Failure to Floss: A Sermon on Privilege & Repentance

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Preached at Wilbraham United Church (UCC & UMC), Wilbraham MA with Christ the King (ELCA) & Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal)

Sunday December 3, 2016

Matthew 3: 1-12

 

I lie to my dentist. I LIE to my dentist. So if I’m going to practice repentance this Advent, I need to confess. Every 6 months, I lie to my dentist. Dr. Anurag Gupta D.M.D, B.D.S. 2008 graduate with highest honors from Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine asks me, “Have you been flossing daily?” And I LIE. He asks me when I’ve been flossing, and I say “Often.” He asks me “How often?” And I who just flossed 30 minutes before my visit, I say, “Frequently.” Through my teeth with their tender red gums, I say what is supposed to be true, and I lie.

That’s the easy confession, the stuff we know we’re doing wrong, the stuff we have the capacity, if not the will, to change. John the Baptist requires us to attend to the bigger stuff, the more complicated stuff, the stuff that gets stuck in our eyes and our minds and our hearts.

John the Baptist forces us to have the conversations we’d prefer to avoid. I’d be mighty happy with my candy canes and handfuls of cookies shoved into my un-flossed teeth, but into Advent John the Baptist crashes. John the Baptist resists sentimentalism. John the Baptist refuses domestication. JOHN THE BAPTIST WRITES HIS FACEBOOK STATUS IN ALL CAPS. He talks too loud. He’s blunt. He’s unafraid of how people will react. John the Baptist would show up at your Holly Fair next weekend with your free admission and ample parking, he’d sit down at the Holy Café, with his scratchy camel hair coat, and make everyone feel uncomfortable as he hunched over a bowl of soup. He’d take the cookies from the Cookie Walk with his grimy hands and not even pay for them. He won’t sing nicely in the choir, he won’t help put up the Christmas tree, he won’t play along nicely. John the Baptist is inconvenient. John the Baptist holds up the mirror to the people, even the people who don’t want to see, and says, “ I see you sinning. Repent.”

John the Baptist stands at the threshold of the Christ event, and shouts “Y’all ready for this?”

No. No, we’re not ready. Not really. The kind of wholesale transformation that John portends is more than we can imagine. We can hardly conceive the kingdom of heaven John anticipates. We’ve been afraid to say it’s not working. We think small, like “maybe we can have enough kids for a high school youth group this year” or “maybe we can have a nice family Christmas dinner without a fight or someone passing out drunk.” We’re too ensnared and too fearful to imagine that kingdom of God and life abundant. We’re stuck in this broken, hazy, status quo that isn’t really working for everyone.

In verse 2, when John opens his mouth, teeth caked with locust and wild honey, and says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”

Repent. Μετανοεῖτε. Repent, or translated another way, “Reform.” “Reform, for the reign of Heaven has drawn near.” In Greek, it’s easier to see that it’s a command, and it’s plural. Not just you individually repent, but all of you. All ya’ll. Or from my ancestral homeland New Jersey, “youse guys.” All you repent. All of you reform. All you, change your mind. John’s pushing for more than a simple change of action, but a change of a whole worldview. He’s pressing on a whole change in the landscape, where the valleys will be filled in and the mountains brought low. John’s call to repent, to reform, to change our mind and expand what we can imagine, is a wholesale structural change because of the coming of the Lord. In the words of the mid-90’s women’s R&B group En Vogue, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”

The people come, and the baptisms follow. Crowds come out to a remote place, traveling far because they want this new way of life.

And then the religious leaders show up.

There are a thousand possible reasons the religious establishment shows up. Maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees are showing up just in case. Maybe they’re coming to hear John’s preaching, to judge it against their own. Maybe they’re jealous of the crowds, looking on the Facebook page of church down the street with the bigger youth group. Or maybe they figure, this baptism is some sort of magical spiritual vaccination, they may not believe in it, but it can’t hurt. Somewhere between curious, jealous, and self-protecting, the Pharisees and Sadducees show up in the desert.

And John, loud and clear, calls them out.

John calls our their privilege in verse 9: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John is calling into question something utterly radical. John says: there is no entitlement in the kingdom of God. John says, your parentage, your ancestry, your pedigree, your racial and ethnic privilege, none of it matters in the kingdom of God. God is so powerful and so invested in the radical dignity of all people that even these stones could become Children of God.

John crashes into Advent, and as much as we’d like to think that other people are the Pharisees and Sadducces, John the Baptist holds up the mirror to us, and says “You brood of vipers, I know you haven’t been flossing!”

It’s hard to have that mirror held up. We like to think of repentance as something to assign to other people. But we confess each week because our brokenness isn’t something that just happens once, but a constant need to change our actions, reform our minds, and repent.

The longer I stay with Christianity, digging into our text, living this way of life, the more radical and more challenging it becomes. The more countercultural it feels. To live as if the gospel were actually true, to live as if there is enough for all. To live as if the life abundant were not just a future possibility but in-breaking right now? John says, our privilege won’t save us. We follow a man who was born to migrant parents under occupation, ate with sinners, gathered the broken, gave out free health care, challenged the Empire, was unjustly arrested, tortured and killed. Why on earth would we think Christianity gets to be big and powerful and established?

Jesus never promised us success. Jesus never promised us tall steeples, or stained glass or our church buildings at the center of town. Jesus didn’t promise us days off for our religious holidays or commercial advertising that reaffirmed our religious tradition alone. The longer I stay with Christianity, the less concerned I am about the war on Christmas and more concerned about the way the Christmas event challenges us to think anew about war. About violence. About undocumented infants born in temporary provisions. About the registration of people, not just a decree in ancient days when August was the Emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria, but under the next presidential administration.

We prefer to think of repentance as something that we like to assign to other people. But repentance is regular habit of the people of God. If we are to have a credible witness of a new way of living to a broken world, we are obliged to look at the log in our own eye.

The music historian and writer Jay Smooth says we tend to think about racism and privilege like tonsils. He says, “Like you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider it again. If someone says “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say “No–my prejudice was removed in 2005!”

Instead of this binary of being good people or bad, of being racist or not, of being privileged or justice seeking, Smooth proposes moving away from the notion of tonsils, instead to a paradigm of discourse more like dental hygiene. Privilege is less like tonsils and more like, well plaque (seriously, go watch his TED Talk Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU) . Because as we move through the broken world, through our biased culture, each and every day, we all build up some privilege plaque. Smooth says this way of living “is something that you maintain and work on every day.” You brush your teeth every day.

Repentance is regular habit of the people of God. John the Baptist shows up, and says, “I know you’re not flossing!” John the Baptist shows up in Advent, holds up the mirror to say “you’ve got racism in your teeth. You’ve got sexism in your teeth. Over there on the left, you’ve got a chunk of homophobia stuck. Can we get you some dental floss, because you’re treating some people like they’re disposable, deplorable, illegal. You are not treating every like a beloved child of God. And if you keep that stuff in your teeth, eventually it’s gonna rot your mouth.” We’ve all been in coffee hour; It’s awkward, to say the least, to have someone point out that you’ve got a chunk of spinach hanging out on your molar. It’s worse though, to keep it there. We don’t just brush our teeth once and are done. We don’t just submit to the waters of baptism and never stumble again. Repentance is the regular habit of the people of God. And to make enough room at the manger for the in breaking of God, we need to clean and clear some stuff out.

Speaking about the Church in his era, the British writer “G. K. Chesterton said that if you love how a fence post looks and want to preserve it, you must repaint it every year. A faithful church can’t be maintained without constant reformation.” If we love our church, if we love Jesus Christ, we cannot accept the status quo, so far from the life abundant of the Reign of God. Repentance starts with us, and our daily examination of what’s getting stuck in our own mouths. Repent, Reform, for the kingdom of God is drawing near.

 

 

 

 

The Danger of Denominations: A Sermon For Reformation Sunday

 

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Arlington MA

Reformation Sunday- October 30, 2016

John 8:31-36

 co2ucejShe spoke with the humility of someone who actually spent a lot of time in prayer. Her words were precise, nothing wasted. I had developed a sweet friendship with a Greek Orthodox woman who loved her Church, loved her people, loved Jesus Christ and had a particular devotion Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer. I saw her again after a long absence, and she asked where I was worshipping this Sunday. “I’m preaching at a Lutheran Church for Reformation Sunday.” “What is that?” she asked. “Well, on that day, we Christians in the Reformed traditions commemorate Martin Luther, and the nearly 500 years since he nailed the 95 thesis on the church door, sparking needed reform in the Church…” I stopped as her brow began to crinkle, her brown eyes squinting to understand. She said, “My church, we do not commemorate the Great Schism that divided the Eastern Church from the Western Church. Why would you celebrate as a holy day the time when the Church divided?”

Let us pray…

Holy One, give us the Word we need this day. You speak to every generation and every people. Help us to hear your voice this day. Help us to see where we are still bound. Help us to be set free. I claim you again, my rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. We hear this line so often out of context that perhaps we forgot where it comes from. I did. I forgot it comes from Jesus teaching again among the religious leaders of his day. For generations, the Church would use this verse and others like it, especially in the Gospel of John to perpetuate the superiority of the Christians who accepted Jesus as Lord over the Jews who did not, a theological sin with lasting and lethal consequence. For centuries, we’ve been captive to this sin. Instead, we can see the religious leaders of Jesus’s time as much like many churches now, thinking we’ve got all we need, thinking we are not entangled, thinking we can free ourselves of all that ensnares us.

I have sympathy for those religious leaders. They’ve got a nice big temple right in the center of town, enough people to fill the pews, and the situation with the government is pretty good as long as you don’t question the empire too much. Whatever Jesus is selling, they aren’t buying. Jesus says, this way of life will set you free. And the religious leaders say, “nah, we’re good.” “They take umbrage at something Jesus doesn’t even say. You’ll be set free, Jesus offers. “We’ve never been slaves!” they respond.

Except, they’re wrong.

In verse 33, they answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” But, “We’ve never been slaves” is not accurate. Abraham’s children were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, but they’ve forgotten their history. By failing to remember their enslavement, they also forget that God freed them. They misremember themselves as self-sufficient just because they’re doing ok now. Moreover, Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Tabernacles, the festival commemorative God’s provision in the wilderness after the Children of Abraham are released from Pharaoh’s enslavement. The self-involvement of the religious leaders is so thick that they’re missing the irony of the feast and failing to name God’s liberating role in their history.

Theological self-sufficiency is a dangerous thing. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve got all we need. Jesus didn’t intend for us to be this way, separated and divided from one another. Norm Kansfield, a Reformed Church in America pastor & seminary president said, “denominations, by their very existence, are examples of the sin that is present in the world.”

On Reformation Sunday, we aren’t exactly reveling in our denominational sinfulness, but we’re not repudiating it either. It’s an awkward thing, to celebrate a day of division. I felt that talking with my Orthodox friend. It’s awkward when your heroes are their heretics, your saints are their sinners. I am proudly, gratefully a Christian in the Reformed tradition. I’m also sufficiently convinced of our human tendency towards brokenness that I believe in the necessity of the Church to constantly be reforming. And yet, denominations delude us into that same theological insularity that lulls us into thinking like religious leaders in Jesus’s story. We come to believe we’ve got what we need.

We make a mistake when we treat denominations as our primary identity, the icing rather than the cake. Jesus did not say, “Go, therefore and make Presbyterians of all nations.” Jesus did not say, “They will know we are Methodist by our love.” As John Thomas, the former General Minister of the United Church of Christ once said, “Denominations are powerful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns.” Lutheran is a powerful adjective, but an idolatrous noun.

Powerful adjectives, and idolatrous nouns. My mother-in-law made the switch from noun to adjective. For years, she worked as a historian and interpreter at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside of Charlottesville VA. For many years, the official tour at Monticello was all about the famous family, not about the stolen black labor that made Monticello run. They had forgotten their history of enslavement. But in 1993, the Head of Research Cinder Stanton, found a way to make a change. My mother-in-law, Zanne MacDonald, sat with a group of 12 tour guides or interpreters to meet with Dorothy Redford. On a quest to find the missing history of her ancestors, Redford, traveled to Somerset Place, one of the largest slave plantations in North Carolina. There, She discovered a comingled history of black and white people that culminated in nationally publicized homecoming she organized, bringing together more than 2,000 descendants of the plantation’s slaves and owners. Redford taught these historical interpreters at Montincello to make a shift, from a noun to an adjective, to see the humanity of those who had been captured, forced, and enslaved. No longer would they talk about “slaves” but “enslaved people.” They traded the noun for the adjective. They would get precise in their historical language, naming the Jefferson family not as masters, but owners, owners of other humans.

Quickly, the interpreters made a change, and then slowly the tourists changed too. On each tour, the tourists would pick up on the new language, using “enslaved people” to talk about those who grew the food, tended the livestock, ran the house, and raised the children without pay. They began to imagine the enslaved persons as people with names, histories, and families of their own. They began to imagine the greater humanity, not just the enslavement, but the person who has every right and longing to be free.

For a long time, the divided Christian denominations in the ecumenical movement have been primarily focused on working out the theological differences. We’ve spent many long years talking about how different our adjectives are; how different Lutheran is from Methodist is from Baptist is from Quaker is from Roman, all the while forgetting the common Christian identity that unites. Much of that good and important work on our theological differences has either been resolved or our divisions are not longer as divisive. My conviction is that the work of our era is not to resolve our denominational difference, but the other things that divided us, particularly America’s pernicious contribution to Church division in the form of racism and white superiority.

But the truth will set us free. We tell ourselves some pretty big lies, sometimes. We tell ourselves there’s not enough for us, let alone anyone else. We tell ourselves that if they’re winning, we must be losing. We tell ourselves that we got here only by our hard work. As a country we’ve convinced ourselves of the lie that some of God’s children can be free while some are enslaved. We’ve bought the lie that we can do it on our own, that we have no need of one another. But Jesus points to another truth, the absolute necessity of our interdependence on one another and our utter dependence on Christ.

Just down the road in Cambridge today, the Old Cambridge Baptist Church is inviting over Faith Lutheran Church to talk about Martin Luther on Reformation Sunday. Two churches in the same neighborhood, who could conceivably imagining one another as competition, are searching for the truth together. Communities pointing to Christ together, assured that they cannot untangle themselves from the snares of sin on their own.

St. Paul’s, you have a head start. You don’t even need to leave your building! You have two other churches that worship in this very space in the Haitian Adventist congregation and the Korean Presbyterian congregation. What if they know something about God that will set you free? What if you know some things that they that they have been longing to hear? You’ve already shown that you can be brave and listen across divisions of nationality and tradition when you dug deep to partner with those fleeing the violence of Sudan. You know what it is like to have a sense of the utter necessity of one another and the need to constantly be re-forming to be the Church God calls you to be. You know this. This is your history.

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed,” Jesus said. The truth is, we need the Son, and we need each other to keep reforming, to truly be made free. May you step towards this freedom today. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?”

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The newspaper equivalent of church buildings turned into condos. 

 “Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?”

The two institutions I love the most are: Church and Newspaper (Museums and Baseball are 3 & 4, respectively). I believe in their similar and quite different holy work to tell stories of Truth and Life, especially stories that are undervalued and unseen. I believe both have a critical role in cultivating a thriving civic ecology for all.

I’ve long noticed a similarity in the challenges and need for innovation of these two institutions whose place and authority were once presumed in our culture.

Boston Globe’s Editor Brian McGrory recently sent a memo to the newsroom. Media commentator Dan Kennedy posted it here. https://dankennedy.net/2016/04/07/globe-editor-mcgrory-its-time-to-rethink-everything-we-do/

I read the memo with great interest about the future of the Boston Globe. But, all I could hear were echoes of my own institution. Below is my creative writing exercise. My text is in red. Enjoy.

~ Laura

Hey all,

 It’s time to bring everyone up to date on a series of conversations I’ve initiated among senior editors bishops over the past couple of months, conversations intended to lay the groundwork for a no-sacred-cows analysis of our newsroom Church and what the Globe Church should look like in the future. It’s also time to get the room fully involved in the process.

You know it as I know it: The Globe, Church like every other major legacy news religious organization in Massachusetts, has faced what have proven to be irreversible revenue declines. The revenue funds our journalism ministry. The declines have mandated significant cuts over the past dozen years.

 There’s far too much good that goes on at this organization on a moment-by-moment basis to allow ourselves to be consumed by what’s wrong with the industry religious institutions. But we can’t ignore hard realities, either, or simply wish them away. My own strong preference is to somehow shed the annual reduction exercise that seems increasingly inevitable here and everywhere. So I’ve asked senior editors bishops to think about how we, at the very least, might get ahead of the declines, and in the best case, work to slow or even halt them. To help shape the discussion, consider this question: If a wealthy individual was to give us funding to launch a news organization Christian institution designed to take on The Boston Globe denominationalism, what would it look like?

 There are important issues to raise and explore in what I’ll call a reinvention initiative: Do we have the right technology? Do we train staff clergy & lay leaders in the right way? Should we remain in the current print physical format that we have now, same size buildings, same sections geographic isolation? Do we have the right departments divisions of ordained and lay ministry? Is our beat structure seminary process outdated? How can our work flows improve? Do we have too many of XX and not enough Ys? Should we publish seven days a week worship on Sunday mornings? Do print and digital in-person and online ministry relate in the right ways?

 The questions could go on and on. They could become bolder still.

Easy answers, as you well know, are elusive. The good news is that we’ve got an absurdly smart, dedicated collection of journalists ministers, many of the best in the nation, that has embraced profound and meaningful change over the years, always while maintaining our values. We’ve built two of the most successful websites  partnerships in the industry, first boston.com Addiction & Spirituality and now bostonglobe.com Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The latter site partnership is not only thriving, but growing rapidly, up more than 15 percent in uniques and page views this year over last, with the first session of “Foundations of Christian Leadership” outside of North Carolina, starting in New England in April and leading the league in digital-only subscribers in FOCL participants—the most important metric. We successfully overhauled key parts of the site last year Massachusetts Council of Churches’ leadership structure. We’re about to launch a major sports membership redesign this spring  summer, all while we confidently spread our wings with a broader array of stories ministries and topics geared first to our web emerging multi-denominational audience.

 At the same time, we haven’t just maintained print worshipping communities, but enhanced it over the past few years, with a great new standalone business section through the week, a Sunday Arts section that showcases some of the best critics in the industry, Address, premium magazines, broadsheet feature sections. I’m missing things, I’m sure. We saw quite clearly in January last winter just how much the physical paper worshipping community means to an enormous swath of our readership constituency.

The journalism ministry, through it all, has been consistently exceptional. We drove the Olympics BostonWarm debate. We launched a national debate on concurrent surgery thriving Christian institutions & the nature of councils of churches. We’ve been one of the smartest, freshest voices on the national political intra-Christian & inter-religious scene. We’ve chronicled poverty in rural Maine and economic segregation in greater Boston in deeply memorable ways ecumenical pilgrimages to Armenian Christmas Eve, the 200th anniversary service for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Feast Day of St. Mark at a Coptic Church, and Holy Tuesday in the Anglican Tradition.  Day in, day out, we are one of the most thoughtful metropolitan news organizations hubs for innovative Christianity in the land.

All of which is to say: We’re very good at change. We’re committed to high standards. We are well-positioned to go even further.

So I’ll frame the discussion one more way: Is it possible to build something bold rather than shrink what we have?

 It’s perfectly reasonable to ask whether this reinvention initiative is an excuse for more cutting. The glib answer is that we don’t really need an excuse to cut. The revenue declines require it. The more involved answer is that even without declining revenue, we should still be exploring reinvention, given the massive advances in technology and massive changes in reader worship attendance habits. And even without a reinvention initiative, we’d still have to cut. So the honest answer is that a reinvention would naturally take into account the realities of declining revenues.

I’ve sought some outside counsel to help facilitate the process, people who have thought long and hard about these issues and are deeply knowledgeable about what’s been tried at other news Christian organizations and how it’s worked. Tom Rosenstiel and Jeff Sonderman, Dave Odom the executive director and deputy director respectively of the American Press Institute Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, plan to be with the new Massachusetts Council of Churches Working Board this summer, and heads of church meeting in December. in the newsroom on Friday—tomorrow—to meet in small groups with some staff. They’ll be joined by Marty Kaiser, the highly respected former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has worked with Tom on these exact issues. After Tom, Jeff, and Marty get an initial sense of our newsroom, we’ll discuss a path forward and how they might help. The key is to create a process that involves as many people as possible, at all levels, tapping into the wealth of creativity that is this newsroom’s Massachusetts’ trademark. 

This is a significant and important undertaking. It’s also an exciting one. We’re in a moment in this industry religious era and at this organization that requires us to be bold (have I used that word enough yet?) and imaginative, always in our journalism ministry, but also in determining how we best fulfill our civic responsibilities. There’s not the tiniest bit of doubt that we’re up to the challenge. 

I’ll be reaching out to some of you about meeting with Tom, Jeff, and Marty tomorrow, and then I’ll report back soon in a series of Winship Room gatherings about the road ahead.   We’re committed to a process in which everyone can effectively share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. In the meantime, feel more than free to reach out to me directly.

Brian Jesus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“An intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”

All Saints, Brookline

Transfiguration Sunday, February 7, 2015

Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

Let us pray: May we see. Amen.

Sometimes, truth lurks in the footnotes.

There, beneath the Gospel text, in The Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition 2001, there, where the font gets small and squished, some unnamed, unknown editor wrote this:

“This account recalls an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”

Strictly speaking, this statement is not Scripture. It is not part of the text handed down again and again in a Gospel we call Luke. But this footnote voices something that maybe the befuddled could have said, “This is an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain.”

“Intense” is the modifier for all teen-age emotions. I was 14 when I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord & Savior. I remember what I was wearing: A homemade Bible costume made of bedsheets & Birkenstocks. I kneeled at the foot for a gigantic wooden cross that my youth groups had just paraded 3 miles through Suburbia. I think someone was playing Amy Grant & Michael W. Smith on a boom box. There, in the garden of the Community church of Mountain Lakes, I confessed my 14 year old sins and took Jesus into my heart. I’m less surprised that this all happened, at a United Church of Christ congregation no less, and more surprised that it stuck. It’s taken me years to be able to see and make sense of a God who shows up to tormented teenagers dressed in bible costumes. “This is an intense religious experience, the nature of which is uncertain.”

The disciples are utterly confused. Jesus brings Peter, James and John up the mountain to pray, but something far more cosmic occurs.

We don’t know how long has passed, then all of a sudden, Jesus’s appearance changes and then his clothes change too.

For many parts of the Western Church, it wasn’t just Jesus’s clothes that became white, but Jesus himself became white. For centuries, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness.

The appearance of Jesus’s face changed, as it did when Moses encountered the Lord. Jesus’s clothes became dazzling bright, radiant, reflective of the Glory of God: transfigured, or as the Greek reads, “metaphorphoses.”

We are in the midst of this profound moment where people with bodies previously considered ugly, unworthy, and expendable, are claiming their beauty, worth, and dignity. I think of a mantra that Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson has tweeted again and again: “I love my blackness. And yours.” The thing that the world despises? Dazzling. Transfigured.

Before this Transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples that his body will be taken by state-sponsored violence, rejected by the religious authorities, beaten, tortured, publicly humiliated, and killed. That which is despised? Dazzling. Transfiguration.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an entire denomination that would not exist were it not for the racism of white Christians who would not see the equal dignity of Black Christians.

The founding cleric of the African Methodist Episcopal church changed his name from “Negro Richard” to “Richard Allen,” when he bought his own freedom. Transfiguration.

A companion and colleague of Bishop Richard Allen’s, Rev. Absalom Jones, the first African-America ordained as an Episcopal priest, cast aside the name of his former Master and changed his name from Absalom Wynkoop to Absalom Jones, a name intentionally chosen for the sound of its American-ness. Transfiguration.

And even in Absalom Jones’s intention to found St. Thomas’s African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia in 1794 you can here the aim of transfiguration: “to arise out of the dust and shake ourselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained us up in.” Transfiguration.

IMG_2249This week we woke up to the city transformed, blanketed in snow. Barren trees dazzled, trash on the sidewalk disappeared, every garbage pile became pure, and for a few hours, the whole world was glowed.

Transfiguration is more than just blanketing over. Transfiguration is an internal radiance that chances how we see Jesus Christ, the One who transfigures the suffering of the cross into glory, and the emptiness of the tomb into the fullness of life.

But true transfigurations are confusing. The mystics said that the Transfiguration both reveals and blinds. In a Transfiguration, we see the world as God sees, but that vision is utterly confusing. That Transfigured vision is so far from the world as it is, full of barren trees, trash piles, human division and brokenness all around.

In to that “an intense religious experience, the exact nature of which is uncertain,” Peter blurts out. Peter wouldn’t make a very good Quaker or contemplative. You get the sense that Peter is the guy who vestry meetings who couldn’t live with the tension or the silence, and just spoke to break the awkwardness. The radiant light is receding, Moses and Elijah are beginning to leave, and Peter interjects

“Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us build three dwellings…” (Luke 9:33).

Let us build 3 tabernacles here! If we just… If we just build three tabernacles!

If we just finish the building. If we just put in a new Sunday school classroom. … If we just had more contemporary music, if we just had more incense, If we just had more people, if we just could stay here. If we could just constrain where God decides to show up in ways that are more dependable and less uncertain. Peter turns to what is familiar, the Jewish festival of the Tabernacles, a harvest festival to commemorate God’s provision of the people while they were in exile. Let’s build something solid to escape our wandering.

The Church struggles mightily with this, to live with uncertainty. We are loath to acknowledge that for a pilgrim people, we’ve gotten mighty comfortable in our established buildings. Our churches become shelters from the storm rather than basecamps for the journey. When I am anxious, I share Peter’s impulse to sequester ourselves in our mystical experiences or our nice church buildings. Peter is our institutional id here, voicing our anxious impulse to fix solid what we cannot control, to settle in, and build a structure with clear boundaries that says here but not there.

But God won’t let Peter. The same Savior who cautions to take no extra pair of shoes, won’t let them stay put either. Jesus brought them up the mountain, and will lead them back down. Up and down, back and forth, toggling between worship of God and work in the World. Not just duty but delight, that they might be transfigured too.

The Massachusetts Council of Churches, on our best days, aims for this Transfiguration too, this back and forth of common worship and common work. To move our churches from our denominational silos, our safe tabernacles, to ministry in the world together. We are convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger that anything that divides us, and there’s plenty that still divides us.   And we are convinced that when Jesus prayed in John 17 that the Church might be one, so that the world might believe in the One who sent Christ- this was not a polite recommendation from Jesus, but a mandate. Our unity is essential to our ministry. How can we show the world a loving God who reconciles all things to God’s self when we cannot be reconciled to one another? This is our work at the Massachusetts Council of Churches, to see with transfigured eyes, to see the Church not in all its divisions but in glorious union of what could be. Maybe you’ve seen the Church on those good, transfigured days, when the dividing walls fall down, when you’re serving together, when you can receive at the same table. Those days when you stand on the side of the mountain with the radiant Christ above, and the broken world below.

We stand here, awkwardly perched in the in-between, in front of a religious experience we may not understand, our feet sliding on the gravel that rolls down the mountain. It good for us to be here. Not necessarily easy, but good. Like the disciples, It is hard to stay woke to the uncertainty. It is Good for us to be here in the uncertain. Christ is here.

Many other Christians today are reading this Transfiguration text on the last Sunday before Lent. In Lent, we wander between these two peaks- The Mount of the Transfiguration and Golgotha. The days in-between these two mountain top experiences are set aside to examine that which is within us and around us that keeps us from being transfigured.

I’m honored that you award me today with All Saints 2016 Spirituality & Justice Award. You know this in your bones, spirituality and justice go together, indivisible. You practice this in your parish, the deep commitment to see every child of God as fully human, as deserving of equal dignity, maybe even as radiant.

I believe this is our work for the Church in this era, when we are no longer propped up by cultural norms, when the protest songs chanted in the streets are not necessarily the hymns of our churches. I believe that our common Christian witness is not just for our own good, but for the sake of the world.

  • The more I pray, the more I long for our earth as it is in heaven.
  • The more I read Scripture, the more I want to shout against false prophets and anemic Christianity.
  • The more I come to the table, the more I notice the people who are missing.
  • The more I come to the table, the louder the rumble in my belly for all to be fed.
  • And the more I do this work for justice, the more I turn to God in awe and uncertainty.

350 years ago in France, an eighteen-year-old man sat in a drafty farmhouse, gazing out onto the desolation of the world in winter. Only barren trees were before him. But slowly, he began to see things on the naked branches. First leaves would appear, followed by flowers and fruit. In the depth of winter, God showed Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection all the abundance, all the power, all the radiance of God’s provision. Brother Lawrence spent the rest of his life in this practice of the presence of God, looking upon the barren branches and seeing God’s provision, looking upon the cross and seeing God’s glory.

“An intense religious experience, the nature of which is uncertain. “

May we see with eyes of the Transfiguration.

May we be transfigured, too.

Why I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church

200th Anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church

New England Annual Conference Bicentennial Service

Sunday February 7, 2016

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain MA

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

Note: This Response was given at a Bicentennial Service commemorating the 200th anniversary of the AME Church. Throughout this year, you can join celebrations, including the release of the Bishop Richard Allen USPS Stamp & celebrations in Philadelphia.  More info at: http://www.firstdistrictame.org/index.html 

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Giving Glory to God, and honor to:

I bring you blessings and greetings on behalf of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of individuals, congregations and denominations, including the New England Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us. Let me say that again: convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us.

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Rev. Laura Everett, Mass Council of Churches & Presiding Elder Herbert Eddy, New England Annual Conference, First Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church

 

You know well all those things that might divide us. The necessity of establishing the African Methodist Church is our uniquely American contribution to the history of Church division, one of the rare divisions in the Church when the body of Christ was divided not by doctrine but by racism. 200 years ago, the AME came into being in part because of the racism of white Christians who could not, who would not see the equal dignity of Black Christians. We did not did not divide because of doctrine but because of the sin of racism. I grieve our inherited legacy of division.

In many parts of the Christian church we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration today, a day when we remember Jesus climbing up the mountain to pray, being reunited with the ancestors Moses and Elijah, and basking in the splendor of the Spirit, radiant with the light of God.

 

For many parts of the Church, it wasn’t just Jesus’s clothes that became white, but Jesus himself became white. For centuries, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness.

When White Christians pulled Richard Allen & Absalom Jones off their knees in prayer, the Church confused radiance with whiteness.

When even after black Christians were relegated to the back pews, the choir loft, the balconies, when even that was too much and a white Boston church would rather remove every pew in the sanctuary than to have accidentally sold a pew to a black family, even here in the progressive, genteel city of Boston, the Church confuses radiance with whiteness.

When we save the hymns of the black church tradition for MLK Sunday and nowhere else in the year, the Church confuses radiance with whiteness.

And when, somewhere along the way, a young man who had been raised in a primarily white Protestant Church, gets it in his head to destroy black bodies, and brings a gun to a bible study, the Church has confused radiance with whiteness. And our nation confuses the second amendment with idolatry.

Even in that oppression, compression, depression and confusion, the African Methodist Episcopal Church has faithfully modeled the transforming love of God, lo these two hundred years.

For two hundred years, through every danger, toil, and snare, you have been faithful to Christ with a faith stronger than slavery, a faith stronger than a civil war, stronger than a national depression, a faith stronger than segregated schools, a faith stronger than the redlines that would divide us. In you, I see the Resurrection.

I want to tell you why I love the AME, and why the rest of the Church needs your particular witness to the way God continues to transfigure us. May I tell you why I love the AME?

I love the dignity of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every time I enter an AME Church to worship, I see the dignity of entering God’s courts with praise. I see the presumption of Kings and Queens, royalty in the household of God. I see bodies beautiful and adoring of the Lord of Lords.

I love the unabashed African-ness of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I honor your deep history that is more than just the theologians of books, but the unnamed women and men who shaped and sustained and passed on the faith.

I love your Methodist-ness, your Wesleyan fire stored up in your bones.

I love your Episcopacy, your defiant, true conviction that you are heirs of our apostolic faith.

I love your Church, your widest part of the body of Christ- not just an American church, but a global Church.

I love your core conviction that the Gospel of Christ is in fact Good news, and even in snowy New England it might be ok to show some joy.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s sense that the Gospel still liberates, still releases from bondage, still heals up the broken-hearted. I love your conviction that the Gospel heals not just in some metaphoric sense but heals and liberates flesh and blood, real bodies, real brokenness.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s unwillingness to divided worship from work, Sunday from Monday.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s ability to move with the Spirit, maybe even past where you are initially comfortable- the Spirit that moved you to ordain women, and then to consecrate women Bishops. I love that you are willing to let the Spirit move you still.

Finally, I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s conviction that the doors of the church are open, not just so that others might come in, but that we might go out. I love your conviction that if our churches aren’t changing neighborhoods for the good, then we are not fully embodying the transforming Gospel.

I love the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I am grateful for you. In the same breath, I grieve the racism by white Christians that prompted our division, and give God thanks for your faithfulness over 200 years. You have been signs of the Resurrection. May God continue to use the African Methodist Episcopal Church to transfigure the whole Body of Christ and transform the world.

 

 

Bodyshaming the Black Body of Christ

Christ Lutheran Church, Natick

Sunday January 24, 2016

Body-Shaming the Black Body of Christ: A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a

IMG_1704This is a sermon for you if you’ve stood in front of a department store mirror near tears because, too fat or too skinny, clothes don’t fit your body.

This is a sermon for you if you’ve ordered clothing online or from a catalogue so as to avoid standing in front of that department store mirror.

This is a sermon for you if you’ve ever been followed around a department store because of the color of your body.

This is a sermon for you if you never bought clothes in a department store, instead wrapping hand-me-downs and thrift store finds around your poor body.

This is a sermon for you, if you’ve ever been called too fat, too skinny, to short, too tall, too dark,

If you have known the shame of feeling that your body is not welcomed, not beautiful, not safe.

This is a sermon for you if you have a body.

This is a sermon for us, since we are Christ’s body.

Let us pray…

The Church is One. Always and forever. Nonnegotiable and indivisible. Others can’t cut you out, and you can’t amputate away other Christians you find repugnant.

And yet, the Church is Divided. Denominations and divisions, sects and schisms and splinters and movements and allegiances. We are here at Christ Lutheran, and not at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, St. Mark’s Coptic Church, Eliot Congregational Church, Fisk Memorial United Methodist Church or Natick Church of Christ.

The Church is One and Divided, both true at the same time.

In our Scripture reading, St. Paul is counseling the Church in Corinth experiencing this unity and division. Don’t let anyone ever romanticize the early Church for you as gloriously simple and unified. It wasn’t. The early Church in Corinth was complicated. Corinth had a muddled past- it was the place where Rome sent the surplus, undervalued population- think the Britain sending convicts to Australia. But then, Corinth became trade hub for the Empire, and some people got rich, really rich.

In this urban outpost, a small Christian community is emerging, but there are lines of division. Where are two or three are gathered, Christ is in the midst, sure. But when two or three are gathered, divisions emerge.

In Chapter 11, Paul calls out the divisions. It turns out that when it is time to gather in these small house churches, some are eating while some are going hungry. Paul lays into the Corinthians, accusing them of showing contempt for the Church of God, and humiliating those who have nothing (1 Cor 11:22).

What those Corinthian Christians were doing wasn’t wrong by the cultural standards around them. The wealthier ate first, and the poorer served. They weren’t necessarily individually bad people, just following the cultural norms of the system around them.

But Paul says, No, the Christian community must behave differently than the wider culture, and this difference must be public. This ethic around unity is not just for the good of the Church, but for the integrity of their witness.

Into this division in the Church, Paul introduces the metaphor of the body. Here, among these divided people, a minority community amid a dominant majority culture, Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor 12:12)

Bodies are complicated. They are visible and vulnerable. They ache and thrive, move and slip, fail and repair. Bodies are thick metaphors to explain the Church, or a nation, or a body politic. In Paul’s time, other communities were using the metaphor of the body. The metaphor wasn’t new, but his significance was. When the Emperor used the metaphor, he is the head and everything else was subordinate. But Paul flips the metaphor to say, that each part of the body is integrally important. Paul says, “The head cannot say to the feet, I have no need for you. On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22).

I’ve never thought much about my little toe. But I know a woman, always impeccably dressed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in blue jeans or a hair out of place. She had the best shoes, too. Shiny and delicate, shoes that you didn’t think could even allow for movement, works of art, really. And then, through a curious series of events, she needed to have her left pinkie toe removed. Just that tiny little toe on the left, less than two inches of a part of the body that barely did anything but serve as a canvas for the tiniest spec of red nail polish. But when that toe was removed, she could barely stand upright. Her entire balance was off. Walking was something to be taught, relearned really. The beautiful shoes were gone, traded for practical footwear and daily trips to the physical therapist, an embodied lesson in the importance of a seemingly insignificant part of the body.

You know this: You know the 3 am knock on your door from a child with an ear ache, that ends up keeping the whole house awake. You know the cramping that sneak attacks every month, landing you flat on your back, clinging to a hot water bottle for just an ounce of relief. You know the migraine headache that makes your whole body pulse in agony. You know the unseen anxiety that paralyzes every decision, that ties your stomach into knots, that sends your heart racings in ways you cannot control. You know the tiny tick bite that seems to grind every movement of every joint. You know the devastating possibility of shingles infecting everyone on the floor of your nursing home. We know the pain of one part of the body that wounds the whole.

Right now, there are parts of the body of Christ that are suffering. I think St. Paul is asking us: do we have the ears to hear?

The hard truth is that the American mainline Church has not fully or adequately acknowledged the depth and breadth of suffering of black Christians in the body of Christ. We sing a few gospel hymns, we celebrate MLK Day, and we go back to the institutional racism in our denominations where white congregations have the majority of the financial resources, the majority of the full time pastors, and the majority of the buildings they owned themselves.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an entire denomination that had to be established because white Protestants wouldn’t ordain black Protestant clergy. Two hundred years later and we are still unable to reconcile the divisions in our churches wrought by the pernicious belief that black bodies are less valued, less beautiful, less dignified, less holy.

There are parts of the body that are suffering, not just the big shootings and the structural racism, but the small indignities, the thousand little paper cuts that carve away, millimeter by millimeter, at the body of Christ. The paper cut of having your name constantly mispronounced because it’s not Anglo enough; the paper cut of having the music of your culture be reserved for “World Communion” Sunday, but not any regular day; the paper cut of again and again being asked “when your family converted” because you’re both black and Lutheran and no one seems to have the imagination that you could have always been both.

In recent years, activist have claimed the term “body shaming” to talk about how some bodies are pressured into standards of acceptability and beauty that contort and distort. We internalize unreachable standards. We have a whole vocabulary developed just to body shame: Muffin tops, and beer guts, and back fat. We have created whole industries to capitalize on our body shame! If your thighs are too big for that slinky dress, you can by Spanx to suck them in. If your hair is too kinky, we have lye relaxers to burn curly hair straight. If your skin is too dark, it can be bleached. If your eyelids are too “Asian,” so-called “corrective” surgeries abound. While our God proclaims that each of us is wonderfully made, we have body-shamed one another into changing our God-given bodies.

IMG_1194But some bodies, some bodies are shamed and vulnerable in unique and particular ways. There are bodies whose very existence is an existential problem in a country build on enslaved labor. In a letter to his son, Ta-nehisi Coates writes, “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyer will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detaining, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible”(Between the World and Me, 9).

There are parts of the Body that are wailing in suffering, bleeding in the streets, bruised in the schools, crying in the opinion columns and on the Internet. I wonder how we hear this suffering. I wonder how we make true St. Paul’s words “If one part suffers, all suffer with it”(1 Cor 12:26). Because right now, I don’t suffer. I can keep going along my merry way and plug up my ears.

I come from a family with a parent who was loath to go to the doctor. My Dad would stoically suffer through rather than acknowledge that part of him was hurting. We have to learn to notice the pain in order to attend to it.

Why does this matter? Why can’t we just live without our baby toe on the left foot? I think, part of the reason why Paul comes down so hard on the Church in Corinth is that he knows that they long for something deeper. They aspire for that heavenly banquet where there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor master, where the mighty have been brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. The table is the place where all that possibility exists, where we might get a foretaste of that day.

The challenge of unity in the body of Christ is not to shame any part, but to recognize the integrity. God is not asking us to be anything other than what we are- not asking you to be an elbow if you are a kneecap, not asking you to be AME if you are Lutheran, not asking you to be black if you happened to be born white. But we are being asked to hear the cries of pain and see the system that breaks certain bodies. Maybe too we are being invited to notice our own longing for unity.

Coates continues, “There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing- race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy- serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” (10)

“You must never look away from this.” This is the challenge: to not ignore the reality of black bodies suffering just because my part doesn’t suffer in that way; to not ignore the toe writhing in pain just because I am a finger.

If we, especially we in the white parts of the Church, cannot learn to hear the suffering of the black body, we cannot follow Christ. I have no answer, no magic formula, just the confession that I am trying to learn to listen too. I’m messing up, failing, misspeaking, saying things I shouldn’t, keeping silent when I should have spoken, stumbling, and trying to hear too. From wherever you sit, and wherever you’ve been, I am certain you have an experience of being left out, of being looked over, of being excluded, or in pain. I think we take that as a starting point to hear the pain of others. For we Christians who are also white, I think this is process of un-learning some things we accepted as true and, re-learning to listen to the pain of parts of the body. This is what it will take to re-member us.

Bodies are remarkably resilient. Tissue repairs, though not without scars. New cells can be generated, though not without time. Not every wound can be healed, not everything cut off can be re-attached. Not impossible, but also not optional to re-member the body of Christ.

In the depth of my soul, I believe there’s enough sympathy to go around. We service a limitless God who invites us to care for not just our own pain, to see and reject our own body-shaming, but also the pain of the whole body. Truly hearing the pain of the black Body of Christ does not diminish my own particular part of this body.

Paul’s own word choice bear this out. You can pretend like your Baptists and look in your Bibles at 1 Corinthians 12: 26. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Paul takes regular verbs and adds the pre-fix “syn” which means “with” or “together” as in symbiosis or symphony. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. The verb is συμπάσχει / sympaschei, to suffer with: sym & pathos. If one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. The verb is συνχαίρει/ synchairei : to celebrate with, to rejoice with. Our unity is not accidental or incidental, but God’s intention and design from a Savior who suffered with a human body so that we might also share in Christ’s joy. This is possibility held out, held out at the communion table where everybody, every body is welcomed, that we might share in our suffering so that we might share completely in one another’s joy.

 

 

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.