Monday, August 29, 2016

le temps d'explorer ce quartier dans le vrai mode de flâneur...

So we're now safely ensconced in our home away from home in Mile End after a weekend in the Eastern Townships and a minor Airbnb mishap yesterday. No biggie - just a missing key - that was resolved by dinner time. Now we have to figure out the local parking drill - it has changed since this time last year - and will require un peu de travail de détective. It is also time to explorer ce quartier dans le vrai mode de flâneur. Here are a few pix from the journey thus far...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

how am I called to help?

As Dianne and I head out of town for two weeks of rest and reflection, this is my last post on this site until we return. As I prayerfully explore the call of the Spirit in these late days of ministry for my life, she too is on a journey. This expresses her calling and if you can help, we would both be grateful.

rocky ground...

Over the past fifteen years, an essential truth for me involves "the foolishness of the Cross." Not only has this insight helped give shape and form to my activity, but it also has provided me with a window into the meaning of life.  Fr. Keating writes that the purpose of our lives is compassionate sacrifice. Fr. Rohr suggests that it is falling upwards so that humility and love become our foundation rather than selfishness.  St. Paul notes that Christ Crucified is God's mystery revealed:  

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For (some) demand signs and (others) desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to (insiders) and foolishness to (seekers),4but to those who are the called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  (NOTE:  these changes are mine and are intended to broaden Paul's insight beyond the theological polemic of his day.)

For my ministry, the foolishness of the Cross has encouraged both my downward professional trajectory rather than an obsession with upward mobility; and, the challenge of sharing this wisdom in a loving and tender manner with 21st people of faith.  The fundamental disconnect here is simple:  the totality of bourgeois culture is grounded in self-centered advancement.  A brief listing of popular advertising slogans is illustrative:  Be a winner.  Make a name for yourself.  Be all you can be.  Addictivity is good. Embrace the luxury class. Free to be you.  The heart and soul of our efforts involves greater accumulation, increased productivity, and a commitment to doing it all by ourselves. How does Burger King put it?  Have it YOUR way! Such egocentricity is pervasive and insidious - and unless you retreat to an island or a forest, there is no escape.

Two of the multiple implications of our addiction to market place ideology for ministry must include:

+ The stunning absence of alternative metaphors for the meaning of life. When the Soviet juggernaut collapsed under its own oppressive inefficiency in the 90s,  Marxism was discredited and cooperative socio-political experiments discarded..This meant the West lost a mode of offering a critique of greed as the driving energy of social activity. It also meant that our metaphors for meaning were simultaneously constructed upon market place terminology and infected by the limitations of our truncated imaginations.  "Bottom line thinking" became the norm for measuring value as all manner of self-help imagery ascended.  It is not coincidental 
that the so-called "gospel of wealth" grew in popularity and power given the absence of a social gospel alternative. 

Contrary to the conclusions of conservative economic historian, Frances Fukuyama, in The End of History, the collapse of communism did guarantee the triumph of Western liberalism but rather the rise of religious fundamentalism as a sacred alternative to the naked greed and oppression that became normative in our realm.  As one Al Qaeda spokesperson said in the still smoldering sadness of our post-September 11th reflections: we hate what the West has become - a dog eat dog existence of greed - so we do not want any of this for our children, our women or our men.  Without a vibrant and creative alternative to capitalism on steroids, however, the best Western Christianity could come up with was a call for "compassionate conservative" values.  It should be noted that even these were more about manipulating voters for the Right through the strategic use of the culture wars whenever an election looked too close to call.  

And so, two or three generations came of age in the church without the necessary language to question the vicious excesses of the market and precious few cultural options to brighten our imagination. I would suggest that U2 and Springsteen did their best to create a communitarian vision for the 21st century, but pop singers can only seed our collective imaginations.

+ The  insistence that business models are appropriate for the body of Christ.  This could become a rant with very little effort:  how many clergy have been demoralized and diminished by church leaders insisting on using business/performance based evaluations that both ignore the foolishness of the Cross - clearly an objective failure by any business model - and dismiss the untold hours of prayer and pastoral presence given to God and hurting people in love? But recognizing a congregation's abuse of their clergy (and staff) is not the focus of this observation.  No, what I want to highlight is how the goal of winning has corrupted our vision. When business metrics became the standard for understanding church dynamics, we let the wisdom of the Cross stay buried in the tomb and ignored the dynamic connections between Good Friday and Easter.  

We came to believe that only human effort could revitalize our congregations. We gave up the time-tested insights of the Paschal Mystery - that God's love can triumph in human failure - for short term profits like a spike in financial giving and/or a rise in Sunday morning attendance. I am not saying that more money and people is bad.  Never. I am simply observing that most of our folk have so little connection and trust with the foolishness of the Cross that it never enters our conversation when making plans about the future. We almost regularly fail to grasp God's blessed potential in times of crisis and get caught up in our own fears and desires to "fix" the problem instead of listening for what the Spirit is saying to the church. 

Our addiction to the market place is one reason why this is pervasive:  if we can't fix it, it should be thrown under the bus so that our efforts can produce more satisfying results. As middle class and wealthy church members, most of our experience is grounded in control. We chart our own course in life. We tell our employees what to do. We write our own ticket. Even in our personal engagement with physical activity, we want to be in charge. Small wonder that running and the use of treadmills are so popular - and not just to increase health and attractiveness. These are activities we can do on our time table. Having it all our way has become a standard by which our lives are measured and judged.  We are obsessed with control. 

Should we be unable to control a situation - or problem or reality - if for some reason we are unable to correct a problem, we have so little practice in letting God's presence fill this vacuum, that we go into crises mode. Everything becomes filled with frenetic drama rather than the non anxious presence of God's Holy Spirit. Either that or we walk away from what we cannot fix saying, "I no longer care." And our modest incomes and habits give us the illusion that we are disconnected.  We may love that Forrest Gump used "Turn, Turn, Turn" in the soundtrack - and nostalgically sing along, too - but apply the wisdom that "to everything there is a season... even a season beyond our control" and that we must wait for the Lord rather than control the moment...? Well, that is just absurd. Untrue. Impossible.

When I first entered ministry over 35 years ago as an urban intern, my mentor, the Rev. Dr. Ray Swartzback, said to me:  Man, we have to figure out how to make the church a real alternative of love in our urban areas where the problems of real life are naked and obvious. Because if we can't do it here - were everything is out on the line and visible - then we'll never be able to do it in our suburban places where the facade of control rules the dayMore prophetic words were never spoken about the challenge of living into the foolish wisdom of the Cross and encouraging middle class and wealthy people to trust it. 

We can read about it in the words of the Bible and still refuse to let it shape us because disembodied Bible study has become a product not a life standard. We can hear it in our hymns over the course of 80 years of worship and still push it away. because our congregations have forsaken accountability for the illusion of being nice.  Like Rohr says, only when we ourselves fall into the valley of the shadow of death - and let God come to us there rather than fight our way out on our own terms - do we get it.  

Please understand I haven't figured out how to hold this challenge together in ministry. I haven't figure out how to consistently let go of my own yearning for control either. What I am attempting is to name the challenge clearly and then try to trust God for new patience and insights. The old teachers used to say that the theological virtues of faith, hope and love cannot be acquired - they are gifts - and always beyond our ability to control. So, as I enter into 14 days of vacation time, I'm going to take a break from writing here and sit with this observation. I need to listen in the silence for the still small voice of the Lord and see if I can discern where God's love is calling to me. 

See you in a few weeks...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

midday eucharist...

We depart soon for Québec - first a few days in the Eastern Townships and then Montréal - for ten days of rest and reflection and I am ready for the change.  Still, as I was sitting in the silence of today's midday Eucharist, it hit me: one of the reasons I cherish this gathering so much is that there are no expectations. None. Nada. Zero. There is no need for rigorous preparation - we do lectio divina - so all anyone need do is show up. There is no expectation whether or not you will be in attendance either; sometimes it is just one person besides me (so we talk together for about 30 minutes before sharing prayer and Eucharist) while  there are other times when 5-9 semi-regulars find themselves seated in the Chancel. And every now and then a guest wanders in for a spell, too. No pressure. No demands. No entertainment or excessive liturgical preening. Just ordinary people opening their hearts to God in chant, prayer, silence and table fellowship.

All I have to do is:  1) show up, 2) put on my white alb, 3) light a few candles, 4) set out the Psalters and printed liturgies, 5) turn on the lights, and 6) lead the folk in an order of worship from Iona I adore.  Often I have studied the scriptures we used because I have written my Sunday message on Tuesday, but not always. And mostly it doesn't matter because in holy reading - lectio - we simply speak the words that are moving our hearts at that moment with a bit of humility. It is all very Zen and in the moment.  The chants we share are a capella. The printed words are simple and direct. And there is ample silence in our cavernous Sanctuary where, on a summer day with the windows open, you can hear the city doing business as we pause for quiet reflection.

This gathering keeps me grounded.  It keeps me sane, too. And the reason is clear: I can just love the Lord and whomever else shows up by just being present and real. How did Ram Dass put it?  Be here NOW?! Well, that's what we do - and I will miss being with my midday peeps for the next few weeks.  For those who are reading, know I love you and will see you soon because September is just around the corner.

Peace out for a few weeks,

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

pray for us now... and at our time of death

Two recent icons have grabbed my heart. The first is a beautiful and unsettlilng Theotokos inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement.
To see the Christ Child in the crosshairs of a weapon gives shape and form to the horror that is part of everyday life for so many people of color. This is a brilliant and terrifying gift to everyone of us.

The second evokes an equally mind-numbing reality concerning the agony of a refugee mother.
Too often Western religious art is schlocky sentimental piety marketed to manipulate the faithful and generate funds. But these two are true icons - visual prayers - that express part of the truth of this moment in time. May we be as moved as these two Madonnas to bring to birth peace in our flesh, in our minds, in our communities and in our congregations.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

becoming wise: part five...

NOTE:  Here are today's worship notes closing the five week "Becoming Wise" series.

One of the most vexing – infuriating – creatively challenging – professionally troubling and
morally significant challenges facing North American churches at this moment in time is: how do we enthusiastically embrace the spiritual wisdom and radical compassion of Christ Jesus as Lord while living in a cynical culture simultaneously addicted to fear and in ethical bondage to the idolatry of greed?  Whew – that’s a mouthful, I know. And yet for 35 years of parish ministry – and 8 years of community organizing before that – I have had to explore various strategies for living into a loving alternative to the confines of fear and greed that increasingly define my home-land.  And as my ministry draws closer to its formal conclusion, it has become clear to me that in 2016 – as opposed to 1968 – ours nation is paradoxically more loving and more hateful than I could ever have imagined when first I was called to serve the Lord in the aftershocks of Dr. King’s assassination.  Think about it:

+  Marriage equality is now the law of the land and embedded in the hearts of a super majority of our kin as an essential human right, and, at the same time, candidates for a variety political offices openly advocate hatred and even the possibility that their opponents be brought to death by second amendment gun enthusiasts.

+  We have become a creatively diverse community of peoples racially, ethnically and spiritually, taking the American experiment with equality to new levels of beauty while violence and discrimination wound our sisters and brothers of color with growing intensity.

+  Our economy is stronger while the white, middle class shrinks. We have made a quantum leap in reversing fluorocarbon pollution yet continue to experience climate change tragedies of biblical proportions like that the recent flooding in Louisiana. And America’s fastest growing demographic is interracial children in the land of opportunity even as hate crimes are ascending.

As Krista Tippett so persuasively reminds us, a new Reformation is beginning to take place all around us as we realize that the old economic, religious, educational and political structures are not working. We can’t yet discern what these new forms will be, but they real. “We have riches of knowledge and insight, tools both tangible and spiritual to rise to this challenge…” alongside immense fear and social confusion. It is into this context that once again our ancient tradition invites us to reconsider what it means to practice and honor the Sabbath as holy.

The ancient prophetic poet of Israel, Isaiah, wrote in the 5th century BCE:  If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Jesus of Nazareth, celebrating the wisdom of his Jewish tradition, put it like this two thousand years ago: Hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”  When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

And Walter Brueggemann, 21st century Bible scholar and prophetic teacher in our tradition, said:  Sabbath, in the first instance is NOT about worship – it is about work stoppage. It is about withdrawing from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined only by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being. Sabbath, you see, is about caring for our neighbor and making certain we have the time, energy and vision to do so.

So today I want to share with you why I believe it is critical for us – First Church – to reclaim a
renewed and reformed commitment to honoring the Sabbath.  Last week I listened carefully to how you answered my question about what we are passionate about as a congregation.  And, with all due respect and genuine pastoral affection, I must say I wasn’t surprised that many of our replies were tepid.  Not bad, of course, and not wrong but more in the vein of harmless generalities than passionate ministries.  In fact, while some will disagree, we sounded more like a tender-hearted social club to me than a community of faith shaped and guided by the Cross of Jesus Christ.  So, before I leave on vacation later next week, I want to offer you an alternative to see how it resonates with you.

You see, I believe God is working within and among us – and some of us are passionate to respond – but we are so nervous about trusting the Lord for guidance that we slide back into old habits of privilege that prop-up the status quo more than the kingdom of God.  Some, of course, don’t really care what happens and others are burned out. But I believe there is a critical mass among – small but eager – who willing to go the extra mile in creativity and commitment – and I’m talking to you today.  The great American scientist who fled Nazi Germany, Albert Einstein, once observed that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same mode of thinking that created them in the first place.” So let me first share two insights with you about honoring the Sabbath:  one from Isaiah and one from Jesus. And then I will give you three broad themes about doing ministry in this era that I am passionate about.

In the text appointed for today from Isaiah 58, we would do well to recall that it takes place after Israel’s best and brightest have lived for 70 years of exile in Babylon:  their grandchildren have returned home to Jerusalem, they have begun to build a fortress wall around the city to protect the new temple and differentiate between who is an insider and outsider, and are hoping to renew lives that celebrate the favor of God’s grace. 

But something is going wrong.  After experiencing and accepting God’s judgment and their own season of grief in exile, inwardly Israel has embraced the Lord’s forgiveness for their sins but outwardly fear, anger and discord rules the day. They pray along with their priests Psalm 103:  As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him… the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments – but something is out of whack. And a careful reading of the prophet tells us two truths that have implications for our own congregational dilemma:  First, the people are fasting but God doesn’t appear to notice; and second, there is no sense of compassion active in the community.  The wealthy hoard their resources. The Sabbath becomes a forum for commercialization.  Those with privilege look out for themselves without passionate concern for the common good. 

One of the deceptive dangers of privilege in any generation is that we think we can walk away from a problem and it won’t matter because our life doesn’t change. But that is short sighted and illusionary deceptiony because what wounds one eventually wounds us all.  White America walked away from attending to race hatred for 50 years after passing a variety of laws in the 1960s  only to be shocked two years ago at the horror that people of color still endure daily when social media documented murder and cruelty run amuck at the hands of some law enforcement agents in Black, Latino and Asian neighborhoods. 

The same could be said of climate change – we were able to look the other way, dispute the hard facts of science and exist in privileged indifference – until the floods came or the heat baked once productive soil into dust. Our spiritual tradition, you see, teaches that we were made for community and caring:  when we wound or ignore some, all of us bear the consequences in time. So Isaiah, called by the Lord,  must awaken God’s privileged people, call out their self-centered addictions and urge them to become passionately reconnected to the common good:  This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts. What I’m interested in seeing you do is: sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, being available to your own families. Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free. 

Sabbath, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, is practicing trust:  we trust God to be in
charge for 24 hours – learning that the Lord’s ways are greater than our ways.  Then, when we are rested – having practiced letting go of control for a full day and night – then there is the possibility that we might trust God’s love to take up more spacer in our hearts and activities for the rest of the week. But this is impossible just by thinking about Sabbath rest – or talking about justice and compassion – they must be practiced with a passionate intensity that changes habits, hearts and homes.

And that is what Jesus was doing in the second lesson related to Sabbath keeping.  He was not taking on Judaism or suggesting a better way with Christianity; Jesus was passionately reminding both the scholars and the crowd that compassion and work stoppage are at the core of Sabbath.  The Tanakh of Israel, the code of sacred law, enjoins work on the Sabbath, yes; but never defines what constitutes work. Do you grasp that nuance? What Jesus is actually asking here is what good the embodied values of our religious tradition if they don’t set people free?  That’s a great question for us, too:  What does it matter if we are the oldest congregation in Pittsfield if our presence doesn’t help set people free?

In Luke’s gospel, there are five times when Jesus brings healing to a person on the Sabbath:  So let us be clear: Jesus is not anti-Semitic nor superseding his own faith tradition.  In fact, all of his healing on the Sabbath – the demoniac in Capernaum, Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Galilee, the man with a withered hand, the woman crippled for 18 years and the man with dropsy or arthritis who was cured outside the home of a Pharisee – are acceptable in Jewish law. The Law of Judaism proclaims “Pikuach nefesh” –saving a life – always overrides any other Sabbath obligation.  And the fact that the crowd cheers Jesus at the close of our lesson suggests that they too find no violation of halakhah – Jewish ethical regulations. This story asks us to wrestle with whether or not our understanding of tradition is liberating and about human freedom or keeping people locked out of love and hope because of an obsession with tradition?  Sr. Simone Campbell, whom some of know as the face of the “Nuns on the Bus,” puts it like this:  God asks us to ask ourselves, “Am I responding to this moment or situation with generosity or selfishness? Am I responding in a way that builds up people around me, that builds me up, that is respectful of who I am?” Or am I tearing things down with cynicism? That is precisely what Jesus asks, too.

Those who practice and honor the Sabbath know that Sabbath is about saving life in all its forms – starting with rest – but moving into justice, freedom and compassion, too.  Now, just as we know religious zealots in our day who advocate hatred and cruelty in the name of God, this text tells us that this problem has been around forever. It happened in the time of Moses, it hadn’t gone away for the prophet Isaiah and Jesus had to take it on during his ministry. And if that was true for the founders, it is not likely that we’re going to escape its poison in our generation either, right?

So pay careful attention to the fact that in this story the word faith was never mentioned in connection with freedom:  No reminder that your faith has made you well – or by faith we see God’s grace as through a glass darkly – not at all. There is simply a sense of needing to love this woman back into wholeness and sharing love with her in humility. This strikes me as an authentically pro-life commitment that is not truncated by narrow ideological or political limitations. Sr. Joan Chittister once said:  "I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don't? Because you don't want any tax money to go there. That's not pro-life. That's pro-birth. And we need a much broader conversation on what the morality of a true pro-life ethic is all about” if we’re serious about following Jesus.

And THAT, beloved, is where my passionate sense of calling for our congregation
comes into focus:  I ache for us to be radically pro-life in public like Jesus whose first sermon called for caring for the poor, setting free all who are imprisoned and sharing resources so that everyone tasted the goodness of God’s love. Everyone: Jew and Gentile, Christian and Muslim, Buddhist and atheist – male and female – adult and child – gay, straight and transgendered, animal, mineral, air and water – everyone and everything.  I yearn for First Church to live as a community in solidarity with everyone who yearns to be free.  That advocates for peace and justice in our community and world – never out of a shallow political agenda – but always out of a sense of love, tenderness and commitment to Sabbath. Out of the spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus – and all people – so that we come to know and trust that we are God’s beloved. Out of our deep formation in prayer, service and sharing.  Out of a calling grounded in God’s kingdom being done on earth as it is already being done in heaven. So here are three manifestations of this passionate ministry that touch my heart.

+  First, we have a unique constellation of artists here – men, women and children who are not just musicians (although we have more talented music makers among us than many places) – but also dancers, poets, actors, visual artists, sculptors, cooks and more.  We also have profound relationships with artists and movers and shakers throughout this community – people of many faiths and no faith – who care for the common welfare of all as sisters and brothers.  So why not harness these gifts in a passionate way to build common ground and hope?  Why not dedicate ourselves to documenting an alternative to hate and fear through bold acts of beauty shared for the well-being of all? Why not create artistic expressions of Sabbath freedom so that we might move beyond cynicism into celebration?  We could do that – we could use this place to be a showcase of artistic hope for the whole Berkshires – if we were called with passionate about it. I have a dream that we could create a travelling showcase for God’s grace where for 45 minutes we share stories, music, images and poetry while some of our great cooks prepare a feast.  And then sit down to break bread together and practice deep listening and storytelling so that we come to know one another and trust one another and stand-up for one another when their backs are up against the wall.  That’s one way aspect of a passionate presence in Pittsfield that is unique and essential for the healing of our broken community.

+  A second involves grounding our presence in Pittsfield in Sabbath rest.  Our generation has lost touch with awe and reverence. We no longer know how to grieve and then move back into lives of holy trust.  Too many are trapped in depression or cynicism. Fundamentally because all we really know is how to work and fret and distract ourselves from the haunting anxiety of our age with chemicals, cheap sex and entertainment. But our tradition is steeped in prayer and play, contemplation and creativity, feasting and fasting, laughter, tears, hope and carrying one another’s burdens beyond our alienated addiction to work and business metrics. Like Isaiah said: Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free.  Everywhere I go I hear people talking about their hurts, wounds, fears and anxieties. We have the resources to become a small center of healing alternatives for our wounded culture if we honor the Sabbath, practice our spiritual disciplines and share them with joy. So what’s holding us back?

And then there is our calling to be an Open and Affirming community:  Pittsfield has a superabundance of charity centers from St. Joseph’s Kitchen to the Food Bank – and they are all needed and necessary – but we don’t need to become another.  What Pittsfield doesn’t have is a playful, compassionate justice church that celebrates diversity, advocates and organizes for the poor and cuts across all divisions to honor human dignity in the real world.  Three years ago I gave a lot of time to helping bring BIO to birth – Berkshire Interfaith Organizing – and a few of you including our moderator, Lauryn, did vital work in the early days, too. Well, BIO needs our help – and the Berkshires need a force for creative, practical justice making beyond slogans and the ups and downs of our emotions - so, like Rabbi Hillel once asked, I wonder: “If not now, tell me when?”

Three objectives that I am passionate about:  focusing our artistic blessings on behalf of
common ground, nourishing our spiritual disciplines in a playful, joyful manner – including Sabbath keeping – and deepening our ONA commitment into disciplined acts of social justice with BIO.  No harmless generalities here –no disembodied, abstract theology either – just kingdom oriented hospitality and bold acts of beauty as antidotes to the cynicism, brokenness and despair. Twenty first century people don’t need 19th century theology and 20th century piety in 2016:  we need God’s eternal love embodied in real people we can trust.  I just finished reading what the president of the American Booksellers Association has concluded about independent books stores. Betsey Burton has discovered that America’s independent bookstores are more than the sum of their books. “They provide safe havens, centers of community, where people go to see friends or strangers who are interesting meet to talk. But they are also places of refuge from fear and cynicism.”  

Burton recalls that on the morning of September 11: “…her bookstore was mobbed by people not buying books but looking for a place of support, empathy and community because – and listen to this with care – because her bookstore was more inclusive that our churches, more communal than cultural events and more intimate than a bar.” 

One of my spiritual mentors, Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, explains that people of love must learn to love what is real – not what was in the past, not what we expect or desire the future to be, and not what our fantasies or fears suggest, but what is real right now.  For when we bring God’s love to bear on reality, then Isaiah becomes true for our generation:  Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once. If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, then you will be free.  May it be so within and among us,  for God’s sake – and ours as well.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

becoming wise - part four...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Sunday, August 14, 2016 based on the Common
Lectionary Texts for this week and the insights from Krista Tippett's book: Becoming Wise.

“You can read the signs of the sky and discern the weather, but not the signs of the times…” to which Jesus adds the scornful designation:  Hypocrites!  To say that this is NOT one of the pastoral passages of the New Testament would be an understatement.  The word hypocrite – hupokrites in Greek – means pretender, play actor wearing a mask, dishonest dissembler who tears down what is valuable by inaction and neglect – what we would call a two-faced slug who carps without helping, critiques without useful alternatives and complains without any intention of making life better.  Without any qualification, Jesus tells us this both infuriates him and does damage to the cause of the kingdom.

This passage opens by asking us what we are on fire for – what are we passionate about – when it comes to strengthening God’s loving presence in the world?  What energizes us about God’s peace? What inspires us to live sacrificially on behalf of compassion? Jesus then clearly tells us that if we’re play acting, going through the motions of discipleship rather than taking risks for the sake of transforming love then our lives will be turned upside down, purified by God’s cleansing fire and judged as a waste of space.

Because – and this is crucial for us both as individuals as well as for our faith community – we give more attention and time to the easy things rather than those that deepen God’s love:  you can read the signs of the sky and predict the weather, but you cannot discern what the signs of the times mean.  One Bible scholar updated this asking: To what do we pay close attention and to what do we turn a blind eye? Jesus' sayings challenge us to examine the inconsistencies between attention and neglect in our own lives, but also challenge us to consider whether these inconsistencies reveal a pattern of prioritizing the insignificant while jeopardizing the things of greatest value and importance. Have we given as much attention to the health of our church as we have to our golf score? Or road races? Or music lessons?  Have we given as much attention to the maintenance of our spiritual practices as to the maintenance schedule for our car? Where in the scale of our attention to detail does our devotion to the teachings of our Lord rank? Where and how do we make the love of God flesh in our ordinary, everyday, walking around lives?

If you are anything like me, most of the time I don’t want to see my sloppy discipleship. I don’t really want to know how inconsistent I am when it comes to making love flesh. And I certainly don’t want to be called out on these failures in public, right?  And that is why the appointed readings of the church call us to wrestle with these hard sayings of Jesus from time to time – because left only to ourselves most of us won’t do it. I won’t, you won’t, he won’t, she won’t, we won’t and they won’t.  We need encouragement – and even sometimes a kick in the pants – and that word hypocrite kicks me every time it comes up.

So given the appointed readings – including the Psalm and words of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible – I thought it might be valuable to have a conversation today about the three broad challenges Jesus lays out in Luke 12 and see what comes up?  And let me be a bit provocative here and qualify why I am eager for us to be in this conversation today:  those of us who have grown up in this tradition – or really in any 20th century Christian denomination – have learned a way of speaking together that is fundamentally NICE without offering any significant depth. 

There is a line in the Eucharistic Prayer that we’ve been using for the past five years that is both an invitation to more honesty and a challenge for us to live beyond vague niceties. The prayer comes from the ecumenical monastic community in Iona, Scotland and reads like this:  For his life which informs our living, for his compassion which changes our hearts, for his clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities, for his disturbing presence, his innocent suffering, his fearless dying and his rising to life breathing forgiveness, we praise you and worship him. Clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities – it isn’t a phrase that rolls easily off our tongues, is it? And yet without clarity and precision, without depth of truth and nuance of spirit, so much of what we say together is merely nice. And irrelevant.  Without shape or form doing nothing to deepen the call to commitment and the values of Christ’s kingdom.

Now this isn’t a new problem for faith communities – and I’m not the only cranky, old preacher who grows weary of our harmless generalities that give the status quo a pass when beloved souls are suffering – did you hear what was proclaimed in both the Psalm and the poetry of the prophet Isaiah? Before the collapse of Jerusalem’s walls in 587 BCE to the invading armies of Babylon, the young prophet to the king of Israel sang a love song filled with sorrow and cries for social justice saying:  I gave birth to you and nourished you like a well-tended vineyard only to discover that after all my blessings you returned to me bitter grapes rather than the sweet fruits of compassion.

Ok, so now let me tell you what I’ll do to my vineyard (because you cannot discern the signs of the times): I’ll tear down its fence and let it go to ruin. I’ll knock down the gate and let it be trampled. I’ll turn it into a patch of weeds, untended, uncared for so that thistles and thorns will take over. I’ll give orders to the clouds: ‘Don’t rain on that vineyard, ever again!’ Do you get it? The vineyard of God-of-the-Angel-Armies is the country of Israel. All the men and women of Judah are the garden he was so proud of but when God looked for a crop of justice I only saw them murdering each other. And when I looked for a harvest of righteousness – that is, compassion – I only heard the moaning of the victims.

·     We don’t have to be Bible scholars to grasp that God is furious over our neglect. Like the Psalmist said after the agony of Israeli’s first exile:  How long will you remain angry with us, O Lord? You have fed us the bread of tears because we let your precious vine be burned up and cut down by our neglect.

·     Do you know the great American author James Baldwin?  After the riots and ghetto
flames of 1965, he wrote The Fire NEXT Time:  a call for reconciliation between the races, healing of economic injustices and a renewal of commitment to the common good, much of which still remains disembodied words rather than incarnated love in deeds. He put God’s challenge to us like this:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

Like the prophets and Jesus, Baldwin understood that the agony of race hatred – discrimination against all people but especially people of color, women, immigrants and those of the LGBTQ community alongside a stubborn unwillingness on the part of our nation’s white middle class to pay more attention to the pain our privilege causes – was proof that even in God’s churches and synagogues and mosques, we are better at reading the signs in the sky than discerning the signs of the times. And such willful naiveté and ignorance always results in flames: sometimes they are flames of judgment, other times the fire of destruction, but they could also become the burning desire for healing and embodied love if God’s people were on fire with a passion for the kingdom.  Krista Tippett puts it carefully in her book Becoming Wise:

W.E.B Dubois called the color line the problem of the 20th century. The conundrum of the twenty-first is that with the best intentions of color blindness, and laws passed in this spirit, we still carry instincts and reactions inherited from our environments and embedded in our being below the level of conscious decision. There is a color line in our heads and while we could see its effects we couldn’t name it until now… What is being called for today is a challenge to our human nature… which (as it occurs) over time can create new instincts and lay chemical and physical pathways for (radical love.)  “The human condition is one of belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship,” writes johnpowell. “We are not going to melt into one another. And yet, we do have a calling to become a beloved community, beloved of all people and beyond people to a beloved relationship with the planet.

In 2016, what I see in both the rise of Donald Trump’s hateful nostalgia for white supremacy and the so-called good old days as well as the righteous anger and frustration of parts of the Black Lives Matters movement is the fire of judgment. Too many of us know too well the tools of anger and hatred better than the tools of love and community. Too many of us actually believe that love is “wimpy.” Tragically that’s one of the consequences of knowing more about the signs in the sky than the signs of the times – and it’s come back to haunt us. Right now in America – and throughout so much of the world, we are facing the fire THIS time – it could either be the fire of a passionate blessing and love or the consequence of further neglect and deceit – the jury is still out – but soon to render a verdict with profound implications.

And THAT brings me back to my conversation opener:  when churches – God’s people – are on fire for God’s compassion and Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace then, to paraphrase another 60s insight, we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But if we take the church for granted, if we’re distracted or dishonest or so disinterested in kingdom work that we give injustice a pass, then we become kindling for the flames of judgment.  So I would like us to talk together – avoiding harmless generalities – about the three challenges in the words of Jesus for today.

·     First, what is this congregation passionate about?  Please note that I am not asking what YOU personally are passionate about nor am I interested in what the larger church or another church is on fire for when it comes to healing the world.  What I want to hear from you is what you sense OUR church is passionate about? What are WE on fire about?  So what do you think?

·    Second, what does your baptism mean when it comes to this fire?  In today’s lesson Jesus links fire with baptism reminding us that we have been given grace not as a private blessing, but as the inspiration to share grace and right relations with the world. It might be said that the blessing of God’s grace gives us the assurance that God will be with us always – even on a Cross – so we need not fear or equivocate when it comes to challenging and healing suffering.  So, what does your baptism mean to you about living with passion in a broken and divided world?

·     And third, how do you react to being called a hypocrite by Jesus?  Not by me, I a hypocrite, too, but by Jesus? It has been said that our need for control may be the point of the final part of this text where Jesus addresses our inability to realize what’s really happening all around us. What he’s asking is why do we choose to remain blind? Understand that Jesus is talking only to those who can read the signs in the sky and wonders why they can’t also figure out the “present time.” So this isn’t exactly hypocrisy in a traditional sense, it’s more like bad vision or selective memory, and pertains only to those who claim to be his followers. So how bold and risky is your commitment to healing the wounds of our brokenness?  If we always play it safe – if we always defer to the so-called experts or smartest people in the room rather than trust the Cross of Jesus more than anything else –then BAM the slam of hypocrisy fits us all.  So what do you think about this – right now?

One of the hidden blessings that I believe is being given to us as a congregation by God as we wrestle with our financial challenges – and vision for the future – comes down to fire:  passion or judgment.  If we have a fire in our bellies and the flame of love in our hearts for Christ’s gospel of love, we’ll figure this mess out – we will rise up stronger from this moment than ever before, bringing the blessings of our God to a broken world in wonderful and sacred ways.  If, however, we play it safe, trusting only the so-called experts, or the moneyed class or those who have longevity but are disinterested or distracted by the values of God’s kingdom, then… then we won’t. We’ll join that long list of nice people who know very well how to read the signs in the sky but cannot figure out the meaning of the signs of the times.

And to be completely transparent, I think the jury is still out.  We have a long tradition of trusting and supporting the status quo – a lengthy intellectual legacy more comfortable with bourgeois culture than radical compassion and justice – and many among us know more about the wisdom of the market place more than the blessings of the Cross.  That’s why I believe this is a time latent with possibilities for true renewal where we shake off the bondage of elitism and embrace the sacrificial journey of Christ’s beloved community of faith, hope and love.  For while many of us share a deep love that is sacred – a connection with the Lord and one another that is truly revolutionary in our age of disposal friendships and bottom line marketplace ethics, there are also deep roots of privileged indifference and arrogance working to nullify this love.  So I truly don’t know whether the fire to come will be passion or judgment.

So let me leave you with a challenge that some say comes from Cherokee legend, others suggest Billy Graham and still others ascribe to St. Francis of Assisi:  Seems that once upon a time grandfather was talking with his grandson and told him that there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf and represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is our shadow wolf and symbolizes things like greed, hatred and fear.  After a short time for thought, the grandson looks up and says, “Grandpa, which one wins?” To which the grandfather replies:  the one you feed.  This IS the good news for today for those with ears to hear.


playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...