Questions in Advent

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year.*  We immerse ourselves in the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the journey of his life. We are called to pause and reflect, even (and especially) amid the Christmas marketplace chaos.

Advent is also an excellent time to reflect on the questions that guide us. Productivity gurus tout the magic of goal setting. Cultural conditioning instructs us to know – and proclaim our knowledge of – all the answers.

But I learn a lot from sitting with questions. A couple have travelled with me for many years: how can such joy and such suffering exist simultaneously in our world? And how ought I to live in the face of this dissonance?

I expect to grapple with these questions as long as I have breath in me.

Others are more transitory, such as – how do I live into and love the work of this moment? what words and actions can I usefully contribute in this cultural climate? what exactly is that cultural climate even anyway?

Those who listen to me regularly know that I consider all time holy. Yet each season carries that sacredness in a different manner. The rhythm of Christian life offers us the continual discipline of lifting our spirits and opening our hearts. It also gives us time to reflect, to discern, and to grow in wisdom and understanding.

I invite you in these early days of the Christian year, in this sacred time of waiting and hoping, of rejoicing and contemplation, to spend some time with your questions – or, if need be, to work on figuring out what questions you might journey with in the days, months, and years ahead.

May you find blessing in that journey.


(*my sermons, never especially long by conventional standards, are particularly brief during Advent because Beloved has a tradition of glorious extra music during this season. Consider this a sermon outtake 🙂)


Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part II – Justice and the Other

We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-

“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”

Justice for the Other is a sacred task.

It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.

We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.

Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?

First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.

Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.

Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.

That ought to be said.

And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.

I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –

1)  let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.

That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.

So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.

2)  we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.

We can name forms of oppression –

Systemic racism
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism

Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.

And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.

Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.

Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.

We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.

Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.

Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.

We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.

And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.

That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.

This is human-made.

Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.

We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.

We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.

This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.

We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.

When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.

We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.

And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.

That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.

3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.

And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.

And I know y’all know that.  This congregation is one of those places.

But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.

This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.

One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.

I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.

But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.

In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.

Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.

Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.

Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.

If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.

Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.

Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.

I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as

Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and

How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.

Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.

In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.

If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.

As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:

“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth.  In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part I – the Self

This is the first of two-part sermon series given to a Unitarian Universalist congregation earlier this spring. The second week’s sermon, which I will post tomorrow, focuses on finding the sacred in our justice-oriented connections with the world around us. 

We’re talking today about the everyday sacred. First let me say that I’m not going to define sacred here. I’m not going to try to tell a group as spiritually diverse as you what ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ means to each of you, though I’m certainly glad to talk to folks about that later if you want. But I’m going to trust that most of you have a sense of what sacred means for you – and it’s probably why you’re here – in this particular place rather than out on the lake or over at the Baptist church on this fine Sunday morning.

Now our reading, which comes from Father Greg Boyle, who happens to be a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. This is not a Jesus sermon – I do those elsewhere – but some of you may have heard of his long-term community-building and job creation efforts in gang-dominated areas of Los Angeles. They’ve built a group of enterprises called Homeboy Industries.  So hear these words –

“If the intent is to save people, or even to help people, then . . . you’re going to be depleted. But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it. And, just because everything is about something else, if you savor the world, somehow – go figure – it’s getting saved.”

Let’s talk for a minute about getting depleted. Anybody here ever feel depleted? Like you’ve given all you’ve got to give? Frustrated? Angry? Weary? Anybody ever despair of the state of the world?

Yeah. We’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.

We are surrounded by avoidable death. Every time I turned around this week I read about people getting shot. How many endless wars are happening on our planet?  Avoidable death and Donald Trump and mass incarceration and anti-LGBTQ legislation. We lost Prince this week – he sang much of the best of the soundtrack of my high school years – and he’s not the only cultural icon who has died recently.

We celebrate Earth Day while we can’t seem to do a thing to interrupt climate change and wanton ecosystem destruction. We blame the poor, the immigrant, and the mentally ill for our problems. We starve Medicaid but legislate bathroom use.

And in our own lives we contend with stacks of bills, dozens of errands, and overflowing e-mail inboxes. We try to help but there’s always another cause, always another person, always another wrenching image, always another hand, always another word we’ve got to speak against. It never ends – and it’s entirely possible it never will.

Some days we’re up to here. That, my friends, can seem mighty bleak.

But here’s the grace moment – it’s right here in Boyle’s words – Can you be anchored in the here and now? Can you practice the sacrament of the present moment?

(and he not the first one to use that phrase but we’re going to stick with his context this moment)

Last August I had a detached retina in my right eye. Pretty scary stuff, but the surgery to repair it went well. But I found for a time that I could not read comfortably. I ordered a basic Kindle Fire from Amazon because I learned they had a text-to-speech feature that would enable them to read books to me. It’s pretty mechanical, not like a real audiobook though the technology for these things has improved.

As my eye slowly healed, I was able to keep up with much of my reading by having the device read to me. So it’s reading a book to me that quotes from the Bible and you know how scripture is set up chapter and verse, right?  – so chapter 6, verse 30. Six colon thirty. Well, my kindle read that like it that – and I heard it like clock time. I heard 6:30. Like clock time.

And I went ‘Hunh.’

Ever have something just click for you? You’re there one minute and something just shifts? Well, that happened to me when I heard that.

And instead of thinking about sacred texts (the actual reference), I got started thinking about sacred time. And the more I thought about it, the more it seems like we are capable of seeing all time as sacred time. Not just the moments when we are gathered here in church – or those precious moments of birth and death and marriage and other milestones. We can choose to see time as sacred.

So let’s hold that for a moment – imagine that – all time is sacred.

For us to filter time like that, for us make that one lens through which we encounter the world, we have to make it a part of us. We have to take that sense of sacred-ness and know that it’s part of who we are. It’s something internal to us – and if it’s internal to us, it’s internal to all – so we hold the sacred within us, as do we all.

But here’s the thing – it’s already there. The sacred is already there in you and already all around you. However, it is mighty easy for it to get covered over by all the mess of our material culture and all the busy-ness of our routines.

We have to make the deliberate choice to see it that way. We have to CHOOSE to see the moments of our daily lives as sacred – both the monumental and the mundane, the joyous and the sorrowful moments. All of it.

Can you do it? Some of you may already do so. Most people don’t. Our lives obscure it most of the time. It becomes a muddy smudge except in special moments. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s there, if only we decide to see it.

All time is sacred time.

Can you see it that way?

Nothing has changed. And yet everything has changed.

Then here’s our next step. We are moving through this sacred time. We are always on the go, right? There’s stuff and stimulation of all sorts. What happens? For this we turn to some of the great wisdom passed down from Buddhist teachers. We see the sacred in all things around us, we do what we can do, and then we let it go.

Because nothing, my friends, is permanent. We can try to hold onto joys, but we can’t. We can try to push away pain, but we can’t. Sometimes we hold onto our pain – and that works for a time though it’s miserable. But we find if we fill ourselves with any one thing, then we are unable to greet what comes next.

When we see time as sacred, we experience the moment – the fullness of the moment – we do what we can in that moment, as skillfully as possible – and then we let it go so that we are prepared to face the next sacred moment.

We are called to do all that we can, but not more than that. We can only do what we can do. By acknowledging the sacred within us, we can work through that sacredness in all that we do. And that is bound to help us do what we do better.

I am going to give you a small example. And I don’t actually know if this guy framed his time as sacred or not. But he sure acted like he did. Some of y’all may remember there used to be a Quiznos in downtown Homewood. I used to go in there from time to time back.

One day I was in a crummy mood because I was having a crummy day.

The man behind the counter – this man who took my order, made me a sandwich, and took my money? He was an instrument of perfect grace. He simply did everything he was supposed to do in the kindest manner possible.

It stopped me and my bad day in my tracks. And I realized that I did not have to go through my time like that. Friends, that was probably 10 years ago. And I can still remember that moment.

Do you change the world by making a sandwich? That man – and I don’t know a thing about him. I never even got his name – he changed my world. I learned a great deal about the everyday sacred from a man who made me a sandwich. This ordinary thing was turned into an extraordinary gift.

We can see and use our time as sacred moments. Time that enables us to touch the sacred in ourselves and to honor it in others.

Back to our quote – But if the task is allowing yourself to be reached by people, can you receive people? Can you be anchored in the here and now and practice the sacrament of the present moment? if you can do that, then it’s all delight and it’s all amazement and it’s all awe. . . Our choice is always the same: save the world or savor it. And I vote for savoring it

So here is the savoring part: we see the sacredness of all things. The joys and the sorrows – both are real and both are true. We see it and we savor it. We hold it for the moment. We discern in that moment what we can do and what we cannot do. And we let. it. go, doing what we can and not doing what we can’t.

Friends in that moment, we have touched what is real. And we have blessed from our deepest capacity to do so.

Savor that. It is a moment. And then we move on. But the next moment is sacred too.

Let’s be real. Everybody is going to get tired. There is no way around it. There are times when our outrage overwhelms us – and rightly so. But we must remember that both the joy and the sorrow are true.  We hold them in tension.

What are some things that help to make this a sustainable practice? Just like I can’t define sacred for you, I can’t tell you what is going to make the most sense for you. I know some things that work for some people, some possible ingredients in the mix:

creative expression, generosity, kindness, meditation, music, rest, humor, sharing food, love, forgiveness of both the self and others, silence, worship, solitude, relationship, compassion, giving and also receiving, wisdom.

That’s hardly an exhaustive list.  You do not have to do any of those things. You do not have to do or believe anything I’ve said. You can go right on seeing the world exactly as you have done and I will wish you nothing but blessings and a lovely journey.

But I offer this to you – humbly – as a notion – as a person who works at the intersections of different faiths and different issues and different people. Consider how we might come to see time as sacred, how in the process we might find it possible to savor the world, and in so doing, perhaps we will find new ways to save it.

I’ll close with a bit of a poem by the Jewish poet, Marge Piercy. It’s a nod to the indisputably sacred moment, the celebration of Passover, which we’re in the midst of now – and very much in keeping with our day –

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.





The Work of Creation: Judges 5: 3-7

We have a lot to do tonight.

That fits, right?

Tonight we are staring at the role of women in our lives and we come to a point of saying, ‘There is a whole lot to do. ‘

And we’re going to get it done.

That sound like any woman you know?

Plenty to do.

And it’s going to get done.

Let us start with the recognition that today is Mother’s Day and that every soul in this room was born of a mother.

Sometimes that relationship went well from there. And sometimes not.

For those who can wholly celebrate their mothers’ enduring presence and wisdom in their life, we gathered here – we celebrate that with you.

This is not a competition. The world may teach us that we are supposed to be better than everybody else, that for somebody to win, somebody else has to lose, that if you are all happy, I am going to be talking about you behind your back.

You know what I say about that?

I say that is from Hell. Those are the world’s values. Those are not God’s values. That is not love of my neighbor. So I look on Facebook or I look around this room and I see that you have an incredible relationship with your wonderful mother and y’all had brunch together today and it is all so happy.

For those you who have great relationships with your mothers and great relationships with your children and all or any of the things that are supposed to make this a great day, I say blessings on you for your joy.

But that may not be the relationship that you have – or had – with your mother. Or maybe your mother was wonderful, but she’s gone. Maybe gone earlier from your life. Or maybe, excruciatingly, just recently.

So maybe you look at the fact of Mother’s Day and your heart hurts. You look at all those blasted sappy Hallmark cards and you look all those smiling brunch pictures and your heart hurts.

But you know what we are going to do tonight?  We are going to celebrate. We are going to be happy that we were born onto this Earth of a woman who – for whatever was going on in her life – did what she could do. For some of us that was grand and wonderful and perfect. And for those of you among us, those people who know this day as a joyful one, we rejoice with you.

Even as we grieve our own losses. What was. What was not. What could never be. What has been lost to us.

We rejoice with you. You acknowledge our pain. That is the compassion born to you.

Together we are healed. Together we look upon the faces of women in this world and we give thanks and we know and release our pain and we forgive.

We can say the same for the mothering we have or have not done. We who have given birth to a child may rightly rejoice on this day. Thank God for our children. But at the same time it is no less true that there are hearts which are broken – hearts to whom a child was denied. Or lost. The suffering. Oh my God. Women who for whatever reason wanted a child that was denied to them. Or bore a child who could not be the child they dreamed of. Or who didn’t want a child and somehow felt the judgment of the world. Or maybe there are no words.

It takes a village, my friends. No truer words have ever been said. Somehow all of us have to come to this moment in our lives.

This evening, you know what we do? We celebrate. We celebrate all the good mothering that happens in this world. That good mothering happens through biological mothers and through incredible women who offer that into the world because that’s what they do.

Thank God for all the mothering that happens in this world. Thank God that we do not have to rely on some single chain of biology for us to give or for us to receive.

While I tend to shy away from describing God as a Father or as a Mother because I believe that God is way, way, way beyond our human conceptions of gender and role, let us fully assert in this moment that in our life – no matter who we are separated from in this earthly realm, no matter what – we are wholly immersed in the love of God.

Whatever the best love that you got from your mama or that you didn’t get for but yearned for from your mama? That? That is the love that God wraps you in every minute of every day. And whatever love that you have to give? The love that you would give to a child? God calls upon us to offer that back into the world.

Because the world so desperately needs it.

You get to decide what that looks like.

Know that the world needs a mother’s love. And that you – whether or not you are anybody’s biological mama – and in the unlikely event that you are a man and sure ain’t going to be anybody’s biological mama – the world and its people still need that kind of love. And you, my friends, by the nature of being here, by the nature of listening to the call of God can consider yourself summoned to provide it.

The world needs the kind of love we are supposed to learn from our mamas. If you received that kind of love in your life, excellent! Turn around and share it. If you didn’t, well then, you know what you missed. Help make sure no one goes without it.

Now let’s turn to our Scripture to teach us something about what it means to do this work in the world.

Women’s work, that is.

We look tonight at the story of Deborah, kept deep in the book of Judges – which is not a book we preach from too much in our tradition because it’s hard. These are not for the most part the easy stories of morality, our legacy of ethics and tradition.

Judges is a brutal book, the story of the Israelites, finally settled in Canaan, getting it wrong over and over again and finding themselves accountable to God for that fact. The Israelites have spent their time wandering in the wilderness under Moses and Aaron. They’ve followed Joshua in gaining control of their promised land. They occupy this territory now and they are trying to figure out how to live.

Brutal, bloody stuff. This is not a pretty story, but it is a powerful one.

In the Hebrew Bible, judges are not judges quite like we think of them today. We’re not talking formal courts and appointed or elected legal arbiters. The judges of this book are respected leaders. They are the folks that others turned to for wisdom and direction.

And of all things the amazing thing in this incredibly patriarchal society? One of them was a woman. Her name was Deborah.

Deborah was a prophet and a wise woman. Under her leadership, the people of Israel defeated those who were attempting to conquer them. And under Deborah the Israelites lived and prospered and stayed faithful – those folks had a real hard time with false idols sometimes – but they stayed faithful for 40 years.

That’s pretty amazing. This text tonight is a part of the song that affirms their victory. And we hear Deborah named as a mother in Israel.

A mother in Israel?

We don’t know if Deborah was the biological mother of children. We don’t know the story of her family life. But we do know here that through her wisdom and skill, she gives birth to something very, very important – 40 years of peace and faithful living on this land.

Let’s think about this for a moment – she gives birth to peace in the land. She is a woman called to do important work and she does it seriously.

On this Mother’s Day, we celebrate the literal births – the wonders of children and family. But I also put to each of you – what do you want to give birth to?

It may be children – literally. Precious beings you guide in this world.

For you, it might be a community of nurturing and care for other people’s children. Or other people’s mothers. Or for people who have no family of their own.

Deborah does not do this work alone She’s faithful to God and she works with others. She summons Barak and together they lead an army. And through her prophecy, Deborah knows that the courage of yet another woman will bring them a key victory – a bold woman named Jael who single-handedly killed the Canaanite general Sisera to secure the peace.

What can you give birth to?

Maybe you give birth to a great idea, something that makes a difference not only in your own life but in the lives of those around you.

Ella Baker gave birth to a powerful grassroots organizing tradition in the Civil Rights movement. Dorothy Day gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in New York City during the Great Depression, Jane Addams gave birth to the Settlement House Movement for immigrant welfare in early 20th century Chicago. Rachel Carson gave birth to the modern environmental movement.

Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich and Mary Oliver and Sandra Cisneros and Denise Levertov and Barbara Kingsolver have given birth to words in the shape of poems and stories and essays and novels, words that move us and teach us and change us, words that will endure for centuries.

In the country of Myanmar, Aung Sung Suu Kyi gave birth to a non-violent revolution that ended decades of military dictatorship.

I know dozens of women – some of them in right here in this room – who have given birth to communities of love and care, where people find connection and friendship and prayers and support. Women who mother children and grown children who are not theirs by birth all the time.

Thank God for that. It sure enough takes a village to raise any child or even to live in this world – and we give birth to and sustain that village for one another each and every day.

Sixteen years ago a group of women – and men –  gave birth to this church. Today we all tend it, nurture, keep it growing with a deeds and our wisdom.  Who says you even have to be a woman to give birth to the stuff of a better world? This is a message for us all.

In 1971 in East Harlem, New York, a former Black Panther named Afeni Shakur gave birth to Tupac. I have great respect for hip hop and hip hop culture, but I don’t claim it as my own. But of course I know Tupac and appreciate his work and his genius. As some of the friends in my Facebook feed began to call the name of Afeni Shakur on Monday morning and to mark her sudden passing, I started to pay attention.

Afeni Shakur was a mother – a mother who grieved the tragic death of her gifted son – a mother who grieved for and fought the sins of the world, its systemic evils of racism, sexism, and economic disparity. Even before Tupac was born, Afeni helped give birth to a chapter of the Black Panther Movement, nurturing along others in the struggle for a world of freedom and equality for black people. Later, in her sorrows about the world, Afeni mired herself in the awful clutches of drug addiction. She became dependent on crack cocaine. And then she gave birth to a new life for herself. She got clean and stayed that way, even after Tupac’s devastating murder. She gave birth to a foundation from his earnings, reaching out to people in need and good causes all over this country and indeed around the world. She continued this work up until the time of her death this week.

In that time, she also gave birth to this wisdom, which I share with you this evening –

In this speech, she’s been talking about the example of the great Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave, herself a mother of enslaved children, who fought men to gain rights for women and white people to gain rights for blacks during the post Civil War Reconstruction and the ugly early grip of Jim Crow and the lynch law.

Afeni Shakur instructs us – “Things are worse that you think. Worse, much worse, than you think. But remember Sojourner. Don’t make no difference how bad they are. It is our responsibility to look it square in the face and say ‘What should I start with? Where shall I begin?’ You hear what I’m saying? That is what it is that all of us must do.”

Afeni Shakur stared at the face of her own pain, the irreconcilable loss of a child and she tells us – and this is a quote “You can do this thing. You can turn that garbage, that pain, that awfulness, you can turn it into something else. We must challenge each other to do that. . .  [we must ask ourselves] What can I do different with this pain? I am not asking you to do something that I didn’t do.”

Look around you at how messed up this world is. Look at your own pain – whatever its source, I know it’s there. Look at the example of Deborah, a mother of Israel, who in the middle of a society that viewed women as property made her way to leadership and gave birth to 40 years of peace and faithfulness among the Israelites. Look to Afeni Shakur and know that though there is pain, there is also life. We can live life and we can give and nurture life. Whether it’s a biological child or the hopes and dreams of child that’s not our own or an idea or a poem or a way to save the world.

So we have this day.

What do you rejoice in?

What must you grieve?

What you might you give birth to?  In ways traditional or something altogether new.

What will you do?



For the Common Good sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11   

I spent some time on Friday following one of the heritage walks downtown in the Civil Rights district. If you’ve been downtown at all, you’ve probably passed and read some of those signs that mark significant events and places in Birmingham’s Civil Rights history. Though there are currently four separate march routes that spread across several blocks each, I’ve always read individual signs by happenstance, usually through my car window as I’m stopped at a red light.

I had never followed a whole path before. So Friday – on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actual calendar birthday –  I decided to make the time to not only walk through Kelly Ingram Park, but also to trace the route that covers the Selective Shopping campaign, the economic resistance that led to peaceful protest and violent response.

Foot soldiers and firehoses. Pickets and police dogs. Even though we know the history – some of you lived through it – it never ceases to hold new lessons for us. It is a part of who we are and who we will become. It is a part of our context. Walking that whole path brings a vivid sense of our city’s history and of how that continues to shape our journey forward as we seek – or not – common ground and the common good.

This letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians is born of another specific context and it speaks into that context. It’s one of a series of letters – only 2 of which have been preserved – from Paul to a congregation that he had founded some years before. Much of the letter consists of his pastoral responses to their questions.

He’s giving them practical advice about being church together in that time and that place and with those people. Corinth in this era is a big, bustling Greek port city with a diverse population. The people of Corinth were trying to live out the teachings of Jesus in the middle of a busy urban area and in the middle of the call of their daily lives. In the hearing of this passage you can probably already begin to imagine how it might apply it to the life of our times.

The conversations we have in this church are always in a specific context too. We are looking at the challenges of finding and getting used to a new pastor. We bring the busy-ness of the past week and the anticipation of the week ahead of us. We come with the awareness of endless political squabbling, bloodshed in both distant lands and here in our own city, water from the tap in Flint, Michigan that has been unsafe to drink for more a YEAR and HALF and somebody’s just now doing something about it. We’ve got the passing from this earthly life of some of our most loved cultural icons. And we come together this night on the eve of the day that asks us to remember the life and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s our context too. This is what we share, our common life.

Paul is trying to help the Corinthians deal with what’s going on in their shared life. The problems we confront today are both similar and different. As I read the passage from Paul and thought about this holiday weekend and all that’s going on in the world, I started thinking about these words of civil rights activist, scholar, friend and biographer of Martin Luther King, a man by the name of Vincent Harding.

Harding describes one of our problems in this way – and it’s a danger that is so concrete in this time in our country – he says “For you know and I know so many people who believe that the comfortable darkness in which they now live is the best thing they could ever have, and that everything else is much too risky. And many of you know all the people who are quite sure that they cannot change the habits of their lives and try out a new America.”

Often we look at what we CAN’T do. Or if we look at what we can do, we think somehow it’s not good enough. It’s not important enough. WE are not enough. And when we get stuck in that place, we fail to see what we have to give. We get so wrapped up in our shortcomings and self-doubt that we don’t risk sharing our real and needed gifts with one another.

If we can’t be and do everything, we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s safer to do nothing. We might not take the risk of offering ourselves into a society that has been known to shred people body and soul. Or we think if we give of ourselves we’ll give it all up. There won’t be anything left. We don’t have faith that God is at work in the world and that the world can be transformed through God’s abundant love. We don’t have faith that God is at work in us and through us.

What this passage makes clear is that all of our gifts and talents are important – and are needed. Pick the metaphor that works for you: the puzzle comes together when we all put in our pieces; the painting takes its final form only when we each add our brushstrokes; the choir sounds right only when all of our voices join in. That’s a just a start on the metaphors.

But whichever image you hold in mind, Paul is telling us that the church and the world recognize and need our diverse gifts. That’s a joy. And that’s a responsibility. Paul does not – because Jesus does not – give us much space to stay out of everything. We might want to hide.

And to be clear, we’re all allowed a day on the couch or some time spent staring at the TV. If we don’t pace ourselves, it’s going to be hard to keep at it. But our world needs us. Our world needs people to bring the love of God into our common life, for the common good. Because our culture hides our fundamental interdependence from us. We need something beyond ourselves, but we don’t always see it that way.

Hear the words of Dr. King. At Riverside Church in New York in April 1967, he preached, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

To create what King calls a person-oriented society, we have to honor and nurture the gifts of ALL people. We must see the beautiful diversity that God has put into this world – diversity among our humanity and among our ecosystems – as our treasure here on earth.

A people-oriented society affirms that there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit;

That there is a variety of ministries, but we serve the same One;

That there is a variety of outcomes, but the same God is working in all of them;

That to EACH PERSON is given the manifestation of the Spirit FOR THE COMMON GOOD.

Each person. Each. Person. For the common good. Even as we strive to find the courage to share our own gifts in this world, we must also look for the gifts in others.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in following the example of Jesus.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in the active witness of THIS church.

EVERYBODY has a role to play in making Jesus’ love manifest in a world where the dominant cultural narrative going on 50 YEARS after the death of Martin Luther King is STILL one of

heterosexism and homophobia, and
hatred of our neighbors disguised as so-called patriotism.

We all know there’s evil. A lot of it resides in our systems and structures, in the ways that they protect the powerful and sacrifice the powerless. And sadly it resides in people. Some people are so damaged by this world that all they can do is spread that pain around. It leeches out of them and separates them from their own humanity and from their capacity to bear witness to our shared humanity.

That, my friends, is what sin looks like. And we live in a world that profits off of sin and death and despair. But the Gospel response to that is not MORE SIN and MORE DEATH and MORE DESPAIR.

The Gospel response to that is life and connection and the use of our own gifts and valuing of the gifts of others. We strive toward a world where no one is an outcast, no one is stranger, right? In the name of Jesus Christ, we seek to heal the wounds of sin, the pain of separation, the damage that we human beings do to one another and to the earth.

We are called in our diversity to make compassion and justice a reality, to create a world where we do not damage the hearts and minds, the souls and bodies, of one another. That is a world in which the love and example of Jesus Christ indeed reigns supreme.

There is work to be done – maybe more work than ever – and that work is the task given by the Gospels to us all. If we listen to Paul, however, we realize that we do not all have to do it the same way. We just have to pick up our God-given gifts and use them to make the love of God manifest in a world that so desperately needs it.

We are NOT working for what theologian Holly Hearon calls “the false peace of the status quo”. We are working together – we MUST work together – for a world where God’s justice and God’s love are made real for each and every soul and for all of Creation. That is the common good.

The world feeds us shallow commodified consumer-oriented relationships. It draws us to mute – or not so mute – idols that will lead us astray. It sparks in us not only the desire to judge one another, even over the most trivial things, but a sense that we are ENTITLED to judge one another, even over the most trivial things.

It teaches us that we NEVER have enough and yet lures us with the promise that that next purchase, that next THING we acquire will fulfill us, will make us content.

True contentment can only come from being

right with God,
right with ourselves, and
right with one another.

There’s no way we can achieve that all the time. But in relationship with God and with one another, we can make that our intention. It can be our compass point.

And when we do this right, we all carry one another all along the way.

We all use whatever gifts we bring, whether it’s the widow’s mite or Mary’s attention or Martha’s hospitality to contribute to the common good.

In this congregation there are healers and there are prophets. We have wisdom in discourse and the word of knowledge among the people here. Among the people here in this room right now. And we got a lot – a LOT – of faith.

In this place, there are community organizers and artists. There are people who build and people who teach and people who feed. There are caregivers and financial stewards. Some of you create safe spaces and others brave spaces. We need both.

In this place, there are people whose work contributes to the well-being of the vulnerable and often marginalized among us – children, the elderly, those with mental illness, the poor, the immigrant, LGBTQ people. There are people who show up and put their shoulders to whatever needs to be done wherever they are, day in and day out.

And it may be that some of y’all have miraculous powers. I don’t doubt it for a minute.

Claim your God-given gifts with the humility and confidence that comes of knowing that you are a child of God. Then use them in ways that are small and ways that are large to make this world into a place that honors that of God that dwells within each person.

That is the common good.

We’re not all good at everything – and everything is not all about us, but this church has always been a place where the boundaries of community are porous. We don’t circle up and make a big deal about US and THEM.

The lines between us sitting up here as a church congregation and the world out there – that’s always a thin line here, one that allows us not only to see the pain – and the beauty of the world around us, but to use our gifts for the common good.

Let us do that work.


Which Christmas? sermon: Colossians 3:12-17

It’s a pleasure to be here among you this morning and to be working with the words from this epistle.

Colossians is a complicated text in a number of ways, but the Scripture for this week, right here in the heart of Christmas, offers us some really useful words as we look to make sense of where we are in this moment.

And where exactly are we?

Advent, the beginning of the Christian year, that time of hope and expectation, is over.

Christmas the Consumer holiday is over. Now we’re into the After-Christmas sales. I’ve heard Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus enough times for at least another 11 months. Maybe for twice – or three times or ten times – that long.

Christmas the family holiday is over, for better and for worse. Some people are still fellow-shipping, still traveling, but a lot of folks have begun to make their way home or at least are making preparations to do so.

Christmas the long weekend this year is about over.


Christmas the Christian observance is still with us, right?

A child was born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the inn. According to the Christian calendar, this is the Christmas season. The good news is made manifest among us. Jesus is born into the world. That event happened on Christmas Day and because of that, as this Scripture holds before us, the Word of Christ, rich as it is, can dwell in us.

It’s a moment of opportunity, yet it’s all too easy in the busy-ness of the season to let this moment of opportunity slip by us.  The great poet WH Auden puts the risk to us this way:

Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away

That’s the risk of the present moment.

Do we contain Christmas too much?
Do we make it into a single moment defined by our human standards of a holiday?
Do we make it about the presents that come in boxes instead of the presence of Jesus in our world?
Do we skip too quickly to the next thing?

We don’t have to. The Christian calendar gives us 12 days.  Christmas lasts until we mark the feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Here in the United States we have often failed to pay attention to that. But in doing so we missed something important and I’m glad to reclaim it.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world in the form of a migrant baby.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as a helpless infant in a time of empire.

It takes more than a day to figure out what it means that Christ was born into this world as an embodied rejection of our material concepts of power and privilege.

This is the good news, the Christmas Spirit, the mystery –  this improbable reality that the prince of peace was born in a stable.

It takes more than a morning crowded with wrapping paper and excitement and ham to figure out what that good news means for the essential question of how I am to live? And how are we to live together? We need some time – and we need it each year because the quiet steady voice of God is easily drowned out by the noise of our culture.

The 12 days of Christmas give us that chance, that opportunity to take this transformative moment and put it to work in us.

We’re on day 3. Can I interest anyone in some French hens? That’s where the song comes from, right?

Okay, maybe those are hard to come by in Birmingham, but we can still find gifts of this day and of the remaining days of Christmas. We can work on this question of how to live Christmas.

The period of Christmas takes us from 2015 into 2016. It binds the old calendar year with the new.

And how does it carry us forward?  What can help us to mark this ongoing Christmas season in our own lives, this sacred time?

The text today provides useful instruction. In a passage that precedes our text, we hear these words:

What you have done is put aside your old self with its past deeds and put on a new self, one that grows in knowledge as it is formed anew in the image of its Creator.

For the month of December, we had our Christmas sweaters, didn’t we? Reindeer socks and Santa hats.  Maybe you go for the garish or maybe you have that one item that fits perfectly and feels so good. One look at it when you pull it out of storage reminds you of all the season has to offer, so that when you put it on, it fills you with delight.

But now that we’ve left those other Christmas’s behind, we start to pack those clothes away. The passage from Colossians we read today tells what we could wear for the rest of Christmas. Hear it again – clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together.

How’s that for a Christmas outfit? Think about wearing these things. You get out of the bed and – because of Jesus’s presence in this world and in your life, you put on heartfelt compassion. You put on kindness. You put on humility and gentleness and patience.

What if that were to be our uniform as Christians? Every single day. When you wear something it touches you all the time. You feel it. It goes with you all day long. It’s a part of your identity.  It’s a visible marker of who you are.

These days I have to get up each morning and figure out if it’s going to be 35 or 75 degrees on any given day. You know what I mean, right? And then I’ll get the right clothes out.

But no matter what the weather is outside, no matter what the circumstances, no matter whether you are going to the grocery store or to a book club meeting, if you’re going to work or to a wedding – you can clothe yourself in compassion and kindness and humility and gentleness and patience and love. No matter what.

It’s important to say this – that doesn’t mean we let people run all over us. But it means:
if you speak truth to power, you do so from a place of love;
if you call out the meanness of the world, you do so with humility and kindness;
when you face the community-breaking miseries of institutional racism and structural poverty and ingrained homophobia and ableism, you confront them clothed in the wisdom and peace that comes from knowing Jesus in your life. We are called to instruct and admonish one another wisely.

If we keep working with that Scripture, we learn more. We hear the call to forgive and to dedicate ourselves to gratitude, the call to sing joyfully to God and to let peace reign in our hearts. This takes practice. This is active work and often difficult work.

But if we make it our practice, if we make it the work of this moment, if we use this time of Christmas to focus on these disciplines, we begin to live into the sacredness of time – not just at Christmas, but all the time.

Jesus Christ was born into a world of fear and poverty and great distance between the powerful and the powerless. Does that sound familiar? And furthermore we live in a world of feuds and fights, of death and destruction, of shootings and storms.

I don’t know about you, but on Christmas night I was wondering if somebody pulled up the wrong story. It wasn’t supposed to be the Ark story. This was supposed to be about Jesus, not Noah.  But we are not in control all the time, are we? That’s part of the stark reality of living as human beings.

There are so many things that are out of our control.
But how I treat someone else is in my control.
How we treat one another is in our control.
How we live our time as sacred time is in our control.

So which Christmas do we carry forward? We remember the joys – and the limitations – of the consumer Christmas. We treasure the moments of the holiday celebrations with friends and family and church family. And in these 12 days of Christmas – the heart of the Christian observance:

let us put aside our old selves and live new in Christ
let us clothe ourselves in heartfelt compassion and love
let us forgive
let us allow peace to reign in our hearts
let us dedicate ourselves to gratitude
let us permit the rich word of Christ to dwell in us
let us sing joyfully to God

and whatever we do as we go about our daily routines, let us remember that we are formed in the image of God – and so is everyone around us. Jesus was born among us. Let us each carry that good news into the new day.


Trinity Sunday sermon: Romans 5:1-5

The very first sermon I preached, which I just came across in some papers –

I want to talk about this passage from Romans and I want to talk about today being Trinity Sunday — we’re going to see if we can tie these in together a bit.

I’ve been known to start in the middle of things and that’s what we’re going to do here. Right here in the middle of these words from Paul’s letter to the people of the early church in Rome, where the going was rough at the time.   Let’s go back over it – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – which does not disappoint

That sequence sounds pretty good – but does it always work that way? It it inevitable that we move from suffering to endurance to character to hope?  I’m thinking it’s more of a choice as to whether it goes that way or whether we get stuck somewhere.

As I look around this room, I see lots of people who have suffered. I don’t even know all y’all that well, but I know every single one of you has faced some sort of suffering in your life. I’m a pretty fortunate person myself, but I know I’ve suffered. Everybody suffers – black/white, rich/poor (yep, odd as it seems, I’ve known some incredibly miserable rich people), young/old, gay/straight, single/married, Democrat/Republican. Sometimes it’s our own fault. Sometimes the causes are completely out of our hands. Regardless, it’s suffering.

Now remember where we are going. Suffering leads to endurance, right? Except sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere. It just feels like suffering.

But if we are to believe this – and let’s hold onto it for now – then from suffering, we learn endurance. Let’s talk about endurance. You hear about people running marathons and such. They call these endurance events. They are not sprints. They are the long haul — and it takes all the strength you can muster. Endurance like this is not passive. It takes fortitude. It takes all your strength.

So our suffering can produce endurance. We can get stuck in suffering.  Or we can get stronger. Life is an endurance event. We find our strength. We know suffering, but we also know how to endure.

And where do we go from there: suffering produces endurance produces character.

Now that’s an interesting turn. Character’s where we stop looking inward so much and start looking out. Specifically we start look out for one another. If we make that step, we become people who don’t just think about our own selves. Character means we take that strength and we share it.

Then what comes next – anybody remember – say it with me – suffering produces endurance which produces character which produces hope.

Let’s start in on hope by making a distinction. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. We can thank the philosopher brother Cornell West for speaking of this distinction. Optimism is this belief that everything is getting better. Well, we all know this world look mighty bleak a whole lot of the time. All we have to do is look around – look near, look far. Whew. Hard to be optimistic when you see all that suffering.

But hope is BIG. Hope takes us out of all that bleakness and opens us to the possibilities for grace, no matter what happens or is going to happen. Those graces may be big or they may be small, but one thing is that they are there. Our job is to be open to them.

So suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope.

But HOW do we do that? How do we go through all these things and not get STUCK along the way? How do we actually get from suffering to hope?

Well, today – this Sunday – reminds us of how that works. For that we skip from the middle of our scripture passage to its beginning and its end:  from the beginning – “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”

And from the end – “ God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit – that has been given to us.”

So we’ve got God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That works well for today, Trinity Sunday: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, right? Or some may prefer God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer.

That’s going to be our how. But this concept of the Trinity can be a tough thing to get your head around. The notion of God in 3 persons confuses many a believer and many a non-believer.

The very first semester of my freshman year at college, I heard that a world famous theologian was going to teach a class. He was visiting from Germany, a renegade Catholic by the name of Hans Kung. He’d written several books about this thick. Well, I was a history major, but here I am in my first semester of college and I figure I better not miss the opportunity to take his class.

I’d never actually heard of him, but the student newspaper said he was famous, so I sat in a big lecture hall with a whole bunch of other students for a class that met on Monday nights all semester long. Three hours each class. He had this serious German accent. They put him in the fanciest lecture hall on the campus — in the business school. The seats were really comfy.  I had classes all day long on Monday, so by Monday night I was about ready for a nap. So . . . I don’t actually remember a lot about what he said in that class.

But — although this was more than 20 years ago, I still remember the time Dr. Kung talked about the Trinity. He said — true words — that it is a tough concept — and one that his friends from other religions really struggled to grasp. So he had decided that the best way to explain it was this:

God the Father, the Creator, is God above us.
God the Son, Jesus, is God beside us.
God the Holy Spirit – we were just talking about the Holy Spirit with Pentecost last week – is God within us.

So God above us, God beside us, God within us.

That, I’ll argue, that kind of presence – that’s how we CAN go – if we choose – from suffering to endurance to character to hope.

From God above us, we get a sense of wonder, a sense of awe. That comes to us in a lot of places. For me, it’s often outdoors, out in the woods. It can be when we hear music. We sure know how that works in this congregation. It might be standing on your front steps or in the library or in the grocery store. It can happen anywhere when we know we are in the presence of God.

For God beside us – we think about the real presence of Jesus, who walked here on earth and who walks with us through each day. We see God embodied in the presence of the people around us – in what Jesus calls the least of these and in the faces of the people we know and, though it’s hard, in the people we want to cuss out in traffic. In everybody we encounter. God is in every single one of them, beside us every day. So we find God among the people around us, even when it’s hard.

Now God within us – the Holy Spirit breathes life into every one of us, every single day. The Quakers are especially good at reminding us of this. They say that there is that of God in every person. So God is in us. So with this knowledge – that God is within you, all the time, in the Holy Spirit – even when you are emptied out by suffering, let that Spirit fill you.

And from these things – God above you, God beside you, God within you – you can know that HOPE that St. Paul is talking about. Hopping back into the middle of that passage for just a moment – then we HAVE ACCESS TO THAT GRACE IN WHICH WE STAND. Don’t miss that line. We stand in hope and in grace. God above, God beside, God within.


Show It By Your Good Life sermon: James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a

Who is wise and understanding among you?
That’s quite a question. No pressure, right?

Who is wise and understanding among you?

James’s letter is quite the fierce treatise. James is interested more interested in conduct than in doctrine, in how we behave toward one another more than what we profess to believe.

Faith is demonstrated by action.

These passages we’ve read tonight are a continuation of ongoing reading that Christians around the world are doing from the book of James. James wrote his letter in an ancient world to long ago Christians, but I’ll argue that James’ message without question speaks into the circumstances of our lives today.

One theme that’s clear in this letter is that that our words can get us into trouble. Anybody know something about that? Anybody out there NOT ever have their words get them into trouble?

That too often we curse rather than bless. That’s from earlier in this third chapter.

And James would also tell us that too often we live out a LIFE that curses rather than blesses.

We hear the temptations in this passage here – we’re tempted to bitter envy, boasting, selfish ambition, falseness. Partiality and hypocrisy. Murder.

There’s lots of ways to murder things. This could be pretty literal, but we also crush the life out of all sorts of hopes and dreams and ideas and sparks of goodness and creativity all the time. This doesn’t have to be just those folks who actually pull out a gun or a knife. Dispute and conflict. It’s all around us. It’s within us.

Who is wise and understanding among you?
Show it by your good life.
So what does a good life look like?

In looking to answer this question, I’ll suggest tonight that we can take the words of James on three useful levels – or at least three useful levels and we’ll talk about 3 of them tonight – our relationships with others, our relationship with the society around us, and our relationship with our very own self. That’s one thing I think we can learn from James and his fierce call.

‘You covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.’
We covet money or power or some balm to our ego. Our culture teaches us to always want more.

To never be satisfied.
To want shiny new things.
To want the last word.
To want things our way.
To aim to have it all.

And since I want it all and you want it all and Ed wants it all and Joyce wants it all – well, we might just have to have words. And once I start having some words with Ed, it might get a little ugly. And I might lose but then I’ll try again. And I might win. And then when I win, I might feel quite pleased with myself and my rightness and my righteousness. I might do a happy dance when I get my way.

And the thing here – is that even if I happened to be right, even if I happen to be reaching beyond the shallow and the material and I am actually right, RIGHT in big capital letters, if I am up in your face and proud of myself for it, that’s sounding awfully earthly.

That’s not sounding like the fruits of the spirit. That’s not sounding like what God teaches us.

If I am treating you like an object for me to pour my whole bucket of pride at being right over, James is telling me I’m doing something wrong.

We can tell it like it is.
We can speak truth to one another.
But how we do it matters as much as what we say and do.

It’s like me hollering at my daughter – now this a total hypothetical, of course —
“KID, why are you so GRUMPY?!! Just CUT IT OUT AND be NICE, OKAY???
Just a hypothetical, right?? Doesn’t work so well though, let me tell you.

James reminds us of the gentleness born of wisdom. There’s never a call not to speak the truth, not to set boundaries, not to hold people accountable. Truth, boundaries, accountability. Those are important. But HOW we treat one another – the words we choose, the ways we engage with one another, the compassion we show – whether it’s to the people you live with or the people you work with or the people you go to church with or the people you pass by at Walmart or the people you talk to on Facebook.

James points us toward a higher standard of relationality. To words and deeds that are worthy of one another and of our call as Christians.

The second place we see this is in our relationship to our whole culture and society. I think we have to be careful as we hear the call to be peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy, and good fruits.

This is not a call to simply be perpetually sunny, blissful and joyous and utterly oblivious to all of the problems in the world. I mean, do we think James is instructing us to just kick back and bliss out in kindness while the powers and principalities of this world arrest brown children for bringing clocks to school?

Are we feeling peaceable while loving couples are denied their legal right to marry by someone who claims to speak for OUR faith?

Are we willing to yield to those who mine tar sands and dump slag into waterways and protect their fossil fuel profits in the short run while ignoring the desperate need of billions of people for climate security, for basic clean water, shelter, food, and medical care?

Our actions give life to our faith.

Who is wise and understanding among you?

Being peaceable doesn’t mean we don’t speak truth to power. It means we act from a heart of love, a soul of faith, and a brain that helps us discern the difference between the culture-driven, ego-fed motivations of bitter envy and selfish ambition, discern the difference between those things and the vision of God’s justice and mercy and love.

So we speak into the public sphere. James is big on the accountability of the rich. He has fierce words for those who care only for themselves and their own pleasures and not the needs of the community.

And we speak into that space in our own time. As Christians, we must add our voices to amplify the call from those at the margins, whether they are Black, Brown, transgender, refugee, disabled, old, poor, gay, Muslim. If we speak neither with our actions, nor with our words, we fail to be the DOERS of the word that James calls us on behalf of God to be.

But – and here’s the key –

We must not seek conflict for its own sake.
We must not take pride in our righteousness.
We must not rejoice in our disputatiousness.
We must not glory and gloat or be ugly and mean.

We need to see God in all that we do.
We need to hear God in all that we do.
We need to take our God filter and let our words and our deeds flow through that filter out into the world.

This is every day. Daily life. The world around us. All that we do and all that we are. Our words and our deeds give life to our faith.

And how do we do it?

Who is wise and understanding among you?
nd how in the world did they get that way?

Ultimately – and now this is where if you were my Grandmama taking notes on the back of your church bulletin, this would be number 3 – these teachings give us an aspiration for ourselves. This is about how we ourselves are formed and what we have inside us.

My friends, we make that way by walking it. We can’t think ourselves into it. We have to do it.

It is about the practice of it on a daily basis, so that we are ever in the becoming. Our actions give life to our faith.

We will be known by our fruits. We will be recognized by our behavior. This happens in the life of the everyday. James holds before us patience, kindness, wisdom, and prayer.

We speak this into being. We turn toward the light of the Holy Spirit. Submit yourself therefore to God. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

This is active. This is real. We are moving. This is not words that we speak and sing HERE and leave behind for next week. If you remember it – and remembered to put it on in the first place – as you leave here, you unclip your nametag and leave it behind. That is NOT what we do with our faith. We are called to live it out every day.

What we are nurturing is that connection to God right inside of us.

So we can understand this demand from James into right relationship with others, right relationship with our society and culture, and right relationship with our own spirits. Honesty, joy, authentic expression, humor, beauty, the fullness of mercy, gentleness. If we practice our faith, if we walk that walk, and we talk that talk – even when it’s so hard – we will continue to come into right relationship with ourselves.

Loving God and loving justice does not mean that we will not be angry. In fact, we’ll probably be angry a lot. But there’s a difference between being angry – even rightfully angry – and speaking from a place of anger. We can be angry – at everything from the bill collector to Donald Trump to traffic to the horrific patterns of violence in our world.

This, however, is where I think James’ words are so valuable – on a personal, human, trying to live everyday level – what does it mean if we accept that anger, but don’t speak from it? Can we acknowledge that as Christians we are called to speak from a place of love and mercy and gentleness?

So we know the anger and the frustration, but before we open our mouths to speak and move our bodies to act, we feel the presence of God in our lives and in our bodies. We live that faith – so that when we open our mouths and move our hands and feet, we speak wisdom and understanding. We speak from a deep well of faith-born kindness, wisdom, and grace.

According to James, there is no separation between faith and practice. It is our actions that give life to our faith. The words we speak, the way we interact with one another, the choices we make, and motivations we bring.

THAT is who is wise and understanding. THAT is how we can live and speak a blessing rather than a curse.

Blueberries and the Love of God sermon: Romans 8:26-39

So I said last week that we would be taking on these passages from Romans as sort of a 2-part endeavor. We left off with a call for living in hope – a holy sort of hope that’s not dependent on our being optimistic about the state of our world

Which is a good thing, right? Because it’s not like this week has been a whole lot brighter. We’ve still got those things I mentioned by name last week – children fleeing violence in their Central American communities, bombs killing civilians in Palestine and Israel, grieving families and a stunned world coping with the Malaysian plane’s downing – and this week we add in some other air disasters and plenty of other ongoing wars and those specific seering things in our own lives. Those are still with us.

But even when we can’t put our burdens or our blessings into words, we’re still called to that hope in God, through God.

So that’s where left off last week here in the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter to the people of Rome. We’re going to pick up from there.

We’re going to get there first by way of a story.

I love blueberries. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I ate so many that it’s  amazing that she didn’t come out with a blue tinge to her. I can eat them by the handful and then another handful. Well, last week I took the kiddo to camp –  up in the mountains there is a sign we’ve passed over the years. A pick your own blueberries place. I noticed it again as we drove up. After I dropped her off, I had some time. The weather was cool and cloudy, which is good and rare blueberry picking weather. It was a weekday, so I figured it wouldn’t be too crowded. Enh, why not stop?

Now it had been raining – that’s an important point in the story. It had rained pretty hard for a bit. That was actually good for me. I had one of the dogs with me, so having it cool & cloudy, post-rain, meant I didn’t have to worry about her staying in the car. It’s hard to pick blueberries and hold a dog leash at the same time.

The sign said it was ¾ of a mile off the main road, so I went  bumping down this deeply rutted, muddy dirt road. ¾ mile is a pretty good ways on a bad road, but I finally got there without losing my oil pan. I pulled in as some other folks were leaving. They cautioned me about the chiggers. I’ve learned to keep bug spray with me so I was good there.

The place had an old shack with gallon jugs sitting out, a box where you could drop in your money. $8.00 gallon. I left $10. I figured I’d eat at least $2.00 worth while I was picking –  and long row after long row of blueberry bushes. Are you with me? Can you see it?

I walked in a couple of rows. Lots of folks only go that far, I figured those would be picked over). And I started picking — up, straight ahead. And then – then I looked down at the ground. And I saw there were all kind of blueberries on the ground. A few were rotten, but most of them were perfectly good – and in fact, perfectly ripe. They’d mostly been knocked off by that hard rain that had just passed through. So there were all these wonderful blueberries down on the ground where they were going to go to waste. We had blueberries up high and blueberries down low. But these blueberries on the ground, they would get overlooked, stepped on, squished. By everybody who comes along and just looks up and right in front of them. They were going to go to waste. And that was a shame.

Now some of y’all might have figured out where I’m going with this. We have a culture where a lot of people end up on the ground. Our society treats a lot of people as disposable. This is especially true of folks in certain categories – this came up last week too, some of this living by the ways of the world, the ways of the flesh. IF you are poor. If you are black or brown. If you are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or queer. If you have a disability. If you are old or if you are a child. If you don’t speak English. If you are a woman. If you are any of those things or several of those things, you have a greater chance of being considered disposable by the world that runs on money and power and imposes its definitions of what’s considered preferable.

Plenty of people knocked to the ground. Overlooked. Without value. Disposable.

Now if that’s where you were thinking I was going with this, you’re right. And you’d be right to guess that I knelt down and picked up a bunch of those blueberries there on the ground – and felt a little self-righteous about doing so.

But there’s a little more and it’s important.

What I discovered as I picked blueberries off the bushes was that if I wasn’t careful, I would knock some other berries off too – knock them right down to the ground.

And it got even worse.  I noticed that even when I WAS careful, I still ended up knocking some down.

It’s easy for me to be a part of the problem too.

So here we are – called to a holy sort of hope in a world that treats a whole bunch of people (people like some of us in this room) as disposable – in a world of war and pain and cruelty. In a world of famine and peril and persecution. In a world of the sword.

It’s the way things are done. We have all of this against us. All of this done through us. At times done in our name and by our own hand.  If God is for us, who is against us?  Paul asks. The fact is that our own material world works against us all the time. The ways of the world even make us work against ourselves and our brothers and sisters in life. I knocked some of those blueberries to the ground myself, didn’t I?

And then Paul says: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. And I say really? Really? I mean really? All things work together for the good? Really?

Somehow we have to get from there to here – from discarded people –  from good fruit of the spirit, good fruit of MANY spirits that’s left overlooked, disposable, discarded and we have to go from there to ‘all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose’

That’s our holy hope – that IS where we are going to end up. But let’s figure out how to get there – because we all need to get there together.

We understand what our culture teaches us – the way of the flesh, a path of death, a path of trampling on others – and often getting trampled on ourselves. A path of failing to see the richness of the folks on the ground.

But here is literally our saving grace – God is for us. God. IS. FOR. US. God wants us to live out God’s path of love, which we SEE INCARNATE in life of Jesus – neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, — Paul is pure poet here — nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is counter-cultural. It is not the way of the world. It is not easy. But, Paul says, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  We have help – and love – even when we don’t have words.

I barely even have to preach this – PAUL preaches it himself.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are being accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, — Paul says No — in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

So nothing separates us from the love of God. That love is all over that blueberry patch. Right at eye level, way on up high, right down at the knees, and definitely, surely, certainly, there on the ground. It is a single, constant, never-fading, never-ebbing love.

It is there for us, not just for us to take – but to let flow through us. Nothing can separate us from it. But we have to let ourselves see it. We have to feel it for ourselves. And then we are called to share it.

Let’s talk about this notion of calling for a moment. We’ve got those who are called according to God’s purpose.

Brothers and sisters, we are all called. Every one of us. We are called to live in this love. To be more than a conqueror – there are plenty of conquerors in this world of ours. God wants us to transcend the conqueror goal and reach for something better.

The specifics may vary, but each and every one of us has a call. We are called to dwell in the spirit of God’s love. We are all called to walk in the path of Jesus, however that makes itself manifest in our own lives.

When we live that out, when we take that idea deep inside ourselves and we let God work in us and through us, then we are participating in all things working together for the good.

It will not necessarily be easy – it can be difficult to swim against the culture of the death of the spirit. God may justify us, God may call us in a spirit of adoption, but God didn’t exactly make it easy for Jesus, now did he? – he did not withhold his own Son. We may not have to follow that call into death, like Jesus did or thousands of early century Christians did, but we can expect some challenges along the way.

But none of that, none of those challenges, none of it can separate us from the love of God. There’s the hope. There is the goodness.

Before we are done, let’s make sure we’ve got it.

There’s a passage we read last week, chapter 8 verses 24-25. – Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

We come back to this place of hope, this place where we hope for things unseen. And you know what? I CAN’T SEE how all things are going to come together for the good. Talk about unseen. . . But hope that is seen is not hope, right? Things that are proven don’t require faith. So I can live in the certainty of cynicism – there is plenty of visible evidence to support that assessment . I can be persuaded by the voices of death in our culture that it’s okay to treat people as disposable. I can give up on goodness.

Or I can tap into God’s ever-present, ever-abiding love, that love from which we cannot be separated. God calls us there. God calls us to be so infused with that love that we believe, even though we can’t see it, that all things will come together for the good.

And here’s the thing – we have no way to know. People live and die each day, people get stepped on and crushed by the ways of the world. It can be pretty awful to witness and worse to live through. But I can promise you this. If you pattern your life after that love, suffused with wisdom as you pick it up along the way, your spirit will experience that goodness. I’m not talking about heaven. I’m talking about here.

That spirit, that goodness is God within each of us. There will be rough moments, but if you live in and through God’s love – which is accessible to us all – then you. will. experience. God’s. goodness. The ways of the world — the troubles and the travails — they will not vanish. But You will know God’s goodness within yourself, no matter what is going on in the world around you.

God does not waste anything or anyone. God engages what is best in our spirits. No matter what, you will have that. No matter what, you can live in the fullness of responding to God’s call. And.

More Than Skin Deep sermon: Romans 8:12-25

There are multiple sermons in this text — and they can’t all be preached at once, so tonight I will focus on the parts that have been speaking to me. We will leave the rest for another time.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

WHAT THIS IS NOT ABOUT — this is not about hating our bodies. That is not what’s going on here. Back in the time of the early church, there was a thing called Gnosticism. Now Gnosticism separated out the soul and the body and said the body was evil. It made this dual way of looking at things where one was good and one was bad This is not about rejecting our bodies.

If God intended for us just to be spirits or souls, what’s the point of even having a body? No, our bodies are our home for fully engaging the world.  We are here to literally embody God’s love.

There’s a whole lot more to talk about on that topic, but it’s not really quite the point here. But it’s so important that I didn’t want to not take on the topic just for a minute.

So what is it saying, this part about the flesh?

Well, what is flesh? We think skin, right? This is our flesh.

You know the expression skin-deep? shallow, skimming the surface. Below the flesh, we have muscles for movement, bones for support..

That’s what we are supposed to avoid — living skin-deep. Just touching the world in the most shallow way, where in a good rain or a shower it’ll just all wash away. We don’t want to just live skin-deep. We’re looking deep, into muscle and bone. It’s how our spirit moves. That’s what muscles do, right? It how we support our spirit, right? That’s what bones do.

having skin in the game

To live according to the flesh is to live a superficial life, a life of of rebelling against God’s call to go deeper. It’s reveling ONLY in the human condition. That is not enough. We have to go deep into God’s spirit and into our own.

Okay, so let’s keep going . . .

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

A SPIRIT OF ADOPTION — that sounds pretty cool. God CHOOSES us to be GOD’s children. CHOSEN. I am chosen. You are chosen. You are chosen. Every one of us — every one of God’s precious children. Not enslavement, but being born into the family of God. Being born into the body of God.

So, in this spirit of adoption → we are heirs of the divine. ALL of us. We are ALL heirs of the divine. All of us. That means we are all (ALL) brothers and sisters. ALL of us.  Doesn’t matter your

skin color
national origin
sexual orientation
ability status
economic status
or even your religion

Heirs of the divine.
Fellow children of God.

So when we keep Central American children in cages on the border, we are caging our brothers and sisters. The 50 children or teenagers die or are injured in gun violence in this country EVERY DAY are our brothers and sisters.

We are all heirs. Everyone of us. Now we are not all exactly the same. You noticed that, right? Some folks are taller than others. Some are blacker or browner. Some are better at math. We speak different languages, have different cultures. It’s beautiful. I’m an only child, but all I have to do is look around to know that brothers and sisters are not all identical twins. We’re different, but we have all received the same spirit of adoption.

You know, Paul doesn’t even know the people he’s writing too for the most part. He’s never been to Rome. These folks are strangers to him. He is preaching a grace that transcends our immediate circles, that transcends our man-made borders. Romans preaches an impartial God, a God of all. A God who values all. And calls us to live our lives deep in the body of Christ. In the muscle. In the bone. Not just skin deep. We’re talking deep down.

Okay, what else we got?

I consider that the sufferings of all of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that while the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

Creation is in a state of eager longing — in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. We see that bondage all the time – in the earth. And we see here the connection between us and all of creation.


Even when we don’t have words:  groaning.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Hope and patience.

In a week where 268 Palestinians and 2 Israelis were killed as Israel and Hamas pounded each other, where 298 died in violent flames when the Malaysian airliner was shot down, where anti-immigration rallies wanted to ‘Make Them Listen’, where whatever difficulties arose in your own lives — because there isn’t a soul in this room that doesn’t have some troubles of their own – and they can range from minuscule to mountainous. This is what we see around us.

The professor and prophet Cornell West reminds us that there is a difference between hope and optimism. There are many, many reasons that we may not feel optimistic about the state of the world – or even about our own lives.

But that must not rob us of hope. That hope is what we have all been called to live into. We let it sit deep inside of us. We have to know the hope of the path of Jesus in our blood and in our marrow. Because if we just let it sit on the surface of our skin, all that mess of the world will wash it away.

And when we pattern our lives after Jesus, we have access to that hope. We can have it our bones – our bones that hold us up. We can have it in our muscles – in what moves us. We can have it in the blood that flows all through our bodies. We can embody hope for a world that so desperately needs it.

That kind of hope is holy.