an overwhelming gravity of hate.  You cannot deny how connected those lynchings are to today’s mass incarceration rates among our black citizens.  We pray for wisdom.

And yet – in the face of this pain and trauma, in the wake of such oppression and despair, with resources and opportunities that were far less than ours – these pioneers, this cloud of witnesses, persevered.  They persisted.  They prayed and sang and told stories and withstood opposition.  They could do so because they weren’t alone.  They tapped into a deep reservoir of faith and courage bequeathed to them by their forebears.  Women and men in the generation before them nurtured and mentored and cheered them on.  They walked in the footsteps of the faithful.

May we do the same.  May we strive to live a life worthy of the inheritance we’ve received.  With gratitude, courage, tenacity and hope.

 

Words of Blessing for Sunday’s Service

Source:  Central Conference of American Rabbis:

 

“When evil darkens our world, let us be bearers of light.

“When fists are clenched in self-righteous anger, let our hands be open for the sake of peace.

“When injustice slams doors in the face of the ill, the poor, the old, the refugee, the immigrant and the stranger, we will open those doors and strive to right the world’s wrongs.

“Where shelter is lacking, let us be builders.

“Where food and clothing are needed, let us provide.

“Where knowledge is denied, let us champion learning and knowledge.

“When dissent is stifled, let our voices speak truth to power.

“When the earth and its creatures are threatened, let us be their guardians. When bias, greed and bigotry erode our country’s values, let us proclaim liberty throughout the land.”

 

 

 

 

 

Jesus, Our Rabbi Still (Tammy Martens) 10.28.18

Audio version of “Jesus, Our Rabbi Still”

Thank you for the three-month sabbatical you granted to me from July through September. The best part of my time away was our family trip to Europe. We spent 5 days in Munich, and then traveled to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland where we spent another 5 days.

One day we took a cog train up to the Mt. Jungfraujoch and we walked on the Aletsch Glacier that covers about 30 square miles and has the thickness of 1 kilometer. At 11, 300 feet above sea level I had a deeper understanding of what the word breath-taking means. Frequently I had to stop to catch my breath and at times wondered if I would ever get to the destination, but I did. The vistas were awe-inspiring, Mother Nature showering us with such spectacular beauty—it was such a gift to behold. Our family will never forget this day.

When we were finished walking, we returned to the building that has a huge viewing area, an ice palace, shops, and restaurants. We were a bit tired and cold so we got a cup of coffee and treats before getting back on the train. As I looked around, there were crowds and crowds of people—all at the “top of Europe.” Feeling a bit put off, I thought to myself, “wow, there are so many tourists here.” But then I realized I was one of those tourists! I might as well have said, “wow there is so many of me here.” The temptation to define myself as separate from all these other tourists showed up almost without conscious thought. Yet I couldn’t have been more like them—I desired what they desired, to be up on Mt. Jungfraujoch—to be at the “top of Europe.”

In the passage in Luke, we are given insight into our human nature—this tendency to want to define ourselves as different from others. The first sentence of this story immediately gets my attention: “Jesus told this story to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” I know what Jesus is talking about here because I know myself.  Jesus gives the example of a religious leader who is filled with gratitude because he claims not to be like other people. This person defines his own perceived goodness by comparing himself to people who are “bad” and then admiring the distance he sees between him and others.

But if you notice, the passage doesn’t say that Jesus is surprised by this behavior. He seems to know that it is part of our human condition and he wants us to be aware of it. Like so many stories told by Jesus, he first explains a facet of our human condition and then invites us to a new way to behave. In the Beatitudes, we see this a lot. Instead of repaying evil with evil, Jesus says not to resist an evildoer. Instead of only loving our neighbor, we are to also love our enemies. In this story Jesus says “Don’t pray like this, instead pray like this.” Jesus’ desire is that we rise up out of this self-inflicted rivalry and our notions of self-righteousness and discover a new way to be good. We are to be people who ask for mercy, because as God fills us with mercy, our lives in turn, will ooze with mercy.

Now maybe we wouldn’t be as bold to say the prayer that the Pharisee offered but I do think we know of times when we have entertained similar notions—times of comparing ourselves to others in order to feel better about who we are. For instance, I wonder if the 21st century version of this prayer by the Pharisee might be the statement “I’m spiritual but not religious.” When we say that, what is it we are trying to communicate? Who are we trying to distance ourselves from when we use this phrase?” Can we see how this leads to an us vs. them mentality? Again, Jesus is not surprised by our human desires to describe ourselves over and against others. He names it and doesn’t label it as good or bad. Instead he shares how we are to face this about ourselves. His solution is prayer.

I love this. Jesus invites us to change through the act of prayer. Jesus doesn’t give us a 10-step method to rid ourselves of this behavior. Jesus doesn’t tell us to simply try harder and this tendency will go away. And very importantly, Jesus doesn’t shake his finger at the Pharisee or us and say “You bad person!” Jesus, our rabbi still, invites us to change through prayer. And it is a simple, one sentence prayer. When these creeping notions arise in us—the temptation to define ourselves as separate from others, we are to pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” That’s it!

But as simple as this prayer is, it can accomplish a lot. By praying this we remember who we are and whose we are. By praying this, we remember that we are always in the process of being forgiven which drives us deeper into following the desires of Jesus and forgiving others. This prayer leads us away from the cycle of violence and into the cycle of forgiveness.

From this story and throughout the Gospels, I find the following themes in Jesus’ teachings:

  1. Our human propensity leads us to be in rivalry with others where we define ourselves as different and separate from others which creates an us vs. them mentality.
  2. We are lured into a false identity based on how we see ourselves as different than others.
  3. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection draws us into a new identity; causes us to see that God’s love is non-rivalrous. God’s love is not revengeful, hateful, and therefore is not involved in the cycle of violence in any way.
  4. As God’s love sinks deeper into us, it brings about a collapse of our own identity because we stop defining ourselves over and against others. “It is a process by which we find ourselves learning who we are in the degree to which we discover a similarity with others which can be very painful. It will feel like a loss of identity. It will feel profoundly destabilizing.” (James Alison)

I was deeply challenged by the ideas of Alison and in particular, the words “the collapse of identity” pierced by innermost being. Using an old religious word, I felt “convicted.” And here’s why. I have a family member who I’ve struggled with for decades. Someone who has been very difficult to be with—someone for whom I’ve felt intense feelings of dislike and hatred towards. Throughout the years, other family members and I have spent a good amount of time talking about our dislike for this person and as we did this, it made us feel better. We had a common enemy and this gave us an identity that made us feel close to each other. Learning from Jesus, our rabbi still, I saw how my own self-righteousness continued to cause hurt and pain. Reading James Alison’s understanding about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, woke me up to seeing my role in this relationship and how I was perpetuating a cycle of animosity and disdain toward this family member. The description that Alison shared of a collapse of identity was terrifying to me. Who would I be if I no longer identified this person as my enemy? I wish it was as easy as pushing a reset button, but it was not. Letting go of my tightly held beliefs about this person was extremely difficult to do. Yet, it made sense that Jesus, my rabbi still would be moving me in this direction. To move towards reconciliation was to follow the desires of Jesus.

I love the placement of these two stories in the Gospel of Luke, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector and then the story of Jesus welcoming children in the book of Luke. The simple prayer uttered by the tax collector is exactly what Jesus means by entering God’s kingdom like a child. As we utter this prayer, we sense and recognize our vulnerability and our need for God. Entering God’s kingdom is all about receiving mercy and grace. Entering God’s kingdom is about living in the non-violent, non-rivalrous love of God.

Recently I was watching a PBS show that was about the Himalayas which included some focus on Mt. Everest. One of the final statements made in the show was “Mt. Everest is still in the process of being created.” Now, of course that makes sense and something we all know. But for some reason that statement caught my attention and gave me joy. And I also thought about human beings—and how this understanding certainly applies to all of us. We are all in the process of being created. Through God’s acts of mercy and forgiveness, we continue to grow and change. We continue to sink deeper into the desires of Jesus—desires that lead us away from rivalry, hatred, revenge and violence and move us toward reconciliation and new life. We are in the process of being created.

My hope is that we find ways to learn from our rabbi–the one who invites us to emulate his ways, to embrace his desires, to seek the path of mercy and forgiveness, and see what unfolds. Jesus, our rabbi still. Amen.

 

Sermon Text:  Luke 18:9-14

 

 

Conflict in the Faith Community (Winton Boyd) 10.21.18

The 6th in a series, The Puzzle We Call Faith

 

Romans 12

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

 

As part of my work here, I’ve done countless weddings, often for young couples.  One of the things I ask them in the sessions preceding their wedding is to talk about their parents’ marriages; including how their parents handle conflict.  On occasion, people will say, “I’ve never seen my parents fight, I don’t think they have many conflicts.”

I don’t believe them.  In my experience, we all have conflict in our trusted relationships.  If child doesn’t think we do, it’s more likely we a) don’t handle it openly, b) don’t let them see it.  Rather, I suggest, healthy couples learn how to fight, and to fight fair.  Some of us have learned good skills from our parents and other people, others not so much.  Most of us face issues down the road in our relationships that put our conflict management skills to the test.  This is simply part of sharing life together.

The dynamics in a congregation have many similar threads.  In a workshop 2 years ago for ecumenical leaders, run by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, a group of our leaders were asked, ‘where is anxiety in your congregation?’  The question wasn’t ‘do you have anxiety?’  The presumption was that all congregations have anxiety and periods of conflict.  The question is ‘what are those issues?  Are they chronic points of anxiety (money is often a big one) or acute and situational (like in a pastoral transition)?  How do you handle conflict when it arises?’  The hope is that we minimize chronic anxiety so that we can handle the acute situations more deftly.  Because as we all know, participating in congregations, participating in any collection of human beings, can be messy.

Look at us.  Look around.  We are flawed and full of awe.  We come into church life with hopes and expectations, sometimes very high.  We are seeking a sense of connection, transcendence, meaning and refuge from a wider culture that can be confusing or chaotic.  In truth, congregations can be both deeply disappointing and incredibly redeeming.  They do point us towards transcendence and the divine, and they remind us of our humility – our hummus – our feet made from clay.  We hope and pray for a community that calls us to our best, but deals honestly and gently with our mistakes and missteps.

(Sidebar – sometimes when I mention conflict in worship, people wonder if there is something brewing they don’t know about.  There isn’t.  The worst thing I could do is use my sermon time to ‘make my case’ against someone else – especially if I were to layer it with a half-cocked spirituality).

At every new member class since I came here, I’ve told a story about what drew me to this congregation in the interview process.  There were many things, but one dynamic stood out above all else.

I was a finalist for two churches, ORUCC and a suburban church in the Twin Cities.  Both churches had fired their previous senior pastor.  Both situations involved the misuse of alcohol.  One church, this one, framed the situation as a chance to learn about their role in conflict, their patterns of handling conflict.  They brought in outside help to learn new behaviors and make new agreements around how to live in the future.  The other church said the firing had nothing to do with them, it was all the pastor’s fault.  They just needed to find the right pastor to return them to their glory days.

One church, this one, said ‘we are looking for someone to grow with us in this new understanding we’re living into.”  The other church seemed to be saying, ‘we’d like a perfect pastor who doesn’t screw up, but if you do, we’ll have to fire you.’

Front and center in both congregations was the issue of conflict.  Just as obvious were there levels of maturity in how they chose to engage, learn from and appreciate conflict.

It was in 1996 that this congregation engaged in a months long and fruitful mediation process with the aforementioned Lombard Peace Center director.  At the end, you an agreement called “Living In Love In Times Of Disagreement.”  Central to this agreement were some basic principles about how to behave when we disagree or feel anxious.

  • Speak to interests not issues, speak in I statements and do not engage in name calling.  I remember a small example in my first 6 months when we held an after-worship discussion about the topic of worship itself.

One founding member said, “I hate clapping in church.”  Another active member responded, “Oh, I actually love clapping.”  The ‘issue’ was clapping, but my follow up question sought to help us explore each person’s interest.  “Why don’t you, or do you, like clapping?”

The founding member said, “I come to worship for a more meditative experience, to send God’s presence in the quiet.  Clapping disrupts that contemplation.”   

The other active member responded, “I come to connect and to celebrate God’s work in the world.  Clapping helps me make that connection.”

What’s the way forward?  Well, for one, it is infinitely easier now that we’ve recognized the beauty of each person’s interest.  We love one another and respect each other’s intents.  Was, or is the issue of clapping resolved?  No.  But by listening to each other’s interests as human beings, we’ defused that issue’s power to divide us immensely.  Over time, I think we’ve learned to find a way that honors both interests as much as possible.  We do clap, but we’ve also learned to respect that if music has brought us to a profoundly meditative moment, clapping isn’t helpful or necessary.

(As I side note, this feels like every marriage I know.  The ‘issues’ are quite mundane – dishes, clutter, TV preferences, etc – but they are always flowing from more substantive interests.  So when people say churches always fight about the color of the carpet, it’s never about the carpet!)

Other aspects of this Living in Love commitment included:

  • Pay attention to process so that everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard – agree upon the process ahead of time, and follow that process to the end.
  • Be clear, if voting, about what it takes to say ‘the congregation approved this.”  For us the standard is 67%.  Sometimes we indicate ahead of time that it needs to be higher.

And maybe most importantly,

  • Practice being a non-anxious presence, turn to wonder when you find something troubling.  Accept and receive forgiveness

True to form, we’ve had conflicts in my time.  These have included personal conflicts with colleagues and some of you; as well conflicts or periods of high anxiety as a congregation.

  • When we began renovating of the sanctuary shortly after I came here – we saw first-hand how changing our sacred space is not for the faint of heart.
  • In the early 2000’s, we got caught in the middle of a Boy Scouts of America debate about barring adult men who were gay as leaders.  Despite many lifelong scouts among us, despite open and affirming leaders of local troops from this congregation, the Leadership Team felt that ethically we had to take a stand against the national body’s hateful and hurtful rhetoric.  It was complicated and tense.
  • When we embarked on a capital campaign in 2010, the process included a suggested contribution amount for each of us.  Sparks flew.  I know of three families who left the church.  We reached our goal and I think most of us are proud of what we accomplished, but embracing a large and ambitious goal brought out feelings of all kinds.
  • We’ve had to work through internal issues, including whether to keep going with the Interfaith Hospitality Network about 7 years ago, whether we should become a sanctuary church, how we handle conversation and information around one of our members who was arrested for sexual misconduct, etc.  All of these, and other issues, have proved challenging.

In all cases, there were legitimate and honest differences of opinion, different interpretations of the same event.  The issue is rarely about who’s right and who’s wrong.  It’s about how we human beings live together amidst the inevitable conflicts and anxiety.

Apparently, this is nothing new.  The early church was arguing about things large and small from the get go.  Who’s in and who’s out?  How to care for widows?  How to talk about Jesus?  Who should be in leadership?

The Apostle Paul speaks to conflict many times.  This passage from Romans is rooted in his admonition to be intentional and thoughtful.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, …do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.   

Among other things, it is his way of saying, ‘remember who you are.’  Remember who you follow, the central principles and commitments that ground us as a community.  In short, remember Jesus’s way.

English poet, David Whyte adds to that by suggesting that community (or friendship) is the laboratory where we learn how to be human.

One of the great disciplines of human life… is friendship. A good friend is always inviting us out beyond ourselves… All long friendships are based on mutual forgiveness, because you will always trespass against your friends’ sensibilities. You will always say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they will have to forgive you. That’s why they’re still friends. You will have to forgive them too. (David Whyte, “Poetry from the Onbeing Gathering”, www.onbeing.org)

 As he continues, I think he speaks to the heart of how congregational life can help us be something other than we’d be without it.

We tend to think of vulnerability as a kind of weakness, something to be walked around. But it’s interesting to look at the origin of the word, from the Latin word “vulneras,” meaning “wound.” It’s really the place where you’re open to the world, whether you want to be or not. …(might we) think about it not as a weakness but as a faculty for understanding … the ability to follow the path of vulnerability.

And yet, as human beings, we’re constantly hoping that we can find a pathway …where we won’t have our hearts broken… Anything you care about will break your heart. It will move out of your line of control and understanding at times. 

And that puts you into a proper relationship with the world. Why? Because you have to ask for help. You have to make the invitation to the people who will help you create the conversation, which will help you follow that path of vulnerability into the world and give your gift to others along the way.

And on this day when we celebrate a baptism, it is worth chuckling (sort of) how parenting falls into this dynamic.

(Take parenting for example) (Our) first thought is to bring a child into the world, to bring joy into the world …. But you’re also bringing your own particular form of intimate heartbreak into your life. There’s never been a mother or father, since the beginning of time, who hasn’t had their heart broken by their child.

And they don’t even need to do anything spectacular… all they really need to do is move away from you, grow out of the child you first knew, grow out of infancy, grow out of their adolescence, (eventually living with you) as spies and saboteurs …, watching your every psychological move.

Until one day, when you have your back turned to them in the kitchen, one day when you’re making something for them, the emotional stiletto goes in exactly the right place, and you say, “How did you know exactly where to place it?”

 And they say, “I’ve been watching you.”

You can’t have a child without being humiliated. They will see your flaws. They will see where you are not held together properly.

Any real conversation (the root of all community) moves along an axis of vulnerability. Without vulnerability, there’s no conversation. So, what would it be like, actually, to cultivate a robust vulnerability? To stop trying to follow a road where I won’t have my heart broken? The only way you cannot have your heart broken is not to care.  (David Whyte, “Poetry from the Onbeing Gathering”, www.onbeing.org)

What a lovely goal for a congregation – to cultivate “a robust vulnerability”.  In a tense, guarded and defended world, what an offering of grace such vulnerability can be.  We are part of this community of faith we care.  We care about each other and the world.  We are here working out what this vulnerability looks like.  We are leaning into grace and forgiveness in a time when heartbreak and violence and fear are running rampant.

We are practicing for life, and in the midst, realize this is the life we want.  None of us goes seeking conflict; but neither should any of us put this congregation or any other on some unattainable human pedestal.  In fact, show me a church that never has conflict and I’ll show you a church that has very little ‘there there.’

The invitation of the apostle Paul is rooted in being genuine, zealous, hopeful and perseverant.  I think in times of transition we could add to this list an extra dose of kindness.

I don’t remember exactly how much this church paid to have Lombard do that mediation process – but it was a lot of money – well over $10,000 in 1996.  Richard Blackburn has often said the willingness to pay is one way to demonstrate you are committed to learning, growing, adapting and evolving.  I would say it was some of the best money ever spent.  All of your pastors since 1996 have participated in Lombard trainings, as have many lay people.  I have been trained to lead some of their workshops, and Tammy Martens now sits on their board of directors.  John Lemke, Bruce Olsen and Karen Falkner spoke on an anniversary fundraising video recently created.  In fact, I wonder if we shouldn’t be given status as honorary Mennonites!

The real point is that we are many things in the church, but conflictRus!  Let us not run from it, but let us pay attention to what makes us anxious (and name it), let us lean into the risk of vulnerability, let us be kind, patient, ardent in love and generous with forgiveness.  Let us pull one another beyond ourselves, into the abundant grace of God and joy of messy humanity.  May it be so.

 

 

Paradox in a Justice Seeking Congregation (Winton Boyd) 10.14.18

Those of us in activist congregations are being called to pay attention to a profound paradox in our midst – that sometimes the best way to enact justice in the world is not by doing, but by stopping.

Audio version of Paradox in a Justice Seeking Congregation

 

The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names

that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.

(From Selected Poems of Wendell Berry)

 

Michael Eric Dyson –Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America

So what are you supposed to do? My friends, what I need you to do—just for starters—is not act. Not yet. Not first. First I need you to see. I need you to see the pains and possibilities of black life, its virtues and vices, its strengths and weaknesses, its yeses and nos.           

 

I love this poem, and I love reading it every fall.  I love its sentiment –

if we stay connected to our ancestors (In time’s maze over fall fields, we name names that went west from here, names that rest on graves),

if we admire the seed in our midst(,We open a persimmon seed to find the tree that stands in promise)

…what we need is here.

Said another way, in another context, ‘we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’

I love what it means for a church congregation.  It could be about stewardship, it could be about vision, or it could be about our resilience.  What we need is here.  As we pastors say, ‘that will preach.’

In the midst of challenge, in the midst of uncertain times, yes, even in the midst of transition, we claim an ancient promise.  All will be well.

 

At the same time, I think a justice seeking faith and congregation lives with paradox as we seek to live out God’s call.  The paradox is that we bless the world through our activism AND we are being called to another kind of blessing – that of inaction, listening, waiting, and following.

We’re a congregation with a big heart, big dreams and big hopes.  We’ve sought to do more for the world than a collection of people this size could reasonably expect to do. This quality goes back a long way.

When fair housing laws were passed in the 1960’s, a small group of families in this congregation bought some property to create rental units that were ‘fair’ and ‘open.’

Long before it was widely done in churches, we were led by Tim Kehl, Karla Schmidt, Jim Hale and others to reconsider our relationship to the earth – to faithfully move toward more responsible earth care, more honest theological reflection, to explore our lifestyles.

We’ve taken bold stands, we’ve piloted case manager positions at the Road Home, we’ve built homes here and abroad, we stretched our own financial giving to remodel this building, to rebuild our United Church of Christ camps, and to provide rent subsidies to a group of families for three years.

And one of the larger projects in the last decade here was the endeavor we called the Southwest Partnership.  Joining with Commonwealth Development, Madison/Dane County Public Health, and Joining Forces for Families – we committed $130,000 to start an initiative to create employment opportunities for hard to employ folks here in the Southwest area of Madison.

The Southwest Partnership sought to help us invest our theology of love into the lives and realities of our local neighborhood not because it was the only place to give our energy – but because loving our neighbor sometimes actually means loving those nearest to us.

It was rooted two things.  First, it was a tithe of funds raised in our 2011 building remodel.  Secondly, it was a commitment to trust partner agencies we’d already come to know and respect.  When couple of those partners asked us to do something outside the box, uncharted and but desperately needed, we said ‘yes.’   We acknowledged that God was leading us, guiding us through others – even those not in the church.  We understood we had much to learn about being Christian from those outside our faith tradition.

In fits and starts, but anchored in those trusted relationships and committed to developing more – we created initiatives and projects that were ambitious and filled with compassion.  And most importantly, we created new relationships with residents, employers, agencies and other churches.  Some of those relationships were complicated by class and race differences; and some of them blossomed because of those differences.  Many of us learned a whole bunch about poverty that we didn’t know.  We saw first-hand the successes and the many obstacles involved in being faithful neighbors and effective partners.

In the 6 years since SWP was launched, that employment project continues to operate.  We no longer fund it, but funding has started coming from other areas – and the approach and the effort has moved beyond this neighborhood.

So, one side of this justice seeking paradox is this:   Nothing would have happened had we not said, ‘yes, we will step out in faith.’  Because WE took a risk, believed in our imagination and trusted dear partners in their brainstorm for an untested approach and project, something beautiful happened.  Because we – a church who believed in loving our neighbors – said yes first, the partnership got off the ground, others were able to see what was happening and got on board.  But they would not have taken the first step, they would not have taken the first risk.  It was faith-based activism at its best.

On its heels, we have created another initiative called Heart Room where we are subsidizing rents and providing light case management to help stabilize the housing situation for several families.  Once again, we have led the way with a multi-agency partnership.  We put up the brainpower, the networking ability and the money to start this innovative approach.  We do so with great hope that others will join in, and that the outline of the program can be replicated far and wide.

We can be proud.  Repeatedly, we say yes.  We invest our money and our lives and our hearts because both neighbors need it and we need to give it.  We have, and will continue to give our time and energy in seeking to address critical and urgent issues around us.

But the other side of the paradox is this.  One of the biggest learnings in this work is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Many of us have come to in important first step is not doing – certainly not just doing as we have done – but stopping.

Listening.

Waiting.

Accompanying.

Sitting with.

Listening.

Or to put it more bluntly – by NOT doing, NOT solving, NOT responding to our activist instinct.

We’ve learned that good intentions, generosity and hope are not only not enough, they sometimes make things worse.  We’ve confirmed that our white privilege and our bias create unhelpful filters. Our ‘action’ puts us into motion when those we seek to most want to serve are asking us to just listen.

Believe.

Stand alongside.

Follow.

This usually requires something different from us than our activism and our enormous problem-solving skills. Michael Eric Dyson writes extensively on race relations in this country. He’s been a preacher and currently teaches sociology at Georgetown University.  He usually writes directly to white Americans, and his challenges in this area also apply in any arena in which we are trying to have meaningful dialogue and interaction with those of less privilege.

So what are you supposed to do? My friends, what I need you to do—just for starters—is not act. Not yet. Not first. First I need you to see. I need you to see the pains and possibilities of black life, its virtues and vices, its strengths and weaknesses, its yeses and nos.

This is hard for us….

In getting prepared for our Civil Rights Bus tour at the end of this  month – 23 of us from ORUCC and Christ the Solid Rock church on the east side are going – I talked with African American author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper.  Her encouragement for our group was to approach this learning experience by asking, ‘whose narrative isn’t being told.’ As we learn more about race and class in our country, whose story has been marginalized? How do we come near to those storytellers to hear and welcome their narrative?

If finding those unheard narratives seems daunting, we could thinking about our own families and work settings.

Whose story is most visible, and whose is rarely lifted up?

Whose energy dominates a room, and when it does, how does that impact how others are able to show up?

Sometimes, we’ve been the voices dominating the room, getting our say in.  Sometimes it has been our voice, our experience or our narrative that has been marginalized or silenced.  We know how this works in settings close to home.  We are being asked to broaden our awareness of this dynamic.

 

Another first step is refrain from the need for an answer, and certainly to refrain from thinking we have an answer.  When I went with a group here to the US Mexico border in 2015, there was much that didn’t make sense.  We were asked to listen to peoples’ stories.

When I’ve worked alongside low income leaders in our nearby neighborhoods there is so much that doesn’t make sense.  That I can’t figure out. I am asked not to offer an opinion about why the relationship between families of color and schools are so fractured – but to listen to what the story sounds like from their perspective.

The story lines of those struggling often feel – to me and in my brain – like they are missing critical details.  I am challenged to refrain from judgement, to refrain from offering a pompous solution.  As Dyson writes, ‘maybe you don’t know what poverty and oppression look like because you don’t want to know.  Maybe it’s worse.  You don’t have to know.  Your life hasn’t depended, like ours has, on knowing what the ‘other’ likes or dislikes.” (p.135)

 

Rather, I am challenged to stop, listen. I am challenged, as we all are, to acknowledge my connection to the other as a fellow human being.  I am challenged to face my own fears and confusions about why injustice is so rampant.  I am challenged to move from my solution-oriented head so that I can listen with my compassionate heart.  I am challenged to listen in order to learn, to hear something new, hard, or confusing.

The paradox of justice, and caring for the world.  Do and don’t do. Take charge and hold back.

Turn tables over in the temples as you criticize the money changers while at the same time withholding any response when you are about to be crucified.

For those of us whose life hasn’t depended on knowing ‘the other,’ the real challenge may be how we find a way to ‘proximate’ ourselves to the other, as Bryan Stephenson, author of Just Mercy, says.

Many of us are surrounded by opportunities to listen to those who aren’t majority race, middle class, or majority religion.  We have relationships at work, we have possibilities at school, in our volunteer roles, or we have neighbors.  What would it take from us to position ourselves to be present, to interact in ordinary ways, to practice listening, to ponder the human truths of our differences and our similarities?

If we don’t have those opportunities, how do we do the hard work of putting ourselves in places and situations others might be?  Where we can listen?  Rather than hoping for, wishing or asking someone who is ‘the other’ to come into our spaces, or our world – how do we explore the ways we can go to theirs?  If justice is really a value for us, what might it require of us to simply be a presence in the lives of those who suffer the most from our injustice.

What we need is here.  Only if our engagement includes, as Berry suggests, being ‘quiet in heart.’

This will be our challenge as a progressive, mostly middle-class congregation going forward.  Our challenge will be to hold the tensions of these paradoxes and the possibilities of learning anew what we have to learn, what we don’t know and what we might one day have to offer.

Our sacred texts have long held that God’s wisdom comes primarily from the poor, the outcast, the suffering and the stranger.  To be a vibrant and faithful congregation may depend on honoring and trusting that wisdom more tomorrow than we have done to date.   May it be so.

 

 

 

Being An Alternative (Winton Boyd) 10.7.18

These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.  (Grace Lee Boggs)

 I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12)

 

I got an email early this week that had a story I thought very poignant. It read,

“On Sunday night of last week (there was a gathering in New York with a group of women organized by Rev. Kaji Dousa of Park Avenue Christian Church, standing on the steps of City Hall in Foley Square protesting the process our elected officials are enabling around the appointment of Brett Kavanagh. (Ironically, this pastor also studied at Yale)

Present were high school students from the school that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford attended, lots of women from the community and a few faith leaders. As we were standing there in front of three news crews who were recording our speakers, an angry man came up and started screaming at us. He lobbed all of the predictable slurs one uses to demean women – “You’re all a bunch of whores,” “You hate men,” “Women are always right; men are always wrong.” On and on and on…

(As adults) our hearts were breaking for these young students who were experiencing this; he was relentless, and it seemed there was no line of decency he wasn’t willing to cross. Then he saw three of us in clergy collars and took out after us… We were staring him down, ready to form a wall of protection.

And then, in the most beautiful moment of grace, Rev. Kaji Dousa began to sing. Her voice, crystal clear in tone and tear-jerking in power, rose above his shouts. She sang and sang and sang us through that hate-filled moment. She did that…by herself…as the rest of us stood around her with our candles holding vigil for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford…and for ourselves. The man turned around, silenced, and left.

It feels like the world needs a new kind of leadership from us, one that requires we dig deep in our resolve and act with courage we’re not sure we have.  (Cameron Trimble, Piloting Faith, 10.1.18)

(as a side note, I wonder what she sang. I wonder what we’d sing in that moment?)

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed and renewed,” the Apostle Paul said centuries ago.

“These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction … we have the power within us to create the world anew,” said urban organizer from Detroit, Grace Lee Boggs.

I don’t know much about Foley Square where this incident took place, so I looked it up. One of the things I found is that what today is an intersection of green space and streets in Lower Manhattan was originally part of the “Little Collect Pond,” one of the original sources of fresh water for the city (long since abandoned and filled in after being polluted).

As I imagine this scene from last Sunday I imagine a spiritual spring of living water bubbling up through the voice of this singing pastor, creating something beautiful in another otherwise polluted spot. I imagine the voice, the emotional energy, the sense of inspired community that resulted as a powerful alternative, a powerful ‘counter-narrative’ to a week of troubling, confusing, empire supporting narratives throughout our land. As I imagine this scene, I give thanks for a soul who could see – and sing – their way to a new place when the rhetoric, tension and ugliness was at its worst.

If there is a new kind of leadership needed, it is a leadership that, among other things, can see an alternative beauty, a substitute truth, or a powerfully different narrative. It’s a leadership that offers a cool spring water to a polluted and stagnant world.

The vision for something different than what we currently see is precisely where I see the value and purpose of the progressive Christian tradition. To be a bastion, a community, and a movement that sees a new vision into being – even as the world around us tries to convert us to its violence, it’s consumerism, or it’s apathy.

For centuries, theologians have wrestled over the proper or appropriate relationship between the church and the culture. Scriptural voices provide language for all different kinds of interactions, and thus it becomes the task of the church in every age and in every location to sort out its own answer to this question.

Broadly speaking (and there are tomes written on this), there are 4 main ideas for how the church should relate to the wider culture.

1. In lock step with the culture.
2. An agent of transformation within culture.
3. Separate and removed from culture.
4. An alternative community side by side with the culture.

In lock step. History is full examples of church/state coordination and confusion. I’ll be speaking about Christianity, but these same dynamics play out in every culture and its majority religion. Constantine is the most obvious example – that emperor who declared that henceforth, the empire shall be Christian. He backed that up with the power of armies and economies. It resulted in the Christianization of Europe, among other things.

Religion came to the ‘new world’ in this form as the Spanish royalty and papacy saw great potential to enrich the home country leaders and subjugate natives through combining the forces of religion and economics.

We see this theology in several soft forms in our country among religious conservatives.

As an agent of transformation within culture: There are lots of examples of this too.

One that comes to mind immediately is the Sojourners movement in Washington DC led by Jim Wallis. He said about 15 years ago that all politicians ever do is put their finger up to see which was the wind is blowing. Our job, as the church, he said, is control the direction of the wind! If we can do that, we can achieve transformation. Martin Luther King’s early work in the civil rights movement took this approach – transformation of our democracy through the Christian tenets of love and justice.

Separatist movement removing itself from the corrupt culture.  North Dakota and Idaho have several modern-day groups now with this attitude. They’ve separated themselves from all institutions – banking, educational, and legal, etc.

The Essenes of John the Baptist fame were also of this bent.

So also, were the desert fathers in the 4th century, the Mormons of the 19th century.

And finally, as an alternative community side by side in the culture.  The Anabaptist tradition is in our day is a good example – preaching peace, non-violence and pacifism even in the face of war -even WW2. They seek, in their churches and sometimes in their communities to create enclaves of Christianity that witness another way to the world around. Unlike the Separatists, they are not hostile the wider world but they do seek to create an alternative.

The Mennonite congregation that meets here on Sunday nights often feels like this to me.

The role of the church, and the theology that guides it, evolves through different historical periods, but it is my belief that in this particular cultural moment, one of the great gifts of the Progressive Christian movement is our determined effort we’ve made to create something wholly other in our spaces, our worship, and our witness. Certainly, as a tradition we are also hoping for transformation, but in the meantime we are creating something unique, special, and otherly for the world.

In 2006, residents of this state were asked to vote on whether they thought it was appropriate for same sex marriages to be made legal. Churches like ours had been performing religious ceremonies for over 10, sometimes 20 years, by that time. We knew where we stood. So, at our annual meeting in early 2006, the congregation voted unanimously to publicly oppose this November ballot measure.

Many of us signed up to work with Fair Wisconsin. The political and emotional winds seemed toxic to us. As we literally canvassed the county and the state, we worked alongside others of like mind. We were asked to canvas and phone bank, which we did. We felt our faith being both maligned and undercut. It was a troubling and disturbing political season; mostly because people near and dear to all of us felt their lifestyles and loves vulnerable and at risk. It felt like open season to spew bigotry and hate. And this was before ban on same sex relationships was affirmed overwhelming that November at the ballot box.

Suspecting the worst, we planned for a service the night after the election. I remember specifically inviting our straight ally members to come. “We need to be here in support of one another this week. This is not just an LGBT issue. This is an issue for us all. Hurting, angry, confused, dejected – please come.”

And we did come out on that painful Wednesday night. We sang, we prayed, we spoke, and we cried. My sense that night, and in the years since, is that in the midst of all our pain and appreciation, we realized that this alternative community we had created, this church we had come to believe was prophetic and compassionate, contained great power, while at the same time was fragile. The gains we thought had been made were real, but could also be taken away. While we had felt led by the Spirit for so many years on this issue. It was clear – especially to those among us whose loves were relationships were most at risk- that this bastion of love and acceptance was no longer something we could take for granted. We knew, now more than ever, that we had to work hard. We had to show up. We had to be for each other what the wider world was boldly proclaiming it would not be. Welcoming.

I quoted a Minneapolis pastor that night who suggested this anti-gay sentiment was “a spasm of hatred that is the lashing out of a dying dragon.” A frightened, angry, but dying dragon.

11 years later I am uncertain of one thing and more certain of another.

I am less uncertain today that the dragon of hate is dying. I am less convinced of our collective ability as humans to evolve toward more compassion and grace.

I am more certain that the creating and maintaining of this alternative community is possible and necessary. I am more certain that such a community will thrive only if it is nurtured. I am more certain that if we value a place of openness and progressive thinking – we can ill afford to be passive bystanders. We can ill afford a casual approach to our spiritual community.

We can celebrate diversity, questions, doubts and uncertainties in how we understand God and what it means to follow Jesus. But we must be fierce in the power and necessity of our gathering together, our coming to know one another, our witness to an alternative way in the world.

Almost once a year since I’ve come to ORUCC, I have sat with a teenager or young adult raised in another church struggling to get out from under the powerful and destructive emotional trauma of growing up in a hate filled church. Often this hate has been directed specifically toward LBGT folks, but often hatred spewed in many ways. It is so toxic, so contrary to the the gospel and the God I hold dear.

At the same time,  I come away from these heart breaking interactions even more convinced that we play a powerful role in the lives of our children and families, and even ourselves, in providing a space where God is known and experience as loving, open hearted, merciful and grace filled. If we are not here, where will any of us have a chance to come to know the power of that God? If we are not here, how will any of us withstand the onslaught of apathy, indifference, and hate that surrounds us. If we are not here, where will that spring of lifegiving water come from? Who will sing that song of beauty and hope that we all need to move through these confusing days.
Keep the faith, friends. We are not alone. A tribe of us are in this together. Every. Single. Step. But let’s stay on the lookout for people who can sing us through, for songs and harmonies that will silence oppression and save our souls.

Upside Down Service: The Tension We Live With (Winton Boyd) 9.30.18

Audio version of Upside Down Service

If our efforts at charity and justice don’t call our lifestyles, our assumptions, or our financial beliefs into question, are they really part of Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to be servant leaders washing feet?

 

It’s just before Passover – preparations would have been evident everywhere. People would be streaming into the city. Jesus and her Jewish friends have set some time aside in the midst of this major festival.   What most of them don’t know or understand is that Jesus knows this is the beginning of the end. His life is coming to an end. There is both an urgency and poignancy to this moment. And we read, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

Already poignant, the setting turns intimate. “The evening meal was in progress, … so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

These are friends. Travel companions. But nonetheless, Jesus surprises them with what he does next.

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

His act turns the expected order upside down. Did you see how Peter resisted? Jesus was the leader; he wasn’t the one to wash feet. Washing feet was for the house servants, the ones who made life comfortable for the invited guests.

Upside down – you must become a servant

Upside down – before you serve others, you must first know what it is to be served by your master

In modeling what it means to be a servant, we see a very personal approach. It’s in the clothes that are being worn or not worn, the table around which they were gathered, the truth that Jesus knew his betrayer was in their midst.

And through this simple act, Jesus set a standard that has never changed. A model of how to live into his ‘new commandment of love.’ Because for Jesus, love was always about both the inner conviction and the outer action.

But every time we read this story – often during Holy Week – we encounter this call for upside down service.


About 30 of us from Orchard Ridge and Good Shepherd Lutheran had been in Nogales, Dominican Republic for most of a week to work with Habitat for Humanity.  In the hot sun, we had been asked to dig trenches for the foundation of two houses.  The problems related to the task were legion.

  • We had limited, and mostly ineffective, shovels.
  • The ‘dirt’ wasn’t dirt at all, it was caliche – which the dictionary defines as “a sedimentary rock, a hardened natural cement of calcium carbonate that binds other materials—such as gravel, sand, clay, and silt.”  We just knew it was as hard as concrete.

On Thursday morning, we all gathered around a beat up pick up truck to marvel at a sight for sore eyes – a gas-powered cement mixer secured for the day so we could pour the foundation and begin laying cement blocks.  Before our astonished eyes, the local guys struggled to unload that mixer off a truck, inexplicably letting it fall to the ground, breaking off a critical part, rendering the mixer useless.

Needless to say, we spent the day mixing cement by hand, hauling it wheel barrow after wheel barrow to the hand dug trenches that served as foundation frames. We then carried hundreds of blocks to the two foundations, and slowly watched the foundations grow up inch by inch.  By the end of the day, we were sweaty, filthy, tired and our feet weighed a good 5 pounds extra because of the caked on mud and cement.

All week, children in the area kept asking to help and each day we had to turn them away. Maybe it was insurance, I’m not sure. But when it became clear that we were starting to clean up the building site for the evening, a young boy, a hanger on of about 10 years old, saw his opportunity to be useful. He scampered to the finished house next to the worksite, turned on a hose and asked in haltingly English, ‘May I wash your feet.’  Tenacious in his caring, determined in his self-appointed task, he hosed off the shoes of everyone near by, getting on his knees to scrub off cement.  I was the last one to have my feet washed. Cold water running through shoe and sock. Tender care given by a young boy with whom I had little language.

As I gathered myself and others back on the bus for the 30-minute drive to our hotel where showers and dinner awaited, it dawned on me that it was Thursday.  Not just any Thursday, but Holy Thursday. Mandy Thursday of Holy Week. The night from which this text about washing feet comes.

As beautiful as this story is, it cuts to the heart of tensions we in a justice seeking church cannot avoid.

When and how we serve.

With whom we serve.

From whom do we receive care and support and compassion.

 

Listen to some of the inherent tensions around this story.

Over 2 trips in 2 years, we helped up to 6 families build new homes in a small development. Habitat for Humanity, with its requirement of sweat equity and local community control of the affiliate is better than many international charities. In addition, the money spent for our experience mostly went to the DR, not the Habitat International staff in Atlanta. Finally, we also brought a gift of over $30,000 from Habitat Dane County for the Dominican affiliate.

We had a moving and profound week. In fact, for some it was life changing. It inspired one young woman to go into international relations in college. Another young man spent several years leading similar trips with high school students. He gave up countless of his own vacations to serve others. Others were moved in ways just as profound if not as visible.

Several meaningful friendships were established across cultural lines.  So we did much good that week and in subsequent weeks in the following two years.

On the other hand, 30 of us paid about $1300 each to travel to and spend a week in the Dominican Republic. Almost $40,000 spent to help build houses that with local labor would have built 4 entire homes.

And what we probably didn’t see was that an exciting and energizing week for us was just another week for this young boy and his friends – another week in which their world was dominated and shaped by a group of wealthy foreigners.

I don’t regret the trip, but I also am mindful how, if we are not careful, such trips or service in this style only serve to reinforce the very dynamic Jesus sought to up end.

If our charity, if our engagement with the poor, if our gifts of volunteer time and money only serve to reinforce and legitimize the social structure all around us, then they can quite easily become what long time community developer Robert Lupton calls “toxic charity.”

If our efforts at charity and justice don’t call our lifestyles, our assumptions, or our financial beliefs into question, are they really part of Jesus’ ‘new commandment’ to be servant leaders washing feet? In a culture that increasingly sees charity work as way to build a resume or application, we can fall prey to following the practice of loving our neighbor through the path of least resistance.

Our work in the world – be it local or national, hands on our through letter writing, with our sweat or with our dollars, should make us feel better about our place in the world. But, if we come to value feel good experiences rather than opening our lives to transformation – have we missed Jesus’ point?

If we engage in loving our neighbor while never engaging in the personal self reflection that is ALWAYS required of the wealthy, the privileged, and the majority culture – are we not actually contributing to the problems that plague the world because of those status’? You see, for Jesus, serving the poor wasn’t about doing a good deed. It was an act of prayerful listening to the voice of God.

Because we are a well meaning, a well off and a justice seeking congregation, these tensions will be, must be, part of the fabric of our lives. We will always have to balance personal desire and spiritual transformation; the needs of our neighbors and the convenience of our lives.

I don’t diminish what we try to do. But I do worry that without being reflective about what we are doing, we’ll be missing Jesus’ point completely. I worry that in our efforts to make it easy, risk free, convenient and tidy – we are like Peter who doesn’t understand Jesus’ new message and commandment.

Recently I read daily meditation from Cameron Timble, director of the Center for Progressive Renewal. It is a thoughtful, ecumenical resource center for progressive mainline churches.

She boasted about being UCC, a ‘denomination of firsts.’

  • The first to lead the efforts to abolish slavery,
  • the first to ordain an African American man,
  • the first to establish a school for the deaf,
  • the first to ordain a woman,
  • the first to push for legislation that protects our airways as public property,
  • the first to ordain an openly gay man,
  • the first to call for marriage equality
  • and the first to adopt a commitment to divest from investments in fossil fuels…

She continued, “Together with others in the “the Mainline Church,” we have made a huge difference in shaping the world. Bravo to us.

The question is: What is next? What is our next “first?” What (would) all of us who identify with the progressive mainline church movement would say to the question?

What is our next collective “first?” Here are some ideas. We could be the first in:

  • Demanding public, official acts of reparations to combat white supremacy;
  • Creating a legislative framework that welcomes immigrants into our country;
  • Funding free college education for students;
  • Building all new buildings using environmentally sound, LEED-rated designs and material;”

 

She listed several other ideas, but the first one grabbed my attention, “Demanding public, official acts of reparations to combat white supremacy,” and frankly gave me shivers up and down my spine. I hold two conflicting ideas about reparations.

It is impossible to do. It is absolutely necessary to move our nation forward. Absolutely necessary to talk about if we are serious about racial issues.

The church cannot pull it off alone. No one will lead the way unless the church does.

It is absolutely right. It is profoundly terrifying to think about.

My own fear, I began to realize, is bringing me close to the upside down justice, the upside down service Jesus called for. That conflict of emotions, the rawness of what being a faithful follower of Jesus might look like – that’s our call here at ORUCC. That’s the call we’ve inherited from our forebears; and it is the call we owe to our children and successors.

What I know, more than anything else, is I need to ‘start close in.’ I need to pay attention to the ways I seek justice and to ask the really hard question; Is it part of turning the world order upside down, even in small ways? And I need to do it within community.

If I give my time and energy to nearby neighborhood organizations and it’s work with at risk kids without deep reflection, am I not prone to repeat mistakes and offenses of the past? If I want to help raise up grass roots leaders, am I willing to truly learn from them rather than expecting them to behave as I want? All I can say is I struggle everyday to find the balance.  Several of you have helped me find my way.

Can we acknowledge that the wonderful benefits Epic Systems has had on our community (and the related high tech sector that’s developing because of Epic) without also noting that precisely because of that success, neighbors of the church are becoming homeless? If we can’t see how development for one demographic usually displaces another, how can we honestly say we want to be good neighbors? Many of you have struggled with this truth

If I endure this recent charade of male dominance, male denial and male mistreatment of women without being honest about my own benefit from those very systems – without challenging my sons and nephews to acknowledge how the system is stacked in their favor, have I not bypassed an opportunity to teach those I love about Jesus upside down but faithful masculinity? My life is dependent on observing and befriending so many of the men of this church.

Peter struggled mightily with Jesus’ call to a different world order. It’s not even clear in this passage that he actually understood Jesus.   But the call remains.

Jesus offered this new command within the context of a loving, engaged group of friends and followers.   He knew that to live into this new ethic, we would need each other.

Can we lean in to this new and transforming world order, despite our fear and uncertainty? Can we lean into it as a community in ways that overwhelm us as individuals?

Can we, together as people of faith, lean into this tension. For the sake of the community, our schools? For the sake of our souls?

 

 

 

To Love and Be Loved Locally (Winton Boyd) 9.23.18

This the second in my series, The Puzzle We Call Faith.

With regular frequency, visitors to this congregation share how moving they find our ritual of sharing Joys and Concerns.   It doesn’t matter that they don’t even know us. I think this is because as we share portions of our individual or collective stories; the Spirit of God becomes more real and accessible.

I said a couple of weeks ago that one of the purposes of worship and community life is to shape us. In worship, in prayer, and community – stories guide us and give us a glimpse of God’s mysterious and wonderfully creative presence.

I’ve titled this fall series the “The Puzzle We Call Faith.” Over the course of the fall, I’ll be sharing pieces of the puzzle as I’ve experienced as one of our pastors. By the time I’ve finished this series, the puzzle may have more shape, but it will not be finished. It never is.

Today, I want to speak to the deep honor I’ve had to hear and carry so many of our personal and congregational stories. These include stories that have emerged from within our midst and stories that impact us from the outside. In my experience, the stories run the gamut of life’s reality. They include stories of transformation and struggle, deep pain and incredible joy, surprising healing and eventually, salvation.

Some of our stories are more public, while others are personal and private. At times, it is necessary to retell the public ones because they contribute to our shaping as a community. Others are so tender they can never be repeated.

One of the public stories I cherish centers around my predecessor, The Rev. Tim Kehl. When I arrived in 1999, the congregation had done serious work around conflict mediation, healing and honest communication. The presenting issue in that conflict was Tim, and aspects of her behavior that resulted in him being let go.   However, those who engaged in the healing process discovered what families always discover; the presenting issue is usually masking other, more deeply imbedded dynamics.

I’ve told almost every new member class since arriving how impressed I was with the work this congregation did between Tim’s leaving and my arrival (a period of three years). I was deeply blessed to enter a thoughtful, intentional, hardworking and kindhearted congregation. You presented yourself as a congregation that took seriously your own role in creating a sacred space for faith and hope to thrive. A congregation that valued it’s pastors but didn’t shirk it’s own responsibility to incarnate the faith you proclaim.

And yet, there was residue. There were early situations where I said or did something that was misunderstood, that provoked painful memories of a previous time. The fact that it took several years before I wasn’t called Tim after worship (as in “Great sermon, Tim!) reminded me over and over again how important his ministry had been here, regardless of its painful ending.

It was deeply moving then, to welcome him back into the sanctuary in the fall of 2007 as we celebrated the congregation’s 50th anniversary with a party and an evening of insight from 3 of our former senior pastors, as well as Doug Pierce, our long-term interim. I must also acknowledge that Tim has never been anything but gracious and supportive of me personally; for this I am ever thankful.

As part of his talk, Tim offered both an apology and a statement of gratitude for the way his ministry ended at ORUCC in 1995.  He didn’t belabor the point, he didn’t co-opt the evening, but he also didn’t let the occasion pass without speaking to the elephant in the room for those who’d been through that rough season with him 12 years earlier.   It was a moment of grace. It revealed the hard spiritual work of this congregation, the profound grace of forgiveness and healing. It demonstrated a church in a new place, informed by and dependent upon the hard work of the past. I was honored to observe it.

Another public story emerged when we invited a retired UCC Pastor and his wife (John and Susie McFadden) to spend a morning with us reflecting on ministry among the aging, especially those who were losing their memories. In his sermon, John challenged us to move beyond thinking that “we are because we think.” Rather, he suggested, “we are” because we love, because we can be in relationship, and because we can know joy. Even those with dementia can love, relate and rejoice. He focused on those with memory loss, but I thought he was speaking to all of us about all of our relationships. The room was filled with all ages. Squirrely elementary kids who teach us about grace through their energy and questions. Older adults grieving the loss of spouses and children; who remind us that through suffering we grow in faith. Middle age couples, some holding back the words of anger or confusion or fatigue that were spewed even in the car on the way to church; who remind us that we are not defined by our worst moments.

But as I sat in the aisle, I was asked a young adult with Down’s syndrome to leave worship and join him in the Romero room to console his girlfriend – also with Down’s syndrome. The two of them were struggling to communicate about important things in their love and their relationship. I had never left worship like that, but having been challenged to recognize that grace comes through connection, love and laughter – I did join them for a few minutes. I don’t think I added any words that were helpful; although I do hope my presence was comforting.

For me, the whole morning – with a challenging sermon on a pervasive reality in so many of our families, the lived experience of honoring the complexity of our congregation, and the pathos that came from sharing about an important and painful topic – typified good church. Church that holds and shapes us to be more compassionate and kind. Church that pulls us to reflect on our assumptions and unexamined attitudes. Church that wrestles with an issue that matters. I came away, as I know many of you did, with a deep sense that I was a better person for being here that morning.

I am also grateful for some of the more hidden and personal stories.

I remember several young children facing incredibly challenging treatments and surgeries. Sitting in rooms with tubes and monitors and nurses and IV drips, they were unable to know then, or ever really, the angst and fear felt by their young parents.  They could not know the sense of foreboding, mystery, wonder or despair that filled both the waking and sleeping moments of their mostly powerless parents. Powerless, except in the way they surrounded themselves with loving family, friends, and prayer. Powerful indeed as they leaned on community in a time of deep challenge.

And I remember stories of salvation, told quietly and in hushed voices.

  • Of acting upon one’s inner knowing of substance abuse that had caused physical and spiritual exhaustion.
  • Of inner liberation that came through the act of quietly getting out of one’s seat in this room to come up for a healing prayer. Not knowing why. Not knowing what kind of healing they needed, still they came.
  • I remember frightened and confused stories of infidelity and the pain of facing one’s sin and one’s partner with a new kind of truthfulness.
  • Or the salvation that comes through acting upon the long held belief that the relationship needed to end, acting upon the belief that liberation will come only in loving oneself and one’s potential enough say no to a fractured or dead relationship. Saying no so they could say yes.
  • Of young middle school girls, armed with information gleaned through our OWL class, taking action and critical steps to ensure their safety, their humanity and ultimately their healing from specific abuse or the abusive culture they’d experienced at school and in the neighborhood.

Stories of so many of us facing the angst of a job that feels like a trap or post schooling career paths that feel confusing.  Tears and shaky voices confessing mental illness, attempts at suicide or the challenge of caregiving for a loved one.  I was even at the receiving end of an amazing projectile of vomit from one of the sweetest old ladies I’ve ever known who lost her lunch the minute I pulled a chair up to her hospital bed.

Psalm 139 is a beloved psalm, one that is worth reading often, because it speaks a deep and profound truth.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue…If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

If we are open to it, life in a faith community has the power to remind us of God’s deep and every present love. It has the power to reinforce how beautiful we are in a world that constantly tears us down. There is so much bad religion in the world today; so many versions of Christianity that seek to break people down, oppress or limit the work of the Spirit. Not long ago, a young adult who grew up in this church experienced the arbitrary and capricious dogma of a church in relationship to their extended family. After being dumbfounded and hurt, they said to their parents – ‘do you see why we’ve given up on the institutional church?”

Have you listened to so called Christian evangelicals dismiss the outrageousness of sexual violence? Have you read what some Catholic bishops do in equating homosexuality and pedophilia? How easy is it to find something disgraceful in institutional religion?

In the face of such disappointment, or even outrage, we come here in hopes of finding something transcendent and transforming. We come, I think, to remember and reclaim the sacred wonder that exists within each one of us. We come, not to save the whole world, but to love and be loved locally. To rub shoulders with one another in the midst of making difficult choices in our lives. We come to reclaim love for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters because deep down we want to believe in the sacredness of life, despite evidence to the contrary.

Lutheran pastor and author, Nadia Bolz Weber, in a refreshingly honest statement, tells how in every new member class in her church she tells people “I hope we disappoint you. I hope that our imperfections show through. Only then will we experience real community.”

We are all beautiful, mysterious and complex.

We know life will find ways of telling us otherwise.

We know the culture will fail to honor our beauty.

We come to be shaped, to be reminded, to be inspired and most of all, to love. People of faith – for all our shortcomings and doubts — that love matters. It is that love that helps us give heart and soul to a world crying in pain.