Luke 17:5-10  “Increase Our Faith”

Luke 17:5-10 “Increase Our Faith”

Sermon preaching on October 2, 2016

World Communion Sunday

Increase my faith, God. Life is so unfair.  The world is so full of suffering.  There are so much to be done and I don’t know where to start.  I’m tired God, so increase my faith.  I want to understand the point of all this, where are you, and when can I expect some clarity so the world makes sense again.  I want to be faithful, but it feels like it is not enough.


When the disciples went to Jesus and said, “Increase our faith!” what do you think they were expecting Jesus to do?  Would he lay hands on them and suddenly, mystically fill them with faith?  Would he give them positive thinking mantras like “You can do it!  God has a special plan for your life.”  Imagine the times when you feel like your faith is in short supply, and you turn to God and say “Increase my faith”, what do you think God would do next?


So why were the disciples making this request?  The proceeding chapters in Luke’s Gospel are filled with challenging parables and wisdom saying.  Jesus says to pick up your cross, you must lose your life to save it, give to the poor, the wealthy man who ignored poor Lazarus at his gate will have no mercy in heaven, the Samaritans are good people, and then Jesus talks about having patience with people who have weak faith and forgive them, forgive them 7 times a day if necessary.  No wonder they cry out, “Increase our faith.”  Living as a disciple of Jesus seems impossibly challenging.  How do I know if I have done enough, been kind enough, there is always more and I feel like such a small boat on the ocean?


Let’s see what Jesus has to say, which I’m sure will cheer us up.  “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Thanks Jesus, that clears it up!  Are you kidding me?  Holy mixed metaphors Jesus.  It makes me wonder if the seminarian who was taking notes that day dozed off, and put parts of three different parables into one story about mustard seeds, mulberry trees and the faith to move mountains into the ocean, into one mistaken hot mess.  He got a “D” in Parables 101, but Luke was a lousy copy editor and didn’t go back and change it.  Matthew would never let this happen.  That is one answer.


Just as a thought experiment, what if Jesus actually said this and meant it?  What might this strange saying mean, since mustard sees don’t grow mulberry trees and mulberry trees don’t grow in the ocean?  These things are impossible.  I wish I could get Luke and Matthew in the same room to talk about this verse.  Matthew likes everything to be logical and might quote himself from Mathew, chapter 19.  Jesus had just told a parable that it is harder for a rich man to go to heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Impossible, right?!  And one of his disciples blurts out, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus replies, “With humans this is impossible, with God all things are possible.”  Now you see the pattern of how Jesus teaches.  He utters the impossible saying – mulberry trees in the sea, camels going through the eye of the needle, etc.  Then he says God can make things possible that you cannot grasp unless you are willing to change how you see things.


Faith is an impossible possibility.  That was a favorite phrase of theologian Karl Barth.  Faith is the impossible possibility, a reality that transcends the everyday experience.  Barth meant this in a grand cosmological way.  The God of the Universe is completely beyond us and impossible to truly comprehend.  When you look at the Milky Way in the night sky, and realize that you are just seeing the spirals of our own galaxy and beyond it are countless galaxies, some so far away that the light traveling to us at 186,000 miles per second has taken so many years to get to us that the galaxy may not exist anymore, then you start to realize that our understanding of God is impossible – unless- unless- God somehow desires to be known and works at the impossible possibility.  In Barth’s theology, God was in Christ, revealing divine nature to us so we might know and have new life.  In UCC theology, this is why we keep saying “God is Still Speaking.”  Faith becomes an astonishing possibility because God reaches out to us.


So here I am God.  I am ready for you.  Hit me up. Increase my faith.  Speak, for your servant is listening.  Hello…anybody home.  How long do I have to wait, for that still small voice?  In Luke’s Gospel, the impossible becomes possible with people who are ready to make a shift, people who are willing to risk, or change their thinking, cross a social barrier.  Several times Jesus says, your faith has made you well.  A woman with a hemorrhage touches the hem of his robe in a crowd, breaking all kinds of social taboos from Leviticus.  Jesus says to her
“Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector, the 1 percenter, climbs the tree to see Jesus, and when he is seen, he gives away his wealth, and Jesus says, salvation has come to this house today.  A Roman centurion humbly asks Jesus to heal his servant and Jesus says, not in Israel do I see such faith.


12 Step sayings can help us get this.  Do you know the definition of insanity?  Right, its doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking and behavior that created the problem.  We have to be willing to think and act differently for faith to break in to us.  Here is my takeaway, faith increases when we stop telling ourselves false stories.  We all tell ourselves limiting narratives that just aren’t true.  I am not loveable.  I’m not smart enough to find an answer.  I am not creative.  I am just one person.  Injustice is too powerful.  The church is dying anyway, and nothing ever really changes.


We are so in need of true, hopeful narratives that break the power of cynicism and despair that is engulfing our world.  I thought about this reading about the life of Shimon Peres, the Israeli leader who died this week.  Peres was seen as a naïve optimist by many, he worked so hard to construct the Oslo agreement which turned to dust.  Columnist Thomas Freidman was a friend of Peres and he said that he had two unique qualities: He could stand in the other [person’s] shoes, and he was determined to let the future bury the past and not let the past bury the future.  Most leaders have become so hard-bitten that they have completely lost their ability to empathize with anyone other than their own tribe.”  This is the limited thinking that could take down our species. Empathy, compassion and a sense of the common good beyond our tribal instincts is the impossible possibility, the mulberry tree growing in the sea.  Increase our faith, O God.  How can we get that kind of faith?


Peres never got sidetracked in his hopes for peace.  At age 88 he made a rap video urging young people to seek peace.  He started a series of YouTube videos, and learned to use social media like Facebook, at age 93 this year he opened a Snap Chat account, so he could communicate with young people about peace, young people who have never known a peace process in their whole lives.  Here is what Peres said to a young man when asked how he could stay hopeful and full of vigor even at 93.   “Every day I wake up and I count my achievements…. And then I count the dreams I have in my head. As long as I have more dreams in my head than achievements, I am young.”


Like Shimon Peres, we are all going to face death, but let’s die still reaching for those dreams.  Plant your mustard seed.  Stay open to the impossible possibility.

Preaching to the Hometown Crowd

Preaching to the Hometown Crowd

I remember returning to my hometown of Boone, Iowa to preach, after my first semester of seminary in Boston.  I looked out at the congregation, and there were all my former Sunday School teachers and youth leaders.  These were the people that had formed my faith, those who said don’t run in church, and stop hiding in the bushes when you don’t like Sunday School.  My third grade teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, was there.  She had written on my report card that I was a bright student but I did not apply myself, and that I needed to step up work harder in 4th grade if I wanted to make something of myself.  Pastor Roy was there, the man who had increased membership and built a new education wing, and who was determined that I should be a preacher since I was 12 years old.


I never understood this because I had been a thorn in his side.  Pastor Roy was the kindest man I ever met, and I was a rebel.  He never preached a controversial political sermon in his life, except the one against gambling, where he actually raised up on his toes and hammered the pulpit once.  I was a believer in Ghandian nonviolence and conscientious objector against military service, and questioned if all of the Bible was really true.  I never understood this patient man’s obsession with me being a pastor, when I wanted to be Woodward or Bernstein or Upton Sinclair.


He won in the end, at least in the seminary part, but Boston was a revelation.  Having grown up as a liberal dissenter in Bible Belt, finding people more radical than me was unmooring.  I was in the first class at Andover Newton that had more women than men, and I kept using male pronouns for God for the first semester.  I had never met an “out” gay person, let alone asked out on a date.  People saw my open, Midwestern naivete and just thought I was gay, until I had a girlfriend, who later came out as a lesbian.  I slowly figured out that at least 1/3 of my class mates were gay, and I respected them, and had to rework my understanding of the Bible.


So like Jesus, when I went home to preach, I felt compelled to share my journey with them.  And I struggled with my sermon, because we all cared about each other, and they were so proud, and I was so grateful to them, but I wanted them to know my experience.  That’s not entirely true, because I knew their blind spots.  They had fired the first pastor I ever knew, Rev. Dixon, who had secretly listened to Jesus Christ Superstar with the young married couples group my parents belonged to.  That happened in my living room when I was supposed to be in bed.  When he ordered a glass of red wine at a church dinner at the Tic Toc Supper Club, that was it for him.  Oh, and the Associate Pastor and Youth Leader, also fired for exposing us to liberal ideas.  I knew all the skeletons in the closet in this small town because my Dad was a pilot and Mom was a piano teacher, and people told them stuff.  I knew who was a closet alcoholic and who had burned the cross in the yard of the only black family in town.  I loved these folks and still do, but I had a truth burning a hole in my heart.  Whether this was out of loyalty to my friends in seminary, or my own nature to be a provacature, I told them what I thought, with as much gentleness as I could.


There were no cliffs involved in my story.  I got some cold stares.  Later, when I shared with college friends, some of them would not speak to me again, and I will never be invited to speak at my alma Mater, but people mostly shook my hand on the way out and said something Midwestern like, “Well, you sure have some interesting experiences.” Or “That was sure different.”  One pillar of the church did say, rather loudly for everyone to hear, “I think it is good that you bring new ideas for us to think about.  That is why you go to seminary.”


I always wondered if there was a more open but quiet faction in Nazereth, who said to those enraged with Jesus, “Don’t throw him over the cliff, he’s young and will grow out of it.  And it will just start a big feud.  Let it go.”  So I can identify with Jesus.  Sometimes there is an itch and you have to scratch it.  At the same time, as I read this Gospel text, Jesus was picking a fight.  He was entering the cultural wars of first century Galilee.


To understand, we need to know who are Zaraphath of Sidon and Naaman of Syria?  Story number one, the great prophet Elijah, who battled the corrupt King Ahab and the wicked Queen Jezebel, and was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire rather than die a natural death (swing low sweet chariot!), was given haven and food by Zaraphath in Sidon.  Zaraphath was a widow raising a child alone, and when Elijah went to her and asked for God’s help, as told him in a vision, she says that she only has a little bit of flour left, not even enough for her family.  Elijah tells her to make a loaf from it and bring it to him.  When she does so, Elijah says that she that God will always fill her flour jar until the drought is over.  (A miracle kind of like manna in a jar.)  Jesus says, there were a lot of widows in Israel, but the prophet got his help and blessed the widow in Sidon, which is the capital city of the Philistines, so we know that can’t be good.  We know who Philistines are, to this day they lack good taste and culture.


Story number two, the next great prophet, Elisha, comes along.  Naaman was a general in the army of Syria.  Speaking of Syria (and Iowa), did you hear about Rev. Dr. Pam Saturnia, pastor of the First Presbyterian church in Muscatine, Iowa?  Donald Trump was at her church last Sunday,


“Syrian refugees and Mexican migrants,”  should be welcomed rather than shunned by Americans.  “Instead of feeling rage at Jesus that we have to share him, we are called to do just that….Share Jesus with the ones who need him.” she said in her sermon.


The Bible reading of 1 Corinthians 12 appeared to pique the real-estate mogul’s interest and his head turned toward the lectern as a woman from the congregation spoke about humility.  “I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are part of,” the woman intoned.  Can you imagine eye telling hand, ‘Get lost, I don’t need you?’ Or, head telling foot, ‘You’re fired, your job has been phased out?’” the woman continued.


Back to Elisha and Naaman.  He’s the General had been sending raising parties into Israel’s northern border to test their strength.  He had a skin problem, which is translated leprosy.  Not only would that cause discomfort, it was a bad omen.  Leviticus notes that people with leprosy could not go into the Temple.  They were ritually unclean.  So a captive slave girl says, “There is a great prophet in Israel named Elisha, and he can heal you.”  Namaan gets a meeting with Elisha and brings along a fortune to pay him, but Elisha says, just go wash off 7 times in the Jordan River.  Namaan says, “Jordan River?  We have bigger creeks than that in Texas.  The Euphrates goes through Syria, why should I bath in the Jordan?”  Finally a servant says, Namaan, let go of your pride and go to the river of Israel, for that is the only way.  Sure enough, Namaan is healed and believes in the God of Israel.  Jesus says, “There were lepers in Israel, and Elisha didn’t heal them.”


Here is where people get very angry.  It is hard for us to understand how much this upset them, so let’s modernize it.  How might people object to Jesus message for the outsiders today?  “Why are you talking about welfare queens?  You can’t just give her handouts.  What we need in Syria is not healing, but boots on the ground.  Bomb them into the stone age. You are weak on national security and border control.  Why are you singling these people out?  Don’t you know “All Lives Matter?”  What would Jesus say if Northampton was his hometown and he was preaching this sermon here?   He might say, “No doubt you want me to support Bernie Sanders, and talk about income inequality and Global Climate change.  All right, your progressive values seem to line up with mine, but most low income workers still can’t rent in Northampton and Amherst.  The person bagging your organic groceries lives in Greenfield.  You have a lot of nice signs and banners and rallies and You also have a great deal of wealth and privilege here.  What are you going to do with it between political campaigns?   Life is different on the other side of the Tofu curtain.  Its not enough to be right on the issues if you don’t know any neighbors who make you uncomfortable.


The point is Jesus is standing for the greatest truth of all religions.  Every religion has some version of the Golden Rule,  love your neighbor, do unto others as they would have them do unto you.  Everyone believes in love and the Golden Rule, as long as we can have a few exceptions.

Manifesting the Spirit Among Us

Manifesting the Spirit Among Us

Marketing data increasingly shapes our lives, as every mouse click, google search and Amazon purchase is analyzed somewhere in a big supercomputer.  Jeanne and I spent time over the weekend finding a hotel room in Newport for my son’s wedding in September, and now when I read the news online, the side advertisement says, “Best Room Rates in Newport.”  I check the movie times, and suddenly they start appearing on Facebook.  For some reason Facebook also thinks I would be interested in Kate Middleton’s wardrobe malfunctions.  (She seems like a very attractive young woman, but she needs to stop stalking me on Facebook, or I’m writing a letter to the Queen.)

As a pastor I get a lot of posts like “Text in Church” Visitor systems, make your sermons memorable, and how you can break the 200 people in worship barrier.  I glean a lot of ideas from these posts, but I also have to sort through a lot of worthless, even detrimental advice. Last week I read an article on six things growing churches do that others don’t.  “Have strong faith in God.”  Thanks Captain Obvious!  “Bias toward innovation and action.”   Growing churches know how to celebrate.  Amen!  Growing Churches are outsider focused, looking to serve well new people who come in the door.  Absolutely.  Here’s one that will get your attention:

In growing churches, the Senior Pastor is allowed to lead and make decisions based on the vision God has given him for the church. The Senior Pastor is allowed to hire his own staff as the budget allows. The Senior Pastor decides what ministries to add and what ministries to cut. The Senior Pastor decides what events should take place and which shouldn’t.  In dying churches, the church or church board lead and make decisions.

Before you start looking for your copy of the bylaws, my goal this morning is to say why this wrong, both theologically and practically for our church.  The Apostle Paul would say, the authors do not understand the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church as a gathered body.  Martin Luther would nail the words “priesthood of all believers,” to the church door.  Paul was a church planter and unofficial bishop for a dozen or so Christian communities around the Mediterranean.  His letters we read as scripture are largely motivated by concerns over leadership, power and conflict in those churches.   In Corinth, there is a power struggle and factionalism running amuck.  Some people thought they were wiser than everyone else, claiming to be prophets or have ecstatic experiences or special charisma that set them apart from everyone else.  This is the kind of stuff that drives people out of church.  You can’t have a primary organizational value of “Love your neighbor” and only do that at coffee hour, and not love at Council and the Budget meeting.


I Corinthians 12 is Paul’s theological grounding about how community and power works.  I Cor. 12:7 is one of the most important verses in the Bible, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Manifestation is a great word!  It means that something is made visible, like the appearance of a spirit or ghost.  Scrooge sees manifestations in Marley and the ghosts of Christmas. To make something manifest makes it real.  A manifesto is a set of clear principles and goals.  The Spirit of God is known when we see a manifestation in ourselves or others.  It can be a heady, emotional, exciting experience to feel God’s spirit stir in you, but in that ferment, we have to realize that God is manifest in everyone, in different and unique ways.  Everyone has a manifestation of the spirit.  In other words, you are all possessed.  And in church we see being possessed by the Spirit as a good thing.  We are not here to exorcise your spirit, as in the exorcist, we are here to exercise our spiritual gifts, like the exercise done at a gym.  The Common Good is best served when we get as much of the manifestation of the Spirit of God within everyone in the mix.  The common good is hindered when we either exclude others or do not share our own gifts.


Paul’s theology is in complete harmony with the creation story of Genesis.  All people are created in the image and likeness of God (you may have to look carefully some cases, but it is there!)  We are given the the responsibility of stewardship within creation, as co-workers with God.  We are God’s hands in the world.  That is why the highest authority in a Congregational or Baptist church is the congregation, discerning together the work of the Spirit.  The early Salem Covenant is “We do hereby bind ourselves together to walk in all of God’s ways.”


Let’s talk about how we make this real, or manifest, within our congregational life and through our Vision process.  First, here is why you should not just turn all the Vision work over to me and  Sarah.  First, we have too many ideas and would just run you ragged and burn you out. Second, if we propose everything, then, every time it fails to be perfect, it will be my fault.  We will fail to adapt, because it would be about me, and not enough about us.  Ron Heifetz, who is the leadership guru at Harvard, notes that the task of leadership is to learn how to disappoint people responsibly, because there are not easy answers and quick fixes, rather leaders organize people to develop a culture of adaptation, shared responsibility and innovation, not simply a follow the leader culture.


Here a classic reason this is important.  Remember when Tylenol was poisoned and quite a few people died and we had a recall off the shelves.  While this was terrible, Johnson and Johnson company is a case study of correcting a problem and protecting consumer safety.  Unlike the governor of Michigan, who looked the other way to the poisoning of the entire city of Flint, Michigan and their water supply, here’s the inside story.  Two years prior to the recall, the CEO tore up the mission statement, because he said it was not being followed.  He went through a months long process to create a new shared Vision Statement about the corporate culture, based on this key vision, when a parent uses our product for their children, they can trust us.  So when the Tylenol poisoning hit the news, the CEO was on an airline and unreachable.  By the time the wheels of the plane hit the ground, the decision to pull things off the shelves at the loss of millions of dollars, had already been made, because that was their shared culture.


Pastors are the caretakers of a healthy culture.  Healthy cultures are engaged cultures.  That is what the survey is all about.  People feel engaged when they feel cared for, their ideas matter, they have friendship, and clear organizational goals, support for personal growth, and opportunities for service. This survey will help us find out how we are doing.  Since it is a Gallup survey, we can compare our results with thousands of other churches, and work to improve engagement.


In the last two minutes and want to say something important about the pastoral role here.  Last August, Sarah and I had a one-day training in how to apply life coaching and organizational coaching strategies to church life.  We chose this workshop because we have had many discussion about finding a better way to organize and get things done standard committee structures just aren’t working any more.  Since September, I have training to be a certified coach because I think it will really help us be a more vital church.


Here’s how that happens.  First, coaching is mostly listening deeply.  Good listeners create good thinking.  Groups that create listening environments encourage better ideas.  Second, coaching focuses on asking the right questions. A good question creates new awareness.  For example, churches often ask “How can we get “them” to come and join us?”  What if we ask, “How can go out into our community (them) and make a positive impact?”  Or churches ask “How can we get more people to improve our budget?   Does that question inspire you?  No, that is a death spiral question.  What if we instead reflect upon, “How can we create a center for transformation, so that our church life becomes a community center of energy, so that is reverberates? What do you think of that question?  The final step of coach is this; once we have good thinking, new ideas and awareness, we figure out what it will take to get it done.


The coaching strategy does what Paul is preaching, gets everyone’s manifestation of the spirit of God into the mix.  The Holy Spirit works when we pray, and the Spirit works in our processes together.  To close, look around the room.  You are looking at the best possible consulting team for this church.  We have everything we need.  Here is my hope: Not only will we create a vision for a dynamic church, but that you will find your own spiritual cutting edge as you take the journey together.

Restoration: When Scripture Makes History

Restoration: When Scripture Makes History

Scripture Texts:   Luke 4:15-21, Isaiah 61:1-2 January 17, 2016

What is your elevator speech? In 30 seconds or less, how would convince someone to embrace your core values and mission? It must be simple, memorable and exciting. A Mission Statement grounds you in being clear before you act, so every day you can ask, is this true to our mission statement. Organizations spend a great deal of time and money to get it right. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spends 40 days out in the wilderness, fasting and praying, and being tempted by the devil. That is what it is like to write a good mission statement. You have to fend off anything that is less than your true self, your highest calling, your better angels. Jesus had to reject even good things, like turning stone into bread for the poor, because there is something even more important to do.

Biblical commentators see Luke 4:18-19 as setting the tone for the whole Gospel. It is Jesus’s Mission Statement. He does not reinvent the wheel, because his perfect statement has already been written 500 years before. Jesus doesn’t pull a laminated card from his pocket and begin reading, he opens the scroll to Isaiah 61, and reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Isaiah is the poet of hope and justice, and here’s the context of Isaiah 61. The people of Jerusalem are tired and discouraged. They are the grandchildren of refugees, whose families survived the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and lived in exile in Assyria. The have returned to the city full of hopes and grand ideals, like the Puritans and George Winthrop to build a new shining city on the hill, like many immigrant families seeking a new start. They have heard their parents’ stories of a thriving and prosperous city. “We used to drink Grande Lattes, and wear Prada and Neiman Marcus, and went to Klienfeld’s for wedding dresses. If only we could say “Yes to the dress,” again. And you should have seen the Great Temple that Solomon built, it was even better than our work on the pyramids of Egypt. We built good stuff back in the day.”

So these grandchildren arrive to a city in ruins and land stricken with poverty. But they are full of ideals, they get busy rebuilding walls, and and then they rebuild a temple. Now they do not have the resources and tax base that Solomon had, and it’s a rush job, completed in about 20 years. A good stone temple takes at least a century. So when they look at it, the Prophet Haggai records their reaction. “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Haggai 2:3) They can’t live up to their own great expectations and they are disappointed.

Somewhere in this context the author Isaiah 61 writes these words about freeing the captives and good news for the poor. Its purpose is twofold, first, to give people hope that this is truly the work that God is calling them to do, to restore their city, so don’t give up even though it is hard. But second, it is also to remind people that the true basis of national pride is not the grandeur of the Temple, but in justice and equity in the city so that all prosper together. This is the big idea throughout Isaiah. If your foundation of society is justice you will stand firm and prosper together, but if you oppress the poor and live in a great disparity of wealth, you will fail. Isaiah 61 is a renewing of their mission statement, to strengthen their weary souls.

No wonder Jesus is quick to adopt these words. The promise is never quite fulfilled, and Herod is busy trying to build another great Temple in lower Manhattan, (uhr …Jerusalem.) Jesus reads, God brings good news to the poor, jobs and opportunity, free the captives of mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs, restoring the sight to the blind (and to those who don’t want to see.) The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Let me give you a second translation to deepen the impact of this passage, from Eugene Peterson and “The Message.”

Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”

Think about that for a moment. Can a scripture make history? Well, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela quoted this passage in South Africa and ended Apartheid, Harriet Tubman and the abolitionists preached Isaiah 61, and ended slavery. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from Isaiah 61 and brought down segregation and extended Constitutional Rights to black Americans. Scripture may need people to make history, but maybe people need the history of scripture to make justice.

As inspiring as Isaiah 61 it is troubling that we have to keep bringing up so often. Can’t we just preach it once, fix the problem and move on? Seven years ago I was hopeful that we had a real breakthrough in race relations when we elected a black president, check off the “end racism” box. This is a milestone that was unthinkable when the Voting Rights Act came into being in 1964. So I bet black Americans are now going to college in greater numbers, that the unemployment numbers are falling, and racism is on the retreat as we move to a color blind society. Right? But apparently the stats aren’t budging at all. Stats can lie though. Let’s ask Black Christians how things are going.

“A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey has revealed a devastating truth: While about 80 percent of black Christians believe police-involved killings — like the ones that killed Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Eric Gardner and so many more — are part of a larger pattern of police treatment of African Americans, around 70 percent of white Christians believe the opposite … that they are simply isolated incidents. And before we begin disassociating with the term “white Christians,” we should look deeper. The numbers include 72 percent of white evangelical Protestants, 71 percent of white Catholics, and 73 percent of white mainline Protestants. This is about all white Christians.


So what do we make of this? Do we say black Christians are biased and paranoid? Or do we say that most white Christians simply refuse to connect the dots, because we are in denial?

Apparently, it takes more than seven years of a black President to change the course of 500 years of history since the first slaves were dragged to the colonies. Despite school busing, affirmative action, Urban Renewal, a War on Drugs, a half century later we have made some gains, but on the whole, when we look at the Temple of Racial Equality we have tried to build and measure it against the soaring aspirations of “I Have a Dream,” –to quote Haggai again- “How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”

What happened? It is not enough to say Donald Trump came along and made racism acceptable again. Trump is only a symptom; he is like a virus that seizes an opportunity when the body of the nation is weakened. In a healthy republic, Trump is not a serious candidate. Trump has just emboldened latent racism that has now showed up on X-rays. In Iowa, where my mother lives, as they prepare for the Presidential Caucuses, white Supremist groups are making Robo calls on behalf of Donald Trump. American Renaissance, the group that inspired hatred in Dylann Roof, and lead to his shooting of nine black people in a Charleston, SC church, has a Super Pac and is calling people in Iowa. (Both these groups are not old racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, they were incorporated in 2009. We know what happened in 2008, right.)

We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.’

The reality is that ending racism is more like curing cancer, it takes more than Vitamin C and one dose or two of chemotherapy. Cancer attacks the body in so many ways, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer…and there are so many ways that we work to prevent and treat it, radiation, chemotherapy, keeping pollutants out of our food and water. It takes a major investment of time and money and commitment. People need support, and rides the doctor, and we have prayer lists. We all have lost someone close to us, or endured cancer ourselves.

If you are black, you have lost someone to the system of racism. Maybe it was to drug and gang violence, or prison time for things most people did in college, (since blacks are 10 times more likely to do jail time for drug use than whites) or if you live in Flint, Michigan racism is literally in the water. The story of the Flint water system is a terrible case of environmental racism.

12003372_10153016727097484_2450852409993374539_nSo what do we do now? Healthy organizations go back to their mission statements.
We are here this morning in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Not just Isaiah, Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. But also First Baptist Church, whose members declared themselves to be against slavery in 1840. (You let a bunch a radicals in when you merged with them!) It was First Churches that strongly supported the Sojourner Truth statute being placed in Florence against strong opposition. My hope is that 20 years down the road, when I’m retired, a preacher will be standing here saying, look what the people of First Churches did 2016, and 2020. They stood tall and strong. Go and do likewise!

Magi, Jedi, Christ Star, Death Star

Magi, Jedi, Christ Star, Death Star

Scripture Text:  Luke 3:15-22

A long time ago; in a galaxy far, far away; a child in a movie multiplex looked up to a parent and whispered: “Is the Force the same thing as God?” That is the conversation George Lucas wanted to create. Lucas recently talked about religion in an interview with Charlie Rose (by the way, he hates the new Star Wars now that Disney owns the franchise.) When he was 8, he asked his mom, “If there’s only one God, why are there so many religions?” (Lucas is what we would call a “questioning believer!”) The church is poorer when we don’t allow questions. Recently at Wheaton College, the Evangelical college near Chicago which houses the Billy Graham Center, a professor said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She was fired, despite tenure.

Do we all worship the same one God? Is “The Force” God? Yes and No. I’m not sure all Christians are worshiping the same God. The idea of the force isn’t so new. Spinoza believed that nature is God, and Obi-Won Kenobi modernizes this to Luke, describing the Force as “the energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Is that what God is? The Apostle Paul said, “In God we live and move and have our being.” I think there is a deeper mystery to God than an energy field, but I think The Force brings us closer to God than a white haired, bearded guy in the sky.

Lucas grew up Methodist, which he left because he thought there was too much self-serving piety, but he retains many Christian references in Star Wars. “May the Force be with you” is a straight borrowing of the benediction “May the Lord be with you.” There are themes of self-sacrifice and death and resurrection, as Obi-Wan allows himself to be struck down, Christ-like, by Darth Vader, and then arises again from death to be a voice, much like the Holy Spirit, who speaks to Luke Skywalker in his hour of need. Lucas does not make us chose one religion but throws together elements of Christianity, Buddhism and Taoism. Its like the religious version of the mall, where his movies are shown, and you can shop for clothes at both Old Navy and Fredrick’s of Hollywood.

Last Sunday, when I had a day off, Jeanne and I worshiped the way many Americans do, we went to brunch and a movie, seeing “The Force Awakens.” Lucas created a masterful morality tale about good and evil, and making choices. It is the modern version of the great morality tale that has been told for centuries. The plot is straight out of Joseph Campbell in “A Hero’s Journey” and “The Hero of a Thousand Faces.” The story of Jesus’s life also follows the ancient hero stories, even in our brief passage today in Luke’s Gospel. First, there is a central conflict. Evil threatens to take total control. The faces may change from Darth Vader to Kylo Ren, but it is really anger, fear, hatred, arrogance, the desire for power, that leads to evil and threatens goodness. Throughout the Bible we also see the interchangeable faces of evil, from the serpent in the garden, to Herod, to the Roman Emperors, even to unjust Hebrew kings, evil lurks where anger, envy, revenge and hatred bubble in the human soul. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones understood this, in the song “Sympathy for the Devil” the lyrics say, “I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain….I rode a tank; held a general’s rank; when the blitzkrieg raged; and the bodies stank; pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name.” The faces change but the Dark Side is the same, from George Wallace to Donald Trump. When we fear “the other” someone will always put the mask on and promise that they are “protecting” us.

Star Wars reminds us of the subtleties of evil. It is a force that can take up residence in anyone. All the good characters must struggle with the dangers of pride, arrogance and anger that can lead to the Dark Side. The evil characters were once good, Darth Vader, and spoiler alert, Kylo Ren is also related to the good side (I won’t give it away). Good and evil are never simply divided into white hats and black hats, in Star Wars and in reality, the struggle happens even in our own families. This is biblical. King David is seen as the good king, the slayer of Goliath, the hero of Israel, but when he sends a soldier to his death to take his wife, he goes over to the Dark Side and has to struggle his way back into the light. Jesus, after his baptism, goes into the wilderness to be tested three times by the devil. Luke Skywalker goes into a cave to face his fear, and realizes that he too could become Vader.

The temptation is to only see evil in the other side. I noticed this in trailers we saw before the movie. Independence Day Resurgence, and some Bengazi movie, even the animated Kung Fu Panda, were all movies that divide good and evil into us and them. The aliens and terrorists are the faceless bad people, and when we kill all of them, things will go back to normal and we will be happy. This is the false narrative that violence is redemptive, and we can shoot our way out of problems. It should not surprise us that Ted Cruz said we should carpet bomb ISIS back into the Stone Age. He was merely quoting Curtis LeMay, the Air Force general who administered the bombing of Japan, who first used the phrase in a 1968 memoir, and he wanted to bomb Vietnam and Cuba (which might have killed Ted Cruz’s Cuban father.) The impulse of peace through Victory and bigger bombs culminates in creating a Death Star, large enough to blow up everyone who disagrees with us.

Evil isn’t simply out there, it is a challenge for everyone when we face fear, anger, envy and hostility. Certain people and situations bring out our worst and we have to make a choice, good or evil. Likewise, sometimes those in the grip of evil change their mind. George Wallace later repented. Darth Vader changed at the very end. In The Force Awakens, a Storm Trooper named Finn escapes, refusing to do evil, and becomes a reluctant helper to the rebel cause. In the Gospel narrative, likewise, signal change when soldiers of the Roman Empire come to John the Baptist and Jesus with respect, like Cornelius the Centurion who wants his daughter healed. The Apostle Paul once terrorized Christians, but comes into the forces of good. Jesus never allows the strict separation of good and evil. He preaches about the “good” Samaritan, and tells the angry mob, “Let those without sin caste the first stone.” The challenge of being good is to resist evil without becoming it, to still having compassion for those in evil’s grip, for we too could stray and stumble.

This is where the hero’s journey begins. We try, we fail, and then a baby is born and hidden away. Unto us a child is born, who shall raise the lowly and bring down the unjust. Emmanuel, God with us. Note that Moses was hidden from Pharaoh, Jesus from Herod, and Luke and Leia both hidden from the Darth Vader. Even Batman and Superman have to start out undercover. They are protected until they grow stronger, until they can hear the call to take the journey themselves. At first the hero is afraid of the quest, evil seems too overwhelming, but at some point they have to make a decision to take it on, the search for the holy grail, cross the Rubicon, leave aside “Akuna Mattata,” or be baptized and join in the mission to heal the world and resist evil. The text tells us that John baptized Jesus and then Herod imprisons him and beheads him, and Jesus must carry on the work, just as Luke must continue on after Obi-Won is killed by Darth Vader.

Here is what I love in “The Force Awakens.” The power to take on the hero’s journey comes from compassion. It must be a love story. Han Solo and Princess Leia, and Mary and Joseph, and Rey and Finn; they have courage because they love. If evil threatens what they love, they must resist. Jesus embodies the love of God for all of humanity, the force of this love awakens in him, and gives him the power to transform other lives. This is the greatest power against evil. We get all distracted by the light sabers, by walking on water, water into wine, and other Jedi mind tricks. The real power of the hero is that they embody good to the extent that others trust and believe in its power, and have the courage to resist evil and transform as well. The Force Awakens, only in a willing person, and the story continues.

I don’t know if this story ever ends and resolves. It repeats as new hero’s faces emerge and as the next person puts on the mask of evil when pride, fear and hatred gets the best of them. And this is what J.J. Abrams has done from us, taking the vision of George Lucas, and calling us to awaken. As a church, where The Great Awakening happened about 275 years ago with Jonathan Edwards, we should understand all this. The faces change, as Harriet Beecher Stowe takes on slavery, and Martin Luther King opposed segregation and the Vietnam War, and here we are now. You who are baptized, you who are beloved by God, you in whom God is well pleased, you who follow Jesus and desire a force for good to be awakened, why not in you? Trust the force, and may the Lord be with you.

Stupid Things People Say to Pregnant Women

Stupid Things People Say to Pregnant Women

Luke 1 :39-55

December 20, 2015

People say the strangest things to pregnant women.  First comes the size comments:

“Wow, you’re HUGE!”  “Are you sure it’s not twins?” “How much weight have you gained?”  You should put a sign on your back that says WIDE LOAD!” “I can’t imagine how that baby is going to get out.”


Then come the nosy questions:  “Are you sure you’re really pregnant?”

“Was it planned?”


And the unsolicited advice:

“Did you know you’re not supposed to…” (fill in — “eat that,” “do that,” etc.)

 “Get the epidural.  You can’t do it otherwise, it’s horrible.”

“I didn’t do an epidural because I love my baby.”


And worst of all are the complete strangers who does not say hello or ask permission, but touches and rubs your belly, and says, “Wow, I just love pregnant bellies!!”


Men don’t really get much feedback.  Generally, its just something like “Hey, way to go,” as if we had some kind of skill-set in the whole process.  Someone always has to say, “Didn’t know you had it in you.”  Or “Are you sure its yours?”  Pregnancy is way out of my experience, not only because I’m a man, but because my children were adopted.  I’ve helped raise four children, but haven’t lived with someone when she gave birth.  I can say that people don’t know what to say to adoptive parents either.  “Oh, you couldn’t have children?”  “Do you have any children of your own?”  No, just these kids I picked up a Rent-a-Center.


I can imagine what a great relief it may have been for Mary, betrothed but not yet married and pregnant, to talk with Elizabeth, finding some peace together-two women sharing the intimacies of their pregnancies without any stupid, prying questions.  Elizabeth understands Mary’s pregnancy, both in the physical and spiritual realms.


Let me tell you the Christmas Pageant story as Luke tells it, where Elizabeth is in the center too.  Luke’s Gospel begins with Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, who is a priest at the Temple.  One day, he draws a lot to be the one to burn incense for God in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple.  An angel comes to Zechariah and says, “Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and he shall have the spirit of Elijah, the great prophet.”


There are two shocking things about this.  First, Zechariah says, “Are you sure about this Mr. Angel, whatever your name is, for Elizabeth is ‘getting on in years.”  Ah, there’s another classic euphemism.  She’s “getting on in years” to be pregnant.  The careful reader will note that this is repeating the story of Abraham and Sarah, who was also “getting on in years” and thought she was barren.  God is doing a new thing, and it is beginning with a birth, a sign of hope when all hope was nearly lost.


What is God doing here exactly?  Luke tells us that Elizabeth is a descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses, the first high priest and all priests are of the House of Aaron.  She is of the right lineage for the priestly class, but the angel has told Zechariah that the baby will be a prophet like Elijah.  Prophets are the disturbers of the priests.  Elijah’s adversaries were the priests.  Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, all judged the priests for approving whatever kings wanted, regardless of justice and morality.  God is stirring to pot, with this child, who is born a descendent of Aaron, will have the power of Elijah, and become John the Baptist.  The current priesthood will be challenged again, the angel says, to Zechariah, the priest who just got to burn incense in the holy of holies.  No wonder he says, “Are you sure about this, Mr. Angel.”  And the angel says, “I am Gabriel, (yes, that Gabriel from the pageant) the one who stands in the heavenly host, and for your question you will remain mute until after your child is born.”  Imagine in this patriarchal book that a man does not get to tell the story.  It is going to be told by the women who birthed the babies.  Why is this never in Christmas pageants?


Next Luke tells us that Gabriel visits Mary, and her baby will be great and God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.  Luke gives us an intimate moment between these two women, who are giving birth to sons who will overturn the current order of things.  One has a mute husband, who must have seen a vision in the holy of holies, then Elizabeth becomes pregnant, the other, Mary, has just heard the incredible proclamation from the Angel Gabriel.  They can understand each other, something spiritually extraordinary is going on.


I wonder if Mary had come to Elizabeth to hide out and get support.  Mary could have been stoned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock.  Galilee is not that far by camel to Syria and Northern Iraq, where women are being stoned to death today in ISIS controlled territories.  She might be stashed out of site while pregnant, to save her life.  So here is the climax of their meeting, when Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice of greeting, her baby leaps in her womb, and she is filled with the Holy Spirit and says,


“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb… as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”


Imagine Mary’s reaction.  How did she know?!  She hadn’t told anyone her story, but Elizabeth knows.  So these two women, bearing so much in their wombs, bearing the future, bearing sons who will be great and who will both be executed.  Two women who knew shame, one because she was barren for many years, the other for being pregnant much too soon, can share an intimate moment together, one that no one else can understand.  Now Mary sings the Magnificat, the blessings of God who brings down the proud and raises the lowly, and fills the poor with good things.  I imagine Mary sitting close to Elizabeth, wrapped in her embrace, singing with moist eyes, as tears of joyful gratitude form.  She is safe, she is understood.  Someone else knows she is not crazy- Elizabeth whose own baby leaps in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice.  That sounds like a great Christmas pageant.


It is a great gift to be understood and blessed.  Remember this if you are still struggling with figuring out the right gift for someone for the holidays.  What they may really need is to be blessed-For someone to notice the burden they are carrying, and to proclaim, your struggles, your work, your hopes and dreams are not in vain.  You are blessed, so carry on.  This should find its way into our New Year’s resolutions, to listen and bless those who need to be blessed.  Bless all kinds of pregnancies.  Some people are pregnant with books and ideas.  Others are want to give birth to treatments for cancer, or fuel cells that will solve global warming, Grandparents, hoping for their grandchildren’s lives, diplomats that have hopes that peace will be birthed, activists pregnant with justice, people pregnant with the hopes that they will have a home again, find a job where their gifts and labors are welcomed, or where their pain is accepted and healed rather than dismissed.  Perhaps this is all the church needs to be relevant again, is to live in the Spirit of Elizabeth, and bless all who are struggling to give birth to the Christ within them.

Snake Charmers and Fire Walkers

Snake Charmers and Fire Walkers

Luke 3: 7-18

December 13, 2015


This is the Sunday where we light the candle of joy and prepare to celebrate the great mystery of Emmanuel, God with us.  It is also the Sunday we celebrate his cousin John the Baptist, who calls people a brood of vipers, and preaches about axes and fire coming down from heaven.  Welcome to Paradox City!  Joy to the world, you brood of vipers!  The ending is a head scratcher:


17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


If that is the good news, imagine John the Baptist when he was having a bad day!  Here’s how I make sense of this scripture.  This is good news if your social location is in flames.  If you live on the South Side of Chicago, West Baltimore or Ferguson, Missouri, and you are tired of yet another video of a young black man being gunned down by police, you want to hear about an axe at the roots of the racism tree.  If you are a dedicated police officer working for public safety, this is a tough time.  If you live in the Marshall Islands, soon to be under water because the world is too hot, you would rejoice at Bill McKibben poking his winnowing fork at Exxon Mobile for funding junk science on climate change.  If you own a lot of Exxon stock, that sounds like bad news.  If you are a parent from Sandy Hook calling the NRA a brood of vipers for blocking any kind of meaningful arms sales reform to stop massacres, that sounds like good news.  If I call Donald Trump a dangerous viper, are you going to hold your thumb up or your thumb down?  I think you see the point.


Bold prophetic language can be either good news or bad news, depending on your social location and ideology.   Much of John’s audience lived in a world on fire, and they were most likely the poor, excluded, and marginalized out there at the River Jordan.  He was their voice, their hero, their Bernie Sanders, or MLK, or Tea Party if you are a conservative.  John’s rhetoric was good news to his audience, and bad news to the status quo of Herod, Pilate, the high priest in Jerusalem and Emperor Tiberius.  But there is something more going on here.


What is John calling people to do?  “If you have two coats, give one to someone who needs it.”  Inequality is a moral problem.  A Republic cannot be partially prosperous and mostly miserable.  The next sentence is mind blowing.  Even the tax collectors are there.

“And they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”


What is the good news people heard from John?  He called them to a world where people were generous, honest, don’t exploit other people out of greed, who are seeking to bear good fruit whatever their job or social location.  Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”   MLK called it the Beloved Community.  Isaiah called it the Peaceable Kingdom.


John’s exhortation applies to us.  Start where you are.  In seminary, I heard the late Walter Muelder speak.  He was the ethics professor at Boston University in the 1950s and 60s, and MLK and Coretta Scott King credit him as forming the core of King’s philosophy of social change.  His lecture was passionate, hopeful and inspiring, and what I remember was from the question and answer session.  One student gave voice to something we all feel, indeed the same question as John the Baptist was asked.  “What do we do?”  I don’t know where to start in a world torn by violence, sexism, racism, homophobia.  The principalities and powers seem to overwhelming, so where do I start.  What’s most important?  Muelder said, “Start where you are.  Start with your passion and with your opportunity.  It does not matter what your cause is, because life is all interrelated, and the good you do in one place will help others doing good in another.  You can’t do it all, but you must do something.”


The Beloved Community, the Peaceable Kingdom, comes when we engage our calling with passion.  One of our most important tasks is discerning our unique calling, as a church and as individuals.  That is what our vision team is going to help us do in 2016.  Step 2 is to do this work with courage.  To have a Peaceable Kingdom, someone has to encourage the lambs and someone else has to tame the lions, because you can’t just put them in the same pew and hope for the best.


John is a snake charmer and a fire walker.  These practices started as religious rituals.  In the ancient world religious rituals often had an element of danger.  We worry about passing germs during communion, or being stymied at a board meeting, while some ancient preists were charming snakes and walking on coals.  Snake charming began in India, and moved to Egypt at about the time when Moses challenged Pharoah with his rod that turned into a snake.  Hinduism believed snakes to be sacred, and healers studied snakes and knew how to deal with them.  People would call on the healers not only for snake bites, but to come and get snakes out of their homes.  A guru named Baba Gulabgir used snakes to teach people to understand what they fear.  The art of snake charming works first because cobras are not that fast.  They are defensive creatures, who can scare the heck out of you when they rise up and flare their hoods and hiss at you.  But the cobra knows it has one shot and it is dead if it misses, so it will try to scare you off and then wait till you get really close.  So the snake charmers art is to sit just out of striking distance.  Cobras don’t really hear, but they sense vibration, so they feel the vibrations in the air coming from the pungi flute and show their impressive defensive stance.  But the vibrations stay far enough away that the cobra doesn’t strike, but close enough that it continues it impressive dance, thus it seems “charmed.”  The teaching is to understand what you fear, otherwise you will probably do more harm than good to yourself and others.  John knew a viper when he saw one, and he understood them, and taught people not to fear their power.  Remember, when he says brood of vipers, a brood is baby snakes.  They are not mature and he is calling them to grow up.


When John talks about fire baptism, he is in part alluding to a refining fire that burns away all that is impure.  But I also wonder if there is an element of ancient fire walking practices behind his image as well.  Fire walkers would dazzle their audience by walking across beds of hot coals, and their feet would not even be burned.  That seems impossible, given how easily I burn my fingers in the oven.  But here is how the art works.  The coals are lit hours earlier, and burn down so there is a protective layer of ash on top.  The ceremony happens at night so the red glow is visible and impressive.  As long as the walker keeps moving, and does not stand still the scorching heat doesn’t get through the ash to burn your skin.  If you get fearful and stop, you are in real trouble.  But if you manage your fear and just move quickly forward, you get safely to the other side.  All it takes is a little science and a lot of courage.


Courage-that is a word I associate with John the Baptist.  He was a snake charmer and a fire walker, and called for bold discipleship.  Discipleship calls for our courage.  God knows we need it.  When I meet with the Massachusetts Conference Board of Directors, we lift up three words that all our actions should embody – Courage, depth and bridge building.  At the end of every meeting we say, “where did we exhibit courage, or depth or bridge building?”   When we are making a decision, Jim Antal, our Conference Minister, will often say, “What would you do if you were bold?”  That is what John the Baptist invites from us this morning, “What would you do if you were bold?’