Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Remember Who You Are (Pastor's message, August 2017)

Dear Emanuel Members and Friends –

“Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.  Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.’” Genesis 45:1-4

The reading above, our Old Testament reading for August 20, gives us a moment of reconciliation.  Joseph was one of Jacob’s many sons, and his father’s favorite.  Joseph’s brothers were jealous because of their father’s favoring of Joseph.   When Joseph was seventeen years old, his brothers sold Joseph to Ishmaelite traders, who sold Joseph to a member of Pharoah’s court.  This set into motion a series of events by which Joseph eventually came to great responsibility over the affairs of Egypt, second only to Pharoah himself.  Joseph had interpreted two dreams of Pharoah as predicting an oncoming famine, and made preparations by stockpiling grain.  Jacob and his sons were hungry because of the famine, and came to Egypt to buy grain.  And it was there at Joseph was reunited with his brothers, and later with his father Jacob.   What began with an act of hate came, after many years, to a happy ending of reunion and reconciliation.

Recent events in Charlottesville, VA remind us how far we are from reunion and reconciliation in our country.  A rally of white supremacist groups such as the Klan, various neo-Nazi groups, newer formations such as the Proud Boys, all under the heading “Unite the Right”, engaged in acts of intimidation and violence, including surrounding an interfaith church gathering the night before their rally, and numerous acts of violence against counter-protestors.   The Rev. Traci Blackmon, the Executive Minister for Justice & Witness for the United Church of Christ, was among a group of clergy who were menaced by the marchers. They came, chanting the 1930’s Nazi motto “blood and soil” along with the anti-Semitic chant “Jews will not replace us.”  Late in the day, a neo-Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring dozens of others.  A police helicopter monitoring the event crashed, killing two state troopers.  The groups have promised to hold similar events in other cities.

As Christians, first and foremost, we need to remember who we are and whose we are, and who we serve.  We serve Jesus who taught his disciples that love of God was inseparable from love of neighbor, and that the word “neighbor” included everybody, even those we might think of as enemies.  Simply put, we cannot hate others and still claim to love Jesus. I John 4:20: “Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”   Simply put, the ideas of the Klan, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups are incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Period, end of discussion, no exceptions.  We may disagree on politics and policies, but when we deny the basic humanity of others, we deny the image of God in that person – and we deface and deny the image of God in ourselves.  When we deny the humanity of others, ultimately we deny our own humanity. 

It’s important to recognize that the hatred that broke out in Charlottesville is nothing new – though we have not seen it expressed with such violence in decades.   Like a latent virus that is dormant much of the time but breaks out when our immune system is stressed, racism in America’s national life sometimes lies seemingly dormant – though visible to those on the margins - periodically breaks out in ways that hurt and kill, but is always there.   It’s also important to remember that racism comes in many forms, both individual and systemic.  It’s easy to point at a man in a hood carrying a torch or a man wearing an armband with a swastika and say, “That’s a racist!”  But racism is enacted by people who wear hoods and carry torches, and also by people who wear suits and work on spreadsheets.   On a conference call this past Sunday night with Jewish and Christian clergy around the city, I was reminded that the same racism that drove the events in Charlottesville also influences systemic decisions around how schools are funded, around access to healthcare, around rates of incarceration, around where polluting industries operate and toxic waste is stored. Combatting such systemic racism requires efforts at a systemic level.

I’ll say it again:  in these days, as Christians, we need to remember who we are, whose we are, and who we serve.  In the 1930’s and 1940’s, during the Nazi era, most churches in Germany either openly cooperated with Hitler’s Third Reich or remained silent, quietly going about their normal activities of baptizing and confirming and marrying and burying – "church business" - while millions were murdered.  In other words, they caved. These churches had compromised or entirely abandoned their God-given identity and mission.  A small minority of German Protestant churches, who took the name of the “Confessing Church”, stood against Hitler.  They issued a statement called the Barmen Declaration which demonstrated that their rejection of Hitler was inseparably tied to their confession of faith. (Your homework assignment: read the Barmen Declaration:  The Barmen Declaration had faults – it was a product of its time, was mostly addressed to the affairs of the church, not to the wider society, and had little to say to the Jews who were being rounded up and murdered – but it was a brave stand against Hitler, nonetheless.  Signers were persecuted, and some such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer were executed – but their example inspires to this day.

Remember who you are, and whose you are.  We are followers of Jesus Christ, who ministered to Jew and Gentile alike.  Where others built walls, Jesus built bridges.  If you have children, lead them in the way of love.  Speak out against efforts to marginalize and “other-ize” people based on race, ethnicity, nationality, socio-economic status, religion, sexual  orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability, or other personal characteristics.  Show the love of Christ in word and deed, in season and out of season.  Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.  Remember who you are.  And pray for the day when, like Joseph with his brothers, our country can experience reconciliation.

See you in church –
Pastor Dave     

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Traveling Mercies

Scriptures:     Genesis 37:1-28  Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45
Romans 10:5-15         Matthew 14:22-33

Those of us of a certain age may remember a TV show called Gilligan’s Island.  Five tourists – a professor, a movie star, a millionaire and his wife, and a farm girl climb onto a small boat, the Minnow, with the skipper and Gilligan, his first mate, for a three hour tour. Of course, as we may remember, the weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed, and if not for the courage of the fearless crew the Minnow would be lost.  They ended up landing on an uncharted desert island, and because of the foresight of the professor in packing his entire lab and the movie star packing her entire wardrobe and the others apparently bringing the contents of several homes onto the tiny tour boat for their three hour tour, they manage to last on TV from 1964 to 1967, and played in syndication for decades thereafter, and if you look hard enough you watch even today, 50 years later.  

Our Old Testament and Gospel reading both give us stories of journeys under difficult circumstances – Joseph’s unwilling journey to Egypt, after he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, and the disciples of Jesus, out in a small boat in the midst of a terrifying storm.  And then, at the invitation of Jesus, Peter stepping out of the boat into the storm, to begin to walk on the water himself before he lost his nerve.

In what our scripture calls “the story of the family of Jacob”, the dysfunction of Jacob’s family plays out for the next generation – Jacob and  his brother Esau were at odds, and Jacob’s youngest son Joseph ends up being at odds with the rest of his brothers. Not that Joseph didn’t give them reason; he had dreams in which the rest of his family would bow down to him – and far down the road, these dreams would come true, but they weren’t the most endearing and diplomatic things to tell his family. The brothers originally plotted to kill him, but Reuben argued to spare his life, and while Reuben’s attention was elsewhere, Judah argued that they should sell him to some Ishmaelite traders.  The deed done, they went home to their father Jacob.   Years earlier, Jacob had deceived his father Isaac, and Jacob in turn was deceived by his sons, who told him that a wild animal had killed Joseph. 

Joseph would go through many adventures before he would see his brothers again.  He was sold to an officer of Pharoah and became overseer of his house.  The officer’s wife threw herself at Joseph, and when Joseph would not give into her wiles, she had him arrested.  And in prison, Joseph is given responsibility over the other prisoners.  Two other prisoners came to learn that Joseph had power to interpret dreams, and one of these eventually told Pharoah of Joseph’s gift.  Joseph was brought before Pharoah to interpret his dream, and ultimately Joseph was given responsibility over the country, second only to Pharoah.  Throughout these events, there’s a constant refrain:  the Lord was with Joseph, the Lord prospered Joseph.  And, as Joseph would later tell his brothers, their actions that they had taken with the intent of harming Joseph  worked out not only for Joseph’s good, but for that of his family.

The disciples of Jesus found themselves on a shorter, but still bumpy ride.  Jesus had just fed the five thousand, and was sending the crowds home.  He sent his disciples home as well, via boat, but stayed behind to pray.  While Jesus prayed, the wind and waves began to pelt the boat, and if not for the courage of the fearless crew, the minnow would be lost.

Well, actually, the crew’s courage had nothing to do with it.  As they were struggling, they saw Jesus coming to them on the water.  Peter said, “If you’re really Jesus, let me walk on the water to you”  Jesus said, “Go for it.”  And we’re told that Peter started to walk to Jesus on the water – until he lost focus on Jesus  Jesus caught him, the climbed into the boat, and the storm stopped.

This story of Jesus calming the water seems to have been a favorite of the early church, because it’s in three of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and John, and always in the same place, immediately following the feeding of the five thousand.  I believe it was popular with the early church, because the story is not only about Jesus, but it is about them and who they were as the church.  They saw themselves as that little band of disciples out in a small boat, with the winds and waves pounding them – and only Jesus able to save.

As individuals, and as a congregation, I think we can relate to this story as well.  Our current congregation is probably about the same size as some of the early house churches – so we, like they, are small and seemingly fragile.  And our individual lives are the same as we deal with illness, hunger, addiction.  Our lives at time seem small and fragile.  But faith gives us resilience, an ability to take a pounding and keep on going, keep on moving forward.  Faith helped Joseph weather the many changes life put him through so that he could come out on the other side.  Faith sustained the disciples in the storm, even if it wavered, and eventually brought them safely home.  We trust that Jesus will not abandon us, and that Jesus will not abandon our congregation.

My sermon was going to end roughly here, but then the events of yesterday in Charlottesville, VA unfolded, prompting many pastors to stay up rewriting their sermons.  A gathering of far right wing hate groups – groups such as the Klan and the League of the South, groups many of us likely thought we were done with, along with skinheads, Neo-Nazis, along with newer groups such as Proud Boys and other self-named Alt-Right groups – converted in Charlottesville VA under the banner of “Unite the Right”, and a march was part of their plan.  There was a time when the Klan would call a march, and maybe 10 people might show up. Of course, there was an earlier time when the Klan would call a march, and thousands would show up – but many of us thought those days were behind us.  But something in society seems to be shifting, and several hundred were in Charlottesville.  Counterprotestors, ranging from far left groups - socialists to anarchists - to more traditional civil rights organizations to mainline clergy, were there as well, to oppose the message of hate.  The Klan, Nazi, and skinhead groups marched, chanting mottos such as “blood and soil” – an old Nazi slogan from the 1930’s – along with “You will not replace us” which quickly morphed into an anti-Semitic version, “Jew will not replace us.”  It soon became clear that the Klan wasn’t just there to speak, but to cause trouble, to physically attack people.  They instigated violence against counterprotestors, and even clergy weren’t safe.  Our denomination’s Executive Minister for Justice and Witness, Traci Blackmon, was on camera with television news reporters describing the scene when suddenly she said “Gotta go!” as clergy were being menaced.  I was glad to see a representative from the United Church of Christ visible, on camera, standing against the racial hatred – our denomination has been on the front lines against racism and other forms of discermination countless times, but rarely get much coverage – but the circumstances were chilling.  Late in the day, a car driven by a supporter of the march drove a car into a group of counterprotestors, killing three and injuring dozens of others.  A police helicopter that had been monitoring the event crashed, killing two state troopers.

There are journeys we taking willingly, journeys we take unwillingly, and journeys we shouldn’t take at all.  The Klan groups would like to take our country back to a time of legalized, official discrimination and unofficial violence against nonwhites, and the neo-Nazi groups would like to take our country to a place we’ve never been.  In the 1930’s and 40’s, many American commentators asked themselves, “Could it” – it meaning Nazi-ism or some other form of fascism – “happen here.”  The answer was always a reassuring, “No, America is different, we love freedom, we’re immune to fascism, it can’t happen here.”  Sinclair Lewis’s 1936 book “It Can’t Happen Here” questioned this feeling of complacency, and imagined an alternate America in which fascism came to America, not with swastikas, but waving the American flag and carrying the cross, an alternative America in which the dearest symbols of nation and faith had been hijacked for the cause of hate.  In any case, it’s clear that there is a constituency in this country that would very much like to see fascism happen here – still quite small, but seemingly growing.

There are journeys we take willingly, journeys we take unwillingly, and journeys we shouldn’t take at all.  We warn children, “Don’t get into cars with strangers”, and we as a country shouldn’t get into the car with these strangers – even though some may be our neighbors.  As Christians, first and foremost, we need to remember who we are and whose we are, and who we serve, Jesus who taught his disciples that love of God was inseparable from love of neighbor, and that the word “neighbor” included everybody, even those we might think of as enemies.  Simply put, you cannot hate others and still claim to love Jesus. I John 4:20: Those who say ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”   We may disagree on politics and policies, but when we deny the basic humanity of others, we ultimately deny our own.

What does love look like when hate is on the march?  What are hugs against brass knuckles and baseball bats.   And I’m surely not about to hug it out with a guy swinging a baseball bat at my head.  But he’s still my neighbor, even if he himself doesn’t know it.   Love means saying “no”, early and often, to hate.   Love means protecting the vulnerable, even those we’re not comfortable with.  And love means getting in the way of hate, perhaps putting ourselves between haters and their targets.   We, like Peter, may have to climb out of the boat of our own comfort zones to face the storm of hate around us head on.  Love means finding ways to remind the haters that they, too, are still children of God, and that there is a better way, the better way of love – the way of love that Joseph demonstrated to his brothers who in hate had sold him into slavery.  He could have become bitter and denied them assistance when they needed it – and he did play with their heads a bit if you read the story – but ultimately he said, “I am Joseph, your brother.  What you meant for evil God meant for good. And you are welcome here.”

We’ll be leaving this place to go out into a world in which the wind and waves will pound us.  Let us remember who we are, as followers of Jesus whose costly love for humanity led to the cross – and beyond.  Let us remember who God is, the faithful one who will not abandon us.  And here’s your homework assignment for the week:  always, always,  choose the path of love.  Amen.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Small Beginnings

Scriptures:     Genesis 29:15-28       Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39         Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today’s Gospel gives us an hor d’oeuvres tray of images for what Jesus is calling the kingdom of heaven.   These aren’t long, elaborate parables such as the parable of the Good Samaritan or the parable of the Prodigal Son, or even like the parable of the Sower that we heard two weeks ago or the parable of the wheat and the weeds that we heard last week.  Today’s parables are just snippets, glimpses of what Jesus is trying to show his followers, or maybe like appetizers – enough to catch our interest, but leave us hungry to hear more.   And when Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven, it’s easy to be confused.  He’s not actually talking about heaven.  Since observant Jews did not utter the holy name of  God, words like heaven were used as a way to refer to God without actually naming God’s name.   So in telling his disciples about the kingdom of heaven, he’s not talking about something that happens after we die.  Rather, he’s telling his disciples what it’s like to live in tune with God’s will in this life, now, today, this moment – what it’s like to do things God’s way, as opposed to the default setting of doing things the world’s way.
I’m going to focus on the first two parables, which speak of small beginnings that pack a powerful punch.  The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that is the smallest of seeds, but grows into a great big shrub, so big that the birds come and make nests in it.  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that is mixed with three measures of flour – and of course, yeast makes the dough rise.
These parables can seem a little bit like old hat.  We’ve grown used to the idea that great things can come from small beginnings – as the saying goes, great oaks from tiny acorns grow.  And that certainly is a major part of the message of these two parables.
But Jesus’ listeners would have also found something a bit off-kilter in both of these parables, something a little odd, that we miss.   In Ezekiel chapter 17:22-23 the prophet tells of a coming Messiah, in language that sounds a little like today’s parables – and maybe Jesus had it in mind.  It goes as follows:  “God will take a tender shoot from the topmost branches of a cedar, and God will plant it on a high and lofty mountain.  On the mountain height of Israel God will plant it, and it will grow branches and produce fruit, and it will grow to be a noble cedar. Under it every bird will live, and in its shade will nest winged creatures of every kind.”  That was a very traditional Jewish image for the prophecy of the coming Messiah.  But Jesus seems to be playing with the image, tweaking it, making it a bit more down to earth...maybe with a bit of sideways humor along the way.  Jesus seems to be asking his listeners, “Do you think that the kingdom of heaven like a noble cedar on a mountain top?  No, it’s more like a mustard seed – which was considered an invasive weed – that lands in your garden, and produces a great big shrub, that attracts birds to feast on your plants.”  Likely he was inviting his followers to see themselves as the scruffy, motley crew they were….who could still be used by God to accomplish amazing things. Similarly, though we’re used to leavened bread – we like our Wonder Bread, preferably with a plastic bag around it, sealed with a twist tie – the Jews who listened to Jesus’ parable ate unleavened bread at Passover, like Matzoh, and in fact in preparation for Passover, they were to carefully scrub their houses to get rid of any old leaven that may have spilled….and Jews practice the custom to this day.  Leaven carried the meaning of corruption – the ancient Jews were concerned with purity to the point of obsession, and flour with yeast in it was seen as impure because the flour had yeast mixed in it.   And so Jesus’ parables would have been heard as being subversive.  Remember, he and his listeners were living under Roman occupation.  There were people, called Zealots, who advocated violent overthrow of Rome.  But Jesus is offering a different way.  Jesus seemed to be saying that, if you want to resist Rome and avoid buying into Roman culture, just living as God wants us to live, while it seems like a small thing, is enough to undermine the empire.  Sort of like the way that a single snowflake is tiny, but if enough of them land in one place, they will stop cars and 18-wheelers dead in their tracks.  Again, in these particular parables, Jesus was not talking about the world to come, but about living in the world right now, today.  And Jesus was right….in the book of Acts, the early Christians were known as “these people who have turned the world upside down.”  Pretty impressive, don’t you think?   And Jesus’ next two parables, about the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in a field, tell his listeners that it is worth their giving up all their other priorities, to put the rest of their lives on hold, to live in this way, according to the will of God.
It’s helpful to hear this, I think, because our culture, with what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 called its giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism, is as far from God’s ways as the Roman culture of Jesus’ day was, and we Christians today, as did the earliest followers of Jesus, still need to live in the world without following the world’s priorities, to be in the world but not of the world, as Jesus said.  We need to live in resistance, to jam the gears of injustice and oppression, to be like an invasive weed messing up the garden, or like snowflakes stopping traffic.  As Dr. King put it in that speech 50 years ago, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” [1]   King’s words were true when he spoke them, and fifty years later, they’re still true.
But if we’re faithful, God will use us to accomplish amazing things, even if the beginnings are distinctly unimpressive.  In our Old Testament reading, we’re again following the story of Jacob as he’s on the run from his brother Esau, and staying with his uncle Laban.  Up to this point, while Jacob had an encounter with God, he’s lived in a thoroughly self-centered way, a real slimeball.  As it turns out, Jacob is about to find out that his uncle Laban is likewise a cheat and a slimeball.  Jacob falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and agrees to work for seven years for her hand in marriage. Jacob holds up his end, but on the wedding night, Laban sends his older daughter, Leah, to spend the wedding night with Jacob.  Jacob protests, but Laban piously says, “it is not our custom to marry off the younger daughter before the older daughter.  Work another seven years for me, and you can have Rachel as well. “  In the chapters following today’s reading, the story grows even more convoluted.  It turns out that Leah is fertile while Rachel at first is not….and each of the women has handmaids, who also sleep with Jacob, and if you think this sounds like something out of the cable series the Handmaids Tale –this story of Jacob is where the idea for the Handmaids Tale comes from.   Eventually between them, Jacob and the four women – Rachel finally did bear children - produce twelve sons and a daughter.  The offspring of the twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel, and of course Jesus comes from this lineage.  As I said last week, in order to get to Jesus, we have to put up with Jacob and his shenanigans.   A great savior, from very unimpressive beginnings indeed.
Looking over Jesus’ seed parables of the past three weeks, Jesus is telling us that we are all planting seeds, whether we realize it or not, whether we want to or not.  All of our actions have consequences, for ourselves, but also for others.  Every word we say, for good or bad – or every word we leave unsaid; every action we take, for good or bad – or every action we don’t take – is a seed that will bear fruit.  Because words and actions have consequences – this is one of the basic lessons we learn growing up.  Because our lives are connected, those consequences affect not just ourselves, but those around us. But what seeds are we planting?  What fruit will they bear, and where, and to whose benefit or detriment? 

I’ll close with some words by Roman Catholic Bishop Ken Untener, attributed in memory of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down while saying mass in March of 1980.

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”  [2]  



[1] Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Beyond Vietnam:  A Time To Break Silence; Riverside Church, April 4, 1967;