For or Against?

14724498_10157594211435113_4623695507832864461_nI like this meme by John Pavlovitz: It gets to the heart of something that always troubles me when I’m labelled as an ally of one group or another…

It is true that we are called by our faith to make a special effort to support those who are not empowered, no matter who they are. And, this is a central concept within my own ministry and in my day to day existence.

But the problem has always been that people tend to view someone who is “for” some group or cause as being against something else. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Continue reading “For or Against?”

Sermon: Welcome to The Family

We are simultaneously part of many different families. Some of them endure for generations, others exist only for a particular moment in time. At their best, they give our lives shape, meaning and purpose; at their worst, they drag us down into a pit of despair.

JudeanDesert
The Judean Desert near the Dead Sea

My Grandpa loved life, loved his family, and loved making others laugh. I remember sitting with him in the kitchen: he’d smile a big broad smile, and then let his upper denture drop – “Clunk.” We kids would respond with peals of delighted laughter. Grandma, sitting across the table, would inevitably say: “O, Earl!” – Which only provoked more laughter. They were both lovely people, and were both quite strong and wonderful characters.

We all have such “characters” in our families: some eccentric, some difficult, some amusing or endearing, sometimes a combination of all three! They are people who don’t mind living life a bit off from the norm. In fact, at least in my own experience, these same relatives are often seen as embodying a set of qualities – or oddities – that “run in the family” – traits that are usually good (I hope), but sometimes not. They might include patterns of behavior; health issues; physical traits and gifts; ties to a particular place, time or nationality, or a particular legacy, among other things. But, they identify us as “us”: they help us see how and why our family came to be what it is, what it stands for, and why we are who we are.

We are simultaneously part of many different families: our family of origin, the family we marry into, the family we create with our spouse, our church family, our work and school families. Some of these families endure for generations, others exist only for a particular moment in time. But, they all provide us with an identity, and a reason for being who and what we are. At their best, they give our lives shape, meaning and purpose; at their worst, they drag us down into a pit of despair.

Continue reading “Sermon: Welcome to The Family”

Sermon: It Didn’t Go So Well

Love is not a wimpy or sentimental emotion; but a passionate, fierce action. … Such Love requires us to participate in the life of the person in front of us. It makes us see that it isn’t all about us or our agendas. … Jesus will always confound our expectations because he isn’t here to meet our expectations, but rather to help us achieve all that God hopes for us.

Eeckhout-ChristTeachingAtTheSynagogue
Christ Teaching in the Synagogue at Nazareth by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 1658

This morning’s gospel reading focuses on the most extensive narrative we have of Jesus in a Synagogue; and, it didn’t go so well! Or did it?

Please pray with me… Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts and minds be open and receptive to hearing the Word & Mission you have for us here today. Amen.

Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Luke narrates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At the start of this morning’s reading, we are told that “filled with the power of the Spirit,” Jesus ministers in Galilee and eventually returns to the village where he grew up.

People throughout Galilee are saying he is the first true prophet in centuries, and perhaps more than that. But for those in Nazareth, he’s more: he is their celebrity – their hometown hero. Can you imagine? Such an important person, from a tiny, obscure village: they know him! …So exciting! The community was abuzz with rumors and speculation, hopes for a bright future to be brought about through the glory of their native son.

But some are filled with doubt: they watched him grow up. They know him as the son of Joseph the Carpenter. They know Jesus and his family all too well.

Continue reading “Sermon: It Didn’t Go So Well”

Believe!

Belief is not dependent upon conformance to the Law. Belief is the process needed to make God’s command to Love a reality in our lives.

Believe!

PopeFrancisAndManWithBoilsBelieve what? That there are angels? That Jesus died on the Cross for our sins? That all the miracles in the Bible actually happened? That the tribulation is coming? That abortion is a mortal sin? That marriage must be a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman? That only men shall be ordained into the ministry? That God somehow anoints the beliefs or agendas of one person or group over those of another? That our particular understanding of our faith excludes all other understandings, especially those we don’t understand?

Really?

We all are constantly confronted with the choice of what to believe, and how. Do we believe literally all that the Bible says? And, what does “Literal” mean? Literalism presents us with many challenges and contradictions that are impossible to resolve; so, do we instead believe the scriptures through viewing them as metaphor and allegory? Do we ignore the passages that we see as outmoded, focusing on those that seem more relevant? Or, should we go even farther, perhaps picking and choosing what seems nice from the smorgasbord of other beliefs, traditions, and wisdom that we encounter everywhere in today’s world?

I love what the Author of Hebrews has to say about all of this in this morning’s reading. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.”  So, it seems plain that there has never been a single voice deciding what is or is not to be believed as part of our faith. The Author of Hebrews is acknowledging that the prophets don’t all agree with each other, often speaking in ways that seem contradictory, or at least are hard to reconcile with other sacred writings, especially when taken literally.  And this is in fact deliberate; since the goal of the prophets was to disrupt conventional wisdom and accepted practice, the very purpose of their words was to challenge our understanding.

Every author of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible see and portray God’s word in different ways, and then there are the 73 books in the Catholic Bible, and the 81 books in the Ethiopian Bible. So, not only is there disagreement between various scriptures within our Protestant Bible, but disagreement between various branches of Christianity as to what scriptures are part of the Bible at all – not to mention the tens of thousands of variations found within the most ancient scriptural texts we have at our disposal. There is no single “right” Bible, and never has been. So, how can there be a single “right” reading of scripture? Therefore, there is no single universal scriptural standard by which we can judge what is “right” to believe, or not.

But that’s OK, because belief is not about believing the right thing!  We will not be condemned to hell for believing the wrong thing.  Belief is not a certainty that there is a perfect, eternal and unchanging truth upon which all knowledge and all reality depend. (In fact, that belief is a teaching of ancient Greek philosophy, not Judaism.)

Continue reading “Believe!”

A Christian President?

Such signs say far more about the persons holding them than they do about their intended target. Expressing God’s love in ways these people and I can both agree on is a difficult challenge, because it requires that I be just as open to being changed by that love as I hope they will be. It would be far easier, and less challenging to my own peace of mind, to simply shut the door to relationship by dismissing such people as not worth listening to – which is what those signs are attempting to do in terms of their bearers’ relationship with me – and our President – after all…

11206010_429794493875511_1026886848675139799_nLike you, I’ve seen signs like this posted by relatively conservative groups and individuals on social media and elsewhere. While I understand the impetus behind such signs, that I understand does not imply that I agree with them – far from it!

For one thing, we must remember that our President IS a Christian.  Until shortly before his election to the Presidency, he and his entire family regularly attended worship at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, one of the largest and most dynamic churches within my own denomination.  In fact, more than a quarter of a century ago, our future President made a conscious decision to become a Christian when he joined that church after being, as he put it, a “religious skeptic” for many years.  (One should also note that Trinity Church’s motto is “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” …And as an organization serving a community deeply and continuously affected by racism and injustice in this society, how can their motto be otherwise?)

Now, I am a Minister in the tradition of the United Church of Christ (UCC), and for over three centuries members of my family and our ancestors have been faithful members of a church that is now part of this same Protestant Denomination that Barack Obama chose to become a member of at age 26.  Obama is one of three presidents who were affiliated with this same religious tradition that the UCC descends from (Congregationalism) at some point in their lives.  So, I see signs such as this being evidence that their bearer does not believe I am a Christian, either.

Continue reading “A Christian President?”

The Nature of Love

shutterstock_124493413It seemed appropriate on this, Valentines Day, to reflect on the nature of Love.

In Christian Scripture, the Apostle Paul’s First Epistle to Corinthians (chapter 13) is known as the “Love Chapter.” I quote it in full here…

1If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The thing I observe about Paul’s eloquent prose is that it talks about how Love is at the core of the Christian message.  Without it, says Paul, Christianity is nothing, and our words meaningless.

In fact, in reflecting upon the Gospels I do not recall a single instance where Jesus limits the ways in which we are encouraged (or allowed) to love others.  Instead, like Paul, Jesus focuses us on the importance and centrality of Love, often being an example to us of how to love others, and how our love for the other must be grounded in our Love of God.

I remember the first time I saw a young couple passionately kissing, when I was an early teen, I think.  It was a new thing for me – an unfamiliar sight, something I was not comfortable with, something that unnerved me more than a little bit.  I remember thinking “Ewwww!”  … I’m sure most of us have had similar experiences!

Continue reading “The Nature of Love”

Who Owns Christmas?

Recently I saw a news article on a local TV channel about a family here in a Boston suburb that has been celebrating Christmas for decades with an extravagant display of lights.  This year, for the first time, an anonymous “neighbor” sent them a letter claiming to be insulted by the display.

Now it is true that there are many who react  negatively to such celebrations of Christmas.  Comments I’ve heard and read include people saying they feel insulted, offended, disgusted, oppressed and/or marginalized because of this Holiday, and this letter writer certainly sees the display as a statement of exclusion – Christians celebrating their cultural dominance in an insensitive way.  And, they’re not alone, many have written similar anonymous letters (some with threats) in the past.

OK, Let’s accept that: many do feel this way, including our anonymous letter writer, just as the owners of that home, and many others, are feeling hurt and insulted by what the anonymous letter writer had to say.  Such feelings are a reality and cannot be denied.  But I wonder, was this letter a healthy way of expressing one’s feelings about the display of lights?   (In this case, given what they said, I’d say not!)  But, it does raise the issue: is such a display of Christmas lights as insensitive and insulting as this person claims it to be, and how should we react when such concerns are raised?

Continue reading “Who Owns Christmas?”