The Idolatry of Independence: A homily on Ephesians 4

Charge of Interdependence Among the World to the Connecticut Conference, United Church of Christ

First Congregational Church, Chesire CT Sunday May 31, 2015

 Ephesians 4: 11-16 

My geographically separated brethren, I greet you in the name of the One who calls us to be one. If a flock of Connecticut church leaders is willing to hear a word from a Massachusetts pastor, even if only for 7-9 minutes, I think we are at least halfway to the unity that the Ephesian church longed for! I’ll take the liberty to presume I speak among friends, kindred Congressionalists- we know that New Hampshire isn’t the only place that subscribes to the mantra “live free or die.” We know that a presumed self-sufficiency, a functional congregationalism no matter the denomination is endemic in this land. The Disciples of Christ pastor Michael Kinnamon said “Denominations make powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” We know that tucked in the back of our locked cabinet, behind the good silver and the musty church records, is a porcelain idol of independence- and maybe, secretly, we like it there. Maybe, secretly, we don’t want move it out on the front lawn for the parish rummage sale to be sold for $0.50 along with some mismatched wise men and shepherds from an incomplete crèche.

Now, “maybe there are no more cowboys in this Connecticut town,” And maybe this isn’t true in your churches, but certainly in Massachusetts, our churches act as if accepting help of another is a sign of weakness. We drag our feet. We go at it alone before trying together. Collaboration is for the weak, not the strong. In a town that shall remain nameless, I visited a UCC church next door to an Episcopal parish. The UCC deacon showed me the exact spot where you can inconspicuously spy on the Episcopalians to see whose parking lot is fuller, because if someone else is winning, we must be losing… With this mythology of competition, collaboration becomes a second option, rarely the first. Yet, deep down, beneath the rock and the clay and the silt and the sand, 6 feet below where the earth is still cool from winter, we know that our splendid isolation will leave us entombed in clapboard white coffins.

Therefore, I charge you, sisters and brothers, be worthy of the holy calling to which you are called, only connect. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own parish. Build up the body of Christ, not just your own denomination. Build up the body of Christ, for the sake of the world. We in the ecumenical movement have done a lousy job of remembering the second half of John 17. We remember that our Lord and Savior, just before his death, prayed that his followers might be one. We forget that he prayed that his followers might be one, so that the world might believe in the one who sent him. Our unity is not simply for our own good, to tamp down the tempest in the teapot that is the divided Church, but for the sake of our reconciling witness to the world! Reclaim the wide, thick commitment to the oikoumene, not just the Church, but the whole inhabited world. Reclaim the oikoumene, and maybe start in your neighborhood. I wonder if the end of an official ecumenical structure in Connecticut doesn’t actually free you for more vitality and life at the local level. To butcher Tip O’Neill, maybe all ecumenism is local.

About a year ago, I developed an unexplained pain in my right hip. I had been in a cycling accident, but the injury was to my back, not my hip. The doctors tried to treat the site of my pain, but no relief. Finally, a doctor diagnosed my suffering as “referred pain.” The site of the suffering is not the same as the source. While riding my bicycle again, my legs had gotten strong, but my back and core were still weak- so my hamstrings were pulling my tendons tight across my hips without the rest of my body compensating. The Church in Ephesus was told to attend to each part, because when “each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Therefore, I charge you, the body of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut, join and knit together. Bind up the broken, so that every ligament, each part is working properly together. We’ve learned to compensate for our brokenness, hobbled by our fractures yet unable to remember what it was like to be working properly. We’ve grown familiar with our “referred pain,” unaware that the site of our suffering is not the same as the source. We’ve grown so used to our divisions that they seem natural, pre-ordained even. We can barely imagine the possibility of working with the Roman Catholic parish next door. And yet, to the wider world, to that whole oikuemene, the difference between a Congregationalist and a Lutheran and an Episcopalian and an Evangelical means less and less and less. Massachusetts is the fourth least religious state in the nation at 28%, and you, always just a bit better than us, are the eighth, with only 32% identifying as ‘very religious.’ All our denominations are religious minorities now. Our differences are small compared to an entire oikoumene that does not know, does not care about our precious denominational divisions.

A few year’s ago, a colleague from Duke Divinity School came for a few days to visit and observe the church in Massachusetts. I showed him our fine buildings, our town squares, our attempts at adaptation. At the end of the visit, he said, “You still have all of the burden of being establishment and have not yet claimed all of the creativity of being marginal.” Church, I charge you, for the sake of Gospel for the whole inhabited world, claim the creativity of being marginal.

Finally, I charge you, beloved servants of God:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon.

Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,

And human love will be seen at its height.

Live in fragments no longer.

Only connect…”

Amen.

“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost

“We All Mix:” A Gullah Sermon on Pentecost

Christ Church United & Lao United Church of Christ, Lowell MA (Special thanks to Host pastors Ted Rasakham and Peter Lovett. During the multi-cultural, multi-generational service, we sang two Gullah songs “Kum Ba Yah” and the amazing “Open the Window” arranged by Elise Witt.)

Sunday May 31, 2015

Let us pray…

Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.

This is not an easy story of our faith. I fear we have domesticated the story of Pentecost. We’ve made this story understandable, easily-consumed. We call it the birthday of the Church, with sweet pink birthday candles flickering atop the heads of the disciples. We’ve removed the chaos, the fear, the confusion, the unmistakable scent of singed hair. But make no mistake, Church, the day of Pentecost was chaos.

The disciples, left alone after the ascension of Jesus, have gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot. The town is full of visitors, tourists for the holiday. There’s no room at any inn. And as the disciples huddle together, the Spirit swoops in. No knocking, no polite entry. Forcefully, violently, without invitation or warning, the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness, enters without asking. It must have been chaos. Were there chairs knocked over? Did glasses shatter as they hit the stone floor?

We tend to envision the Holy Spirit like a gentle dove, but this scene seems more to me like a wild turkey let lose in your living room.

And then, as if a wind that breaks into your home, envelops the room, hits you in the middle of the chest and knocks you down isn’t confusing enough, then fire appears? Fire appears. Fire appears, splitting, cleaving into tongues of fire, alighting atop of each head? We sing “Breathe on me, breath of God…” without being prepared for the Spirit we are inviting.

Perhaps we’ve made Pentecost become so familiar, so safe, so far from that pent-up wild bird Spirit because we think it is too darn hard to follow the Spirit and learn a new language.

“Ebry poson beena say wa de Holy Sperit wahn um fa say.”  Or , in the New Revised Standard Version, “4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

It took 26 years, but the Spirit gave them the ability. Vernetta Canteed was on the bible translation team for 26 whole years before the American Bible Society published De Nyew Testament, printed in the Gullah language. It took 26 years and generation upon generation- because Gullah was discredited for a very long time. People said it wasn’t a real language. People said, it was just broken English. People didn’t recognize the rich mix of West African and indigenous languages coming together through the enslaved Africans sent to work the rice farms of the South Carolina lowcountry and Georgia Sea Islands. It took generations and generations and 26 years to publish the New Testament in Gullah. And when that Bible was finally published in 2005, Vernetta Canteed said, “That’s the first time I heard God talk the way I talk.”

On that day of Pentecost, God talked the way Vernetta talked.

How many of you are bilingual, or multi-lingual? You are our tutors. You are our guides. We will need you to teach the rest of us. You know how to translate. You know how to stand, maybe uneasily, with your feet in two different worlds.

You know the thrill of hearing you own first language in an unexpected place, in line at the grocery store. You know the struggle of having the exact right word in your mother tongue, but not knowing how to say it in English. You know the attentive skill you develop to listen carefully, to pick up cues and hints beyond the words themselves. You know the comfort of being lost in a strange place and hearing a stranger ask, “Necesitas ayuda?” Do you need help?

You who speak Lao, and French, and Cambodian, and Spanish. You who speak Arabic, and Swahili, and American Sign Language, and Gullah. We need you. The Spirit needs you. The Church needs you, because we are all going to have to learn new languages if the Church is to be embodied in this emerging culture. You all have a major university just down the street, with students from around the world. There are now whole generations of youth and young adults who do not know the Church’s language. They do not know the language of our denominations- and do not care about the difference between a Congregationalist and an Episcopalian. They do not know what the chancel is or where the narthex is or even what the doxology is. They have not been formed by the language of the Church.

I think, our job isn’t primarily to teach them our language, but to learn theirs, so that we can help them hear God speaking in their own language. How will this community learn the language of your neighbors?

When the parish of St John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton listened carefully to their neighbors at Smith College, they heard the students say that they were hungry and they were anxious, especially during finals. So now, twice a year at the end of the fall and spring semesters, St John’s Church cooks up thousands of pancakes, hundreds of pounds of bacon, serves gallons of coffee to weary, nervous students at their Midnight Breakfast during Finals Week. My message isn’t that you should put on a midnight breakfast too, or set up a “Rent-a-grandparent” but that these churches went and listened carefully to how the students in their neighborhood named their deepest needs and sense of the holy- they went an learned another language.

In the Gullah translation of Acts 2, we get the long list of places where people came from before arriving in Jerusalem: Galilee, Mede, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete and Arabia.

And then, the Gullah translation has this glorious, short sentence. “We All Mix.” We all Mix, say it with me, Church. We all mix. Acts 2:12-13 “De people all been stonish an all mix op, so dey beena aks one noda say, ‘Wa dis mean?’ Bot some oda people been mek fun ob dem dat bleebe pon Jedus, say ‘Dem people don drink tommuch wine!”

That mix makes people nervous, confused. You know it. When this great glorious, unimaginable diverse unity happens, the crowds think that the believers in Jesus are drunk.

The day of Pentecost was chaos for the participants and confusion for the crowds. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good at living with chaos and confusion. I want to pin it down, smooth it out, make order, make sense. The Pentecost story resists our efforts to make it plain- There is fire burning and wind blowing, but the wind doesn’t blow the fire out. There are people speaking in languages from tribes of people that have extinct for 500 years! There are all sorts of people learning how to live together, listen to God together.

Maybe God is bilingual. As Christians, we pattern our lives on the life of Jesus Christ, the one who was both fully human.

Maybe God is multi-lingual, speaking throughout time and Creation as the Creator, the Child, the Spirit.

Maybe God is beyond our language, and the best we can do is make like the writer of Acts and humbly say God is like the wind, God is like the fire.

For this is the truth of Pentecost, it is scary and chaotic to follow the Spirit. It’s dangerous and unpredictable. Following the Spirit asks of us than we can ask or understand.

I do not know how to make sense of what happened on the Pentecost day, but I do know this: God is at work in the chaos. God is invested in a diversity of people and languages, not privileging one over the other, but listening to each. God so loved the world, and so desired unity for the Church that when the day of Pentecost arrived “We all mix.” Amen.

Naming Truth: A Sermon on Being Set Free & The Armenian Genocide

Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director, Massachusetts Council of Churches

Ecumenical Armenian Vespers at Trinity Church in Boston

Thursday April 23, 2014, 7:30pm

Mark 5: 1-20

She spoke truth. With the clipped diction of a Boston Protestant from a certain social strata, the 75-year-old suffragette and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe climbs the stairs to the podium at Faneuil Hall. Just over a mile from here, on November 26, 1894, the Boston Armenian Relief Committee gathered. Julia, the same woman who finds the words to write the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and writes provocative essays asking “Is Polite Society Polite?”- that very same Julia- struggles to find words to name the emerging horror.

“I could not stay away from this meeting. My heart was here, and I came, not so much to speak, as to hear what is to be done about this dreadful trouble. For something must be done. I have to pray God night and morning that He would find some way to stay this terrible tide of slaughter….”

Let us pray… Holy God, give us the word that we need to hear this night. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, Oh Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

To be set free from that which binds us, we must speak truth. To heal, we must name things for what they are. Tonight, in this church, we cannot but speak truth.

Everett in pulpit Trinity CopleyJesus knows that to be released from our torment, we must call a thing what it is. As his ministry of healing expands in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples travel across the River Jordan to country of the Gerasenes. There, among the tombs in the graveyard, removed from the land of the living, is a man tormented, possessed. Mark takes pains to describe a tortured man, pitiful to look upon: his wrists bruised and raw where the chains have held him; his shoulder bones pointed under the taunt tent of his skin; his eyes wide to look upon someone, anyone who might be able to heal him, to free him.

In polite society, it is awkward to speak seriously about one overtaken by an evil spirit, the stuff more often of horror films and novels. Our ancient forbearers in Jesus’s time lived with a strong belief in unclean spirits, evil powers that can overwhelm and overtake a person. We know how evil can burrow in and take hold of a person, a people, a nation. We know of evil so entrenched that we cannot free ourselves.

The possessed man shouts, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”(Mark 5: 7). Jesus, looking upon this tormented man, demands, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit.” Nothing. Silence. There is a pause, a break in the action.  The man is not released, the torment remains.

How is it that Jesus, Son of the Most High God cannot remove this unclean spirit? Then Jesus asks, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’

To be free from that which binds us, we must name a thing for what it is. The Geresene man cannot be free until the unclean spirit is identified, named, known for what it is.

To be freed from torment, to be released from evil and received back into the community of the living, we must call a thing by its name, An illness cannot be treated until it is known; a sin cannot be forgiven unless it is confessed; an evil spirit will not be released until it is named. So we name the evil that has possessed us, and we demand that all others do the same. We will not mince words. We will not keep polite society by whispering instead “Meds Yeghern.” We will not use euphemisms to speak of “the Armenian Question” as if there’s something left unanswered. We will name the evil that has overtaken this body, the body of Christ. We will name this evil for what it is: genocide.

Because, nothing, nothing short of this naming will suffice. Nothing short of this truth can free us.

Speaking the truth is not simply a political necessity, though our government needs to speak the truth of the Armenian Genocide. Speaking the truth is an historical necessity, a moral necessity, a spiritual necessity. His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians writes, “our souls resound with a powerful call for justice and truth that will not be silenced.” The Turkish scholar and journalist Cengiz Aktar wrote, “The Armenian genocide is the Great Catastrophe of Anatolia, and the mother of all taboos in this land. Its curse will continue to haunt us as long as we fail to talk about, recognize, understand and reckon with it.” Like the Geresene man tormented by the unclean spirit, our world will be haunted as long as we fail to name and reckon with this great evil. What we do not name, we risk repeating.

We gather tonight to speak truth, to name things for what they are, perhaps even to be freed from that which has tormented us.

My dear Armenian sisters and brothers: You have been carrying this truth alone for too long. The burden is been heavy. Your backs are bent and weary. Your soul’s weighed down.

Tonight, the wider Church embraces you. Tonight we draw near, side by side with you and help to shoulder the load. For this is our burden to bear as well yours. The Armenian Genocide was not simply a crime against Armenians. It was, it remains a crime against humanity.

Do you remember the protests, a hundred thousands in Istanbul’s streets after the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated? The people carried signs saying, “We are all Armenians.” “We are all Armenians.” Image via The New Yorker

Tonight, we are all Armenians. This night and from now on, we all assume the burden to carry with you this history, this memory, this genocide, this story of resurrection, this truth.

Like Julia Ward Howe we come “not so much to speak, as to hear.” As the wider Church embraces you and your newly sainted martyrs, we vow to listen as you speak the truth. You need not remember these martyrs alone. We will stumble in our speech, wrapping our clumsy tongues around unfamiliar names, but you will teach us. And our God, who desires unity among us, desires truth between us, will be pleased.

Over the last century, too many names have been lost. Too many names changed in desperate hope that a less Armenian sounding name might protect against unspeakable crimes. Too many names of murdered men never carved into a gravestone. Too many names lost somewhere in the parched desert sand as desperate mothers try in vain to call out the names of dying daughters.

Too many names known to God alone.

But tonight, this night, the ancestors you prayed for are now the saints we pray to. We name them truth. We name them not just your grandmother or your great uncle, but now we name them martyrs and saints. And we speak their names together.

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 2.29.12 PMEye-sohrr, tzer nahadagneruh guhlan soorpper, mer poloreen hamarr.

(Today, your martyrs become saints, for all of us)

Amen.

Terror and Amazement: An Easter Vigil Sermon

Terror and Amazement: An Easter Vigil Sermon

Saturday April 4, 2015, St. Andrew’s Longmeadow

Ecumenical Easter Vigil

Mark 16:1-8

“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.”

So began an anonymous ancient Easter Vigil homily– words preached every year on this night for generations and generations, and to you, ye watchers and ye holy ones. That ancient preacher continues, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Let us pray…

West Bank tomb

In my house, death and duty taste like cheese quiche. Maybe in your house, death and duty tastes like lasagna or deviled eggs, collard greens or Jello mold, but in my family, death and duty has the distinctive taste of eggs and Swiss cheese, with the smell of just a little bit of spice: mustard powder and dill. At the news of a death, my mother would bake a quiche, since there were always eggs and a pre-made Pillsbury piecrust in the fridge. There was always a yellow tin can of Colman’s mustard and always a plastic jar with a red lid of dried dill that was probably purchased in 1986. I need no recipe. We knew what to do when someone died.

Maybe this routine for death was familiar with Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome too. Go to the store, and go get your supplies that now have the distinctive association of smelling like death, meet up on the corner in-between all your homes, and walk to the graveyard together. The Greek word used for “spices” in Mark’s gospel is αρωματα, (aromata) and since the Jewish people didn’t embalm their bodies, the spices or aromatics, were simply an act of love to cover the smell of a body starting to decompose. After all those quiches, mustard powder and dill will always smell like death to me. Duty and routine provide some stability when our worlds are turned upside-down by death.

But this death, the death we look for this night, despite all the warnings that it was coming, was not routine.

Whether you came tonight out of a sense of duty or seeking something more, we all gather this night to look into the tomb together. Not alone, but like the women, together. The Easter Vigil harkens back to our Jewish roots, as the next day starts at sunset the night before. Like generations who gathered before us, our Easter Vigil happens at night, because at the earliest possible moment, we gather not in isolation but to look into the tomb, together.

The soldiers are gone. The stone is gone. The women look into the tomb, and the body is gone. Nothing is where it should be.

Mark is the Gospel for our doubts, the story for those of us who look at the empty tomb not with joys and halleluiahs but with terror and amazement. We are not assured of Jesus’s resurrection with the smiling Messiah waving outside the tomb. We are not treated to a Hollywood ending, reuniting the scared and scattered disciples with the Good Shepherd. No, (in the words of Matthew Skinner) “Mark’s not interested in proving that Jesus rose. Mark puts readers smack in the middle of an existential crisis: a faith crisis.” Can you believe in what is not there?

Instead of finding a body in the tomb, an unknown man stands aside. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

The women run, their dresses getting caught between their legs. Their myrrh and nard, mustard powder and dill, are tossed, forgotten and scattered along side of the road.

“Terror and amazement had seized them.” It’s the combination of these two emotions- terror and amazement, or in Greek “τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις”/ tromos kai ekstasis. Trembling and ecstasy, terror and amazement. Sometimes it causes us to tremble, tremble. In the Gospel of Matthew, Easter morning is marked with an earthquake. In Mark, the tremors are internal to the women.

But of course they are seized with terror and amazement! Every death interrupts our routines, but this, this was even bigger. Anna Carter Florence says, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” The dependable duty of death is disrupted at Christ’s tomb. Death does not end the story. The dead don’t stay dead. The consequences of an empty tomb are too much to imagine and so the women flee in terror and amazement.

"I'm going, going,  back back to Galilee, Galilee"

“I’m going, going, back back to Galilee, Galilee”

But even as they flee back home, the risen Christ has gone on ahead of us. On this first day, this new day of Creation, the young man tells them, “he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” To Galilee- not to Jerusalem to worship at the temple, not back to his hometown of Nazareth, not to the desert to be alone, but back to Galilee- the site of the every day, the healing, the feeding, the teaching.

At his birth, John the Baptist was the fore-runner to Jesus. Today, at his Resurrection, Jesus Christ is the fore-runner to our lives. The Good News of Easter isn’t just the resurrected Christ, but Christ going ahead. We who sang “Prepare the way of the Lord” in Advent, are now having the way prepared for us, a path to freedom and life abundant.

He goes ahead of us. The Risen Christ goes ahead of us into Monday. Into our everyday. Into the classroom, into the office, into the courtroom, into the hospital, into the nursing home. Into the traffic jam, into the hard conversation, into the waiting room, into your home. We look into the tomb to find “he is not here.” He is already going ahead of us to Galilee, to Longmeadow, to Chicopee, to Springfield, to Agawam. He is already going ahead of us to Tehran, to Nairobi, to Cairo, to Aleppo. He has endured rejection and suffering, death and the grave, and so knows the path we are to travel. We do not go alone.

Our security isn’t in one who stays nicely and dependably put in the tomb, but in the One who goes ahead of us, who clears a way where there is no way. This is the test of faith tonight: Can you look into the empty tomb and trust that Jesus has gone ahead of you into your life? Can you believe, even for a moment, that all the stories of God’s provision include even you? Can you trust that the God who delivers the Israelites from slavery also delivers you from whatever keeps you bound? Can you try on the idea that our God goes ahead of us to Galilee? If that small, orange ember still glows among the coals, can you let the Spirit blow through you this night to kindle a new fire? If the smell of death has clung to your nostrils, can you leave your spices by the side of the road and follow the one who himself knew our suffering and death?

The promise of Easter is this- Christ is going ahead of you. We do not walk this way alone.

And it does not even matter when you get on the road. There’s another ancient Easter Vigil sermon from the 4th century, written in the voice of St. Chrysostom:

If any have toiled from the first hour,

let them receive their reward.

 

If any have come after the third hour,

let them with gratitude join in the feast!

 

Those who arrived after the sixth hour,

let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed.

 

Those who have tarried until the ninth hour,

let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

 

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,

let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

 

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,

even as to those who toiled from the beginning…

 

Let no one lament persistent failings,

for forgiveness has risen from the grave. 


 

Let no one fear death,

for the death of our Saviour has set us free…

 

Christ is risen, and life is set free!

Fight and Flight: A Sermon for Good Friday

Ecumenical Good Friday Service, April 3, 2015. Hosted by the Northbridge Clergy Association, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Whitinsville MA.

The Betrayal, Arrest & Crucifixion of Jesus: John 18:1- 19:42

Sung: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? (Were you there?)

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

O! Sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

~ Old Plantation Hymns’ 1899

Let us pray…

Tremble. It causes us to tremble, to look on that much suffering. It causes us to tremble, to watch an innocent person be tortured and die. We cover our faces. We cast down our eyes. Today, this Good Friday, we take the slow, long look at the suffering of Jesus.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Peter was there, for a bit. But then he wasn’t. He wasn’t there when they crucified Jesus, wasn’t there when they nailed him to the cross, wasn’t there when they pierced him in the side, and wasn’t there when they laid him in the tomb. Gone.

You know this Simon Peter. We’ve seen him all through the Gospel of John. He was there at the very beginning, joining the disciples with his brother Andrew (1:41-42). When the teachings of Jesus got hard, and others turned away, Simon Peter stayed and confessed Jesus as “the Holy One of God”(6:68). Peter, who at the Last Supper asks not just for his feet to be washed, but his whole body (13: 9). Peter has been with Jesus all along. Through the wandering, the healing, the teaching, Peter was with him the entire time.

But here, in the garden, it all becomes too much. The pleasant road for the disciples of healing the sick and feeding the hungry dead ends into a standoff with the authorities. Good Friday is not for the faith of heart. It asks of us more than a fondness for a moral exemplar, healing servant, wise man. It asks, will you go with me to the court, the cross, the tomb? Good Friday asks more questions than it answers. Good Friday asks “Were you there?”

Here, in the Garden, Peter fights. The Roman soldiers, and the chief priests come to

"Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?"

“Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?”

arrest Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus freely admits, “I am he” and asks to let the other men go. But Peter takes out his sword to fight the arrest and cuts off the ear of chief priest’s slave. But Jesus wants no fight; “Put your sword back in its sheath.”

Then, in the courtyard, Peter flees. Around a charcoal fire in the courtyard, they warm themselves, while the high priests interrogate Jesus inside. Three times, he is asked, “you are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Three times, Peter denies, “I am not.” And then he is gone. Not at the trial, not at the cross. Peter flees as his teacher and savior is tortured and crucified.

Peter’s not the explicit betrayer, the easy villain like Judas. Peter’s not the patsy politico who has power to end this torture but refuses to use it like Pilate. Peter’s not even the religious hypocrites like the chief priests getting in bed with the Roman police to protect themselves. No, Peter is utterly, simply human.

And in Simon Peter, we see two utterly human responses- fight and flight. In 1915 not far from here in Cambridge MA, Walter Bradford Cannon, the chair of the Department of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, coined the term “fight or flight.” In Dr. Cannon theory of “Fight or flight,” animals have a physiological reaction to an attack or a threat of survival, and because of secretion of certain chemicals, the body is then ready to either fight back the attack or flee. An “acute stress response” Fight or flight.

You know this fight and flight. You know this tendency in your own life. When someone insults you, you know the impulse to insult them back. When someone betrays you, you’ve felt the temptation to hurt them back. Or maybe you’ve felt that urge to flee, to flee the conference room when the divorce proceedings are too much, to flee to the other side of the street rather than look in the eyes the fellow human asking for loose change, to flee the hospital room when the suffering is to great, to flee the people who love you for the solitary company of a bottle when you cannot tell the horrors you have seen.

Maybe this is what makes Good Friday, “good.” Good in the sense that here we have a place to lay down our brokenness in the arms of our God. Today is our day designated for our deepest grief, our most entrenched hopelessness, our most intractable sorrow. Good Friday is where we place all of the broken relationships, broken bodies, broken world at the foot of the cross and weep. And maybe, just a little bit at first, we entrust this brokenness to our crucified God, who knew brokenness and rejection too.

The Gospel gives us an alternate example of what can be done in the face of fear and suffering. Not fight. Not flight. But abide. Abide with me. Stay with me. Remain with me. In Jesus of Nazareth, pinned to a cross, we see Our God so committed to be in solidarity with all who suffer as to endure the shame and humiliation of the cross. If our God would endure all that, surely our God will stay with us through the night of our darkest fear so that when we cry out “Were you there, Lord?” Jesus responds, “I am.”

The names of the author and composer of the hymn “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” are lost to history. The hymn was likely composed by enslaved Africans in the American South, a people who regularly saw their sons, their mothers, their grandfathers, scourged, tortured, and killed. Fighting back meant death. Fleeing near certainly meant death. And yet, for so many enslaved Africans in the Americas, there remained a bedrock conviction that the Son of God who was nailed to a tree, abided with them through their enslavement, their torture, and even their lynching. “Were you there when they nailed him to a tree?” And yet a faith so deep as to still believe that God abides.

Today in our prayer, we pray “that all who believe in him
might be delivered from the power of sin and death, and
become heirs with him of everlasting life.” So if there’s a small orange ember left in that charcoal fire in your heart that wants to believe, but isn’t quite sure- let the spirit blow through you this night and kindle it anew. Look upon the cross and try on the conviction that death does not have the final say. Look upon the cross this day and know the depths of God’s commitment to never leave you or forsake you, no matter how great the suffering. Look up the cross and believe, maybe just for a moment, the promise of our Christ- not that we will never suffer in this weary, broken world, but that we will never suffer alone. Amen.

Memorial For Marcia Deihl & Dedication of a Ghost Bike

Memorial for Marcia Deihl & Dedication of a Ghost Bike

Sunday March 22, 2015 4pm, corner of Putnam Ave & Allston Street, Cambridge MA

Rev. Laura E. Everett

A note: I’ve officiated funerals, but I’ve never presided at a memorial and dedication of a Ghost Bike before. I am grateful to be entrusted with such holy work, as a pastor & as a cyclist. Many of Marcia’s long time friends gathered around. Many cyclists, many who never met Marcia, gathered around too- maybe for the same reason I did: the sharp awareness that we ride these streets just like Marcia did. 

In urban cycling, there is a term called “taking the lane,” which means moving from the edge of the road and into the center lane. Taking the lane means taking your rightful space, maybe even moving to a space that’s safer. In the testimonials from Marcia’s friends today, we heard about a woman who took the lane for herself, and made space for others.  I wish I had met Marcia in person. I grieve her death.

(Grief resources available here and here. Reach out, you do not grieve alone.) 

Gathering & Welcome

History of Ghost Bikes: Cyclist & Advocate Jessica Mink shared a brief history of Ghost Bikes, the white bicycle memorials created for fallen cyclists placed at the location of their death. Jessica also invited Marcia’s friends to advocate for safer roads and such actions as guards on trucks, through organizations like Boston Cyclists Union, Livable Streets, Mass Bike, and Cambridge Bikes.

Invitation to Marcia’s Funeral: Rev. Betsy Sowers of Old Cambridge Baptist Church invited everyone to attend Marcia’s funeral on Saturday April 25, 2pm, 1151 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge.

Song: “Meditation on Breathing” by Sarah Dan Jones  Breathe in, breathe out. // When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.

Song: Union Maid by Woody Guthrie Marcia was a founding member of the Harmony Sisterhood Band. Some of Marcia’s friends led us in the singing of “Union Maid” 

Memories of Marcia: Many from Marcia’s web of relationships spoke: friends, fellow singers, neighbors, fellow letter writers, women with Marcia who founded the bisexual community in Boston, co-workers from Harvard libraries, and members of Old Cambridge Baptist Church where Marcia sang in the choir.

Dedication of the Ghost Bike:

Let us pray:

Holy One, we call you by many names: Creator, God of our Ancestors, Allah, Adonai, The Human One who came from Nazareth, Higher Power, the Love that never ends, the Wind that is always at our back:

Many roads brought us safely here, to this small square of earth. We stand and ride on holy ground. We gather in grief to remember a life well lived, and a song beautifully sung. We praise you for the life of Marcia and for the time she spent among us. We give thanks for the fierce beauty of her life and the depths of her commitment to make this world a little kinder, a little more just.

When we chose to take a bike instead of a car,

When we chose to speak up instead of staying silent,

When we chose advocacy instead of complacency,

When we chose to plant flowers instead of cursing the pavement,

When we chose singing instead of yelling,

remind us, Holy One, of Marcia.

Let us hold moment of silence for all who have died in Greater Boston while riding, remembering:

Eoin McGrory

Christopher Weigl

Doan Bui

Tanya Connolly

Alex Monetsignos

Eric Hunt

Moe Zeidan

and Marcia

Comfort all who mourn this day.

We who continue to ride these roads confess that some days we ride scared, some days we ride angry. Here, on this holy ground, we pray and recommit ourselves to work for a day when all people will be safe on these streets.

Friends, reach out your hands to bless. Today, on this holy ground, we dedicate and bless this ghost bike. May all who look upon it be reminded of the awesome responsibility of driving cars and trucks. May this ghost bike be a sign and a signal. Bless this memorial to Marcia. And bless us too.

God, bless our bikes. Pour out your protection on our helmets. Take our handlebars and steer us ever true. Bless our wheels that move upon your good Creation. Anoint our brakes that we may know our limits. Fix our seat that whenever we roam, we might always return safely. Send down your Spirit with a blessing upon these bikes, that fortified by the might of your heavenly protection, these bikes may be help and aid unto all who make use of them. May our wheels rise. We send up glory, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages.

Many roads brought us safely here, to this small square of earth. Now we ask you to guide us safely home. Holy One, guide our wheels and guard our coming and going.

We give thanks for the life of Marcia, a woman of deep conviction and public witness. Today, in her honor, we ring out our bells of freedom, we sing out our song about love between our brothers and our sisters, all over this land.

Cyclists and friends, will you ring your bell and say Amen?

Song: This Little Light of Mine  Since the wind was too strong, instead of lighting candles, we sang. People took their candles home to light them in honor of Marcia. Many are posting photos of their lit candles in the Facebook event for this memorial here: https://www.facebook.com/events/471047703058889/

Benediction:

Go forth into the world in peace;
be of good courage;
hold fast that which is good;
render to no one evil for evil;
strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak;
help the afflicted;
honor everyone.

Let your light shine.

Amen. (Cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:13-22)

You Do You: A Sermon on Christian Jealousy

Preached Sunday March 8, 2015 at the First Congregational Church of Dudley, MA on behalf of an Ecumenical Lenten Service for the Dudley, Webster & Oxford clergy association.

Mark 9: 38-41

Space Saver

Space Saver

Sometimes jealousy creeps up on you. Yesterday, I went into our local coffee shop in Boston- the kind of place full of young families and urban empty-nesters that any local church pastor would give her right arm to have in the pews on a Sunday. There, near the soy milk and the raw sugar, a post-card caught my eye. Beautifully designed with an image of the very building I was standing in, the postcard said “A New Church in the Neighborhood You Love.” And now the confession: I did not think to myself, “Oh good, a new church in the neighborhood! This is wonderful, since so many people here don’t go to church!” No, I thought, “Shoot, this postcard looks good and is well placed. My church needs to put our postcards here too.” But Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Let us pray…

Oh John. St John here says what we all sometimes think, and for this, I am deeply grateful to the Gospel writer Mark. If you want to make like Baptists and actually open your pew bibles to read along with me, look back in Mark 9 on page_____. From Mark 9:14-31, we get an complicated story about the disciples trying, and then failing to heal a child tormented by an unclean spirit. Shortly after this, we get our passage beginning at verse 38.

Somewhere in Capernaum, the disciples and Jesus sit down for a chat. And, John, dear John says to Jesus in verse 38, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s appropriate that John calls Jesus “Teacher,” because this sounds most like one student ratting out another one for doing unauthorized good!

Lent is a time to get honest about our lives. Lent is set time to examine what in our lives has become unmanageable and overgrown, and prune it back. Lent is when we take the time to examine whether our assumptions about ourselves hold up in the light of the Gospel. And so here, together in Lent, it is appropriate to talk about Christian jealousy. Here, in Lent, it is safe to name that nasty, sneaky, niggling little tendency we have to compare ourselves to one another and plaintively cry, “Jesus, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

There in verse 38, John gives voice to all our Christian anxiety and jealousy. John says what we were all thinking. John says aloud, hey! Someone else is taking all the credit! Someone unauthorized! Someone from another denomination! Someone we don’t know!

In Boston, our anxiety and jealousy has shown up in the form of old lawn chairs and garbage bins. Maybe this is not as much a problem outside the cities where you have more space, but in Boston, this winter has brought out our worst anxiety and jealousy. We simply have too few shoveled parking spaces for the number of cars. It’s an adult game of musical chairs, but nobody is having any fun, and the last driver is left trolling the block to find a spot to park their car for the night. Last week as I was walking home from the T stop through my neighborhood where the snowbanks still rise above the roofs of cars, I saw a note on a car with out-of-state places. The note read, “You didn’t shovel this.” In our very real anxiety about the lack of parking, we’ve taken to using “space-savers,” old chairs and garbage pails to mark our turf. Mine. Mine, Mine, Mine. Except it’s all a public street. And there’s plenty of space if we all shovel out not just our own spot but our neighbor’s too. Can’t you hear John saying, “Teacher, I shoveled it out, but someone else is parked in my spot!”photo-4

It’s no coincidence that shortly before St. John speaks to Jesus about who is in and who is out, the disciples are struggling. Look back to Mark 9:14- the disciples tried to heal a child with a demon and couldn’t do so. And what’s John worried about? Other people casting out demons! When we get anxious, we get small. When we feel like there isn’t enough to go around, we get concerned that someone else might have gotten more. If you grew up in a family where there wasn’t enough food, you know this anxiety. If you live with the sense that there’s not enough money, you know this anxiety. We get anxious and then we get small.

Our churches get anxious and then they get jealous. We don’t talk about it much, but I hear it. It creeps in. We get anxious because we see our numbers decline and think we are the only ones. We get anxious when another church is in the news and we aren’t. We get anxious because what used to work ten years ago doesn’t work any longer. We get anxious as the cultural privilege once afforded to the Church is crowded out in an increasingly secular world, as hockey practices competes with Confirmation Class. Upon hearing that the church next door has hired a really good preacher who might just draw new parishioners, no pastor has thought to himself “Oh that’s great news!” With a mindset of scarcity, we get anxious, and then we get jealous. We look longingly at the new furnace in someone else’s basement. We secretly count the number of cars in the parking lot at that other parish as we drive by. We see that other church’s growing youth group, and feel badly about our own. We look at the slick new postcards advertising another church in our local coffee shop and think, “Shoot. I should be putting my church’s advertisements here too.”

The strange reality of the Church in Massachusetts is this: we are all marginal now. Massachusetts is the 5th least religious state in the nation. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, only 28% of MA residents attend any religious service at least once a week. That leaves 72% of our neighbors not attending any of our churches. The competition isn’t the church down the street! It is not a zero-sum game, where if the Episcopalians increase then the Congregationalists must decrease. You can almost hear John complaining, “Someone else is liberating the people! Someone we don’t know is relieving their suffering! Someone unfamiliar is participating in the reign of God and they are not from our denomination!”

In the disciples’ quest for exclusivity, they betray their real concern: not did whether or not someone was healed, but who got credit. Notice that the disciples want to curtail someone outside their tradition doing good!

The disciples are looking to bring judgment on this outsider not for what he or she has done, but with whom they are affiliated. Jesus says, “Do not stop him,” or in a more modern interpretation, Jesus says “you do you.” Worry about your self. Focus on your own behavior & heart. Don’t worry about them, because anyone doing good in my name is with us: an alternative version of Christian unity.

John is concerned about who gets credit; Jesus is concerned about who gets healed. To John’s question about unauthorized ministry not from “our” people, Jesus responds in verse 40, “whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s wildly inclusive- as long as you’re not against us, you’re with us. Everyone on the same team! Jesus takes the maximally inclusive stance. But we are more familiar with the opposite. We think, “whoever is not for us is against us.” Just two days after 9/11, then Senator Hilary Clinton said, “Every nation has to either be with us, or against us. Those who harbor terrorists, or who finance them, are going to pay a price.” And lest you think I’m just picking on Democrats, seven days after Senator Clinton said so, then President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”

Our inclination is to divide the world into us and them, black and white, those who are with us and those who are outside our tradition. But Jesus, sweet Jesus who upsets all our divisions and draws the circle even wider, proclaims, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

On the 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Birmingham, President Obama said, “Selma shows us that America is not the project of any one person. Because the single most powerful word in our democracy is the word “We.” We The People. We Shall Overcome. Yes We Can. It is owned by no one. It belongs to everyone. Oh, what a glorious task we are given, to continually try to improve this great nation of ours.” Maybe part of our Lenten discipline is to reclaim a sense of unity, a sense that we are in this together- to resist dividing the world into those who are with us and those who are against us, Democrats and Republicans, Protestant and Catholic, male and female, gay and straight, slave and free. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much as to who gets credit but that all get made whole.

We serve a God of abundance. It can be so hard to remember this especially when the snow rises higher and the resources seem fewer, but we serve a God who is bigger and wider than anything we can imagine. We serve a God who promises not just life, but life abundant. St Paul says to the church in Rome, he says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Church, I say to you, do not be conformed to this world that would divide us into winners and losers. Take this Lent to renew your mind, to recall the promises of God. Recall again the promises of God in 1Peter “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Christ who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” May we proclaim so together today. Amen.