Archive for June, 2018

Sermon: The Art of Blessing

This homily on blessings, begins with a celebration of our music director retiring after 21 years, and ends with a hard look at our government’s practice of separating children from their parents on our border.

         This morning’s story is one of my favorite folk tales. You’ll likely to hear it from me annually at some point, and I think you have. It’s been told and retold in many different cultures. It’s the classic story of feeling like we have nothing, when in truth we already have everything we could possibly need. The trick is remembering we have it together – we don’t have it alone.

         Sometimes in life, we want to make soup, and we don’t have all the ingredients. Playing well with others can bring out the best in what we can accomplish as a community; you might have the onions, and I just might have a plate of pressed tofu ready to add. But that’s just the surface of the story. Sometimes the thing we bring to the banquet, is the thing we’re not aware we have to offer. The traveling stranger comes into town, asks for nourishment from the community and the community says at first – “Sorry, we don’t have that here.”They say that at a time when they clearly do have it to share. I don’t think folks are being greedy or miserly; I think they just don’t realize what they have. And we have a lot, together.

         I’ll begin this message with celebration, and the local matter of our own Fellowship, and we’ll find our way toward the broader matters of our world, along the way. Richard – you’ve been with us for 21 years. It speaks to your talent, your temperament, and your ability to teach us in ways that we are open to. I picked our wondering this morning, the story of Stone Soup, thinking of you. It’s the story I told on my last worship service with my former congregation, and I know it applies even more so here.

         The stranger in the story with the magic stone, is the parable for the best kind of teacher. Blessing their students with an awareness to their own talents. There’s an art to teaching, and there’s an art to such blessing. Some of our singers are pros, and some want your help in bringing out the talents they don’t always know they have. It’s the ego-less way of teaching. I know we’ll joke from time to time about how just a look from you can terrify the choir into action. But as true as that may be, your ministry with us is mostly from that place of ego-lessness. You remind us that we have that spare parcel of food in the kitchen, and we have it within ourselves to share it with the wider community – so that together we can make a meal for all that come to our table hungry on Sunday mornings.  Thank you for that precious gift.

         And, eventually, the stranger in the story leaves; and leaves the magic stone behind. The town learned the secret of building community. Other meals would be  made together, again and again. All of the work any of us do in life, is always interim, always in-between. Sometimes it’s far shorter than we would like, and sometimes we are blessed with a long tenure, as we have been these 21 years. The mark of success for any of us, is how well we honor what came before, and bring it forward, true to who we are always becoming. I’m confident our choir will continue to show your success.

         A strong choir is a good metaphor for a strong congregation. The person conducting has to manage their own sense of ego, while helping people to bring forth their talents. Although the choir director often can sing, themselves, they can’t do 15 part harmony alone. So too, that’s true for our congregation. It takes all of us to live that 300 person harmony in the world.

         As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, I’ll ask each of us to use this time as a chance for reflection. I asked this question of us five years ago when I first arrived here, and with this major transition in our ministry team, it feels right to ask it again. We should reflect on this as a community from time to time. Our committee on ministry will be leading some of this reflection work in the new Fellowship year. But for right now…

         What’s the hidden thing you have in your kitchen cabinet waiting to share with this congregation?

         Sometimes, the hidden thing in our kitchen cabinet isn’t a thing to do. Sometimes it’s what we bring to the table simply by being ourselves. Religiously, it’s our call or calls in life. …Our purpose for being; our gift to the people around us; our talent that fits the world’s needs – here and now. What is your purpose? What is your call? This is the art in blessing – fitting the world’s needs with the grace we have been given – and letting ourselves admit that we may have that grace stashed away in the kitchen cabinets of our soul.

What stirs your heart? And if you’re not doing it, why aren’t you doing it?

         How does that connect with the everyday, and how you engage in this community? … Ask yourself what you were thinking when you first came here; whether that was 50 years ago or just this morning. What were you looking for? What felt like it was missing? What were you hoping to engage with? What were you seeking to learn or experience? Has it changed over time? Are you still working with that today? Did you find it? Did you letyourself find it?

         We sometimes need to own for ourselves – what we commit to or haven’t really committed to – in our community. Sometimes it’s the world, or the congregation, and sometimes it’s us.

         If you came here seeking community, have you allowed yourself to prioritize that? If you came here to ensure your children received quality religious education that values diversity and free-thinking, have you committed to prioritizing their attendance? Sunday school continues all Summer long. Just as will our services. If you’re in town, and not on vacation, we hope to see you here. [possibly insert flyer for July preaching.] (and I’ll be back in the pulpit all of August.)

If you come here to help make the world a better place; to deepen your engagement with the on-going work of social justice – are you still engaged? (Who are our social justice team folks – can you raise your hand? Consider talking with them over coffee hour, the world still needs us in July.)

There are so many reasons, and so many needs; it can be completely overwhelming. The world of production and consumerism clamors for our attention. The world of obligations and responsibilities fill our calendars.

And the world of beauty, equity, and compassion wait quietly behind all the noise.It is always there – calling us. We can’t do it all, but we can be intentional about what hunger we do choose to nourish; and in community we can encounter so much more than alone. We can feed more hunger, here, when we know where the empty places are. We must be open to new ways. Mindful of where we feel the holes in our lives; knowing that at the core of life is a beauty that is always present, always ready to be seen.

Sometimes our call in life comes from within. Sometimes our community calls us to live as better people, whose core is not grounded in the false idols of anxiety or fear or the petty frustrations. We too often worship those three small gods, and the beauty of the world is again lost to us for a time. Prioritize your values, and live so boldly that you nurture what stirs your heart, and defines your character.

         Our call is not always about ourselves, or about our community. A nation can also be called to live its values. As a people, we can ground our actions in our values with consistency, not expediency – for expediency is the pathway to discarding morals.

         I’ll close this sermon by talking about the other meaning of the story of Stone Soup. Sometimes people coming into town with magic rocks, aren’t bringing out our best selves; sometimes they are charlatans, and they are taking advantage of our worst selves, for their own profit. Not all stones are magical, and not all teachers are true.

         The implicit lectionary for this week, was given to us by Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. He blasphemously quoted Romans 13 to argue that God approves of pulling children from their parents at the border, because we should follow the law of the nation. The tragic sentiment was echoed later in the day by the White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, by using the racist dog whistle of saying we are a nation of law and order to echo that the Bible supports following the law.

         Now, I could spend our precious time this morning arguing that proof-texting scripture to fit your personal and individual moral code is bad exegesis. Romans 13 was largely telling Christians – basically – yes, still pay your taxes. But that the core of the message is that “loving your neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.” Essentially, the Attorney General, like a Pharisee of old, relied upon the letter and not the spirit.

         For those that want more of those details, follow me on facebook, and much of my posts of the last few days have been about that. But there’s a much deeper concern with this take on scripture…. It’s been done before…. When the US government tried to qualify the atrocity known as the Fugitive Slave law – proponents of “law and order” strategically quoted Romans 13 to demand northern states return escaped slaves. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant.

         Nazi Germany, would use Romans 13 to argue that Jews should be rounded up. No, that’s not what Romans 13 meant. Now, the sitting Attorney General of the United States, is putting himself in the hateful company of Nazi and Slave apologists by falsely using scripture to argue we should separate immigrant children from their parents on our border – with one of the rationales being stated as “a deterrent for other immigrant mothers.” As if children should be used as a leverage to win some political game. This is sin. This is exactly sin. If that word makes you uncomfortable, this is the right moment to use that word – sin. In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – here are the people that separated children from their parents – Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate.  We have crossed a line – we have become biblically speaking – empire at its worst. It’s the exact moment in Hebrew and Christian, and Muslim scriptures that teaches us loudly – turn away, and back to that righteous path. And the leaders we should follow, are the ones that are being targeted by Pharaoh, Herod, and Pontius Pilate. Not the ones hiding behind empty and hypocritical claims of law and order.

         I thank Greta, and our many members who gave public witness on Thursday night for the atrocities at our border. We will continue to keep all of us as informed as we can as a community. This week, our denomination gathers in Kansas City for our annual General Assembly. I fully expect we will be making formal statements of condemnation for this practice, with further calls to action. Expect to hear more soon. And remember, when charlatans try to dance around and make mockery of basic ethics and morals, remember, loving our neighbor is the fulfillment of the law.

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Sermon: Beatitudes

This sermon reflects on the intersection of the Beatitudes and Liberation Theology.

         All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of blessing. Last week we celebrated the blessing of our youth, as they discerned their own sense of faith through their year of coming of age, and where we recognized our oldest youth joining our ranks as adults. We very much are blessed by their presence and their insights.

         Blessing, or being blessed, is a word that means different things to different people. From the most mundane greeting after a sneeze, to the curt “bless your heart” after someone is less than their best selves – we casually use it in every day language. Sometimes, it’s a prayer for another in times of hardship, and it’s the  spiritual response or emotion in the face of Grace realized in our lives.  In the common American Christian sense, it’s all of these things. Jesus leaned toward a meaning closer to a sense of Grace than the others, but he did so in a way that our modern ear doesn’t always register. Blessing wasn’t a cutesy thing for Jesus. And his sermon on the mount, the Beatitudes, were a series of very serious teachings about blessing.

         We’ve heard two contemporary versions of the Beatitudes today – one a poem by a UU clergy colleague, Rev. Robin Tanner, an active leader in the Moral Mondays movement, following the national leadership of Rev. William Barber. And one a video clip of Rev. Nadia Booz-Weber, a Lutheran minister and founding pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints. Both women having a calling in the ministry that seeks to serve those who are not always well served, who are judged, who are held back and held down. Our quartet sang a beautiful rendition of the traditional words just now as well.

         Let’s hear them again as they were written in scripture:

“The Beatitudes (NSRV)

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

         The last line is the one that many of us hear that gets us to think all this is about heavenly rewards. Jesus does preach salvation; and he also preaches that the “Kingdom of Heaven will be known in [our] midst.” He’s talking both about a spiritual reality and he’s talking about salvation while we’re alive – building a community that is heaven on earth – in our midst.

         Jesus’ sermon on the mount, is a sermon on blessing, and a teaching on how we might understand the spiritual message more deeply. Blessing is a gift of sorts, and it is also a teaching for all of us. Jesus is telling us where God resides. God blesses the poor in spirit (the downtrodden, the exhausted, the oppressed) and God is with them; God blesses those who mourn, they are not alone in spirit. God blesses the meek and tells us the earth is their true inheritance. Mercy, peacemakers, and those who are wrongly persecuted, all find God’s blessing. Blessing isn’t about a feel-good feeling in the Beautitudes.

         Like most of Jesus’ teachings, some of this doesn’t seem to logically follow. Most of those blessed, are choosing the harder path – or have the harder path chosen for them. Little of the Beatitudes point to anyone going through anything we would easily call a gift; but Jesus says they are blessed. We shouldn’t understand it as a reward, but a natural outcome of being in right relations with our neighbor. Grace, peace, and mercy are the outcomes of living a path of grace, peace and mercy.

         This is core to the Christian message. Power, and privilege, are not the way of Jesus. God is with the least of us, the exhausted, the meek. Dr. James Cone, the most influential Christian theologian of the past 50 years, and whose life was recently celebrated and mourned at his funeral at Riverside Church in NYC, would change Christian theology – or rather I believe, course correct it – by teaching that God was on the side of oppressed. His theology was a large part of what helped save Christianity for me.  He was the founder of Black Liberation theology in the US, and Liberation theology globally. Dr. Cone would famously state, like Jesus ending on the Cross, God was on the lynching tree. Each generation is guilty of crying “crucify him” or “them” again and again. And those guilty are certainly not the heroes of the parable or the heroes in the news today. In seminary, Professor Cone would ask us where we kept ourselves, where we positioned ourselves, amidst all the horrors of the world. It would be no stretch to say today, as we hear the horrors of children being stripped from their parents at border detention centers, that God is lying in those cages today with those children. And we can hear the echos of the crowds crying crucify them in our tragic politics of xenophobia and isolationism…. Where are we? And Jesus teaches, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek.

         There’s a tendency to try to strip Jesus’ teachings of their punch. To think the Beatitudes and blessings are sugary coated truisms. Jesus was never sugar-coated. Jesus was teaching what right living was about, and where we should find ourselves. If we are full of judgement more than mercy, if we are building up cages and walls more than we are making peace and aiding the poor and hungry, we are assuredly not blessed. Where we give room for no mercy, we will know no mercy ourselves. You can hear that as a message about the afterlife; you can also hear that as a warning for the state of our own humanity as we live into our days.

         To tie the earlier Navajo (or Dine) teaching into Jesus’ message of flipping the story of power – beauty is all around us.When we walk in such a way as to honor the beauty around us, move with meekness in the face of reverence, rather than with power over all before us, we flip the story of power, and the blessing in return is our inheritance. For those that lord over the earth, who rule over things, and treat people as things, are themselves living as things. In the clutch and grab of greed and avarice, in the callousness of mercilessness …we have things… but we have no spiritual inheritance. We fail to know the beauty of creation, to appreciate the gift of life, and we abandon the deeper comfort of the spirit, the true value of this earth, and we know no mercy in the relentless hunger of the ego. And create hell on earth for those around us.

         That’s the core of the Christian message. We should not live as kings over things, but as equal citizens of the kingdom of Heaven on earth. That’s what he meant when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven would be known in our midst. We build it, and God’s blessings point us on the right path. That is the inheritance Jesus speaks of when he teaches the meek will inherit the earth. It’s the early meaning of righteousness that gets lost to our contemporary ear. I’ve said this recently, but I’ll say it again, because misunderstanding this word causes so much harm in our world – righteousness. Misunderstanding it pushes so many people away from religion. The early Hebrew meaning of righteousness implies a sense of solidarity with the wider community. It’s justice with the implication of community. We all come ahead together, or there is no righteousness. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. That sounds very different when you think righteousness is about right belief, than when you know it means justlycaring for all the people as one community.

         I’ll end with some actions in the world. The Poor People’s Campaign, a resurgence of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, now led by the Rev. William Barber, is deeply theologically rooted in Jesus’ teaching of blessings. It may intersect with our political world, but it is a purely theologically grounded prayerful action. I know some of our members are taking part in public witness with this work up in Albany (check with Social Justice, or Susan K to learn more about how you can take part.) This coming Thursday, Greta will be taking part in public witness with an event our Fellowship is cosponsoring in Huntington Village-  a prayer vigil drawing attention to the 1500 children who are missing after our government separated children from their parents at the Border. I don’t mean the kids that are kept in cages at the border, I mean the 1500 children we took from parents and lost track of. And this practice predates our current administration – going back from some news reports as early as 2014. Parents and kids are separted when both parents are taken into custody for criminal action. Typically, they are fostered out for the duration of the criminal custody of the parents. Associated Press reported recently that with this practice, our Government typically doesn’t get more than an 85% response rate from the households where kids are fostered – when they try to check up on them. This whole crisis is exaberated now, as our current administration chooses to prosecute parents as criminals for trying to seek saftey within our borders. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

         I know so much of what we hear feels like a daily firehouse of horror. We each can’t attend to everything. And it’s still important to pause and remember all the things that we should not think are normal – and make sure they remain understood as the horrors they are in the public mind. If we mindfully keep that truth in our awareness, we can continue to act where we need to act. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

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