Thursday, January 11, 2018

Eagle Harbor Sermon (based on Mark 1:4-11)

Michael Denton


Mark 1:4-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 John the baptizer appeared[a] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[b] water; but he will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit.”

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[d] with you I am well pleased.”

Mark’s one of my favorite books of the bible. It was the first written of the gospels. Its raw. The theology is thin. The language is not flowery. For me, it makes it seem a little more engaging and mysterious, somehow. When I read Mark, I always feel a little as though I’m discovering Jesus for the first time.

The different gospels start at the different moments. They reflected something about about what each writer understood about the importance of Jesus within the context of time. For Matthew and Luke, the unique birth narrative really helped explain that, from birth, Jesus was surrounded by what was sacred and born with sacred purpose. John suggests that Jesus was somehow connected to the beginning of time but that this holy sacred figure was revealed through this one place and time. Mark picks up a good deal in to Jesus’ life. His holy mission starts with a call. It starts with his baptism as an adult and moves through that brief bit of time he started a religious reform movement within an indigenous faith tradition. His is a life of full of holy rumors and mystery. There are many more unanswered or vaguely answered questions than clear answers of certainty. I love it. For me, if the only holy book we ever had as Christians was the Gospel of Mark, it would have been enough.

Today’s text from Mark begins with one of those lingering questions… Why was Jesus baptized? Those who were coming to John the Baptist were coming to repent of their sins. Was Jesus a sinner? I’m sure it’s no underestimation to say that there have been thousands of pages written about this one question but I’ve never found any of them to be fully satisfying and I’m good with that. When certainty and faith overlap too much, certainty becomes the false god of what is really fundamentalism. I’m OK with the question because the gift of having to think about who Jesus might be helps me feel closer to Jesus and more connected to who Jesus might be. So, if Jesus was a sinner and became my savior? I’m cool with that.

More generally, the whole idea of sin is problematic for a lot of people. I get it. One of the parodies of Christians has become people who considered themselves free from sin and willing to let others know they are drenched in it. The way sin has been used accusationally to shame other people or try to simply uphold dominant ideas of what is normal is awful. There is, however, a difference between sin being used in an accusatory way and someone personally recognizing they have something to confess…

I have done things in my life I wish I wouldn’t haven’t have done. Now, just in case any of you are worried, I’m not planning on listing all of these for you. For most of you, this list I carry with me would probably be more boring than anything else. But that’s the thing, it's not boring to me. Its meaning making and identity shaping. I’m not talking that realm of wondering or simple regret that point towards decisions I’ve made that now I’m not as certain about. That could be another sermon. I’m talking about those ways in which I hurt someone by my direct action, my inaction or somewhere in between. I’m talking about those acts that range from the deeply personal to those acts that were done on my behalf because of the social group I’m perceived as belonging to. I’m even talking about those ways that, in this role as conference minister, I’ve leant in to fulfilling the role - or hiding behind it - more than I lean in to what I think I might be called to do in that moment.

For me, sin is partially defined by that feeling in the pit of the stomach somewhere between nervousness and nausea. Its that thing that sometimes haunts me in the middle of the night but is as likely to haunt me in the middle of the middle of the day when something spurs this or that memory. It's those things that make me feel angry with myself; angry and alone. These are the things that I spend a lot of time over trying to rationalize or put into a wider context. Sure, almost every time I can figure out what might have been going on that made the decision I made feel like the best possible decision at the time. Sometimes others help me with this context setting but, when it comes down to it, there is a good bit that sticks to me like the tick that burrows into your skin after a walk through high grass. I know I’m not alone in this. Most of us probably understand this very well.

So, here comes John the Baptist. It's easy to portray him as suffering from some mental illness or another but here was this guy out in the wilderness living a life many at this time may have considered a punishment. He was living out the punishment many of them may have thought they deserved. Remember, this was a time before therapists or any other understandings of mental health. There weren’t many ways to deal with some of those things that might have caused you mental or spiritual pain. Here was this guy saying come over here, confess, repent, be put in the water and you’ll have an opportunity for wholeness again. No wonder folks went flocking to this man. So many people had been hungering for something just like this.

And then this guy points to Jesus and praises him. “You think I’M something,” he says. “Well.” And then Jesus comes along and, again, I don’t fully understand why. Jesus come along and asks to be baptized, too. We don’t know if he confessed anything or what he might have confessed. We don’t know what he might have had to repent from if anything at all but, there he was. He was baptized and as he was lifted up out of the water by John’s tough love, the skies seemed to open up. Jesus saw a link between heaven and earth established.  

The text from Mark doesn’t say anyone else saw it. This was Jesus’ experience. This was a story that he must have told. The Holy Spirit came down and, with it, he heard a voice that called him God’s child; a voice that called him Beloved; and a voice that told Jesus that God was well pleased with him. The experience was so powerful that the next line of scripture says it drove Jesus out into the wilderness for awhile. When he came back, it was Jesus inviting people to repent and receive this gift.

The most remarkable aspect of this story for me has been what Jesus heard and the seriousness with which he took the message right away. The answer to dealing with that corrosiveness in our soul that wakes us up in the middle of the night is expelling it through confession. It doesn’t mean we’re not unchanged but it does mean that we make room for this other message.  We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. This can be a hard message to receive when so much interior room is being taken up with messages of self-loathing and shame. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us.

This message can sometimes be harder to live in to, even though we want to. We tend to build our lives to protect us from our fears more than to receive grace, forgiveness and real love that cuts through all the crap. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. This message didn’t first lead Jesus in to interacting with the world, it lead him to the wilderness. He had to disconnect a bit in order to connect with this most important truth. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. We tie so much of our affirmation to how much money we make, or the approval we receive, or even a stupid little thumbs up emoji on Facebook. This attempt to corner the affirmation market is intentional. It works to get our attention for a while and a more than a bit of our money. It can even add noise that makes that central message of Christ harder to hear. Jesus didn’t have facebook or TV or a smartphone or the internet and he still needed to get away to hear this message more clearly. We are children of God. We are God’s Beloved. God is pleased with us. It's no wonder it might be hard for us to hear this from God with so many competing voices that want to market this affirmation to us. It's hard to remember that these words are more than an affirmation that is sold to us again and again and again. This is something that’s given to us. Its free. It's forgiveness.

This is one of those days of the year we get to think about or remember our baptism and think about what it might mean. At its root, remember this: You are a child of God. You are God’s beloved. God is pleased with you.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Post-fall gathering report

“What is the future of the church?”

It's probably no surprise to anyone that this is a question I get a lot. Different folks are trying to figure out what to do and and how to do it. There are concerns about whether or not we’re putting our resources into the right things or putting together the right programs. There are concerns brought up about the number of youth, children, families and young adults in our pews. There are concerns brought up about whether we are putting all we need to into the work of social justice. All these are great concerns and important questions to bring up but none of these have ever felt like the right place to focus, ultimately. Sometimes, the resources we think will save us - money, buildings, time - become less of something that serve a forward looking purpose and more of something we serve. Focusing on one program or another begins to feel more like a magical formula than a faithful one. We end up treating youth, children, families and young adults as a resources for a transfusion of idealism and energy more than equals. Although our faith and works of justice and service are inseparable, we sometimes look at the doing of this work as a marketing or evangelism campaign of sorts. Again, recognizing that we have to do more in all the areas is important but these things, in and of themselves, do not guarantee the future of the church.

Two weeks ago was the first fall gathering of the PNC at N-Sid-Sen. Most of you may remember that the initial intent of splitting the one spring meeting into two was to give people more of choice about what kind of meeting they wanted to attend. The intent was that the spring meeting would be the business meeting and the fall meeting would more of the programmatic meeting. But, as the committee did their planning, something changed in a significant way. The primary focus moved from being an extension of what we might learn together to providing a place and a format to deepen relationships with each other. The further along in the planning process the committee went, the more I became convinced this was the right thing and the more I became excited about what the planning committee was creating. What I saw at N-Sid-Sen proved that the right choices were made.

The best way I can describe it is that I saw the future of the church start to wake up. We had many of the same topics we’ve had during lots of workshops at Annual meeting relating to everything ranging from “Best Practices in Mission Trips;” the search and call process; deepening faith and relationships; community outreach; church finances and stewardship; “Overcoming Obstacles to Change;” and much more. The difference was that the task of those leading these sessions weren’t there as experts in one topic or another (although they frequently were experts). The task was to help facilitate conversations among those who were interested in the topic with each other and, in so doing, uncover the expertise that was already there and build relationships among those gathered. Over the weekend, I saw these conversations continue and anxious energy replaced by relational energy. What surprised me was that I also heard about conversations between people that helped bring clarity to some lingering interpersonal challenges; apologies made with sincerity and vulnerability; the emerging recognition that being in better relationship with each other and the world is what we are really seeking. In a whole new way, I saw us resisting the dominant idea of “power over” and discovering the untapped strength of “power with.”

This, I have come to believe, is the future of the church. A lot of the work of Rev. Courtney Stange-Tregear (our Minister for Church Vitality) has been pointing in this direction but the more and more we begin to live in to practicing what this might mean, the more I’m convinced this is key to living in to what God is calling us to become. Somewhere along the way, we began to lift up commitments to the institution of the church as the source of vitality as opposed to making our commitments to be in relationship with God, love, justice and each other as that source. There’s been more than one time when I’ve smacked myself on the forehead because as we’ve started to practice focusing on relationships as key it doesn’t feel as though this is a new thing as much as something we’d collectively forgotten. It’s something we know to do but not always something we know how to do.

The temptation of the Church is to become too self referential; our mission becomes our own perpetuation. We can become part shallow entities that insist on being served.  But by consciously and intentionally changing the focus of the church to serving God and God’s people through works of mercy, justice and compassion, something different happens. Churches can find new vitality as part of the larger God movement. Those involved in this work have the opportunity find meaning through service; faith grown in community; hope sustained by action; and relationships that nurture the soul of the world. We are called not to be inward facing, self-referential institutions but communities that turn ourselves inside out to serve God and God’s people.

In the coming months, we’re going to be focusing on this more and more as a conference and we need your help. To than end, I’d ask you to consider doing 5 things:

Make some time to sit down with a different person within your congregation you don’t know too well. Do this once a month for the next year. I know in small congregations this might seem like more of a challenge and there’s always more to know about each other. Try to know what is at the heart of their fears and motivations. What gets them out of bed in the morning or keeps them awake at night. Get to know those you share a congregation with and see what a difference this starts to make. Invite at least one of these folks to do the same.

Reach out to someone from another UCC congregation at least once this year and learn more about them and their church.

Attend at least two conference gatherings this year (a meeting, one of our gatherings, an installation, ordination, local church event, etc.) and have a conversation with a couple people there.

Please pray for this unfolding process with our collective life together in your private prayers and lift it up on your congregation’s prayers.

Encourage your church to increase their giving to the conference and denomination so that this work can be sustained. Personally, go to, click on the “Donate” button in the upper right hand corner and consider becoming a monthly giver to Friends of the Conference.

The future of the church is becoming clearer and it is rooted in things we know to do but don’t always know how to do. With God’s help and yours, I’m convinced we can get there.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

3/14/17 Tuesday Prayer

Inspired by John 4:5-42

Dear God:

“Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.”

Not reading. Not checking email. Not watching a video but...

Sitting. Resting.

There are so many ways we want to be more like Christ by doing more than we can but...

This we could do. This would be a good place to start.

Help us to be faithful in this way.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent whispers.

I closed my eyes as she dipped her finger in the ash and oil and, as I felt the shape of the cross being drawn on my forehead, I relaxed.  It’s the same feeling every year for me. I relax. For at least a moment or two, I relax.

The temptation is to make Lent into some sort of meditation on failure and sin. I was having a quick conversation about my dirty forehead with a couple of folks. I’d moved beyond relaxing and was back into a rushing around mode. I made a sideways attempt at humor along the lines of “Yep, I’m a sinner” as I was walking away and, as I was walking away, one of the folks said something along the lines of “Not sin. Mortality.”

There is something about being reminded what we’re made of and what we return to that quiets all the internal and external voices that say we “should” do this or “must” do that.  This reminder of mortality isn’t a heavy voice of doom and gloom but a whisper in the ear that says, “Remember, beloved, you are mortal.” It’s such an easy thing to forget.

We seem to fluctuate further and further along a spectrum of with expecting everything from each other at one end and expecting nothing at the other. We shame those who fail to live up to the expectations that increase with each success and treat failure as the irredeemable, permanent condition of others. We make some into our own idealized or flawed image and praise or abandon them accordingly.

And then, along comes Lent who looks us in the eye, smiles and says, “How about you go ahead and set that all aside for, at least, awhile?”

We are human; nothing more, nothing less. We will not get everything done we AND do more than we knew we could. We let people down while doing our best AND help others out in ways that surprise us. We will be afraid AND we will show courage. We will get stuck AND know liberation. We will hurt people AND participate in healing. We can’t help it. Sure, there is a lot in our control but we are not gods. We are blessedly and painfully human.

Our churches don’t help escape this reality but are a reflection of it. In Mark, Jesus quotes scripture while purging the moneychangers out of the temple saying "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers." Both are always in church and each of us brings it; all the sacred aspirations and the unholy temptations rolled into one place. Just as it should be.

Lent leans in and whispers, “You all need each other. You need God. You need honesty. You need forgiveness. You need accountability. You need support. You need love. And, beloved, none of this makes you needy. It makes you human. It makes you whole.”

Lean forward with that dirty, ashy forehead. God loves you. You are human and God loves you. You are mortal and God loves you. You are broken and God loves you. You are whole and God loves you. When you fail, God loves you. When you get up, God loves you. God sees you and sees beauty. God loves you.

A blessed, blessed Lent to you, God’s beloved...

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Tuesday Prayer for 12/27/16: What is done is done.

Dear God:

The hope candle burned down, today.
Peace will be next then joy then love.
Eventually, even the white wax from the Christ candle
will cool
And the purple, white and pink will all be cold to the touch.
The hope, peace, joy, love and Christ candles will all

It is tempting to make this into something more important than it is but
This is what candles do.

This year passes away
Like all the others before it.
Better than some,
Worse than others.
It passes away.
It passes away.

It is tempting to make this into something more important than it is but
This is what years do.

There will be those we will get to know and
Those that we will miss.
There will be those we know who were born and
Those who have died.
There will be those who were healed and
Those who suffered.
There will be those set free and
Those imprisoned.
There will be ways we will succeed and
Ways we will fail.

It is tempting to make this into something less important than it is but
This is what we do.
This is what we do.
This is what we do.
It is important.
It is living.
It is what we do.
It is what we do.
It is what we do.


(Read the article about this picture at:


Friday, November 18, 2016

Post-Election Sermon at Plymouth UCC 11/13/16

I can’t tell you how many times during the week someone asks me for legal advice. In just the last week, I was asked about a church’s potential liability for an injury that happened at church; the tax implications of renting out church property to a for profit organization; a church’s liability for having non-church related youth on a youth retreat; and, for some strange reason, a lot of questions about the separation of church and state. Every response to this question starts off pretty much the same way: “I am not a lawyer so, just to be clear, what I’m giving is not legal advice. If you want legal advice, you really need to talk to a lawyer. What I can share with you is this clergy person’s interpretation of the legal advice I’ve heard…” and then I proceed.

The theme for today’s worship is about grief and I almost feel as though a similar disclaimer is needed. There is a wide territory where spirituality and psychology overlap and this is one of them. I am a pastor who has learned a lot from those in the field of psychology but I am not a psychological professional. There are some of you here who have been working on grief within your own life with with psychological professionals and there is a chance that my words, today, won’t apply to you at all and that’s OK. There is no way, within the time of a sermon, that I can address all the ways to consider grief. This is the work of lifetimes and I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, up this point, in this one.

Grief starts with trauma and trauma comes when some something our minds and/or souls experienced as a certainty, breaks, and is replaced with a new certainty. A loved one dies or begins the process of dying. We fall out of love or someone falls out of love with us. We fail at something. We’re fired or get laid off. A church we experienced as safe, kind and loving is no longer safe, kind and loving. Another black or brown person is killed through state sanctioned violence. The reality of our environmental decline and the fragility of our existence becomes glaringly clear. This week has been one in which the traumatic event for many was the elections. For many, the election of an autocratic president who built his campaign on white ideals of patriarchy and privilege abruptly changes our perspective of our country, your neighbors, your family. The quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain.

Grief is the process of our souls integrating that trauma; that revised reality. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is one of the names most frequently connected to the study of grief. As a point of United Church of Christ trivia, Kübler-Ross began her work when four seminary students at Chicago Theological Seminary (a UCC seminary and my alma mater) approached her with the request that she help them study what people go through when they’re dying. She brought together her work in the 1969 book, Death and Dying and it was through that she presented what she described as the 5 stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Although frequently presented as a progression, Kübler-Ross herself said that it was rarely that straight-forward. These are more elements of grief than a step by step progression through grief. Any of these can come up at anytime, in any order, if at all. She also wrote that it is rare for denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance to only emerge once.  These are elements of grief that come in waves.

I want to point out one stage that isn’t part of what she named. I know that part of the theme of today’s worship is “letting go.” Let me shade that idea just a bit. There is a significant difference between letting go “of” something and letting go “to” something.

Some of you may have heard me say this in other contexts but I used to think I was, more or less, made of teflon and that every difficult thing I experienced in life would just slide right off of me; that I could - very naturally - let go of anything. Somewhere along the way, I started to figure that, actually, I was made of velcro and that, no matter how much I might try to remove it, at least a little bit of everything sticks. Not only that, the bit that sticks is part of me.

Grief is the process of our souls integrating trauma or, using Kübler-Ross’ language, accepting the trauma that’s become a part of our life. It is letting go to that reality. Thinking we can let go of it is closer to denial. Now, I’m not saying denial is all bad. It can be a way our souls give us the time we need to integrate something new and difficult. It is not an unhealthy element of grieving, it just is.

There is, however, some point when denial can also become a form of spiritual addiction; we put an unsustainable and unhealthy amount of energy into doing everything we can to insist and reinforce the worldview we had before a trauma irrevocably changed our perception of the world. Now, let me say that even as I say this it is not as a value judgement about the addict. For many of us, our addictions are rooted in what we thought was the best possible behavior at the time. It’s the point at which that repeated behavior starts to take an unsustainable amount of energy from our own self-care, our relationships, our health, our safety and our communities that we need to ask for help and move in another direction in order to integrate the initial trauma into our lives.

Although healing is a part of dealing with trauma, working out ways to integrate that trauma is the goal. The stages of grief are not a problematic part of that journey. Since the experience of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are such common ways of grieving that it’s important to move from problematizing these behaviors and, instead, welcome them as gifts from God to us that help us integrate life’s traumas. We are created in God’s image but we are re-created and renewed in God’s image, too. The ongoing process of grieving is part of the ongoing process of the integration of trauma.

I have conversations with a lot of pastors and local church members near the moment in time when their heart breaks around something related to their church. A conflict emerges and anger within the church is transformed into anger with church leadership. A conflict between the pastor and a group or individual takes the outwardly focused energy the church needs to serve God and God’s people and inwardly focuses energy in a way that causes damage to people in the church and the church overall. The way the church portrays themselves has little to do with the church they are. The financial covenant a church made is not one the church is actually able to fulfill. The pastor or a church member discovers that they are not as skilled at one thing or another as they thought they were. Someone fails at something they did not expect to fail at. Someone accidentally or unintentionally causes another person harm. People slide into behavior that is unethical. People discover that the burden of care for the church or their community is more than they can bare. They experience the isolating nature of leadership. They experience the isolation that comes from disagreeing with the majority or a determined minority. For many pastors, the conversation is a vocational one and integrating this new information means they can no longer pastor a particular church. In some cases, integrating this information means that they discover they no longer have a call to ministry, at all. Members realize that they no longer have a call to ministry in that place or have no desire to be part of a church at all. Now, these are frequently the best possible response for the sake of those they are in relationship with, their churches and themselves. These are all appropriate ways to integrate the trauma of brokenheartedness.

But there is still more. For many of us, surviving the broken hearted moments of ministry can also be the moments our ministry deepens and the reality of ministry blooms in us.  The way I’ve said it to many pastors is that you have a better chance to be the minister you’re called to be and the minister your church needs after your heart is broken by the church you serve. I’ve said something similar to members. The decision to leave a church and the decision to stay at a church are both decisions that, at their best, come from a genuine sense of call that is rooted in a steadily deepened understanding of what ministry is. Those heartbreaks in the life of church are when you really get to know who and what your church is and the idealism about what church life is fades away. Its when you have the opportunity to move from the fights with people you know into faithful struggle with people you love. The sense of call that emerges on the other end of this kind of heartbreak is where the most radical things happen; where the most radical things emerge. It is not the moment when grief is let go of and it goes away. It is the moment when trauma and grief are integrated into who we are and become a part of us. It does not go away. It just doesn’t. It becomes part of us. As denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance emerge at the different times they do, instead of digging our heels in and refusing their presence, we can get to a point where we can say, “Hello old friend. What have you come to teach me this time?” Grief is not our enemy.

What I want to say next may not apply to everyone in this sanctuary. I recognize that, for some, this may lean further into the realm of the political than some may be comfortable with but I need to say it. Sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, many of us experienced what can best be described as trauma. A self-professed advocate for sexual assault; hate crimes; racism; and war was elected as President of the United States. These bags under my eyes come from the stomach tightening fear that has struck in me in the middle of the night as a try and figure out how to best raise and protect my four year old child who will now grow up under a Trump presidency. I know the feeling I have burning a hole in my gut still pales in comparison to the feelings of those of us who are people of color wake with every day. I know know the feeling I have must pale in comparison to what our Muslim siblings - and other folks who are part of the interfaith community - must feel as they face the presidential promise of deportation and internment camps. I know the feelings I have must pale in comparison to what those of us who are Spanish speaking refugees and immigrants have as they wonder how long they’ll be able to remain in the country that’s become their home. I know the feelings I have pale in comparison to those in the queer community who, for the past several years, have been told they are welcome and included but now feel the real danger of having everything we’ve fought for rolled back. For survivors of sexual assault who are trying to figure out how they are going to wake up every morning and see the face or hear the voice of this man as they catch up on the news these days have impacted the integration of the trauma’s within their own lives. The world watches our elections and there are people throughout the world who are trying to figure out how many of our already weak environmental promises will be weakened still further.

We are only at the beginning stages of grief. The trauma is still fresh. I don’t think that any of us are so naive to think that the opinions Trump espoused didn't exist but the fact that there are enough people who agree to elect him as president is soul shaking. In one way, everything in my head knew this was possible but it is my heart and soul that are shocked. Even though my head always knew something like this was possible, my soul and my heart held out hope - more hope than I realized - that it was not. When I am even more deeply honest about it, I realize how the perspectives and worldviews of those who were part of the pro-Trump coalition are ones that I was taught or heard at different points in my life and how that if I’d had some of the life experiences that some of them did, today I might be celebrating instead of grieving. I am deeply thankful for those who loved me onto another path and taught me to work hard, something I do some days better than others, to resist the temptation of another way. I want to resist it so fully. I have to be honest and say that those have rioted in the streets and those that will have expressed with their bodies the howl of rage and grief that I have. As I said before, the quickest definition of trauma may simply be anything that makes you want to yell out in pain and, sometimes, lash out in pain and, sometimes, even want others to meet you at your point of pain so much that you’re tempted to cause others pain. There is some part of us that seems to believe that the only way to work our way through our grief is to cause the same grieving to others or to rage with others. I understand this impulse and recognize that there are some ways in which Trump’s campaign was not a simple electoral process but that it was also the anger and violence of a riot focused through a vote.

I also understand that there is some part of this that is looking not to be alone. This is the place some of the integration happens. Although there are definitely times and ways people want their space and that is key to the integration of grief, what is it in us that also makes us want to come together? Why is it that we come together for funerals? Why is it that, at moments of trauma, people want to reach out? Why is it that, we worship together, protest together and sing together? Why is it that, on the other side of this election, the call for unity has come from so many? This is part of the mystery of life that we take for granted but I find sacred and holy. There is a reason that communion is such a central and unifying part of our faith. This tendency to emphasize recognition of a greater good is not simply good post-election etiquette, it is a sacramental tendency.

If we, as people of faith, believe that there is any need for unity there are some ideas we may have to address and re-emphasize in ways that may, at first, be frightening for some. Shame became so integrated into the theology of sin that we ended up rejecting the simple idea that was at its core; the idea that we all mess up and fall short of God’s hopes for us. We somehow made sin out to be the exceptional failure of faith life instead of a part of the daily reality of being human. We used the idea of sin as a weapon to try enforce social norms instead of a normal part of our lives and our living. The progressive church, in an effort to reject the weaponizing of sin, rejected the theology of sin. Sin is part of our lives and the systems we participate in. When we reject sin, we also end up rejecting redemption and, at its core, this is the idea, this is the hope that many are seeking. As the church has rejected the theology of sin we have also inadvertently rejected the possibility of redemption, of change, and of rebirth for individuals. We have come to suggest that the state of the world is “their” fault instead of ours and reinforced the systems and politics of division that are crushing us all.

Belief in redemption calls for something else. Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers, summed it up this way, “The Powers are good. The Powers are fallen. The Powers need to be redeemed.” He was speaking to those systems that were set up to do good but have fallen far from that purpose. Now, we know it’s more complicated than that and that even some of those systems that were set up to do good were rooted in belief systems that did not regard all people as equally valuable but the message of redemption is still key.

The trauma of this week is still fresh, the grieving is fresh, too. As we integrate this trauma through the process of grieving I am certain of just a few things: integration will come; we are called to do this work together; we will be transformed; and redemption is possible.

We in the church have yet another word that applies to the time yet to come. They didn’t use it on Good Friday when Jesus was executed by the State. They didn’t use it on Saturday when the grieving was real and painful and fresh. But sometimes after that, when they were all together; when they started to build a community of wholeness and mutuality; when they started to recognize that their power was in what they shared; they started to use another word more and more. They started to talk about about resurrection. I believe in resurrection. I believe. I believe. I believe.

We are always called to serve and serve God’s people. That is our call at every moment and for this particular moment. I believe in resurrection. I still believe in hope. I still believe in justice. I still believe in love. I believe. I believe. I believe. May our lives reflect the reality of our belief.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

November Article for PNC News: Love and Struggle

Hi All:

This column was written the week before last week's elections and can also be found among several good article in this month's Pacific Northwest Conference News. I hope you find it helpful.

The audio and transcript of my first sermon after the elections will be coming out later today or early tomorrow.


A few years ago, I was sitting with some friends having dinner and we were talking about a group we were part of that seemed to be in perpetual conflict. As sometimes happens, the group was one that ironically had as its focus on peace-making and conflict resolution. The three of us were just tired of the debates and the posturing and the fact that some people we really respected were acting in ways that were disappointing.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something along the lines of “I’m so tired of all the fighting.” I do remember what was said back to me, though. My friend shook his head and said, “You fight when you want to win. You
with people you love.”

It's been one of those ideas that’s stuck with me and has become even more acutely clear in this political season. The stress and rancor between those running for office is both a reflection of our fractured country and, at the same time, amplifies the fractures that exist. Knute Berger, in a recent article for Crosscut, lifted up the suggestion that we’re in a Cold Civil War. Its an idea that I’ve found particularly haunting.

If we’re honest about it, the roots of these fractures are not new ones, at all. They are a reflection of injustices that were too long ignored; dissent that was quashed; discomfort that was avoided; and pain that was diminished. As the Church, we also have to confess that we’ve added fuel to this fire. We slip into Crusade Culture and instead of trying to welcome a change in people’s hearts and minds we try and win through the force of influence and an insistence on asserting our power in ways that don’t line up with Jesus. Sure, he critiqued some of those who were the leaders of his time pretty harshly. But he also shared meals with those same folks and other folks the religious systems of that time and place had determined were “unworthy.” The reason Jesus has so much power in our own hearts and minds more than 2000 years after his crucifixion is because his power was love.

Last month at the United Church of Christ Board (UCCB) meeting in Cleveland, we adopted new purpose, vision and mission statements:
  • Purpose statement from the Gospel of Matthew: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves.
  • Vision statement: United in Christ’s love, a just world for all.
  • Mission statement: United in Spirit and inspired by God's grace, we welcome all, love all, and seek justice for all.
Love is at the core of each of these statements in a way that I think it clearer than many statements we have made as a church. Although love needs to be at the core of all justice work, we don’t always say it as explicitly as we need to in order to remind us that this is at the heart of our calling and what called so many of us the loving, liberating heart of Jesus. Those of you who have been around me in almost any church setting over the weeks since the UCCB board meeting know I’m pretty excited about the clarity and direction of these statements.

“You fight when you want to win. You struggle with people you love.” We’re all pretty tired of fighting. This Cold Civil War in our country has gone on too long and many of us who have been warriors in it have lost our lives, souls and minds trying to fight it. We all too often accepted as collateral damage the lives, souls and minds of those just trying to live through it. Violence, no matter its form, begets more violence which begets more violence which begets more violence… It is time for us all to live in to the call of love.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Pre-election Sermon at Dayton (WA) First Congregational Church 11/06/16

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5;13-17
2:1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.

3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

When I was a kid growing up in Ohio, there was a lot of “end times” talk in popular culture.  Although it had long been a part of the conversational and educational life of some churches, those were a minority in Ohio where simply trying to be nice was a religion in and of itself. In the 70’s and 80’s, it was actually mainstream movies like Damien Omen or even GhostBusters that suggested we were never all that far from the end of the world. Add to the mix the possibility of nuclear annihilation; environmental degradation or even the emergence of AIDS and it sometimes it sometimes seemed as though the news was reporting on the Apocalypse, LIVE.

These days, there still seems to be a lot of it but from a different angle. We don’t seem to be focusing on the arrival of the Apocalypse as much as trying to imagine what it might look like afterwards. Think about all the post-Apocalyptic movies, books and tv shows just this year. There was always some of this but the amount of attention being focused on how to get through an environmental disaster or a plague or zombies is everywhere and seemingly increasing.

I don’t know if any of you heard but there’s an election this coming Tuesday. I know that I know I can’t wait until it’s over and I’m guessing one or two of you might be in that same camp, too. However, there’s some that are planning on it being over in a different way and by “it” I mean the world as we know it. Stores are selling out of emergency preparedness kits. Gun and ammunition sales are experiencing a spike. Websites that help you learn how to prepare for a disaster are seeing their numbers go up, too.

When researching this article online, I found folks who, through their websites and sermons, quote one particular part of today’s scripture to refer to Clinton, Trump, Obama and Pope Francis among several others. It was the part that read:
“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
Yep, folks are convinced that the end of the world is close and there’s an anti-christ ready to emerge and take over at any moment.

Those that really want to apply scriptural proof for the end of the world scriptures have always been able to find ones like the one we read to day to back themselves up. They are just vague enough that those with an apocalyptic worldview are always able to find things that fit into that narrative.

Those of us in the mainline church have usually pushed back against those who use scripture in this way. There is always another historical story behind the texts that are lifted up. All these texts were current to that time and described challenges of that time and place.

The references to today’s text from Thessalonians are no exception. Although attributed to Paul, it’s unlikely it was actually written by Paul. It was a normal practice in this time to write under the name of a teacher as a way of saying what was being written was intended to be an extension of a teacher’s writing. When this was written, there was a clear expectation that The Day of the Lord - a day of terrible upheaval for some and of grace for others - was going to come at any moment. Jesus was coming to judge and to save.

However, as 2nd Thessalonians was written this coming of Jesus was, well, late. Early followers who believed in this had expected that it was going to happen earlier, They were trying to figure out what to do now. The idea had been that although there was some suffering and sacrifice, it wasn’t going to last forever and they would be relieved soon. They were going to be saved at any moment. But, there were some, the text suggests, who were suggesting that, well, maybe Christ had already come and those receiving this letter had just not been included.

The leader they refer to in this text was probably the Roman Emperor Caligula and he was doing some pretty awful things to people and saying some pretty awful things. His power was on the upswing but the writer of 2nd Thessalonians was just trying to help people chill out a bit. This emperor would fall. His lies would be exposed. “Don’t worry, God will still win,” the author was trying to say. This letter was meant to be words of hope to people whose hope was wavering.

This is what this text meant, then. However, the problem in talking about these texts is that sometimes we get so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of them that we miss another.  We miss real opportunities to talk about what it feels like when our world is falling apart. We miss the opportunity to talk about hopes that have been dashed. We miss the opportunity to talk about leaders who worry us or frighten us.

This election cycle has been one of the most disheartening one in, maybe, our lifetimes. No matter which candidate you may support, the statistical reality that there are such a large number of people who disagree with you about some central perspectives and issues is sobering. Knute Berger, a Pacific Northwest writer, takes the terms “Cold War”and “Civil War” and suggest that our country is in a Cold Civil War. The political and social rhetoric of the last several months has been heating that war up a bit to levels that are creating more and more anxiety. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Unresolved conflict only makes way for more unresolved conflict. It seeps into all levels of our relationships and interactions.

I can tell you that before the last few election cycles, those churches that call me looking for help related to church conflict go up and more and more of them mirror the patterns of social conflict. In too many churches, the call isn’t to try and figure out how to save the community. They ask my involvement from one side or another of the conflict to try and help them figure out how to “win.” In and of itself, this isn’t new. There have always been a few churches that reach this state of conflict but in the time before election seasons, more of them sound like this and I get more calls about church conflict than usual. Within these congregations, there are frequently those convinced that their fellow church member is lying and, as in the text for today, that the lies of one side or another will be - must be - exposed. At some point, they begin to anticipate the congregation falling apart; their own end times. We are in anxious times and anxiety sometimes breeds more anxiety.

I get why folks in the mainline church frequently try and reject an apocalyptic interpretation of biblical texts. However, there’s a problem in rejecting these texts as applying to now. By getting so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of the Apocalyptic texts, we miss real opportunities to talk about what it feels when our world is falling apart and miss the opportunity to talk about how awful that can feel. We miss the opportunity to, maybe most importantly, recognize that end times are a part of our collective human experience. Maybe, just maybe, by feeling the pre-election anxiety, we are also feeling a small portion of what those in Syria felt during the earliest days of their civil unrest. Maybe, just maybe, as we recognize more and more or our environmental realities, we are beginning to feel some of what those in Samoa, Micronesia and those living on the west coast of Washington have been feeling as they’ve had to seek higher ground further from the ocean’s edge. Maybe, just maybe, as we worry about the safety of our electronic infrastructure and consider cyberwar with Russia, we are feeling the anxiety of those who live their lives with constant monitoring. Maybe we’re just catching up with the kind of anxiety many other folks throughout the world feel daily.

By getting so wrapped up in rejecting one interpretation of Apocalyptic texts, we miss the opportunity to say just how close to the edge of end times we are because the power of this text is not in its prophesy... but in its witness.  This text’s application to all times puts our current season of anxiety in context. The reason this text has been used so often and for so long as part of Apocalyptic conversations is because something is always ending; there is always someone or some group of people in leadership who are corrupt and whose lies need to be exposed. There are always those who gather in fear and anxiety. There are always end times. Always. In times when we have the gift of being so quickly informed of ideas, events and tragedies all over the world, we have the challenge of constantly being exposed to the anxiety of the world. It is that exposure that leads towards being infected by the anxiety of it.

It is easy to look at that which is evil in the world and be convinced that evil is winning. It is easy to look at those natural, political and religious systems humanity has had a hand in corrupting and believe that only more disaster and corruption are inevitable. It is easy to focus all our time, energy, and power into the anxiety these ideas present. But the text for today ultimately suggests something different.

I invite you to close your eyes, take a deep breath and listen to this part of today’s text.

“But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

It is these words that may be the most radical in the text. They call us back to an amazing reality. The reality of our world being messed up may be a cause for anxiety but it is also proof of the importance of the faith and work what we are called to. We are not simply victims of this time and place. We are called to this time and place. We are not bystanders to life’s challenges. We are called to be witnesses of them. We are not passive consumers of media. We are called to proclaim good news. We are not called to be swept up in the anxiety of the world. We are called to “stand firm and hold fast.”  Yes, there are endings every day and most of them have, at least, some pain involved but God has made available to us an endless supply of “comfort and good hope.” Sure, there’s a lot to do but when we’re doing good work - the right work - our hearts are strengthened for it.

There are plenty of voices in this world that are telling us that we are powerless and that only they can save us. That is the big lie. The big truth is that we are actually more powerful than we can imagine and that, with God’s help and God’s love, we can find a better way, together.

A friend of mine is a strong Clinton supporter and her neighbor is a strong Trump supporter. This friend of mine had been doing a lot of thinking and praying about this and the overall division that this election has has exposed. It troubled her. So, after talking about this with a friend, she baked an excellent apple pie and nervously brought it to her neighbors. As she delivered it, she said something along the lines of “We may disagree, but I just want to make it clear I still care about you.” The neighbor smiled, received the pie and said - while pointing to the Trump sign in their yard- something along the lines of “These things shouldn’t matter between neighbors. I love you. Come on in.” She was welcomed in for more conversation and, I imagine, some coffee and excellent pie.

This, my siblings of Christ, is communion. This is the heart of our faith. This is the good news of this time and place. This is the time and place we are called to. Amen.