Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: "Touching Grace"—Mark 5 and Amos 5

It was a typical day at the nursing home:
As a chaplain, I am entrusted with such a sacred job. I get to be with people at their most vulnerable and talk about the elephant in the room—death.
And so, there I was, heading to the room of a patient.
I head down the carpeted hallway, which smells like mothballs and vegetables. I washed my hands, and I started to enter the room.
Just then, a woman, who was not on hospice and therefore was not my patient, said “You-hoo!!!”
So I look down, and there’s a woman in a wheelchair, as many nursing home residents are.
“My, you’re tall!”
I get this a lot.
“You must be a doctor!”
I get that a lot, too… I have no idea what she’s thinking.
I reply: “No, I’m actually a chaplain.”
“A who?”
“A chaplain.”
(Reverent) “Oh, a priest! Would you pray for me?”
And just like that, because I stopped, a rather silly conversation turns into something sacred.

It was a lot like that with Jesus as he was crossing to the other side of the sea in his boat.

He had just finished calming the storm and casting out demons, and he even told the young man not to tell anyone of the miracle he accomplished… but word got around to the other side of the sea before Jesus could even land the boat.
There he was, docking in a place that smelled like fish and wood… tying his boat to the hitch and carefully maintaining his balance while stepping out.
He washes his hands and heads up the shore.
Just then, a man says, “You-hoo!!!”
And then he says, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.”
And just like that, because he stopped, a mundane moment turns into something sacred.
So he heads over to see the man’s daughter.

But then, another interruption. This one was also severe.  This one pointed to a problem which had existed for years and years and years… and went unaddressed.
The person carrying the weight of this burden tolerated the problem for years… until it reached a point at which she could no longer live with it.

I’m going to pause right here.

Because we are at exactly this point in American life right now.

Here we were, in the heat of the Presidential campaign season… and then massacre after massacre after massacre happens… and then suddenly, the national dialogue shifts to a problem that we have been tolerating for years and years and years… until it reached a point at which we could no longer live with it.
Suddenly, last year around this time, Facebook newsfeeds explode with fights about the Confederate Battle Flag. Since that time, there are fights about gun ownership and gun safety… and accusations that the nice people who die because of gun violence deserve to die because they were unarmed.
Then the news channels try to make the shootings about mental illness if the shooter is white, or terrorism if the shooter is Muslim, or thuggery if the shooter is black.
What does this say about how we view white people?
What does this say about how we view Muslims?
What does this say about how we view black people?
What does it say about us, that we tolerate such bias in the media?

And the nation is dividing along partisan fault-lines, and grownups are bullying other grownups:
For not uniting within the party.
Or, for supporting “that other party’s” candidate.
Or for committing the “thought crime” that the “minor party candidate” might actually be the better option than any of the above.
Or for standing on principle.
Or for being complicit in the atrocities committed by a major party candidate simply by supporting them.
Or for declaring that one is not going to vote.
Riots, fissures, toupees, and pantsuits.
And hate.

In other words, it has been a very painful year for this country.

And now, as people of different affiliations, gathered here in this auditorium, we are obliged to grapple with our differences.

We are angry, distraught, confused, troubled, scared; we feel powerless… and perhaps that is why people are fighting so hard against gun violence, as a church.
Most of us live in a community where private schools and luxury vehicles are common. We benefit from living on this land, which was not ours to take from the American Indians, yet we remain here. Yes, this is our home now, but this is not ours to have.
Often, ministers read poems at the end of their sermons, but I want to share this with you in the middle of my sermon, because we’re going to need to unpack it.

---

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE
By Tess Baumberger.

Innocence does not die at once, in that first raptured thrust.
It dies in each small seduction, in every subsequent acquiescence.
American innocence did not die in that bright flashing terrorist act,
it dwindled breath by breath, in great and tiny acts of terror:
It died with every smallpox blanket sold to an Indian village,
with every arrogantly greed-wrested acre,
with every language and culture that disappeared,
it died on the Trail of Tears.

It died with every African shackled and torn from homeland, family,
with every auction block sale of humanity,
it died in the Middle Passage.

It died with every civil rights activist beaten or killed,
with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers
it died in Montgomery and Selma and Little Rock.

It died with Roosevelt's refusal to accept Jews fleeing the Nazis,
it died with every black man sent first to the front lines
it died with two atomic weapons dropped upon Japan,
One hundred and seventy thousand lives lost in two great flashing instants.

It dies with every chemical weapon developed,
with every nuclear test, wherever it happens,
with every bomb or jail built instead of a school.

It dies with every KKK rally and every single lynching,
with every man searched by police because he's black,
with every man beaten by officers,
with every child who witnesses or perpetuates gang warfare,
it dies with every racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-Semitic joke.

It dies with every bombed synagogue, mosque, temple,
with every black church burned,
with every abortion clinic bombed,
with every hate-filled word or deed.

It dies with every sweatshop built on a poorer country's soil,
with every product bought, made by a political prisoner,
with every homeless person,
with every starving despairing child.

Oh, innocence never dies at once, only delusion does.

---

Just… wow…
May we open our eyes to our past delusions.

So where is hope?
The Gospel is a good place to look.
Because in it, Jesus stops. //
(Faster) Jesus is on his way to heal a little girl, but he stops in his tracks and wonders who touched him.
The disciples were like, “Jesus, I mean, come on, there are a thousand people here glorifying your name, and you’re worried about one of the hands that touched you?”
Then the woman who had been bleeding for years and years and years came, in fear and trembling, and laid herself down at His feet.
And Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.”

Friends, it is in times like these that we notice the bleeding, the hemorrhaging, the growing pains, the hurt, the strife.
We are aware of how people are unfairly targeted.
And just like Jesus walked through the crowd of people to do something miraculous, we were on the verge of great things as a religion.
And then Newtown happened.
// Some Christians / kept / on / walking / by.
// But we. Are. Not. That. Brand.
And just like people were proclaiming the reign of God on earth and looking to God, so too people are looking to the Christian Church at this moment in history.
They are wondering: how are the Christians going to conduct themselves after Charleston? After Ferguson. After Newtown?
And just as the woman threw herself at the feet of Jesus, so too, people are throwing themselves at the Christian Church—in fear and trembling—begging to be loved. Pleading for compassion and mercy. Waiting for the hand of Jesus to be extended to them.
I’ll tell you who: it’s every group mentioned in the poem from earlier.
It’s not just Black and White relations. In the same way that Jesus had a thousand people clamoring for his attention and proclaiming the reign of God, there are dozens of groups that Christians need to show the Love of God to. Every group that is marginalized. That is our mission.
Let me ask you this: who is in need in this community, and are they in this room right now? What groups are in the news recently, and is this church doing anything to welcome them in this sacred place?
No? Then what are we even doing here?
The Gospel message is clear: when they come to us, and touch the hem of our garment, we bless them.
Even if we are busy trying to do something else, we bless them.
Even when it is not convenient, we bless them.
Even when it is not expedient, we bless them.
We are called to leave our comfort zone to bring healing to the wounded… and to associate with everyone we meet along the way, outside these church walls. That is our earth-bound duty.
I hope we make it easy for people to feel welcome in this church, and to graft onto the branch of our church other under-represented groups and races that seek spiritual refuge here. What great faith they have to come to our congregations and stay a part of our communities!
It will always be difficult to choose to walk in God’s way. But that’s what we were created for.

We are now at war with North Korea, apparently. And many of us are dubious. Quizzical, even. The rest of us are frightened, and rightfully so.
The issue here is not whether this church will align with the political left or right—but rather, “how / will / we / love?”
Will we be so task-oriented and so insular, focusing on the church budget and the paint on the walls… or will we take the “both/and approach” of Jesus?
We need to work on the budget… yes… and we need to love LGBTQ+ people.
We need to take care of the paint on the walls… and we need to reverse generations of oppression of women.
We need to make sure the flower committee and coffee hour crew serve effectively… and we need to decry politically-motivated violence done in the name of God.
This is our model for ministry.
We do our thing, and we love individuals and groups in the way that Jesus loved them.

How did Jesus love individuals and groups?
He loved sinners and tax-collectors… by dining with them.
He loved lepers—who “non-lepers” avoided on the streets—by gently laying his hands on their cheek.
He loved prostitutes… by speaking to them in broad daylight and saying “great is your faith!”
And, each time he did one of these unremarkable acts, he made himself an abomination in the eyes of Levitical Law—abomination meaning only ceremonially unclean. He knew he would lose his standing in the rabbinic community by touching lepers, touching bleeding women, dining with sinners, and consorting with prostitutes. But he did it!

So what if people tell us we are bad Christians for loving the LGBTQ+ community? It’s what we are commanded to do!
What if people shame us when we support refugees? We are called to love all people and to raise them from the dead—just like Jesus did for the little girl.
And back to the original illustration: what if people say we’re just too radical when we challenge peoples’ notions of racism or privilege? That we’re over the top for suggesting the Charleston Massacre was racially motivated, and that this points to s systemic problem?
There’s a phrase my generations says: “haters gonna gate.”
And they will. The question is, are we going to be obedient to the “good news” of Jesus Christ, or will we be controlled by trying to please religious zealots who just don’t get it?

I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to be called an abomination—ceremonially unclean—or any other name if it means I am being obedient to the Gospel of Jesus.
Here’s what the Lord says, according to Amos:
21“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
22Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24But // let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Let this narrative be our compass. As we go out into the world from this place,
We’ll build a land that is more loving.
We’ll build a land that is more gentle.
We’ll build a land that is more compassionate.
We are the hands and feet of Jesus. Our touch of grace becomes an act of the Divine—through us.
And if people just don’t get what we’re up to, just remember that phrase, ‘haters gonna hate.” Cuz they gonna. Ah, but our gift is love.

Hymn: "We'll Build a Land"
We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken.
We’ll build a land where the captives go free,
Where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.
Oh, we’ll build a promised land that can be.

Refrain: Come build a land where sisters and brothers
Anointed by God, may then create peace:
Where justice shall roll down like waters,
And peace like an ever flowing stream.

We’ll build a land where we bring the good tidings
To all the afflicted and all those who mourn.
And we’ll give them garlands instead of ashes.
Oh, we’ll build a land where peace is born.

Refrain

We’ll be a land building up ancient cities,
Raising up devastations from old,
Restoring ruins of generations
Oh we’ll build a land of people so bold

Refrain

Come, build a land where the mantles of praises
Resounding from spirits once faint and once weak;
Where like oaks of righteousness stand her people
Oh come build the land, my people we seek.

Refrain

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sermon: "Moving from Acceptance to Celebration"—An LGBTQ+ Pride Sermon

For Scarsdale Congregational Church

I remember with some embarrassment my past ministry: a Local Minister for the Church of the Nazarene, with a special vocation as Evangelist.
My job was to fill-in when other ministers in my district wanted a break from preaching a sermon.
Or if they wanted some inspirational southern gospel singing for their church, I was their man.
The role of the Evangelist is more than pulpit supply. The Evangelist is expected to bring a fresh message, to stir-up emotions, and to bring… revival.
Whenever I felt I made a particularly insightful remark, I would ask the church-goers present, “Can you say Amen?”
And they were encouraged to reply, “Amen.”
And if they didn’t say it loud enough—I would tell them to say “Amen” louder.
And they would—otherwise, their neighbor would think badly of them.
And then, there were those ladies who would wave their hankies in the air and say, “Well?”
In the Nazarene tradition, it was even socially acceptable to run the aisles when the excitement just became too much to handle. And the runner would say something like, “Glory!”
For the Evangelist, spirituality is best measured by emotional outpouring.

As I graduated from Bible College…
already having served three years as Local Minister through a large congregation,
and already having taken part in leading more than 15 week-long youth revivals throughout MI, IN, IL and WI…
I became aware that my definition of spirituality and revival / was incomplete.
As if stepping outside myself, I looked from an outsider’s perspective into all the emotion-filled singing and gut-wrenching prayers of people who felt they needed more of God…
And I realized: this is not grace, an unmerited gift from God.
This is not mercy, undeserved pardon of sin.
This kind of ‘revivalism’ was one-dimensional—limited only to the emotional.
It was not pumping people up with spirituality.
o It was dessert / with no nutritional value to sustain them, since I never challenged them to go deeper.
You know when you at first fall in love with someone.
o You obsess about them, and love feeling those tingles, and you can’t wait to hold hands with them.
And some young people think feeling this magic is all that love will ever require of them. 
It’s not that these romantic feelings are wrong; there’s just so much more to love than that: like compromise in order to live together. /
In much the same way / revivalism acts as though emotionalism is all that is required in order to become spiritually mature.
o Emotion is great and all, but there’s just so much more to spirituality than that: like compromise in order to live together.

When I had entered seminary:
I had not yet learned that emotionalism was OK.
Instead, I over-corrected—rejecting any spirituality that involved emotion.
I read the Stoics and Existentialists religiously.
I was waking up to rationalism… and was looking for genuine spiritually without any of the trappings from my ministry in the Church of the Nazarene.
I was seeking something deeply and profoundly true.
Without realizing it, I was seeking a different kind of revival.

___

“I was seeking something deeply and profoundly true.” But what is true for me? For you as individuals? And for us as a community?

I often hear the call for “church” to be an inclusive place for LGBTQ+ individuals.
This is Pride Month, and this is the very day of the largest pride celebration in the history of the world—just minutes away from this place, in Manhattan—and we are only two weeks out from the Orlando Massacre of LGBTQ+ individuals… so being inclusive at least deserves a mention here today.
What precisely are we including?
And is being inclusive enough?
Is it enough to say, “yes, ‘they’ can be here, too,” or does our commitment as an Open and Affirming congregation go deeper than that?

Because of our commitment as O&A, we fly the rainbow banner in June.
(That banner is one of the things that attracted me to this place, by the way.)
And, here, we preach that God made a diversity of identities—ranging in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, size—and that we are born into different situations—such as socioeconomic status and creed.
Let us, today, reaffirm that we are inclusive of all of these identities.

But what if we took it a step even further?
What if we declared that we are not only inclusive, but we celebrate these differences?
…That we honor the richness and giftedness that diversity brings to this community!
What if we said we are “Open”… and then leaned into what it means to be “Affirming.”

How might we be different? And are you ready to make that mental shift? I imagine if we Congregationalists had a revival, it might be of this sort.
___

In the 19th century, the original Age of Aquarius was dawning—something even more radical than Woodstock:

Revivalism emerged in the 19th century in the “Second Great Awakening,” in one of many responses to cultural breakdown and frantic search for meaning.
Along with Revivalism, other groups emerged:
Spiritualism
Mormonism
Transcendentalism
Adventism
And religious response to slavery, which was the key issue leading to the American Civil War.
If any nation needed a “Woodstock” at that moment, it was the adolescent United States.
Not surprisingly, Congregationalists didn’t fit-into the mold of individual nationalism at first, but there was a place for them:
Congregationalists—were different.
They were very successful at adapting to the shift from Predestination to Free Will.
They taught that we need not wait for God, but instead, we can change society if we want to do so.
And so, Congregationalism played a key role in America to solve social ills of the day, such as speaking in favor of Abolitionism and individually engaging in civil disobedience, such as disobeying the Fugitive Slave Act,
Or speaking to abolish the death penalty
Or in favor of women’s suffrage…
o But, instead of adapting to the wave of Revivalism, Congregationalists experimented with one of the other emerging religious groups: Transcendentalism.
This means that they engaged in these actions because of the individual truth found within.
In small numbers, the Congregationalists took their self-determined individualism to the streets and fought for the emancipation of slaves and women.
Congregationalists individually fought against the social ills alongside—but in discord with—Revivalism: as Transcendentalists.
And we were the first major denomination to ordain a freed slave and a woman.

I think our Congregational heritage—and how far we’ve come from the days of Puritanism—is noteworthy, to say the least.

Despite all these great advances that our forebears brought us, I will argue this:
Just as I probably over-corrected when I completely rejected any kind of emotionalism, it is also possible that Congregationalists—collectively—may have overcorrected when they almost completely rejected the cultural elements (along with emotionalism) that go along with Revivalism.

Rev. Dr. James Freeman Clarke, not a particularly memorable minister, nonetheless, preached a sermon that was published in an 1866 magazine.

Clarke says…
Maybe revivalism isn’t such a bad idea.
Let’s scrap the stuff that doesn’t ring true for us.
Let’s think about what a Congregationalist revival might look like.
If we want to experience revival, all we have to do is look around and observe the divine all around us.
He even says God is here all the time, and the thing we want is already happening around us:
He says we should be like the flowers that reach for the sun: Flowers do that because that’s what flowers do.
He says “That is the sort of revival we expect: the dear sun shining into our hearts, and our hearts turning up to the sun, and then we cannot help having one” (a revival).
(This is very Transcendentalist language, by the way.)
He continues: “Not a spasmodic revival; not to anything like a nervous outbreak, to be followed by a nervous depression: but because we see the steady progress towards the heart of // humanity.”
Can you say Amen?

Rev. Clarke was challenging his audience to be spiritual / because humans are innately spiritual beings.
And his audience probably agreed with him—because other writings of the time indicate an awareness of that all-pervasive spirituality.
// Today, I think Clarke would find a less receptive audience.
o // How many of us would describe ourselves as spiritual?
o // Of those who do, how many have spiritual language to describe the renewal we have experienced, and have we shared that with anyone?
o // How many of us do spiritual acts because we believe it is in our DNA?
Forget about waving hankies and running the aisles; how about giving thanks for lunch?

Some of us come from Evangelical backgrounds.
Maybe we heard those preachers and evangelists preach, and we felt good at first, but then that feeling went away.  And then we were empty.
I can’t speak for you, but, as I mentioned earlier, when this was my experience, I completely wrote off spirituality and emotion for a long time.
I needed a mentor.  I needed someone to tell me there was a middle way.  I needed a Rev. Dr. James Freeman Clarke 
o to tell me that I need not over-correct.
o that I could be spiritual without having a spasmodic, nervous outbreak.
I could re-imagine myself as a being that cannot help but find spirituality wherever I look.
I could re-imagine myself in service to all humankind—because that is the essence of who I am.
Clarke says the point of a meaningful revival would be this: so we see the steady progress towards the heart of humanity.
This is not a quick fix.  It requires steady plodding.
And we will see ourselves as alive… in order to reach humanity—like a flower turning up towards the sun.

A Congregationalist Revival is this: to find and live truth—one that is so personal, one that is not only inclusive but also one that celebrates the richness that diversity brings, and it is like an instinct to us—together in community.
To get rid of racism, pride, and straight privilege.
To find and connect to a source of vitality.
If we don’t nurture that source of vitality, how could we possibly love our enemies, create peace, end our dependence on fossil fuel, stop the death penalty and gun violence, or pursue any of the abolitionisms that help us truly live our faith?

If we are not plugged into who we are and whose we are (our Source of vitality) how can we expect to act from a place of conviction and love?

Our spiritual life does not have to be spasmodic or saccharine.
We do not need to feel anything to make it real.
We need, only, to find and live our truth
o Instinctually.
o Communally.
With the support of each other, may we find ourselves in the midst of a Great Awakening—awakening to each other / and to our Source of vitality.
That is what makes us so different from other organizations:
Together, serving humanity
Together, finding truth
And together, we turn to the One that gives us strength.
Let your truth radiate… and be, for yourself and others, progress towards the heart of humanity.
Amen and amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon: "Believing in Life"—For Pentecost Sunday

For Elm City Oasis – May 15, 2016

I don’t know about you, but for me, there aren’t many movies that can out-do Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  (It’s the move where five children win a free tour of a chocolate factory… and a lifetime supply of chocolate.  The five kids are Augustus Gloop; he loves chocolate.  Mike Teevee; he loves to watch TV.  Verruca Salt, whose parents give her anything she asks for.  Violet Beauregard, who loves to chew gum.  And Charlie Buckett, who never wins anything.)

I’m not exactly sure why I like the movie.  Perhaps it’s the same reason my tiny, round-faced Filipina mother used to ask me to bring her Illinois Lottery tickets every time I visited my Indiana home—the excitement that she, too, may have a golden ticket. Many people want to get rich, and my tiny, round-faced Filipina mother was not an exception.

Maybe I’m drawn to the movie because of its simple plot of good vs. evil: that is, Charlie Bucket against all odds.  Or maybe it’s the Oompa-Loompas who work in the factory.  Willie Wonka would not be Willie Wonka without the tiny, orange-faced Oompa-Loompas.  So that’s my favorite part.

My least favorite part of Willy Wonka is when Augustus Gloop gets sucked out of the chocolate river, up through the pipe, to the fudge room.  I mean, it’s funny and all, but I don’t like getting dirty.  It’s like when I work at church-camp during the summer.  I love playing with the kids, even though I’m not that big a fan of sports. // Ok, let’s be honest: I’m not very dedicated to sports.  And I’m not very dedicated to getting dirty, either.

(intensify) Three summers in a row, I got serious spider bites on my ankles while working for a camp for abused and neglected children.  The ankles got all swollen, and I had to go to the emergency room. Each year, the kids played a prank on me when I got back. Three years in a row!

Anyway, I think the worst church-camp games are the ones that involve water guns, hoses, and water balloons.  I don’t like getting dirty.  I hate getting wet.  And you know it’s not always going to be water coming out of those squirt guns.  PLUS, when I put on dry clothes, I expect for them to remain dry.  Call me old fashioned!

SO when Augustus tries to doggie-paddle through Willie Wonka’s yucky chocolate river, I feel like I’m back at church-camp: a counselor who just got hit by a water balloon filled with shaving cream and liver oil, sitting in the nurse’s cabin with a swollen ankle, bruises and bites all over my skin, and mud in my hair.  [Sigh]  I miss summer camp.

Don’t get me wrong; I actually do miss camp.  They call it ministry, but I don’t think “ministry” is supposed to be that fun.  Sure… I get scratched and hurt, but I get to embody—for abused and neglected children—the word “safe,” demonstrating what “safe” looks and feels like.  Sometimes I’m their punching bag.  That’s ok, because sometimes I’m the only face of Jesus they will ever see.  Signing up for another year of this particular church-camp is like when Jesus said to his disciples (John 11:7-16) that he wanted to go back to Judea:
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you.  Do you really want to go back there?”
Jesus said, “Guys, I’m going… not at night when I know it will be safe.  Those who walk at night—who try to be safe—often stumble anyway. Let’s go now… in clear daylight, even though my enemies can capture me at any moment. Our friends need us now.”
Thomas, who is often called a Doubter or a Heretic… said, “Hey Jesus.  If we go, that means we all risk death, too.  BUT Lazarus is dead, his family needs our help, and it appears you’re going to risk your life to do good, again.  Ok, I’ll go too.  I’ve got your back, Jesus.”
In this act—this self-sacrificial act—Jesus (and his disciples) signed their own death sentences, which would be actualized soon afterwards.  Jesus was hated, yet Jesus deeply loved.  And, with each person Jesus added to his list of disciples, the results of his efforts multiplied.

Why don’t I like that story about Augustus Gloop?  My reasons probably have little to do with getting dirty.  In fact, I imagine nearly drowning in chocolate would be wonderful.  We are affected by the smell and taste and touch of that sweet tang that looks so fine.  When it melts, chemical reactions become more pronounced, and we feel like we are in love.

So Augustus was—at least in a sensual  way—a pretty lucky guy.  But let’s think of it in a new way:  What if Augustus had a mission.  (intense and overly excited)  What if Willy Wonka was a bad guy, and Augustus’ mission was to save the world from Chocolate.  There he was, on the banks of the Chocolate River, contemplating the needs of the world to be freed from the evil, acne-inflaming, bad-breath-causing, love-simulating controlled substance.  (We all know at least one person who suffers from chocoholism.)  It came down to one person, Augustus.  Only he could foil Wonka’s evil plot.

Augustus fell head-over-heels into the Chocolate River, sucked into the clear pipe, where everyone could see his suffering… as the pressure built.  UNTIL he shot through the pipe, carried by a rush of chocolate, passing the marshmallow division, being squirted out into the fudge room of Wonka’s “factory of doom.”  In one act of self-sacrifice, Gloop contaminated all of Wonka’s chocolate, giving hope to all of us who knows someone who has become another statistic.

If we think about the story thus, we hear in it the living tradition of the Christian Church, which “confronts powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”  Augustus Gloop (in this admittedly weird version of the story) used his witness to oppose Willy Wonka, the corporate giant whom everyone loved.

(LONG PAUSE – no smile)

Well, why is it so easy for us to demonize Augustus instead of Willy.  Augustus was less affluent.  Augustus was young and na├»ve.  The author depicts the boy as being WAY overweight.  Lit-er-ar-I-ly, that makes him easier for us to ridicule.
Why do we love Willy Wonka?  Well, he’s handing out chocolate.  He’s immeasurably successful and rich.  (pause)  He’s also a slave boss.  He has, working in his factory, workers belonging exclusively one race.  Every single one of them comes from the same continent.  Furthermore, the movie depicts the slaves’ skin as orange; they’re definitely not white.  The book says that Willy Wonka at least gave his slaves employment, which of course is always better than living in the hot climate of some far-away nation.

Fiction now becomes reality.  (Sarcastically) Oh, it’s just a coincidence that the author had Willy Wonka import dozens of workers from a far-away land.  It’s just a coincidence that the workers obey him whenever he gives them new orders.  (Lower your voice.) I don’t mean to be unkind: but it’s not just a coincidence that this story… is about chocolate.

Did you know that Roald Dahl, the author of the book, first released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the Oompa-Loompas originally described as Black, Pygmy-like Africans?  More recent editions of his novel, however, have been more sensitive to “black people.”

The movie version from Warner Brothers also attempted to de-politicize slavery in its own way.   Mel Stuart, the director of the movie, commented, “Some prominent black actors came to see me and questioned me about having black Oompa-Loompas working for a white boss.”  So instead, Stuart arranged for midgets to dress up like clowns, doing acrobatics while cooking and being obedient to Wonka.  (Bless his heart.  He thought he was being politically correct.)

It is not a coincidence that Roald Dahl released his children’s book… in the heat of the 1960’s, when it seemed that there was no hope for civil rights in the world.

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[And] It is not a coincidence that Anglos in the United States, so soon after winning their independence from European nations, plundered one continent (North America) and enslaved another (Africa).  Did you know that the first draft of The Declaration of Independence contained a passage opposing European slave trade.   The condemnation of slavery was not ratified.  Too many Americans thought it was a good idea.

Before the fictional Willy Wonka ever imported his Oompa-Loompas from Loompa Land, some Western people—especially those in the United States—imported human beings in the same manner they imported cargo: furniture, spices, boxes of chocolate bars.

(!)  America had struck it rich.  America had a golden ticket!  In this lottery, however, very few people in Africa gained anything.  I say “very few people” because some Africans actually helped along the slave trade, and they were greatly rewarded… for awhile.  Those Africans who helped capture other Africans were usually captured and sold into captivity anyway.  Thus, not very many people in Africa gained anything.

Religion was often used as a powerful weapon against the principles we uphold as inclusive Christians.  Pro-slavery preachers would distribute religious tracts that used the Bible to promote the import of slaves to the U.S.  The writers of these documents cried out to their God.  They cried out (using passages from Habakkuk and Psalm 13) saying, “How long, Oh Lord, will you forget me?  Forever?” (Habakkuk 1:2a, 4b)

The South cried out because they were economically disadvantaged compared to the North.  “How long, O Lord?  My fields need a plowin’, and I just can’t do it on my own.  We need you.  We need workers—cheap!  Ta’ help feed my kids.  Ta’ help feed my livestock.  Make this work, Lord!”

The South saw slavery as their best way out of their economic hardships.  And they saw the North as their adversaries.  How come they don’t want my kids ta’ get fed.  They just don’t “get it.”  They didn’t understand how hunger can make people do desperate things.  I don’t want slaves, but I need them to feed my family.

The “slavery issue” was as hot a topic in churches as “the gay issue” is today.  New denominations formed because of slavery: Free Methodists, and Northern or American Baptists are just two examples.

Not only were “religious tracts in-favor-of-slavery” prevalent, but groups in the South developed new ways for Africans to learn English and study the Bible.  By the middle of the Nineteenth century, several patronizing catechisms emerged, such as “A Catechism for little Children and for Use on the Missions to the Slaves in South Carolina,” written by Bishop Casper.

One catechism written exclusively for slaves inquired: “What is the meaning of ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’?”  We all know what adultery means, but the catechism taught the slaves that the opposite of adultery is: “To serve our heavenly Father, and our earthly master, obey your overseer, and not to steal anything.”

Most of these catechisms outlined very basic Christian orthodoxy.  This orthodoxy, however, did not reflect the love and grace of historical Christian thought.  Instead, it interpolated religious justification of economic slavery… into Torah.

Why is religion used in this way?  Why can it so powerfully unite groups against human rights?  Why can religion propagate the idolatry of the self?  Why do religious people write books to teach black people that black people are inferior… and children that black people are inferior… and Southerners that black people are inferior?

Some “black people” found themselves chained to the floors of trading ships, often strapped in as cargo, wondering if the cargo next to them (another human being) was still alive.  They call this terrible voyage “the Middle Passage.”

(secretively) But what the Anglo slave traders could not see… (relieved) was that “their cargo” already knew about Christianity.  Africa is the birthplace of Christianity.  The slave ships did not merely carry slaves; they carried religious persons who would bring the Gospel to the whites. The Anglo slave traders didn’t know that they were carrying a religious message that could silence the lies of perverted faith, because—shackled to the floors during the Middle Passage—were Christian preachers, religious healers, medicine men, and clerics of the African Traditional Religions.

Inside the hearts of African women, children and men stirred a song that could not be silenced or whipped into submission.  Africans had a dance that Anglos just couldn’t follow.  These Africans said yes massa during the day… and met silently in hush harbors at night.  Africans knew they were a threat to social order.  Africans knew they held power in the midst of oppression (and if they didn’t know, another African would tell them).  Africans gathered their energy and resources.  They gave their lives so that others could truly live.  They heard the lies, they remembered their continent, and they helped lead each other out of captivity—hand-in-hand, chains unbound.  They sang songs to give each other courage.  They sang songs to lead others to freedom.  Where organized religion brought death to Africans, the Africans found (within themselves) a way to believe in life.

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(long pause) Sometimes, there’s that one inspired person who “saves the day.”  Sometimes one person dives into a chocolate river to shut down an oppressive chocolate Boss.  We need those people.  That’s part of why we celebrate Pentecost.

Sometimes, the problem is too complex for one savior.  Sometimes the people rise up together and free themselves.  We celebrate this all year long: on Labor Day, Election Day, Veterans Day, United Nations Day… and All Souls Day.

Sometimes, when we have our prayer service, we feel that the weight of our joys and concerns are too much for one person to bear.  That’s why we are an oasis.  That’s why we’re here together.  That’s why Jesus and his disciples went out of their way to console their grieving friends.  In the midst of death and oppression, there is life.

We are followers of the risen Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  Well, since Christianity is a religion, I suppose it could mean that we are in a position to rob people of life—to enslave them to doctrines, positions and truths.  Being a religion, however, could also mean that we strive to be different: to use religion to mend broken people, to remove pain, to advocate reform, to strengthen our own diverse community.  There are many ways we can use our bodies as instruments of worship.

How will you respond to the call you may be hearing today?
Will you listen to this sermon, and go back to life as usual?
Or will you heed the call to a life of greater service?
o Will you go into Judea during the day and risk it all to bring our gospel of love to people, just as Jesus and the disciples did?
o Will we stand up for the rights of the disadvantaged when others wish to take their rights away?
o Will you be like the Augustus Gloop of my creative retelling? The trickster who shuts down an operation built on taking advantage of the goodness of others?
That is the type of response that will bring the Gospel of Love to all people.
That is the type of response that will silence the voices of presidential candidates and bigoted state legislators—and change the dialogue from despair… to hope.
That is the kind of response that will change the world.

How will you respond to the call?
Sometimes I get dirty.  Sometimes I get hit by water balloons filled with shaving cream and liver oil.  They call it ministry, but I don’t think ministry is supposed to be this fun.

May it be so.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sermon: Silence Toward Injustice—Luke 10:25-37

Silence Toward Injustice
A sermon for Scarsdale Congregational Church
March 6, 2016 | Luke 10:25-37

Before I start this sermon, I have to tell you something funny. In Church School, we’ve been talking about loving your neighbor as yourself, and accordingly, I tried to teach them a new song about diversity:
Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
Isn’t that cute?
I learned it when I was a kid.
Before I could finish singing the song, however, I had a chorus of young’uns saying things to me like:
·         Hey, people aren’t really yellow!
·         Who’s black?
·         There aren’t any red people!
Wisdom from the mouths of babes, but… my, how times have changed!
Let us pray.

Sermon

Have you ever learned the wrong lesson by accident?
When I was in 2nd grade, my school began teaching units on multiculturalism.
I was slightly darker than I am now, and everyone in town knew that I am half-Filipino and half-German-American Farm Boy. 
My family was, as far as I knew, the only interracial couple in our small hometown.
·         My teacher in 2nd Grade was Mrs. S., who was one of the coolest people I had ever met. 
o   She had silver hair, yet she was still pretty young, which made her even cooler!
o   She wore interesting-looking jewelry—stuff that 2nd graders would think was fun.
·         This particular day, she was wearing a denim pant-suit with her shirt collar spiked as always. And she had a book about Black Latino culture.
·         Josephina February is about a dark-skinned girl who doesn’t have much money, and so she sells items at the market.
As storybooks draw to a close, Mrs. S. routinely asks some questions to help us learn… 
·         This time, she asks if we know any Afro-Americans. (That’s what we called African American or black people in the 80’s.)
·         No one knows what she means. (Like that song I tried to teach our kids.)
·         In our Northwestern Indiana classroom, the faces are pretty fair-skinned.  I’m the only person of any shade of color in the room.
·         And so, silver-haired Mrs. S. briefly explains to us differences between white and black. 
One of my best friends, Justin Smith, raises his hand. 
·         (“He must know an Afro-American family,” I think to myself.) 
·         He points at me and says, “Daniel is.”
·         Without missing a beat, Mrs. S. says, “Justin Smith, you apologize.”
  
That’s how I learned about race.
  • She had given us fruit from the knowledge of good and evil.
  • In that brief exchange, I learned:
·         That my darker skin made Justin Smith think I am Afro-American. (I wondered if I were.)
·         And that his accusation about being Afro-American must be a bad thing.
·         And that I deserved an apology for being called that name.
·         And that teaching multiculturalism could create resentment in a 2nd Grade classroom.
To his credit, Justin Smith didn’t apologize. But I was, indeed, resentful.
  • (Insistent) Maybe it’s because I knew of how my Filipina mother sacrificed a relationship with her large Catholic family to come to the United States to marry my white Protestant father.
  • Or maybe it’s because I already felt like an outcast—as the one mixed-race child in my classroom—without someone pointing it out to me.
  • Or maybe it’s because I didn’t see how the book Josephina February related to me—as a half-Asian child in 2nd Grade.
Why did it have to happen like this?
  • Why didn’t that book help me better understand and appreciate children like Josephina February? (Because it didn’t.)
  • I left thinking I was wrong for being different and that difference matters in the worst possible way.
  • I learned the wrong lesson.
I’ll ask again: have you ever looked back in life and discovered that your entire worldview was a distorted reality—that you had learned the wrong lesson somewhere in your life… like me?

When we think about who we are, of course we don’t want to think of ourselves as racist in any way, or sexist, or classist, or ablest, or homophobic… but if we were self-reflective enough, maybe we would find some similarities between ourselves and the righteous people in the Bible—who said all the right things, but they still lived their life of privilege without regard to the plight of others.
 Consider the set of readings from bell hooks. In two breaths, she exposes patriarchy as a mindset that affects men as well as women.
·         It is a power that subverts equality, and we all pay the price. We all submit to it.
·         bell hooks offers us, in its place, a mindset which frees us from bondage and lovelessness... in favor of freedom and love.
I’m using this passage of feminist/womanist analysis—not to talk about women exclusively—but to give us a lens through which we can comprehend any -isms or phobias: like racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, homophobia, and even Islamophobia.

Consider that often-told story: the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
·         Let me put on my Christian Ed hat and tell you that “parable” means it didn’t actually happen, but we can still learn a lot from this hypothetical situation.
·         And that is how Jesus communicated some of the hardest lessons.
Upon first glance, it seems this parable is about doing good for others. Not a bad interpretation, but it’s incomplete.  That would be learning the wrong lesson… because look closer:
·         First, understand that in First Century Jewish culture, before the destruction of the temple, the priests were the only ones who had access to God’s presence.
o   They could go behind the curtain (which would be torn on Good Friday)  and enter the Holy of Holies, where it was believed that God’s presence dwelled, and not have their faces melt off, as in Indiana Jones.
o   It was particularly important that a Temple existed in the midst of the people, because that signified that God was with them.
o   So, in this hypothetical, the priest—who has direct access to God—passes by the person in need.
§  It’s understood that priests could not touch certain things, or else they would become ceremonially unclean.
§  This part of the Parable says that strict adherence to the Law does not fulfil the greatest commandment—which is to love.
·         Second, a Levite has the opportunity to help the person in need.
o   What is a Levite? A Levite is one of the tribes of Israel, with a special task and authority to carry the Arc of the Covenant—which, by the way, is stored in the Holy of Holies.
o   Levites, therefore, are designated by God as having the right pedigree  to be the literal standard-bearer of holiness.
o   The Levites, like the Priests—many of whom are Levites—also put adherence to minor portions of the Law in front of compassion.
o   In effect, Jesus says TWICE that strict adherence to the minor parts of the Law will be the failure of humanity—because it prevents grace, and mercy, and compassion.
·          Finally comes the Samaritan.
o   Who were the Samaritans? Samaritans were genetically similar to Jews, but culturally: considered an enemy. (Think about Palestine and Israel. Yea, that intense.)
§  Samaritans recognized the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) but did not subscribe to the Nevi’im (the writings of the prophets) or the Ketuvim (Psalms, Proverbs, and the other Biblical writings in Hebrew canon).
·         They had their own interpretations of Rabbinic Law, and they did not adhere to any of the Oral Law.
§  Also, Samaritans decided that Mount Zion was not, in fact, God’s holy place but rather decided that Mount Gerizim was.
·         Zion is thought to be where King David is buried, and Samaritans decided to reverse thousands of years of history and tradition… and metaphorically moved God’s mountain into their own territory.
§  In other words, Samaritans were the worst possible kind of ethnic and religious minority: they were brazen heretics, willful enemies, and, worst of all, ceremonially unclean. Not like “us.”
o   For a Samaritan to help a mainstream Jew was to risk her life to help an enemy…
o   The hearers of this parable had their worlds turned upside-down, because the narrative that they were used to hearing valued Law above love.
o   Jesus asks what the most important Law is.
o   Hint: it’s not about being clean. Because surprise: It’s about love.
o   Jesus appeals to the humanity of his listeners, and he circles back to the Law, which they desperately want to adhere to.
o   Anyone can see that the hero of the parable is the one who shows compassion—even if they are the enemy.
o   And Jesus uses legal language to help them understand what he was saying: he explains that the most important Law is often neglected in favor of the minor laws.
o   Or, as bell hooks might say, Jesus breaks the patriarchal voices that silence truth—and are, themselves, stopped.
o   Jesus says what they knew deep down was the Truth—and in turn, stripped away the comfort, which strict adherence to the letter of the Law.
§  “If I just abstain from this, then God will see I’m really serious.”
o   But Jesus says, “It doesn’t work that way.” The truth is grace, and mercy, and compassion. And Jesus says, “Go thou and do likewise.”
So what? We’re living in the 21st century, and the Bible is archaic.
·         No no no no no. Our culture still creates Samaritans.
·         What about children who can’t even finish high school because they have to work to support their families?
o   Or kids who can’t concentrate in school because they had no breakfast, or because they couldn’t sleep due to the gunshots in their neighborhood?
o   They become disadvantaged and marginalized by their failure to finish school before their lives even get started.
o   These are no longer exceptions.
o   This is the norm for many individuals in our country—as close as three miles away from this church building.
o   Who will be a neighbor to them?
·         And don’t get me started on police use of excessive force.
o   Or the judicial system’s unfair bias against people of color.
o   Or how the corporate media tends to blame the victims of racial profiling.
o   Or that retort: Hashtag: “All lives matter.”
Who is my neighbor?—the Rabbinic Lawyer asks.
·         Of course, it’s the person sitting right next to you, but it’s especially the marginalized, those without power or privilege.
Notice: Jesus doesn’t speak poorly of the priests or the Levites in this parable.
·         Their actions condemn them, without further commentary.
·         Rather, Jesus shows us that the most likely people to help  decided to preserve their position rather than to obey the greatest commandment.
o   Instead, Jesus says that… even the most unexpected person can be a neighbor.
o   Say, for instance, that you’re a straight, white male. (You have some privilege, my friend… whether you like it or not.)
§  This passage does not say you are bad.
§  This passage does not say you must disavow how God created you.
§  Rather, this passage shows how you can use your place of privilege for good…    and what it looks like if you don’t.  /
The American Psychological Association published an article back in 2009 about a subtle expression of bias… or microaggressions.
·         It’s not that we want to be racist, but sometimes we stumble over language.
·         For example: I get some of the same questions all the time.
o   Of course, people ask “How tall are you?” at least five times a day. No exaggeration.
§  I’m sure Tegan and Christine can relate.
o   Second, I hear “Can you speak up?”
§  I’ll give you a hint at who says that <cough> John Werner.
o   Lastly, at least once a month, someone will ask me, “What are you?”
§  “A religious professional,” I say.
§  “No… I mean where are you from. Like Persian or what?
§  That’s when it becomes a microaggression… because I am othered, and I have to explain something intrinsic to my nature. I am asked a question, which the dominant culture is rarely asked.
·         Being tall, presumably, is something they think is cool.
·         Being soft spoken is something I can control.
·         But asking me where I am from presumes I am not from here… and it’s like saying, “I can’t label you. Would you please help me racially profile you?”
o   My mother was more gracious than I am.
§  When people told her “Wow, your English is good” (another microaggression), she didn’t tell them that she spoke four languages since elementary school.
o   Another kinda humorous thing that happens is… I guess I appear to dress in uniform (when I’m not in this suit)… because anytime I’m in an office supply store, someone almost always asks me where to find a certain product.
§  It’s not in a neighborly way, like: “Oh, there’s someone. Let me ask him.”
§  It’s like, every time I go, someone asks ME.
§  And they get mad when I don’t know… until I tell them I’m not a store employee. Then they leave in a huff and say, “You’re no help.”
§  Silly, but also a microaggression. This time, not about race. It’s a class thing.
o   Or sometimes people try to give what they sincerely think is a compliment—saying things like: “Oh, I didn’t know you’re gay. You don’t talk gay.”
§  This microaggression gets into the assumption that men ought to act like “men” and incorrectly links gender presentation to sexual orientation.
o   Or the idea that my Asian descent somehow makes me better at math.
§  That’s the old “Model Minority” microaggression.
·         It sounds like a compliment, but it actually groups the majority of humans together into a single category and makes an assumption about all of them. Sounds like racism to me.
“Oh, Dan. You’re just being overly sensitive!” Rather, that society has been teaching us the wrong lesson.
·         American Psychological Association psychologists report that these microaggressions “assail the mental health of recipients.”
·         Surely, none of us would intentionally assail anyone else… but think about how the other person—who may not be coming from a position of privilege—might receive your words.
Think about ways in which you might have been targeted by a microaggression.
·         When you were in your 20’s (or maybe in your 90s), how did people treat you? Not very seriously, I imagine. Microaggression.
·         Or, if you’re female, have people said they thought it was surprising that a woman could be as effective as a leader? Or as non-emotional. Microaggression.
·         The list goes on.
The easy way out is silence:
·         If we observe racism, or sexism, or classism, or ableism, or ageism, or homophobia… are we more likely just to “hope” the other people will know implicitly that we disagree? As if a roll of our eyes is good enough…
o   Or are we willing to break the silence and say, “Hey, that’s not OK,” and disavow these -isms or phobias?
·         Let me be clear: whether we’re talking about Jim Crow-magnitude racism… or a microaggression… our silence and inaction are tantamount to committing the action ourselves.
·         Of the holocaust, pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that: “silence in the face of evil is itself evil…” and: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
·         Also, Dr. King once said of the Civil Rights movement: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
This sermon is not about feminism or womanism, though we have much to learn from their voices.
This sermon is not about racism, though it illustrates the point.
This sermon is about looking at ways in which we embody our privilege, if we have it.
·         Think about ways in which you may carry privilege—which, again, is not a bad thing…
o   Are you part of the race that has the most power?
o   Are you expected to “come out” to people about your sexuality, as if it’s something to apologize for?
o   What about your gender? Are you paid equally?
§  Or, even if you’re not, would you need surgery or hormones to confirm your sex?
o   Do you walk with a limp or with a cane?
o   Is your face and body considered beautiful?
o   Do you have access to healthcare and transportation?
§  Or does your socio-economic status give you fewer options?
o   How many degrees and letters do you have behind your name?
o   Do you speak with an accent or with slurred speech?
o   Have you ever been denied employment or housing because you have a criminal record?
o   Are you targeted because of your faith?
o   And—a privilege that is often overlooked—do you “pass” as being part of the dominant culture?
·         Finally, notwithstanding the above, do you give tacit approval of inequity and injustice, or  do you even participate in it somehow?
·         I’ll bet many of us have never considered how we might have greater advantages. May we be thankful for such blessings. And, may we also use our power and privilege for good—and not to harm.
We have been given a choice.
·         We can be like the priest… who has all the knowledge of the Law… and attempts to please God by honoring the minor portions of the Law… but in so doing, we break the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
·         We can be like the Levite… who is born into an elite, privileged, and powerful caste… but decides against helping a person who does not have the same pedigree.
·         Or, we can be that unlikely hero to someone… the Samaritan… who does something and says something… who risks life and limb in order to live-out his religious values…
o   Even if you’re white and can’t relate to people of color—you can be a racial ally.
o   Even if you are a male and think you know what women face—you can fight for women to make their own decisions.
o   Even if you are college-educated and can’t relate to people who aren’t, you can invite them to talk during coffee hour—and maybe even hire them.
o   Even if you can’t relate to transgender folks, you can still advocate for their legal right for things as essential as access to use the restroom.
o   Even if you can’t relate to Muslims, you can still disavow any politician who advocates for war-crimes against them, and then, in the next breath, traps them in their war-torn lands by turning away refugees.   
Perhaps some of us have never thought about this parable in this way. But this is the path of Jesus.
·         We can still speak up.
·         We can still act according to what this passage elicits in us.
·         Even if we are high-born like the Priest or Levite, we can turn this thing around and become the unexpected hero… and live-out the greatest commandment.
·         And most importantly, we can use our place of privilege to bring about justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
·         It can be a thankless job, but consider the impact we can have!
·         And that – Jesus says – that is how we love our neighbor.
May God grant us the strength and fortitude to follow the greatest commandment even when it is socially unacceptable to do so.
·         May we love the Lord our God… and love our neighbor as ourselves.

·         May it be so.