Privilege (Sermon for September 30, 2018)

There are people in the world who believe that the Bible is boring. Some of them are taking a confirmation class right now; not at this church, of course, but somewhere. And to those people, I offer a counterpoint: the Book of Esther.

For those of you who don’t remember this story, a summary:

The Jews were conquered by the Babylonians and exiled from their homeland. Then the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians and, as we open our story, the Jews are living in exile in Persia.

Due to some palace intrigue, the King of Persia does not have a queen. He has beautiful women brought to him from all over his empire. And he chooses Esther, a Jewish orphan who is being raised by her uncle Mordecai. Esther keeps her Jewishness hidden.

And Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the King. Mordecai stops the plot, and his service is noted.

The king appoints a man named Haman as his viceroy. Now, Haman hates Mordecai, because Mordecai would not bow down to Haman, because Mordecai is Jewish, and he will not bow down to anyone but God. And Haman doesn’t just hate Mordecai, he hates all the Jews. He wants to kill all of the Jews in the Empire. And pays the king for permission to do this. And the king agrees.

So Haman casts lots to determine the date. On the 13th of Adar—so, sort of March-ish—the Jews will die.

Mordecai, of course, discovers the plot and goes to Esther—who, remember, has hidden her Jewishness—and implores her to help her people. But she is afraid. Still, she holds some feasts for the king.

Meanwhile, Haman decides to hang Mordecai and wants to go to the king for permission to do that. He even builds a gallows outside his house. But just before he shows up, the king is reminded that Mordecai uncovered the plot against the king, but never had a public ceremony to honor him.

So, when Haman shows up to ask about hanging Mordecai, the king absentmindedly asks him how he should honor his servant.

And Haman, thinking, “Oh, the king is going to honor me because I’m awesome,” suggests a bunch of crazy stuff. And then the king orders Haman to give Mordecai that honor!

The king and Haman go to one of the feasts that Esther is holding. Esther reveals that she is Jewish and that Haman plans on killing all of her people, including her. The king is furious and leaves the room. While he’s gone, Haman begs Esther for his life and falls on her in desperation. At that moment, the king enters the room, sees this, and thinks that Haman is assaulting his queen.

He orders Haman hanged on the same gallows he built for Mordecai.

Now, for some reason, the king cannot revoke a royal edict. The Jews are still in trouble. So he lets Esther and Mordecai write a new edict that allows the Jews to defend themselves. And they do. Tens of thousands of people attack the Jews… and the Jews kill them.

The Jews are saved, Esther continues as queen, and Mordecai becomes the king’s right hand man. And to this day, Jewish people mark this event with the festival of Purim.

How is this not a movie? And I don’t mean one of those bad Christian movies. You know the ones I’m talking about. I mean a good movie, maybe a sci-fi setting, Natalie Portman, Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Kingsley. We could have a blockbuster on our hands.

But I’m not a producer. I’m a pastor. And this is not just a political thriller story. It is a story about privilege and what we can do with it.

Esther did not choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it.

And I did not choose to be a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied neuro-typical well-educated English-speaking professional middle class man between the ages of 18 and 49 who lives in the United States of America. I was born. There was history and genetics and a whole lot of chance. And that was it.

And I really believe that most of us are in that same boat. Most of us sitting in this sanctuary today have some privilege. We didn’t choose it, but we have it.

When I’m driving down the highway and police lights come on behind me—not that that’s ever happened—I don’t fear for my life.

I have never imagined that I might have to pick up what I can carry and travel hundreds of miles to a new country where I might not be welcome… just to get away from the violence in my own neighborhood.

I have never been told to go back where I come from, or insulted for speaking the language that I speak, or mocked because of the way I dress.

In fact, because of who I am and the position I occupy in our society, I can be pretty confident that authorities will respect me, that power will work for me, and that—even if things go wrong for a while—there are whole social systems that are designed to make sure that things work out for me and people like me… alright enough… in the end.

And that doesn’t mean that I never have trouble, or that I never suffer, or that I didn’t work hard for what I have. It just means that I have advantages that not everyone gets. And that’s it.

I didn’t choose it. And whichever boxes of privilege that you tick, you didn’t choose it. That’s just how it is. But that doesn’t make us any less privileged.

Esther didn’t choose to be queen. She was chosen. One day, she was called before the king and the king said, “Her.” And that was it. But that doesn’t make her any less the queen.

And the question for you and for me is, “What are we going to do with that?”

This is the choice that Esther faces. She can keep her secret. No one knows that she’s Jewish. Maybe she’ll survive and be okay.

But Mordecai doesn’t think so. He’s confident that help will come from somewhere, but, “Esther,” he says, “maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this.”

Maybe you came to royal dignity for such a time as this. Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time—choices that you made and choices that were made for you, things you controlled and things that you didn’t—put you here and now for a reason: to save us all.

In today’s reading—in the little snippet of this story that we heard—we get to see this choice. At one of Esther’s feasts, the king turns to her and asks, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

That is the question of privilege. And I’m confident that none of us here have been offered half a kingdom, but the world asks us a question a lot like that one. Do we have a petition? Odds are we can get it granted. Do we have a request? Odds are we can have it.

At the very least, it will be easier for us than it would be for a lot of people.

And Esther answers, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request.”

And there’s a risk here. It’s true. If the king says no, she will perish with her people. But she knows that her privilege is her responsibility: “If it pleases you, give me my life and the lives of my people.”

And that’s good for Esther. She saves her people. To this day, Jewish people mark this event with a feast.

But it is not enough for us.

I am, if anything, more privileged than Esther. I don’t fear for my life. I don’t fear for the lives of my people, whatever that could mean. I cannot use my privilege for myself.

But…

There’s this theologian, Basil. He is, hands down, one of my favorites. In one of his sermons, he asks his congregation why there are rich people and poor people, why there are haves and have-nots. why God has seen fit to distribute things unevenly.

His answer for why there are have-nots isn’t very satisfying. But his answer for why there are haves is beautiful: it’s so we can share.

I have power and privilege because there is injustice in this world. But God has arranged things so that I can share what I have. I can put my power and privilege to work for others. I can give to people in need. I can stand up for people in trouble. I can amplify the voices of those who go unheard. And that is a gift.

I don’t have to use what I have for myself. I don’t have to use it for my people, whatever that could mean. I get the honor of using what I have for this whole wide world.

Maybe all of the things that had to happen to put me in this place at this time—choices that I made and choices that were made for me, things I controlled and things that I didn’t—put me here and now for a reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe all of the things that had to happen to put you in this place at this time, put you here and now for the same reason: to save someone… anyone.

And maybe—just maybe—all of the things that had to happen to put us in this place and this time, put us here for an even bigger reason: to save someone… anyone… everyone.

And, yeah, that can carry some risk. But how much really?

Because the reward is so much greater: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to do justice and to love kindness; to walk with our Lord and our God.

Amen.

Join Us for Cultural Humility: A Foundation for Extravagant Welcome!

Join First Congregational United Church of Christ for a workshop on cultural humility, the practice of approaching other people with an openness to learn and a willingness to reflect on your own assumptions, practices, and privilege! This workshop will be at First Congregational on October 3 at 6pm and presented by Dr. Chris Martin.

Dr. Martin teaches across the social work spectrum specializing in teaching practice courses. Her areas of practice have been child welfare, child bereavement, youth homelessness, and domestic/sexual violence prevention and intervention. She is a licensed social worker in the state of Iowa and focuses her research on implicit racial bias and its effect on decision making.

Child care will be available!

Naivety (Sermon for September 23, 2018)

There are very few people in the world who will defend Pollyanna. It’s one of the things that makes my wife unique. She gets righteously angry about a few things, and one of them is the flagrant misinterpretation of this beloved children’s classic.

If you don’t know the novel, it follows an orphan named Pollyanna, who moves to Beldingsville, Vermont, to live with her Aunt Polly. Now, Aunt Polly is not a pleasant person. And neither are many of the other residents of Beldingsville. But, in good early-twentieth-century children’s novel fashion, Pollyanna is going to change that.

You see—and this is how everyone interprets the book—Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless optimism. She plays the Glad Game. Whenever she finds herself in a less-than-ideal situation, she plays the Glad Game. She finds something—one thing… anything—to be glad about.

When she looks in a charity box one Christmas and finds crutches instead of a doll, she is glad that doesn’t need the crutches.

When her aunt forces her to stay in a bare room in the attic, she is glad that it has such a wonderful view of the garden.

When she is sentenced to have a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she is glad because she likes bread and milk and Nancy the serving-girl.

And because she is so relentlessly optimistic, her name has become a by-word for naive optimism.

When someone is unrealistically optimistic—when someone maintains their gladness by ignoring the harsh reality of the world around them—we say that they are a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

And in today’s reading from James… James sounds like a little bit of a Pollyanna.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he writes, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace… Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you. Resist the devil and the devil will flee from you. Be a peacemaker and there will be peace.

It all sounds a little… unrealistic.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is teaching, and the disciples are arguing. It’s an argument that you know. It’s probably an argument that you’ve been a part of. It’s the argument about who is greater.

And I always imagine that the disciples are arguing about who is greater because we so often think that greatness is about power. Somewhere in life, we learn—and those disciples learned—that greatness and power come as a set. You get one, you get the other. If you are great, you get power; if you have power, you must be great.

We argue over this. We jockey for position. We fight wars for power and control and authority.

And cruelty is born out of those battles. The big cruelties of one nation subjugating another and driving out its people. The petty cruelties of an aunt forcing an orphan girl to stay in the bare room in the attic. Cruelty is born out of those battles.

And Jesus responds to his arguing disciples, “If you want to be first, you have to be last. You have to be the servant of everyone. Here is a child, she has no power, she has no status, she is the least among us. Welcome her. Show her a world defined by love.”

Holy power is not power over others. It’s power under others. It’s not the power to push someone down. It’s the power to lift them up.

Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ, welcomes God. And what better thing can we do than welcome God?

There are a million things in the world that I cannot control. But one of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at the world. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at other people. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how much power I give to a world that relishes power.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is not her relentless optimism. She is not a naturally optimistic person.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless discipline. She works at the Glad Game.

Pollyanna knows that the world is a dangerous place. She knows that the world is, sometimes, an evil place. he knows that the crutches aren’t a doll. She knows that being forced to stay in a bare room in the attic is a form of abuse. She knows that a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl is a punishment.

She knows that there are thorns and thistles in life. And the Glad Game is her way of refusing to accept that.

There’s an old ‘Native American’ story that floats around the internet. In it, an old man tells his grandson about a fight going on inside him. There are two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. One is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

And the same fight is going on inside is grandson. It’s going on inside you and me and everyone else.

His grandson asks him, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

And that is not a First Nations story. It was invented by Billy Graham sometimes in the late 70s. But it’s still true. What we feed, thrives. And Pollyanna is absolutely committed to feeding the goodness in the world and the brightness in herself.

And, more than that, she is going to tell the evil in the world that it does not have power over her. She is going to say that even in the face of her own suffering—even after a car hits her and she loses the use of her legs—she is going to find and celebrate the goodness in the world.

And by doing that, she will make the world slightly better. A little bit of the tarnish will come off. A little bit of the shine will come back.

And James is fully aware of the position that his Christian friends and neighbors are in. They are a persecuted religious minority surrounded by the most powerful empire in the world. Any sane person would be afraid. Any sane person would be preparing to fight. Any sane person would be grasping for power over the forces that are arrayed against him.

But the wisdom that comes from above is pure and peaceable. It is gentle and willing to yield and full of mercy and good fruits… even with its enemies. It is without a trace, even a trace, of partiality… even towards the people who are already on its own side. It is without a trace, even a trace, of hypocrisy: we don’t just talk about love, we go out and love.

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Being a Christian—following this Jesus person—is a choice. It’s a choice every day. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the temptations of power. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the struggles of this world.

And one part of that choice is welcoming the lost child, even if they aren’t our child, because there’s no such thing as other people’s children.

And one part of that choice is finding the good that God has so carefully planted in this world. Part of that choice is pushing the thorns and thistles aside to get to the flower of love that they are hiding. Part of that choice may even be finding the beauty in the thorns and thistles of life.

Now, I need to be clear here. This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Just because we see and acknowledge and nurture the goodness of the world does not mean that we are unaware of injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil.

Pollyanna can play the Glad Game. She is still staying in a bare room in the attic, she is still having a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she still has to learn to walk again. She is not ignorant of the world, and we can’t be, either.

But, when someone looks for the goodness in the world, it is easy to call them a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

When we look for and nurture the goodness in the world, it will be easy for people to call us a pack of Pollyannas, a phrase which here means, a group of naive folk who do not know how the world works.

But here’s the thing: that is how the world works. And part of the work of fighting injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil is finding the goodness in the world and making more of it.

It is sowing a garden of peace in the hope that there will one day be a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

Words (Sermon for September 16, 2018)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Now and forever.

When I was young, I learned a saying. You know it, too. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

And I can tell you something that I’m sure you already know: that saying isn’t true. It’s a lie. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves and our friends and our children when someone else is teasing them or insulting them or bullying them. It’s a comforting lie. It might even be a useful lie. But it’s a lie all the same.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

Baptism is as much about the words as it is about the water: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord’s table is as much about the words as it is about the bread and wine: “This is my body broken for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

Marriage is as much about the words as it is about the signature on a license: “I do… I now pronounce you…” Years are taken away as much by the judge’s words as they are by her signature on an order, “I sentence you to…”

Or, closer to home… remember the first time that the right person said, “I love you.” Think about the names people called you or the ways they insulted you, when you had to remind yourself that sticks and stones may break your bones, before breaking down in tears. Let your mind sidle up to the words we don’t say: the cursèd words that we call only by their first letter: the n-word, the c-word, the f-word.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And James knows this. In todays reading from his epistle—his open letter to all of the churches, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, to all y’all—James is writing about the power of words. He knows that words are small fires that can set a whole forest ablaze. We can use them to bless our God and savior. We can use them to curse people.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words can bless and curse me.

And here is Jesus, asking about words.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples reply, “Some people say that you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. Other people say that you’re Elijah, back from his sojourn in heaven. Still others say that you’re one of the prophets.”

You see, people are looking for the words to describe Jesus. They’re looking for someone to compare Jesus to. They’re looking for a category to slip Jesus into. And they know who John and Elijah and the prophets are. They know what those words mean. If Jesus is one of those, then they can make sense of him.

But Jesus pushes the question further. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks, “Not your families or friends or people who we’ve met along the way. You… you who know me the best. Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat, “You are the Messiah.”

And he thinks he know what that means. He says, “You are the Messiah.” And he means, “You are God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again.”

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

The word ‘naughty’ used to mean ‘poor’, as in a person who had nought. Now it means bad.

The word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘ignorant’. Then it wandered drunkenly around the language and meant ‘showy’ or ‘refined’ or ‘cowardly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘intricate’. It settled on ‘precise’ for a while. And now it means agreeable.

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

And Jesus is about to do something to the word ‘Messiah’.

He is about to tell his disciples that the word ‘Messiah’ means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

And that… sounds bad. That doesn’t sound like God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again. That sounds like someone who will die. And Peter doesn’t like that. But it gets worse.

Because if we want to follow him, then we’re gonna have to follow him. Cross and all.

When we say, “Jesus is the Messiah.” When we say, “Jesus is the Christ.” When we call ourselves Christians, we are saying something about ourselves. We’re saying that we will pick up our crosses and follow him; that we will lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus asks us who we say that he is, and we put our lives on the line.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And it isn’t just about who we say Jesus is. It’s about who we say anyone is. It’s about who we say each other are. There is amazing power in what we call each other. There is amazing power in how we speak to each other.

Most of you know that I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission. That is something that might come up on a quiz sometime, so I’ll repeat it: I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission.

And one of the things that I learned there was the power of words. We didn’t call the people who came to spend time in our day center ‘clients’. We called then ‘guests’. There is a difference between calling someone a client and calling them a guest.

And one of the things that was drilled into me starting on my first day at the Mission was that everyone who came to us was, first and foremost, before they were anything else, was a precious child of a loving God.

In a world where people living in poverty are told that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, we started with, “You are the precious child of a loving God.”

And that meant something to the people we served. And it meant something to me.

I believe that people will tend to live up to the expectations we put on them. Not every time, but most of the time. If we tell someone that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, they will meet that expectation. If we tell someone that they are the precious child of a loving God, they will strive to meet that expectation. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

But there’s more to it than that. When I say that someone is the precious child of a loving God, I’m putting an expectation on myself: I have to act like that person is the precious child of a loving God. I cannot call someone the precious child of a loving God and then treat them as anyone less; as anyone small or worthless or really nobody at all. When I say, “You are the precious child of a loving God,” I call myself to be something greater than I was before I uttered those words. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

The words we use matter. What we call people matters. What we say to each other matters.

I’ve been preaching about love the last few weeks. Love is a good sermon topic. It’s a major Biblical theme. It’s the kind of thing that we should talk about in church.

But love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

It isn’t enough to say, “I love you.” I have to love you.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are loved and you are worthy of love.” I have to live as though you are loved and you are worthy of love.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are the precious child of a loving God.” I have to treat you as the precious child of a loving God.

Love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

But, like so many things, it starts with those words that have almost unimaginable power. So I want to try something a little bit different. I want you to turn to someone who is sitting near you… maybe not a family member, but someone who just happens to be nearby.

And I want you to say this. Just repeat after me.

You are loved and you are worthy of love. (Repeat)

You are the precious child of a loving God. (Repeat)

And I will love you, by the grace of God. (Repeat)

Amen.

Cool (Sermon for September 9, 2018)

Last weekend, there were two funerals.

I don’t know how many of you saw Aretha Franklin’s funeral. I didn’t watch it live, but I watched some of the eulogies and musical tributes on YouTube after it was over. And while there were a couple of rough spots, it was a good service. The music honored God and Aretha, and Jennifer Hudson can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about Aretha’s art and about her work for justice, and Rev. Dr. Barber can preach here any times he wants.

It honored the Queen of Soul and it called the people who watched to continue her work. It was a good service.

I don’t know how many of you saw John McCain’s funeral. I saw a little bit of it live, and I watched some of the eulogies and musical pieces on YouTube after it was over. And it was also a good service. The music honored God and John, and Renee Fleming can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about John’s service and about his legacy, and President Obama can preach here any times he wants.

(I know not all of you liked him as a president, but the man can give a speech).

It honored the maverick of the Senate and it called the people who watched to continue his work. It was a good service.
And I know that there were people watching them on television or the internet or wherever, who saw them and thought, “If only my church could be like that.”

I know that because I know that some well-meaning white pastors got on Twitter and Facebook and said so. They said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. I wish someone would shout ‘Amen’ during the sermon. I wish there was dancing in the aisles during the hymns. I wish that people would clap on two and four.”

And I’m sure that some well-meaning pastors said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Washington National Cathedral. I wish that we had flying buttresses and a mighty rose window and clever gargoyles. I wish that we had our own string quartet. I wish that we had the pomp and circumstance and weight of tradition.”

And I’ll bet a few people who attend church faithfully on Sunday mornings said the same things.

And I get it. I know where folks are coming from when we wish for those things. We are here this morning in a mainline, Protestant church. And while we generally have good attendance, there aren’t as many people here as there used to be. And while we aren’t panicking about money, the budget isn’t as big as it used to be.

And, let’s face it, it’s-not-how-it-used-to-be is a story that’s playing out in churches across the country. In mainline churches, in evangelical churches, in Catholic churches, in Orthodox churches. In white churches and Black churches and Korean churches and Latinx churches.

And we are all looking for the thing that will get folks to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. We are all looking for best projections, and the gospel choir, and the pomp and circumstance, and the dancing in the aisles, and the hip young pastor.

We all want to get some of that cool. And when the line-up has Michael Eric Dyson and Tyler Perry and Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, or a couple of former presidents and the United States Navy Brass Ensemble… well, that’s pretty cool. We all want to get some of that cool.

One of today’s readings is from the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is the ancient equivalent of an open letter. It wasn’t written to a specific church. It was written to all of the churches. To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. To all y’all.

And in this morning’s passage, James is talking about the difference between style and substance. And he’s telling us about a problem he’s seeing in too many churches: they’re trying to look cool.

When someone with gold rings and fine clothes shows up, they pull out all the stops. They usher them in and say, “Here’s the best seat, please. And be sure to fill out the little visitor card. And please join us for coffee after the service, use one of the special mugs with the black outside and the red inside and the logos on it. Oh, and let me introduce you to our pastor. It’s so nice to have you here.”

But when… other people… come in. Well, they’re not as nice. Maybe they’re even a little dismissive.

You see, they’re trying to be the church where the influencers go. They’re trying to be the church were the hip kids go. They’re trying to get people who aren’t there yet to say, “Did you hear so-and-so goes to that church? We should check that out. I heard Ariana Grande is doing the special music next week.”

They want to look cool. And I get that. I want to look cool.

But James reminds them… and us… and everyone… that looking cool isn’t the same as being cool.

And he says to them… and us… and everyone… “You say you’ve got faith, but you don’t have works. You see someone who’s naked and hungry and you say, ‘Oh, go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ but you don’t give them any clothes or any food. You’ve got the look, but not the thing; you’ve got the style, but not the substance. You think you’re cool, but I can see right through you. You are posers.”

You see, it’s not about the gold rings and fine clothes. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about something else entirely.

Way back in the third century, there was a theologian named Tertullian. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard a quote from one of his many writings.

In one of his books, he is describing the Christian community and contrasting it with the pagan world that surrounds it. He describes worship and prayer and discipline and charity. “But,” he writes, “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘see how they — see how those Christians — love one another.”

Now, Tertullian was writing when Christianity was a minority religion, surrounded by a society that did not share its beliefs or its culture, persecuted by the powers-that-were. And he imagined that non-Christians did not so much love one another. He imagined that Christian love was unique and impressive and radically counter-cultural.

And we are not in the same position. As Christians in the United States today, we are part of a majority religion; we are surrounded by a culture that we have influenced and, and times, dominated; and we are far from persecuted. Some of our Christian friends and neighbors are far more likely to be doing the persecuting, than being persecuted.

But… we live in a society where there is not enough love.

Last week, I reminded you that you are loved and that you are worthy of love. And the truth is that there are far too many people in this world who do not know that they are loved and who do not know that they are worthy of love. We are so desperate for love that we will run to anything that looks like it might be love.

And worse than that, we live in a society where people look at the church and see a community that does not love. They see a community that talks about love. They see a community that pretends to love. They see a community that has a the style… but does not have the substance. They see a community that does not love.

And far too often, far too many churches are happy to live up to the low expectations that people have of us.

And we can do better than that. We — we the whole big worldwide church, we the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa — can do better than that. It is not about the style. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about love. That is what people are hungry for. That is what God calls us to do. To love.

See how they love one another.

And more.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in a house in Tyre, and he’s trying to not be noticed. But this woman — this gentile woman — comes up to him and starts talking about her daughter, who has a demon.

And Jesus, who we know is loving and caring and ready to help and ready to heal… dismisses her. He isn’t for her. He is Jesus. He is Jewish. He is the deliverer of the Jewish people. He is the Messiah of Israel. And this woman is a gentile. He isn’t for her.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food… and throw it to the dogs.”

‘See how they love one another’ means ‘see how they love one another. See how they love people who are already inside.’ But there are people who aren’t inside — there are people out there who need love. They need to know they are loved. They need to know they are worthy of love.

And this woman won’t let go. This woman is going to school Jesus, who is in this house in Tyre trying to not be noticed, on love.

“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“If you want to call me a dog you can call me a dog. But you are still responsible for the dogs. You don’t get to have this gift — you don’t get to have this power — and not share it around.”

We don’t get to have this love and not share it around.

See how they love one another? No. See how they love everyone.

See, that’s the thing. That’s the substance. That’s the cool. It isn’t about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about the love. It’s about the endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love.

It is about love when we are celebratory and raucous. It is about love when we are somber and staid. It is about love in our joy. It is about love in our sorrow. It is about love for people inside. It is about love for people outside. It is about love. It is about love. It is about love.

And, yeah, I really believe that love — endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love — is the thing that will get people to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. But, just as importantly, it is what will bring us closer to God.

Cool. Cool cool cool.

Chewed Up Gum (Sermon for September 2, 2018)

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”

Oh… my.

I tend to be a lectionary preacher. If you haven’t heard of the lectionary before, it’s a list of scriptures for every Sunday of the year, plus holidays like Christmas and Good Friday and All Saints Day and even Thanksgiving (and Canadian Thanksgiving).
It runs over a three year cycle. So, if we followed the lectionary really closely, and read all four of the suggested scriptures in every worship service, we would get through a pretty good chunk of the Bible over the course of a few years.

I like it because it forces me to grapple with scriptures that I might not choose if I selected my own scriptures every week. I have my favorites. And there’s a risk that I’d preach on them every week. And this makes sure that I spend time with other scriptures.

But, sometimes, I get this: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice.”

This morning’s Old Testament reading is from a book that is often called the Song of Solomon. But, in Hebrew, it’s called Shir haShirim: Song of Songs. And, again in Hebrew, when someone says that something is the ‘thing of things’ that means it’s the best, the greatest, the most beautiful: Lord of Lords, Holy of Holies, Song of Songs. This is the best song.

And people have spent thousands of years trying to figure out what to do with it. Because it’s in the Bible. And it’s a love song. People have tried to make it into a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church. And maybe it is. But it is also a love song. Period. And it gets… well…

And I looked, and this might be the only time it shows up in the lectionary.

In today’s reading, the woman in the song is describing a visit from her lover. And it’s a scene we’ve seen played out in a thousand movies and television shows. And maybe some of you have seen it in real life.

A boy shows up at the house and throws pebbles against the window. And the girl opens the window. And the the boy says, “Come away with me. It’s springtime. The night is warm. The birds are singing. The flowers are blossoming. Come away with me and we’ll kiss on a mountaintop. Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you.”

(Some of that is Norah Jones, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

When I was younger — when I was involved in a more conservative church organization — I encountered purity culture. Or, at least, something that looked a lot like purity culture.

Purity culture is hard to describe, but you’ve probably run into it… at least a little. Maybe a lot. Pledges to abstain from sex until marriage; maybe even to abstain from kissing until marriage; maybe even the practice of wearing a purity ring as a reminder of that pledge. Chaperoned courtships to make sure that no one gives in to impure thoughts or impure urges. Absolutely a four-feet-on-the-floor-at-all-times rule. Absolutely heteronormative. Absolutely cis-normative.

And there’s the gum metaphor. You are like a stick of gum. And if you step outside the boundaries of your purity — if you have sex outside of marriage — then it’s like someone has chewed you up. And when you’re done, who’s going to want a chewed up piece of gum? No one. That’s who.

And I want to be clear here: while we see purity culture a lot in conservative evangelical culture, we also see it in plenty of other places.

And I want to be painfully clear here: purity culture is harmful. It hurts people who have been the victims of sexual violence. It hurts people who haven’t been victims, but who gave in to their own hormones that one time. It hurts people who haven’t given in, but who stand in a place of judgement over their friends and neighbors.

It can leave a person an empty shell of themselves, under the waves, in the blue of their oblivion.

(And that’s Fiona Apple, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are eating. And they’re eating without washing their hands.

Now, the Pharisees and the scribes had a tradition that they did not eat without washing their hands, and whatever they bought at the market, and their cups and pots and kettles.

And Mark even uses a sort of hopeful superlative: “All of the Jews,” he says, “had this tradition.” Now, ‘all of the Jews’ certainly did not. But Mark is trying to paint a picture here.

And the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples ignore the tradition of our elders? Why are they eating with unclean hands? Why don’t they keep pure?”

And here the lectionary is a little weird, because it skips some verses. And Jesus gives three answers here.

To the scribes and Pharisees he answers, “You are terrible. You are putting your human tradition over God’s commands. In fact, you avoid following God’s commands by creating a loophole through tradition.”

To the crowd he answers, “There is nothing outside a person that can defile him by going in.”

And, later, to the disciples he answers, “Food cannot defile you, only what comes out of your heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And while the gospel just kind of moves on after that, in this moment, whether they realize it or not, the disciples stand condemned. In this moment, whether we realize it or not, we stand condemned. Because we’ve all had things come out of our hearts that defile us and make us less than pure.

And, yes, some of those are sexual: fornication and adultery and licentiousness. But most of them aren’t. And while some of them might seem rare — like theft and murder, though those aren’t as rare as you might think — most of them are things that we do in our everyday lives, one way or another: avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly.

And they are not ranked. There is not one evil inclination that’s better than another. There is no grading on a curve. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and we all stand in complete equality before her, defiled and impure because of that sin.

If anyone here is a chewed up piece of gum, we all are. And who wants a chewed up piece of gum?

God does.

That is the heart of the gospel. No matter how beat down you are, no matter how heavy and dirty your soul is, no matter who you are… where you are on life’s journey… what you’ve done… what has happened to you… God still comes to your window and throws pebbles and asks you to come away with him. God still calls you his dove. God still asks to see your face and hear your voice, because your voice is sweet and your face is lovely. And God will never… ever… ever… stop loving you.

And I cannot tell you how important that message is. There are people in this world, there are people in this town, there are people in this church community, there are people in this sanctuary, who have been told that they are not loved and that they are not worthy of love.

There are people in this world who lie about love. They lie to others and they lie to themselves.

And I want this message to be resoundingly clear: you are loved and you are worthy of love.

You will lose your confidence. In times of trial, your common sense. You may lose your innocence, but you cannot lose God’s love.

(And that’s Sara Groves, but that’s okay, I think she gets it).

And it doesn’t stop there.

We are Christians. We are imitators of Christ.

We’re not always good at it. I’m not always good at it. But that’s what we are. And that means two things.

First, it means that we are called into a new life. We are called to be better than we are. We are called to shun fornication and adultery and licentiousness. And theft and murder. And avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly. And everything that is not love.

And we’re going to fail. That’s okay. We get up, we know that we are loved, and we try again.

Second, it means that we’re called to share that same indiscriminate love that God has or us with everyone in here and with everyone out there. We are called to remind each other that we are not chewed up pieces of gum, but precious children of a loving God.

Because, you see, God has a love song. It is the love song of love songs. It is the greatest of all love songs. And we can all sing along. Amen.

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