Doom and Bloom


Ecological loss is a tragedy of mind-blowing scale, and it is unfolding now.  Like the prodigal son in the mud with the pigs, some of us are starting to wake up. Is anyone here a Greta Thunberg fan? Before she started Fridays for Future, the climate protests that have spread all over the world, Greta had debilitating depression for a full year over the state of the planet.  A lot of young people, and long-time environmental activists, also have debilitating depression and despair.  How many of you know young people who have decided not to bring children into a world that will be increasingly chaotic and possibly uninhabitable?  Here’s the thing.  We can’t tell them those young people they’re overreacting. You may believe they’re wrong. I hope they’re wrong, but it’s quite possible they’ll be right.
****
Whatever the extent of the loss we face, remember that it is never too late to be faithful to what is sacred; to show respect and care for the earth, and the vulnerable people on it.  One activist said this:  

Once I dropped from my shoulders the self-imposed burden of having to “save the world”, I could breathe a sigh of relief and ask myself, “What can I still do?” (3)

******

Irvine United Congregational Church
February 2, 2020
Doom and Bloom

The Prodigal Species    A Reading Based on Luke 15:11-21
 (Adapted from a script by Chris Sunderland, inA Heart for Creation by Chris Polhill.)
All: There was a man who had two sons. 
Reader:There was a God who, over millions and billions of years, danced a great creation into being, with a whole host of species upon an earth.  And there came a time when one of those species came to understand themselves to be special in the eyes of God. 
All: And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance that is due to me.’  And he divided his living between them. 
Reader:And the humans said to God, ’Give us our inheritance,’ and they plundered the earth with mines and drills and rigs, sucking out the black treasure, consuming it in their machines and spewing the waste gas into the sky. 
All: Not many days later the younger son gathered all that he had and went on a journey to a far country, and there he squandered his inheritance in loose living. 
Reader:A great economic system arose, fuelled by ingenuity and greed, based on limitless consumption, and relying on the black treasure.  The people travelled everywhere and nowhere.  Forests were destroyed.  It was party time.  The air was filled with laughter...  But the clouds were gathering. 
All: And when it had all gone, a great famine arose in the land and he began to be in want.  So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed the pigs.  And he would gladly have eaten from the pigs’ trough, but no one gave him anything. 
Reader:It was the climate, you see.  They hadn’t thought of that.  And once they had, it was too late.  The animals and plants began just to disappear.  Epic storms devoured cities. Nearby, drought drove people to desperation.  Fires choked them for weeks, while oceans turned rank with death.  Anxious people ... Angry people ... Violent people.  The rich built castles.  The poor made battering rams. 
All: And then he realized; he said, ‘Why even my father’s hired servants have bread enough to spare but I perish here with hunger.  I will arise and go to my father and say, “Father I have done wrong against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 
Reader:And a few began to dream of a home: they dreamt of living at peace with God and respecting creation, and they set out to make that vision real. 
All: And he arose and set out for his father. And when he was far off his father saw him and had compassion and ran and embraced him. 
Reader:And I will leave you to fill in the rest of the story. 

I love pelicans. My earliest childhood memories include these characters flying in formation at the shoreline in Santa Cruz, and dive-bombing for their dinner.  By the time I was a teen in the 1970’s, pelicans had almost vanished from our country’s shores due to DDT.   The federal government banned DDT in 1972.  By the time I returned to the California coast in 1995, pelicans had made a comeback.  For me, the pelican is a symbol of hope and healing.  

Your Green Faith Team at IUCC feels some urgency to guide us in caring for the earth.  Being a church, we also want to offer a spiritual frame, sacred stories to guide our thinking and our action.  One such story is “The Prodigal Species.”

Ecological loss is a tragedy of mind-blowing scale, and it is unfolding now.  Like the prodigal son in the mud with the pigs, some of us are starting to wake up. Is anyone here a Greta Thunberg fan? Before she started Fridays for Future, the climate protests that have spread all over the world, Greta had debilitating depression for a full year over the state of the planet.  A lot of young people, and long-time environmental activists, also have debilitating depression and despair.  How many of you know young people who have decided not to bring children into a world that will be increasingly chaotic and possibly uninhabitable?  Here’s the thing.  We can’t tell them those young people they’re overreacting. You may believe they’re wrong. I hope they’re wrong, but it’s quite possible they’ll be right. 

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now at an annual average of 411 parts per million, and rising as fast as ever. (1) Does anybody remember that we were supposed to keep CO2 under 350, or dire things would happen?  We can’t undo this, folks.  Carbon capture at scale is just a theory. 

Welcome to the Anthropocene. (2) Millions of years from now, evidence of earth’s sixth great extinction that is unfolding around us today will be compressed into a little layer of radioactive debris.  In the meantime, we mourn what is already lost, as we struggle to find the personal and political leverage to limit further loss.  Limiting this loss feels like trying to stop a runaway semi truck with the soles of our sneakers.

We are going in the wrong direction and we don’t know how to stop.  Christians have a name for this problem: we call it sin.  Empire tricked us into believing that sin was a personal problem, and that our virtuous behavior could solve it.  We bought the fast food with the plastic packaging.  We didn’t eat a plant-based diet.  But ecological devastation is more than personal.  It is systemic.  Our economic system is a pyramid scheme that depends on unsustainable growth.  So far, fossil fuel use runs in lock step with economic growth.  We are addicted to fossil fuel.  Our pushers, the companies that sell it, have bought our national political system.  As our myth of infinite growth begins to crumble and fail us, some people are getting scared and angry, even though they don’t understand why.  They are voting for crooks and bullies they think will save them, and they are targeting scapegoats: people of color, immigrants.  Last week we reached a new low in the Senate.  No single law, like that DDT ban, can save us.  Environment, good government, human rights: they are all interconnected.  Understanding the structural nature of self-destructive behavior, we realize the limits of our power, and the depths of our loss.  

The proper response to this loss is not a quick fix or a glib theology.  The proper response to loss is to mourn.  How do we mourn a loss as big as a planet?  Just like any other.  Grief does not have a scale.  Grief just is.  

“Stop, Terry.  You’re being too negative.”  You’re right: what I’m telling you is unacceptable.  Our culture doesn’t know how to grieve. We don’t make space for mourning.  But mourning helps us face hard realities.  If we do not mourn, we will live in either denial or bitterness.  

When you get hurt and you let your hurt harden, that’s bitterness. You define yourself by your loss and then assign blame for it.  Blame pointed inward becomes depression or despair.  Blame pointed outward becomes tribalism and scapegoating.  Bitterness and blame run much of our politics these days, have you noticed?  They serve no one.  Transforming our bitterness into tears of grief is sacred work.

Denial is handy.  Denial is disconnecting, tuning out.  Don’t underestimate the power of denial.  People can deny their own mortality until they’re dead.  Humans might deny ourselves right into extinction. There’s enough fossil fuel left, if you include coal, to heat the planet until only bacteria can survive.  But denial is also a protective human response to overwhelm.  So take a break to go into denial, but please don’t stay there.

Mourning is hard work, heart work. It is acknowledging that we have lost what we darly love.  And mourning hurts.  But the tears cleanse.  They wash away fear and guilt and shame.  Mourning is a sacred practice that connects us to our own hearts, to our common humanity and to the sacred.  Mourning is remembering what we value, even if we’re losing it.  

In the mud with the pigs, the prodigal son mourned.  His mourning released him from his self-destructive path.  On returning home, the son no longer acted entitled. He was deeply humbled, ready to take responsibility, to serve– really serve– the household that had given him life and love.

What does returning home look like for a prodigal species, or at least for us at IUCC? Maybe it looks like a respectful relationship with the web of life that sustains us. If you have a traditional Christian theology, you can say it this way: God has made us stewards of life on earth, to guard and nurture it for its own sake, and in sacred trust for future generations.  If you have a Process theology, you can say it this way:  The sacred, what we name God, is found in and through the entire world, connecting every living being.  Therefore we love and honor God by respecting and caring for our home, and all life on it. In either theology the bottom line is the same.  The whole earth is sacred.  Show respect and care.  Say it with me.  The whole earth is sacred.  Show respect and care.

Whatever the extent of the loss we face, remember that it is never too late to be faithful to what is sacred; to show respect and care for the earth, and the vulnerable people on it.  One activist said this:  
Once I dropped from my shoulders the self-imposed burden of having to “save the world”, I could breathe a sigh of relief and ask myself, “What can I still do?” (3)

Don’t wait until climate disaster comes to you personally.  Plant seeds now.  Build relationships with your immediate neighbors now, so that you can trust and care for each other when hard times come. Throw a block party.  Borrow a ladder or a lemon, it’s as simple as that.  House homeless people and refugees now, so that from your own broken heart you can advocate with authority for climate refugees in the future. Build local political networks now, so we have leverage to do whatever can be done politically.  And I invite you to plant a real gardennow. I’m told regenerative agriculture is our last best home for the planet.  More to the point, you too can experience the humility that comes from not knowing how to grow stuff, and develop a new appreciation for our ancestors, whose lives depended on knowing how to grow stuff sustainably.  Hopefully you will also experience the joy that comes from watching new life unfold before you.

So please humor your Green Faith Team by planting the sweet peas Chuck and Linda grew for you. If you don’t have a yard, there are plenty of irrigated common areas in Orange County that can use a little guerilla gardening.  Your sweet peas may die; that’s how gardening goes.  But a few of them may thrive, and even reseed, again and again, for twenty years, like the sweet peas I planted in my backyard when my son was in preschool, bringing joy in the form of countless fragrant blooms each spring. 

May the seeds of care and connection you sow bloom, and be a blessing to all.  Amen.

(2) The term Anthropocene was coined to describe our current epoch where humans have reshaped the world.  http://www.anthropocene.info.
(3) Deb Ozarko

Awaken us, O God, to our interconnection with the sacred web of life that sustains us. 
     We give thanks for this awesome blessing.  We pledge to treasure and guard it. 
Bless our tears, O God, as we mourn the devastation of the earth our home.
     Turn those tears into courageous resolve to cherish your creation.
God of compassion, make us generous in caring for all our neighbors.
    Especially those made ill or displaced by climate-induce disasters.
God of transformation, Guide us into new ways of thinking and living that respect our home. 
     And keep us faithful and loving, generous and merciful, even in the eye of the storm. 
     Amen.

Come and See


Come and see.  Sometimes we just need to see people walking the talk of love and justice, of community and care, to give us the courage, and the means, to do it ourselves. We can be the ones who say, “Come and see.”  You have great music, sure, but show me: how is the Gospel made real here?  It may not be dramatic, but please let it be authentic. So that others can come and see ways of following Jesus, and then join you in learning and loving and serving.  Here is a poem by my friend Laura Martin of Rock Spring United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia to remind us what to look for.  

Wild angels are my 
Favorite kind.
They have no idea where 
They left their haloes,
And they let their robes

Run through fresh mud.
They don’t stand in formation

And sing with a choir.
Instead they show up and

Change tires

On highways,

Sit down and have a beer

And listen,

Trespass in the park

To sit on the swings

Late at night.

They come to hospital rooms

To tell bad jokes,

To airports to carry

Heavy bags,

To food pantries

When it’s the end of the month

And the money has run out.

They believe in 

Revelation unfolding,

In the sacred scripture

We write between 

Each other. 


****
January 19, 2020
Community Church Congregational UCC, Corona del Mar

Come and See

Available on video: https://youtu.be/VTVN51JQkUc

John 1:18-23, 35-43.  No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 
            This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”  He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”  And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.”  Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”  He said,  
            “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 
            ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”  
as the prophet Isaiah said. 

            The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,  and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.  When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”  He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.  One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.  He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).  He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). 
            The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”

Today we read John’s story of Jesus beginning his ministry by gathering his disciples.  I treasure these stories because Iam a disciple.  Jesus gathered me and at some point I signed on:  I agreed to follow him.  I’m pretty sure some of you are also disciples.  You don’t need ordination or fancy clothes to be a follower of Jesus.  You don’t even need to believe a Trinitarian formula or a creed to be a follower of Jesus.  It helps to show up on a regular basis for your relationship with Jesus—you could call that prayer.  Worship, bible study, meditation, self-examination, a church community, these also help us figure out on an ongoing basis what following Jesus looks like in our lives. What does following Jesus look like in your life?  I’d love to hear.  And there are times when we’re just not sure.

John the Baptist had it figured out. He was “The voice crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”  He had attention getting clothes and a dramatic ritual.  John knew who Jesus was the minute he saw him, he knew who he was in relation to Jesus, and he knew how to draw people to Jesus.  John is probably the exception to the rule.  Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand who he was.  They often weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing either, or else they got corrected by Jesus when they thought they did know.  So we can take comfort that they are in the same boat many of us are in.  These disciples weren’t stupid– what Jesus invites us to is mind-bending.  In John’s gospel it gets expressed like this:  No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” And he talks of light and darkness, and being in the Father and the Father in him, and he in us… and other beautiful, but abstract, metaphysical metaphors that don’t make clear the practical implementation.

We could just refer back to the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, except they are mind bending in their own way.  So Jesus sets theory aside and gets down to basics.  Several times as he’s meeting potential recruits, they are invited to “come and see.” Come and see.  Jesus will show us what we need to know.  We don’t have to have it all figured out.  We’ll learn.  Maybe we’ll unlearn a few things.  And then we’ll have the understanding, and the courage, to follow him in the next leg of our journey. 

Come and see.  Experience.  Learn. Our invitation from God is not always a call to action or a moral imperative, but sometimes an adventures, an exploration.  And on the journey, we may learn and grow into the disciples God needs to serve in a particular way. 

Come and see.  This could be a call simply to pay attention to the details of our lives. We have our priorities, but what has God placed in our path that we’re ignoring?  What is in front of our noses that might need our attention?  Buddhists call this practicing mindfulness.  Christians can do it too.  Writing a daily gratitude list is another way to see what is right in front of us.  Does anyone here do that?  

In addition to a gratitude list, I like to take walks in my native garden.  It has to be a very slow walk because it’s a very small garden.  But each day, especially in this season new details emerge. Lately: mushrooms!  New sprouts after the rains.  Moss is growing on the slope.  The tiny heart pendants of Manzanita flowers.  The scent of sage. The succulents are plump now and need splitting. Ripe lemons. Weeds aplenty, but some of them might be native flowers.  Right now, I can’t see the difference. Maybe in a week, I’ll be able to come and see which are weeds and which are not.

There is a barrier to seeing.  We think we already know what we’ll see.  We’ve seen it all before.  It takes humility, and effort, to really see what’s there, instead of what was assume is there.  Sometimes seeing even requires a transformation.  A “new pair of glasses” is how a classic old-timer in Alcoholics Anonymous described it.  Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, an alcoholic can discover a new way of being that respects self and others.  How I wish that a loved one would come and see the healing that AA has to offer. She is never quite able to see that she can’t control her drinking, that a little “liquid comfort” always ramps up to a near fatal dose.  We all have our blind spots, but hers is killing her.  Still I pray for a miracle: that she will be willing to come and see in a new way.  

Come and see.  Bear witness to someone else’s life. On this Martin Luther King weekend, we might pause to consider how the world is experienced by people of color, and what it’s like to be assumed guilty until proven innocent, if you live that long.  Lest you think that doesn’t happen around here, it happened to a twenty year old in my own neighborhood, UCI faculty housing.  UCI police would not believe him when he said he was in his own home, would not let him show ID, and demanded he come outside with his hands up. When he did, five loaded guns were pointed at him.  Need I say he was black?  Come and see that we are far from the justice that God has invited us to create right here in Orange County.

No matter our brokenness, no matter our confusion, God will meet us where we are. When I was here as an intern, around the turn of the century, I had a pretty clear call to serve as a pastor.  Lately my call has gotten a little fuzzy.  It tends to do that between churches, but it really feels like something’s shifting this time.  I’m not sure what.  I’ll tell you when I figure it out.  In the meantime, what do I do?  Come and see.  I’ve been exploring practical ways to learn about the justice we say God cares about. 

Immigrants in detention.  In December I drove up to the Adelanto detention center in the high desert, to pick up a man who was released on bail, and deliver him to his family in Costa Mesa.  He had spent about a year in detention.  Detention is a nice word for jail for people who haven’t committed a crime.  Immigration is a not crime, so you also are not entitled to any legal representation.  Without legal representation, he was not even able to have a bail hearing for almost a year. This young man immigrated with his mom from Mexico when he was seven years old.  He lived in Costa Mesa and went through the Newport Mesa school system. His teenage sister was suicidal over his imprisonment.  He’s twenty-one years old.  And all I could think of is, that could have been my son.  Sometimes seeing breaks your heart.  And that’s OK.  How many times do we read in the gospels evidence of Jesus’ heart breaking?  

Come and see.  Another thing I wanted to learn about was climate change.  I’ve been doing my homework.  For the longest time all I could figure out to do was read and cry, read and cry. It really felt rather ridiculous.  But I couldn’t look away; I had to bear witness.  Finally after over a year of tears, I have found my climate ministry.  I discovered that when I had the courage to share my fears and tears, other people started opening up, breaking the taboo, and sharing their fear and grief.  So I am hosting my first “grief, gratitude and courage climate circle” next month.  

Come and see.  That might require patience.  I like to have structure, to do list, and a plan. I’m not comfortable just sitting with not knowing.  Waiting to see who calls, what comes together, what surprises God has in store for me.  Come and see.  It might also require courage, to try something new.  To cold call somebody who I think has something to teach me, and invite them to coffee.  Or to sign me and the hubby up for a rustic dance weekend on Catalina.  (That one worked out, and now we have two more weekends planned.)

People new to the walk with Jesus may need to come and see the life-giving basics of our faith:  that God is not far away, but as close as our own hearts.  That God does not dictate, control, punish, but God invites, teaches, befriends, loves, and forgives.  That God’s love is the strongest force in the universe, stronger than death, and that following Jesus means receiving that love and passing it on, not only to those in our circle, but to people we might otherwise ignore or dismiss.  But how is someone going to see God in action?  John says: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.  And Jesus is not here in the flesh anymore, so it might have to be us, through whom people can see the presence and power and love of God. We are not capable of this alone, but we are not alone.  

Come and see.  Sometimes we just need to see people walking the talk of love and justice, of community and care, to give us the courage, and the means, to do it ourselves. We can be the ones who say, “Come and see.”  You have great music, sure, but show me: how is the Gospel made real here?  It may not be dramatic, but please let it be authentic. So that others can come and see ways of following Jesus, and then join you in learning and loving and serving.  Here is a poem by my friend Laura Martin of Rock Spring United Church of Christ in Arlington, Virginia to remind us what to look for.  

Wild angels are my 
Favorite kind.
They have no idea where 
They left their haloes,
And they let their robes

Run through fresh mud.
They don’t stand in formation

And sing with a choir.
Instead they show up and

Change tires

On highways,

Sit down and have a beer

And listen,

Trespass in the park

To sit on the swings

Late at night.

They come to hospital rooms

To tell bad jokes,

To airports to carry

Heavy bags,

To food pantries

When it’s the end of the month

And the money has run out.

They believe in 

Revelation unfolding,

In the sacred scripture

We write between 

Each other. 

Come and see the love and justice of God. Come and be the love and justice of God. Amen. 

It's All Sacred


A conscious awareness of the sacred in and through all of us can be the fuel that keeps us going when things are unraveling faster than we can repair them, and to show up not with bitterness or fear or despair, but with reverence and care.  As a rabbi said, “You are not required to complete the work. Neither are you free to desist from it.” 

There has long been a misunderstanding that mysticism, a conscious awareness of the sacred, is otherworldly and impractical.  Clearly this is not my experience.  And our social justice marching orders in Matthew 25 are entirely mystical.  Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  The risen Christ is among us, in the guise of the suffering stranger.

****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 18, 2019

It’s All Sacred (A Last Sermon)

Psa. 139:1-18  O LORD, you have searched me and known me. 
2  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
3  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 
4   Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. 
5   You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 
6  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 
8  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 
9  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 
10  even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. 
11  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” 
12  even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, 
            for darkness is as light to you.

13  For it was you who formed my inward parts; 
            you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 
14  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 
            Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. 
15  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, 
            intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 
16  Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. 
            In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, 
            when none of them as yet existed. 
17  How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 
18      I try to count them—they are more than the sand; 
            I come to the end—I am still with you.

Over five hundred years ago, Rabbi Isaac Luria gave our creation story in Genesis 1 a little twist.  He told it like this.  In the beginning was the Infinite, the Holy One, the all and the only.  The Infinite wanted to make a world, but there was no room, because the Infinite was infinite.  So the Infinite contracted, and made an empty space, room for a world. Next, the Infinite created finite vessels and filled each of them full of a portion of the divine light.  The Infinite scattered those vessels into the empty space, to make a world.  But then something happened, that looks to us like a terrible accident.  The vessels shattered, and the countless broken shards of sacred light, the very essence of God, were scattered all over the brand new world, hidden from sight in ordinary things.  Humanity was created, say the Rabbis, to recognize, and lift up, and gather those sacred shards, and so, in some small way, to repair the world.  

Where are those sacred shards?  Inside every event and everyone and everything.  It’s all sacred, we just can’t see that.  And how do we gather the shards together, how do we repair the world? By remembering the sacredness of it.  By honoring the sacred Presence in and through everything, whether we perceive it or not.  By learning and discovery, the better to appreciate this amazing world.  By honoring the good earth, whose bounty gives us life.  By honoring each person we meet, whether or not we think they deserve it, because each person carries a spark of the divine.  Even a very simple act of consideration repairs the world.  As Jesus liked to say, “I was thirsty, and you gave me a glass of water.”  We can repair the world by seeking to build a more just government, because that honors more people than we can ever touch as individuals.  But we also repair the world by our simple care and appreciation of the world and every thing and person in it. 

Brea Congregational, you have chosen a new minister by a fair and wise and democratic process.  You attended to the sacred.  You are now equipped and ready to begin a new chapter of your ministry, and I am thrilled for you.  I’ve got this one last sermon, a sort of last lecture, to give you some words that might help you on your way.  My words are simply this:  It’s all sacred.  I want you to remember and trust and rely on that truth.  Everything is sacred, and it’s just waiting for you to notice, to enjoy, or possibly to grieve, to connect, and to trust that you are sacred, and you have a sacred purpose.  Simply by noticing and responding to what is sacred around you, you help repair the world.

But how can we see the sacred?  Our senses don’t perceive it.  Instead, we have sacred story and sacred imagination.  We have religion.  Yet most of us have had some time and place when it seems like the ordinary world peeled back, and the light of the Infinite was revealed.  Maybe a dream.  A life event. A near death experience—you’d be surprised how many people have those.  A moment of enlightenment, of wonder.  Maybe an experience in nature, or with someone you love.  Can you remember such a time, an experience when something within you said, “This is sacred”?  

When I was twenty-nine years old, I was a scientist looking for God.  Late one night at a Catholic retreat center, I was wandering the hallways alone after arguing with the abbot, and God found me.  Jesus found me, in the most stereotypical born-again experience, but it was right for me.  It was all in my head of course.  But after that encounter, everything shifted. I knew.  The sacred is everywhere.  All is connected, and we are never alone.  The words of Psalm 139 came alive for me.  Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  What I had read about, I now trusted in my bones.  

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.  But what if you’ve never had a vivid experience of the sacred?  You don’t have to.  You can trust and savor sacred stories and sacred principles, sacred rituals. 

What if you don’t want to have a sacred experience?  Many of us in the UCC are children of the Enlightenment, of science and reason and progress.  These kinds of sacred encounters don’t have a place in Enlightenment thinking.  They got filed under “superstition– delusional.” But internal experiences that lead us to gratitude and reverence and courage and a sense of purpose are just as real as any physical event that can be recorded on your iPhone. Science?  I love it, but it stops at the physical: science alone cannot provide meaning and value.  Reason is nice in theory, but it’s in short supply these days.  And reason never was what motivated people.  Progress?  We seem to be going backwards as a country.  So instead of downplaying our experiences of the sacred, let’s rely on them, so we have the spiritual strength we need to face hard times.  

If you’ve been trying to repair the world lately, you may have noticed that it seems to be unraveling faster than we can keep up.  So much meanness, so much suffering.  So it is more important than ever to remember this planet is sacred, as is each person on it, no matter how dire their condition, or no matter how ugly their behavior.   

A conscious awareness of the sacred in and through all of us can be the fuel that keeps us going when things are unraveling faster than we can repair them, and to show up not with bitterness or fear or despair, but with reverence and care.  As another rabbi said, “You are not required to complete the work. Neither are you free to desist from it.” 

There has long been a misunderstanding that mysticism, a conscious awareness of the sacred, is otherworldly and impractical.  Clearly this is not my experience.  And our social justice marching orders in Matthew 25 are entirely mystical.  Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  The risen Christ is among us, in the guise of the suffering stranger.

Here is another story of the sacred among us: “The Rabbi’s Gift.”[1]  M. Scott Peck told this story; this is an older version.  A famous monastery had fallen on hard times.  Formerly its many buildings were filled with young monks, but now it was all but deserted.  People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer.  Only a handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters, serving God with heavy hearts.  On the edge of the monastery woods, an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He would come there from time to time, to fast and pray.  No one ever spoke with him, but whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk: “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  And, for as long as he was there, the monks would feel sustained by his prayerful presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heavy heart to him.  So, after the morning Eucharist, the abbot set out through the woods.  As he approached the hut, he saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, as if he had been awaiting the abbot's arrival, his arms outstretched in welcome.  They embraced like long-lost brothers.  The two entered the hut.  In the middle of the room stood a wooden table with the scriptures open on it.  They sat for a moment in the presence of the Book.

Then the rabbi began to weep.  The abbot could not contain himself.  He covered his face with his hands and he began to cry too.  For the first time in his life, the abbot cried his heart out.  The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their shared pain and tears.  But before long the tears ceased and all was quiet.  The rabbi lifted his head. “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said.  “You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you a teaching, but you can repeat it only once.  After that, no one must ever say it aloud again.”

The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”  For a while, all was silent.  Then the rabbi said, “Now you must go.”

The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.  The next morning, he called his monks together in the chapter room.  He told them he had received a teaching from the “rabbi who walks in the woods” and that the teaching was never again to be spoken aloud.  Then he looked at the group of assembled brothers and said, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.”  The monks were startled by this saying.

“What could it mean?” they asked themselves.  “Is Brother John the Messiah? Or Brother Matthew or Brother Thomas?  Am I the Messiah? What could all this mean?”  They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching, but no one ever mentioned it again.  As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a new and very special reverence.  A gentle, warm-hearted concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice.  They began to live with each other as people who had finally found the special something they were looking for, yet they prayed the Scriptures together as people who were always still looking.

When visitors came to the monastery they found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.  Word spread, and before long people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and to experience the loving reverence in which they held each other.  Soon, young men were asking, once again, to become a part of the community, and the community grew and prospered.  In those days, the rabbi no longer walked in the woods.  His hut had fallen into ruins.  Yet somehow, the old monks who had taken his teaching to heart still felt sustained by his wise and prayerful presence.

 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  Jesus was not talking about a prosperity gospel, a heavenly ATM, but rather the presence of God.  Our gospels are full of clues, telling us it’s all sacred.
            The Kingdom of God is among you.  
            Let your light shine.  
            This is my body, given for you.
            The Spirit blows where it will.  
            I am the vine, and you are the branches.
            I am with you always, to the end of the age.
            … and many more.
Choose the words and stories that work for you, but remember this: it’s all sacred.  We’re all sacred.  That assurance will give you the power you need to live and love well, and to do your small part to repair the world.  Amen.


[1]From Scott Powell [I changed a few words.]: This story has become popular and many of you know Scott M. Peck’s version as recounted in his book The Different Drummer. However, the earliest version I have been able to trace was penned by Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Alberquerque, New Mexico, and was published in New Catholic World 222 (March-April l979), 53. The Rabbi’s Gift has by now appeared in many books, been adapted and gets told in numerous ways. Here is the version that to my knowledge goes back to Francis Dorff.  

Enough

James Fifield, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and others, succeeded so well at making capitalism a Christian virtue that we have trouble imagining that the barn builder in our story is doing anything wrong.  In Jesus’ day people thought differently.  They saw wealth as a fixed quantity.  If you had more than your share, you were depriving someone else.  Everyone understood that the Roman occupiers were robbing the Jews; that’s how the game was played.  We can be assured the rich farmer in the story was a Roman citizen; nobody else could throw around that kind of capital.  

At the risk of getting very counter-cultural, capitalism isn’t in the bible anywhere I can find.  The traditional Jewish and Christian teaching about wealth is that all we have is God’s, on loan to us to use wisely and ethically, to serve God. 

****
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 4, 2019

Enough

Luke 12:13-21:  Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14  But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  17  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  18  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  19  And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  21  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

In 1934, Rev. James Fifield Jr., fresh out of seminary, became senior pastor of First Congregational Church, Los Angeles. Fifield looked like Jimmy Stewart. And he was quite the entrepreneur. Within a few years, membership at First Congregational went from 1500 people to 4500, the largest Congregational church in the world.  A large building debt was paid off, and Fifield became known as pastor to millionaires: university presidents, business tycoons, and movie stars.  Cecil B. DeMille made a promotional short film for him.

Fifield preached a gospel of unbridled capitalism without apology.  He claimed that the social safety net of the New Deal in response to the Great Depression was immoral, in fact he claimed that the New Deal broke most of the ten commandments.  Fifield founded an organization called “Spiritual Mobilization” to arouse ministers across the United States to defend “freedom under God in our country”– “the liberty and dignity of the individual, of which freedom of choice, of enterprise and of property is inherent.” 

Boy was the National Association of Manufacturers happy to find Fifield.  These heads of corporations had been running marketing campaigns promoting free enterprise as a virtue, but nobody was taking them seriously.  Their self-interest was obvious, and after the Great Depression, big business was not trusted.  But with Fifield’s help, freedom from taxation and regulation and unionization could become moral imperatives!  These corporations gave Fifeld enough money to hire full time employees in major cities across the nation, to spread his gospel of unbridled capitalism.  Membership in his organization “Spiritual Mobilization” rose to 10,000 clergy.  They published a magazine, with contributors expressing a variety of opinions as long as they were anti-government and pro-business. They held sermon contests, with big cash prizes to the ministers who could most skillfully bash regulation and social safety nets with the language of freedom and biblical references.

Fifield’s work culminated in 1949 in a public service radio show called “The Freedom Story.” This 15-minute weekly show aired all over the country.  Fifield started by bashing the freedom-hating Truman administration, but his lawyer quickly pointed out that a public service announcement could not be so openly partisan. That same lawyer advised Fifield that if he told horror stories of brutal oppression by governments in other countries, and warned people that our country was moving that direction, he would be non-partisan.  And so the red scare apparently began as public service announcements by a Congregational minister.[1]  

Fifield wasn’t the only Christian preaching the freedom to make money over every other virtue.  He’s just the one in our neighborhood and on our religious family tree. (He also fought the merger that created the United Church of Christ.  First Congregational L.A. only became UCC a couple of years ago.)

James Fifield, Billy Graham, Norman Vincent Peale, and others, succeeded so well at making capitalism a Christian virtue that we have trouble imagining that the barn builder in our story is doing anything wrong.  In Jesus’ day people thought differently.  They saw wealth as a fixed quantity.  If you had more than your share, you were depriving someone else.  Everyone understood that the Roman occupiers were robbing the Jews; that’s how the game was played.  We can be assured the rich farmer in the story was a Roman citizen; nobody else could throw around that kind of capital.  

At the risk of getting very counter-cultural, capitalism isn’t in the bible anywhere I can find.  The traditional Jewish and Christian teaching about wealth is that all we have is God’s, on loan to us to use wisely and ethically, to serve God.  

Whether you use your money wisely is your business. Whether you use it ethically is everyone’s business, because money is power.  We can argue over the details, but together, we, as a democracy, need to regulate predatory business practices, protect workers, steward our public lands rather than hand them over to companies to be stripped of resources, and tax those who can afford it more than those who can’t, for a start. 

And maybe we can question the idea that so many Americans take for granted that wealth is the natural reward for the virtues of hard work, initiative, cleverness.  Therefore the wealthy are virtuous, and the poor have gotten what they deserve.  The level of income inequality now is greater than it was before the Great Depression.  Three American men own more wealth than twenty million Americans put together.  Can we talk about the ethics of that?

There is a curious gap in Jesus’ story of the man who built barns.  He is alone.  He harvests alone.  He talks to himself.  He says to his soul, “Soul, what shall I do with all my money?”  He builds barns alone.  He eats, drinks, and is merry alone, so it appears.  And he dies alone.  Of course this cannot be.  In the age before mechanical farm machinery, any decent size farm had dozens of workers, serfs or slaves, to do the actual work.  The people who actually created his wealth are invisible to this wealthy man.  He is the only one who matters. This is what wealth can do to us: invite us to treat the people who we pay as little as possible to serve us as non-people, invisible, beneath concern.  You can bet that the subsistence farmers and fishermen who followed Jesus caught that part of the story loud and clear.  

I do this all the time, value money over people. I do it when I see the country that my chosen purchase was made in, and I don’t want to know how little the person who made it was paid or under what conditions they worked.  I do it when I look for the bargain vegetable instead of the food that was grown without exposing the farmworker to chemicals.  I do it when I click on Amazon and try not to think of the mad rush that click just set into motion for a chain of warehouse workers and delivery people, or the brick-and-mortar stores that have gone bankrupt because Amazon took their customers.  Me. 

But more is better.  Cheaper is better.  Faster is better.  That’s the American way, right?  It’s hard, in our culture, to say, “I have enough.” There is something in us that is not satisfied, that always wants more, and our culture has turned that more into a virtue. 

Change is hard, but awareness is the first step. I am happy to have a new congressperson serving me in Irvine, Katie Porter.  She is trying to hold financial institutions accountable for their predatory practices, and she’s doing it in a very entertaining way, so late-night shows have broadcast her challenging corporate CEO’s in congressional hearings.

On a personal level, one thing that helps us use money ethically is gratitude.  When we take the time to notice and appreciate what we have, and how we got it, to appreciate the people who helped make and deliver it, that “more” relaxes. When we truly take in the web of interconnection it takes to get that little widget to us, we can feel very rich indeed, rich in relationships and in people who go out of their way to provide for us.  This way of thinking is the opposite of the “rugged individual entrepreneur creating wealth” mentality that Fifield cultivated, and that Jesus mocked.  

It will take some attention to buck the culture that says more is better, but it can be done.  Author AJ Jacobs took up a practice of gratitude.  He didn’t do it to be virtuous; he did it to become a less grumpy person. (Studies have shown that works.)  He started giving thanks at meals for his tomatoes, and the farmer who grew them, and the cashier who sold them, and so on.  But his ten-year-old, in the brutally honest way of ten-year-olds, said, "You know, Dad, those people aren't in our apartment. They can't hear you. If you really cared, you would go and thank them in person."  Jacobs took this as a challenge (and an opportunity to pitch his next book.)  He decided to thank all the people who helped make possible something he truly valued: his morning cup of coffee, in person.[2]  

To start, he took his local coffee shop barista… out for coffee.  In the course of their conversation, she hugged AJ, and ten other customers she saw walking by.  He met the store’s bean buyer, who initiated AJ into the nuances of coffee tasting. He visited his coffee bean growers in Colombia and thanked them in person.  They said, “You’re welcome, but we couldn’t have done it without a hundred other people.”  Everywhere he looked, there were more connections.  The truck drivers.  The truck mechanics.  The people who fixed the roads.  The boat crews.  The exterminator who made sure bugs didn’t get into the beans in the warehouse.  She was very appreciative; nobody had ever thanked her before for doing her job.  Jacobs found one thousand people to thank for his cup of coffee.  There were more, but he had to stop somewhere.

Rugged individualists don’t exist, only people blinded and made self-centered by wealth.  Our faith invites us to open our eyes and see that the web that knits us together is enough.  The relationships that sustain us are enough, if we do not let money turn those people invisible.  The good earth that sustains us provides enough, if we nurture her like the living being she is.  May we have enough, and know it, and be grateful.  Amen.


[1] The information about Fifield is from One Nation Under God, How Corporate America Became Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse, 2015.  
[2] AJ Jacobs, TED talk, My journey to thank all the people responsible for my morning coffee.