Sermon: Lent

Lent helps us see that we are the root of the problem; but also that God intends us to be part of the solution as well.

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Did you know that the word “Lent” comes from an ancient Germanic word that means “To Lengthen”? (Lenten -> Lengthen) It was originally used as a term for the season of Spring– referring to the lengthening days of the season.

Lent is not mentioned at all in the Bible. So, it is not really “Biblical” in the strictest sense. Which is why many Protestants, such as the Puritans and their descendants (including us) did not observe it until just the last few decades.

And yet, Lent is deeply rooted in the Bible. Its 40 day duration is very deliberate, consistent with how the number 40 is used throughout the Bible. (Well actually, Lent is 46 days long, if you count Sundays. But, Sundays are already devoted to our relationship with God. So, Lent is about finding God is in the rest of our week as well!)

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of the 40 days and nights it rained during Noah’s great flood, cleansing the Earth. We are told Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mt Sinai, seeking God’s will and direction for his people. We know the Jews wandered for 40 years in the desert to free themselves from the presumption that they knew better than God. And, Elijah spent 40 days wandering in the desert before reaching that little cave on Mt Horeb where he encountered God. In this morning’s story from Matthew, Jesus fasts and prays in the desert for 40 days before his encounter with the Tempter.

In the Bible, the number 40 is used to represent times of contemplation, judgment and preparation. Its metaphorical significance thought to originate in the 40 weeks of a human pregnancy. And this is why the 40 days of Lent are devoted to fasting, to meditation and to other acts denying us of things we are used-to. It’s devoted to transformation. Lent breaks us out of our normal routines.   By doing so, by breaking away from our normal lives, we open ourselves to God’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit within us.

So, Lent was a very intentional creation by the Early Church. It is intended to help us to examine ourselves, and our relationship with God. It is meant to give us the space and time we need to discern what is really important in our lives, and in our faith. Lent challenges us to grow.

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Political Reality

I’ve said this before, and it needs to be said again and again:

Some aspects of the GOP’s agenda, particularly with regards to economic policy and governance, have merit: reducing government bloat and overregulation are good goals; as is strengthening our manufacturing base and increasing our economic competitiveness.
 
I may disagree with some aspects of these goals, especially certain proposed implementations, but the basic ideas are sound. Making progress on these issues would be welcomed by many moderate Democrats and non-aligned voters, especially if implemented with some effort at building a common consensus with those outside the party. And many within the GOP, such as Senator McCain and even Dick Cheney have said exactly this.
 
However, the GOP’s blind spot is their assumption that they have been given a mandate to promote their social agenda and a pass on ignoring the influence of dark money and corruption in politics.  If they continue pushing on rolling back social reform and ignore the corruption issues (as they are actively doing), they’ll have a really tough time in the next election cycle – despite their extensive attempts at voter suppression and gerrymandering.
 
But Democrats be warned: American voters are determined to have a government that is focused on improving the situation of the middle class and the poor, and they see “dark money” and influence-buying as key obstacles to making that happen. I think it likely we’ll continue to see increasingly large, wild and ultimately destructive swings every few years from one party being given control to the other until both parties recognize this and do something about it.  Case in point: the current regime.

And let’s be perfectly clear on this: those of us who are devoted to the cause of social justice can never ignore the fact that people vote first with their wallets.  If we don’t provide the majority of people within this country with realistic hope for a stable and prosperous future, they will be adamant in their refusal to support any expansion of social justice that could be construed as taking away what little stability and hope they already have.  It doesn’t matter to them how right or just a particular cause may be: what matters is whether they have a roof over their own heads and food on the table for their own children.

That’s reality: deal with it.

– Pastor Allen


Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
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Abolish the Johnson Amendment?

In a recent editorial (“IRS Should not Enforce Silence from the Pulpit“), the Boston Globe gave a nuanced and thoughtful (if brief) critique of the current state of the law. And, in fact, I agree with their position.

As I (and the Globe) see it, the problem with the so-called “Johnson Amendment” which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt groups from specifically endorsing candidates is not that the law exists, but in how it is enforced by the IRS.  In fact, it’s a bit of a morass, with varying standards applied in various cases with varying degrees of zeal on the part of the IRS’s representatives.

As a minister, I do not specifically endorse (or condemn) candidates from the pulpit. (Although, I doubt anyone is in the dark about my political leanings!)

On the other hand, I have known of ministers who have condemned (or endorsed) specific political candidates from the pulpit in various ways, and I feel – even if it were allowed by the law –  this is a seriously flawed approach, from many different points of view.  I have even known ministers who have allowed campaigning politicians to give speeches from their pulpit, in clear violation of the Johnson Amendment.

Aside from the very clear “First Amendment” issues (regarding both Separation of Church and State and Freedom of Speech), I see such endorsements as a Pastoral failure: it is insensitive and dismissive, if not blind to, the feelings and experience of many who are in our congregations.  Ministers who make such a stand often find themselves in hot water with their congregations for precisely that reason, and rightly so.

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Sermon: “With”

“…whether Women or Blacks or Jews or Japanese or Gays or Muslims or Hispanics or Native Americans are human is not the issue. They are, obviously. The real question is: are we?”

dsc_0168One point I was hoping to make with the “Hope” video I was going to show at the beginning of today’s service was that the “Women’s Marches” around the country on the day after the inauguration were not “Protests.”

Now, a “Protest” is where you stand against something – some event or social ill or person. And, certainly this was an impetus to the creation and organization of those demonstrations; but to “Protest” is not what I saw when I was there: it was not why millions of us came together.

We came to be with each other! We knew it was important to show through our physical presence, that we will support those who are being marginalized. We came because we care. We came because we will no longer stand by while our neighbors are being silenced and oppressed. We gathered together out of love, not out of hate.

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Major Crow

The heart of the problem is that many believe that being in a leadership position means they no longer need advice, particularly unsolicited advice: They must have all the answers, and see accepting advice from others as a sign of weakness. They think they’ll lose face for accepting help from others; or that “naysayers” are seeking to undermine them and their cause. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“Where there is no guidance, a nation falls,
but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
– Proverbs 11:14 (NRSV)

A dozen (or so) years ago, I was a Technical Lead for an IT services contractor in the DC area.  After wrapping up one project, I had been assigned to lead a project for a new client of another division within my company.  A few months later, I was pulled back into my old group because a project that had been waiting approval for a long time had finally gotten the green light: writing a new and very complex logistics-support application for a branch of the military.

Several members of my team had spent years supporting (and fixing) the predecessor to the proposed new system.  They had developed a very deep and thorough knowledge of the way the client used the system, the system’s remaining flaws, and the needs it was failing to address at all.  We had known for a long time that it would cost far more to finish fixing the existing system’s critical problems and gaps than to rewrite the whole thing from scratch.  The client had finally agreed: a design and project plan had been developed, and the proposal had been approved.  I was brought back to lead the technical side of that effort.

Just a couple of weeks later, we had our initial meeting with the primary stakeholders of the new system in an office building not far from the Pentagon.  I arrived along with my boss.  She and I were escorted into a conference room.  Several of the folks associated with the use of the system were already there, and we all chatted for a few minutes as the rest of the team trickled in.

Suddenly, an aide came in and announced an Officer: after that introduction, he strode in and sat down.  Wasting no time, his message was pointed and brief: he had talked to the commander about an hour earlier and convinced him that our project should be under his command, since he was already tasked with leading the development and deployment of a similar system.  (Although similar, not identical – its mission actually had very little overlap with that of our project.)

He explained that our project was needless duplication, and that it would detract from what he was trying to accomplish.  Besides, he’d had a conversation with the vendor of the workgroup product his own “portal” was going to be built-with, and the vendor had assured him it would only take 8 months to duplicate the functionality our project would provide.  And so, he’d promised his commander that he would have the new system up and running in eight months time.

Therefore, he was shutting down our project, effective immediately.

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Follow Me

lonely_footsteps_in_the_sand_by_daila0701-d3ncbfdOur reading from Matthew chapter 4 this morning tells us how Jesus called his first four disciples – all fishermen; saying to them, “Follow Me.”

This puzzles me, because the first chapter of Matthew tells us that Jesus will be called “Emmanuel” – “God with us.” This speaks to how we see God as always right here, alongside us. Through Jesus-Emmanuel, we know God experiences what we experience. God feels what we feel. God knows birth and death just as we are born, and will someday die. “Emmanuel” is a statement of our equality before God. We are one of the many children of God standing alongside the first child of God, Jesus Christ.

So, how can the same Gospel teach that we are following behind Jesus (as the disciples were and at the same time walking with Jesus, our sibling, at the same time? Is Jesus our leader or our companion?

Now, how some interpret the idea that we “follow” Jesus troubles me. “Following Jesus” does not mean that we are desperately clutching at the hem of his robe to be dragged into Paradise. “Following Jesus” does not mean that we must adhere to some very specific interpretation of God’s Word or risk eternal damnation. “Following Jesus” does not mean we check our brains, or our hearts, at the door.

On the other hand, some people go a bit too far with the idea of Jesus as a companion. Yes, Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.” But, this does not mean that Jesus goes everywhere that we want to go. Jesus is our companion. But companions walk together. They support each other.

We do not slavishly follow Christ. But then again, we cannot expect Christ to follow us just because we want him to! And yet many, Fundamentalists and Progressives alike, believe exactly that: justifying their own particular perspectives as the only one that is blessed by God. (Well, except atheists, who just want you to believe their particular perspective!)  Many go further, claiming we’ll be blessed only if we have enough faith in what they believe. Really?

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Marching in the Light of God

img_8889A synopsis of the “A Message for All Ages” I presented to our congregation’s children (and adults) on January 22, 2017.


I attended the “Women’s March for America” in Boston yesterday.  It was not easy to get to because Boston’s Public Transportation system was overwhelmed by how many people were trying to go, but it was well worth the hassle it took to get there.

I thought it would be good to show you a slideshow of some of the things I saw, as well as talk about what that March means for us and our neighbors.

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Why Should We Resist?

Yes, we need to work with DT and his regime, and will. We would do so in a collaborative, supportive way if he were a reasonable man…. But, he is not that kind of man.

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From “An Emerging, and Very Pointed, Democratic Resistance”, The New Yorker Magazine, Jan 18, 2017 (link below)

During my first job as a computer programmer (way back in the late 1970’s) the owner of the small factory where I worked was quite a large and “take charge” sort of man, and had quite the temper.  When you crossed or disappointed him in any way, he’d lean forward, turn red in the face and pound his fist on his desk: yelling at you and insulting you.

Everyone in the office would cower behind their desks when this happened: hoping they would not become the next target of his wrath.  No one dared tell him “No.” (Except me, although that was largely because I was too naive to realize I should be intimidated.  I also didn’t have a mortgage or car payment to worry about!)

What I learned is that once he yelled and screamed for a bit, he’d calm down, and then would listen to what I had to say.  He came to respect me because I stood up to him, and told me so.  Even though we never became friends, I did respect him; and we accomplished a great deal during my time there.

That ability to stand firm in the face of such anger has served me well in the years since.  (Although it has also gotten me fired once or twice, until I learned that doing so works best if you listen carefully past the emotion, to hear what the other is trying to say.)

Now, the politics of consensus and community-building – which are my own default and preferred approach – can lead one to conclude that we should play nice with our new President from day one, as  Joan Vennochi advocates in her opinion piece “Democrats, don’t take your ball and go home” in today’s Boston Globe.

Yes, we need to work with DT and his regime.  If he were a reasonable man (and nothing he’s said in public leads to that conclusion), I’d agree with Ms. Vennochi’s points.  But, he is not that kind of man: his personality is very similar to that long ago boss of mine, and many others I’ve encountered in the years since.

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A Message for All Ages: Let There be Light!

In order for God’s light to shine everywhere, as God intends, and as we are called to make happen, we need to actively look for where the darkness is, and then labor to bring light into those places.

dsc_0007A few months ago I noticed that the light bulb in the recessed fixture above my office door was burned out.

No big deal, I thought: I removed the old bulb (it was VERY dirty, must have been there for years) to make sure I knew exactly what kind of bulb I needed.  Fortunately, I had an identical spare.

I put the new bulb in: it didn’t work.  Hmm, that’s odd.

I tested the new bulb in another fixture: it worked.  Even more odd.

I then took a standard light bulb and tested the fixture above my door: it worked.

I then tested the old bulb in a desk lamp: it worked.

Everything worked.  Nothing was burned out.

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Sermon: Hearing the Gospel

Our faith is not a static set of rules, nor is it a deep understanding of tradition and scripture. Our faith is a constantly evolving and ever deepening and broadening dialog between our selves, our neighbors, and our God.

joachim-patenier-the-baptism-of-christ-1515-kunsthistorisches-museum-viennaA couple of weeks ago I woke up to find snow covering the ground outside our bedroom window. But there were warmer temperatures in the day’s forecast, I was concerned we’d soon have a thick layer of slush outside. And frankly, my snowblower is not terribly useful in slush! So I hopped right out of bed, taking care that my sleeping sweetheart, who’d been up a lot the previous night, was undisturbed, and ran to the front door.

I stepped out to see what I had to deal with. Hmm: still pretty cold. So, I was pretty sure I had time for some coffee. As I turned around, I saw that the inner door had swung almost shut, but I knew it wouldn’t latch on its own.  So, I pulled open the storm door to go back in and … “click.”

It was not quite 6:00am in the morning. It was 28 degrees outside. It was dark. I’m wearing only socks, sweat bottoms, and a T-Shirt.

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The UCC’s Letter to Talladega College

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Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, President of Talladega College

Yesterday while I was leading my Church’s Worship Service, a member of our congregation asked me (during our “announcements time”) what I thought of the UCC’s recent letter to Talladega College, a historically Black College in Alabama that has been rebuilding itself after nearly failing a few years ago.  This letter challenges the school’s decision to allow their marching band appear in the Inauguration Parade in Washington DC on January 20th.  It seemed fitting to publish my thoughts here; expanding on the response I gave to her question.

Now, clearly the school’s decision is very controversial, given the incoming administration’s abysmal track record (to date) when it comes to social justice issues and policies.  However, Talladega College’s President, Dr. Billy C. Hawkins, defended the school’s decision saying: “We respect and appreciate how our students and alumni feel about our participation in this parade, … As many of those who chose to participate in the parade have said, we feel the inauguration of a new president is not a political event but a civil ceremony celebrating the transfer of power.”

In response to the college’s announcement, the leadership of the United Church of Christ, my own denomination, and which has been a supporter of Talladega College, sent a letter to the school questioning this decision and asking that they reconsider.  Several alumni of the school have expressed similar concerns.

This is an old, old argument: a new phase in the long battle between those in the Black Community who advocate a more accommodating approach in confronting racism and injustice in this country; and those who favor a more confrontive approach.  Both approaches are valid, and are part of a toolkit that encompasses a wide range of possible responses to racism and injustice that can (and should) be deployed.  (Though which is most appropriate depends upon the particular situation.)

I cannot speak to the specifics of this situation: I was not party to the decision process at Talladega, and have not seen the text of the UCC’s letter to the school.  However, I am deeply concerned by the UCC’s actions here.  What I do know is that Dr. Hawkins is no lightweight, and no stranger to tough challenges; and that we cannot dismiss his school’s decision, or reasoning, lightly.

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Too Nice for My Own Good

I woke up early this morning to discover a nice white covering on the ground outside our bedroom window: we had some substantial rain that changed to heavy snow late last night. With warming temperatures this morning, I’m concerned that we’ll soon have a thick layer of slush; and my snow blower is not terribly useful in heavy slush!

So, I quickly hopped out of bed, leaving my sleeping sweetheart undisturbed; snug and cozy. Running to the front door, I unlocked it, then opened the storm door while leaving the inner door ajar so that I could get back in. I stepped out on the stoop to see what I had to deal with. I turn around and see the cat at the window: he’s wondering if I’ll let him out. Putting my hand down to the ground, I find that the beautiful whiteness consists of ice and hard snow: not so fun with the snow blower – but better than slush!

I turn around and open the storm door. The inner door has already swung almost shut, but is not latched. Pulling open the storm door causes the air pressure to drop in the space between the two doors: “click!”

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