Power For



About ten years ago, I enrolled in the Parent Educator program at the Echo Center in L.A., to learn to teach Compassionate Parenting, which is one way I have cared for other peoples’ children.  Ruth Beaglehole was the founding director of Echo. Ruth’s passion for the thriving of other peoples’ children knows no bounds.  She taught us that children “misbehave” when they don’t know how, or why, to do what we want them to do.  She modeled for us the kind of empathy that connects, and heals deep wounds.  She taught us that one caring adult in the life of a struggling child can make all the difference.  You might have that power.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 23, 2018

Power For

Mark 9:30-37  They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 
            33  Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,  37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”


During World War Two, an unwitting experiment was performed on young children.  German air raids were hitting London with bombs night after night; no neighborhood was safe.  So huge numbers of children were removed from London; put on trains and sent to temporary nurseries or foster homes all around England to be safe from the bombs, and safe from living in daily fear.  Some of those children had already become orphaned or homeless; most were sent away from their families in London just for their safety.  But it turned out that they were not safe.  Very young children who were evacuated were deeply traumatized. Children in group care rather than foster homes did the worst.  They suffered from “failure to thrive,” developmental delays, and deep and lasting emotional disturbances.  John Bowlby and other psychologists witnessed this suffering, and they developed the concept of attachment.  Infants and toddlers require an “attachment figure,” a stable caregiver, for their healthy development.  It’s usually their mother.  If they lose that attachment figure, they grieve deeply.  If they don’t get a reliable replacement, they are at risk of permanent emotional damage. 

Similar findings came from orphanages, and from middle-class children who were hospitalized.  In urban hospitals before the 1960’s, parent access to their own children was almost completely blocked.  Hospitalized young children got “hospital syndrome.”  Hospital syndrome looks like severe, disabling depression. 

A couple of determined psychologists made heart-wrenching movies with the titles Grief: a Peril in Infancyand A Two-year old Goes to Hospital.  Made on grainy black and white film, these were the cell phone videos of their day, challenging people to face a harsh reality they had been ignoring.  A typical response comes from an elderly nurse: “This film brings back to me the first child I ever nursed in hospital.  This child was a little boy.  He grieved for his mother and it simply broke my heart. After that I never saw grief again until I saw this film.”[i]

Despite clear evidence, attachment theory was very controversial through the 1950’s and even 1960’s.  Helping professionals didn’t want to admit that they were complicit in the suffering and even long-term damage of the children they were supposed to be helping by not giving them reliable caregivers.  So they continued being complicit a while longer.

The discovery of attachment tells us something essential about our humanness.  We need relationship like we need food and water.  We need love and care, and we are deeply vulnerable to its loss. 

The discovery of attachment also tells us something else about human nature.  We can construct social systems, even with good intentions, that destroy needed relationships. We can be trained to turn a blind eye to suffering, pretty quickly and easily.  The people who dismissed attachment were scientists, doctors and nurses, social workers and philanthropists.  People in power, even with good intentions, can blind themselves to the suffering of the powerless, and delude themselves about the needs of those under their care. Who are the most vulnerable and powerless among us?  Often they are children.

Twice in the Gospel of Mark Jesus hugs a child and says, in different ways, children are what he’s about.  Children are what the Kingdom of God is about.  What did Jesus know about children?  He was the eldest of a large family.  These are not his own children he’s hugging.  We can safely assume he had no children of his own.  They are probably not any of the twelve apostles’ children, though I suppose one of them may have been babysitting.  They are other peoples’ children.  Children have little power. They do have power to love and to call forth love.  The gospel is about the power of love, which is the power of the upside-down Kingdom of God. 

Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is powerful.  But not powerful in the usual sense of having power over other people.  Jesus has power forpeople.  Power for healing people.  Power for welcoming them to belong, power for forgiving them and giving them worth.  Power for naming them children of God.

Children of God.  Plug that into traditional ideas of power, and inheritance.  God is the great King of kings in heaven, and what do you get?  We are all royalty.  Nice!  Someday we’ll take our rightful place at the throne of God, in a palace crusted in gold and jewels, and apparently squabble over who gets to sit closest to the throne, as the disciples keep doing in the gospel of Mark.  I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind.

Children of God.  Plug that into Jesus’ understanding of power for, for welcoming and healing and hugging and restoring our worth and what do you get?  The upside-down Kingdom of God, where the first are last, and the last are first.  In other words, the powerful go out of their way to serve the powerless, to really care about them and if necessary to sacrifice for them, the way good parents will do for their own children.  Jesus is our eldest brother, gathering in as many of his little brothers and sisters as he can into the family of God, into the deep reassurance of trusting that there is one attachment figure that Jesus calls Father, who will never be taken from us.  Along the way some of us got attached to our big brother Jesus too. That’s OK.  

In today’s child-hugging episode, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”How is it that Jesus is the child, the vulnerable one, that God is the vulnerable one?  Maybe because God longs for our love.  Or because when we care for other peoples’ children, we participate in the kind of love that God has for us, beyond what is expected or required, but so life-giving.  And for those of us who cannot leave behind ideas of power over, as it seemed the disciples could not, this verse is a declaration of worth.  Every child has intrinsic value, because God is in that child.

This mystical identity of other peoples’ children with God leads to some very practical challenges for us as followers of Jesus.  How will we honor and care for other people’s children?  In Jesus’ day that might mean fostering children whose parents had died or were unable to care for them.  Or at least taking time to pay attention to other peoples’ children and offer them a hug, a little play, a meal, a listening ear. We can still do this.  

Teachers care for other peoples’ children.  I am so grateful for the teachers my son had, and I am in awe of what they do.  For all you teachers among us here, I thank you for what you do, and I thank God for calling you to do it.  How can we non-teachers care for other peoples’ children?  We can support adequate funding for teachers and schools. We can support teacher unions, so teachers have the resources they need to do their jobs long and well.

We can care for other peoples’ children when we support access to affordable health care daycare. Living wages and affordable housing and predictable work hours and family leave. We care for other peoples’ children when we honor their sexual and gender identity.  We care for other peoples’ children when we have safe church policies.  We care for other peoples’ children when we work to stop wars and to shelter immigrants and refugees and give them a path to citizenship.  And promptly release child detainees to their families.  Also preserve the planet for those childrens’ adulthood.  Well, that’s a long list.  We cannot do it all.  But we can look for opportunities to advocate for other peoples’ children.

All children are sacred and beloved of God and so they are our collective responsibility as a society.  We care for other peoples’ children when we tell people that our faith demands that we care.

About ten years ago, I enrolled in the Parent Educator program at the Echo Center in L.A., to learn to teach Compassionate Parenting, which is one way I have cared for other peoples’ children.  Ruth Beaglehole was the founding director of Echo. Ruth’s passion for the thriving of other peoples’ children knows no bounds.  She taught us that children “misbehave” when they don’t know how, or why, to do what we want them to do.  She modeled for us the kind of empathy that connects, and heals deep wounds.  She taught us that one caring adult in the life of a struggling child can make all the difference. You might have that power. 

The Echo Center has a Saturday morning class.  Caregivers of every stripe gathered in a big circle and shared their parenting challenges. Yuppies living in trendy Los Feliz and court referrals, who are there to get custody of their kids after a criminal offense, were side by side.  One time I listened to a mom of a two-year-old boy. That made an impression. What impressed me more was that the mom had letters tattooed across her knuckles: F-U-C-*.  But she obviously cared about her son, and she was trying to understand why he was having some big behavioral challenges recently.  Ruth led her through a series of questions.  They were not figuring it out.   “Anything going on in the family right now?” Ruth asked finally.  “Oh, well, his stepbrother died last week.  He was thirteen.”  You could have heard a pin drop in that room full of twenty-five people.  And you could see the wheels turning in the heads of me and all the other yuppie parents about what other peoples’ kids had to face when they couldn’t live in safety. Grieving kids are often not well-behaved.

A few years later I went back to audit an advanced parenting class, and who did I meet but that same mom.  I recognized her immediately.  It was the tattooed knuckles.  She was smiling and talking about how happy she was to have a stable home life now.  And she was coaching other parents, and talking about enrolling in the parent educator program.  She was healed enough herself to have the power to care for other peoples’ children.

Jesus said,“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” This can sound scary, but usually it just means: use our power for others instead of our own advancement, like parents use their power to care for their own children.  When we care for other peoples’ children, we become part of a great circle of care that has no first and no last.  Instead, that circle begins and ends in God, and it has great power. Power to heal every grief, power to see each one of us as precious children, infinitely loved and valued.  Amen.



[i]Becoming Attached, Robert Karen (1994, Warner Books) p. 84.

Possibilities


Many progressive Christians are leery of spiritual healing, and for good reason. Modern medicine accomplishes some amazing things.  And despite doctors’ interventions and fervent prayers, clearly some people don’t get healed, and how is that fair?  We don’t want to build expectations we can’t deliver.  Certainties, even grim certainties, can be easier to deal with than possibilities.  Certainties allow us to plan, to feel secure.  They meet our expectations.  But we are constantly changing, the world is constantly changing, and what appears certain usually isn’t.  In my experience, this world is filled with possibilities, and not many certainties.

My Facebook feed this week had this post, from a UCC friend in San Diego: “Just booked a Reiki II training with a Pentecostal I met at a Franciscan monastery while on a Daoist retreat.”  Spiritual healing goes interfaith.  Reiki is originally from Shinto Japan.  It is one of a number of practices that some Christians are using to reclaim the art of spiritual healing.  When I do Reiki for someone, I can be pretty certain that they are going to get very relaxed.  They often fall asleep.  What else might happen?  I don’t know.  My job is to bathe them in love, and hold the space for God’s possibilities to do whatever they do.  A wise teacher long ago told me that in that situation some kind of healing, physical, emotional, or spiritual, will always happen.  My experience has taught me that it’s usually not in the form we expect.  

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 16, 2018

Opening to God’s Possibilities

Mark 7:31-37  Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.  32They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  33He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  34Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”  35And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  36Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.  37They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”


According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus did not come to heal.  He came to give us the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  But, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s healing was wildly popular.  Long lines of people formed when they heard he was in town, looking for healing. People tracked him down when he went out into the wilderness to pray. People even tore down the roof of a building where he was teaching to get at him for healing. 

How shall we take these healing stories today?  If you’ve been here a while, you know you get to choose.  Some people are skeptical of all claims of healing by spiritual means, in the past or in the present.  Some people think Jesus did do amazing things in his time, and that time is over.  

“Be opened,” Jesus said.  There are other possibilities for understanding this story; I wonder if you are open to this one.  Whatever the historical accuracy of Jesus’ healing stories, Mark wanted his readers to know how powerful Jesus was.  And Mark wanted his followers, us, to encounter that power ourselves, by stepping into the story. What happens if we use our imaginations and put ourselves in the place of this man whose ears and tongue are closed, who is in need of being opened, being healed?  This is a different way to experience the story, not as history to be pondered, but as a parable to be lived: an invitation to encounter the transforming power of Christ today.  Instead of, “What really happened two thousand years ago?” we can ask: “What in me is closed off?  What might be opened if I invite the power of God to work in me?  What might become possible?”

Do you know anybody who was given a medical diagnosis, and told, “Nothing can be done, it’ll be like that for the rest of your life,” and it turned out that condition resolved and the person made significant recovery?  I know quite a few. 

Many progressive Christians are leery of spiritual healing, and for good reason. Modern medicine accomplishes some amazing things.  And despite doctors’ interventions and fervent prayers, clearly some people don’t get healed, and how is that fair?  We don’t want to build expectations we can’t deliver.  Certainties, even grim certainties, can be easier to deal with than possibilities.  Certainties allow us to plan, to feel secure.  They meet our expectations.  But we are constantly changing, the world is constantly changing, and what appears certain usually isn’t.  In my experience, this world is filled with possibilities, and not many certainties.

My Facebook feed this week had this post, from a UCC friend in San Diego: “Just booked a Reiki II training with a Pentecostal I met at a Franciscan monastery while on a Daoist retreat.”  Spiritual healing goes interfaith.  Reiki is originally from Shinto Japan.  It is one of a number of practices that some Christians are using to reclaim the art of spiritual healing.  When I do Reiki for someone, I can be pretty certain that they are going to get very relaxed.  They often fall asleep.  What else might happen?  I don’t know.  My job is to bathe them in love, and hold the space for God’s possibilities to do whatever they do.  A wise teacher long ago told me that in that situation some kind of healing, physical, emotional, or spiritual, will always happen.  My experience has taught me that it’s usually not in the form we expect.  

Our 12-step friends deal in possibilities.  It can seem impossible for a long-time alcoholic to stay sober. Step two of the 12-step process is, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”— to believe that recovery from alcoholism is even possible. Holding open that possibility often requires a whole lot of work, and a supportive community to help a person show up and keep doing that work, until the possibility can become reality.  

Have you noticed that you can’t force somebody else to be open to a possibility when they’re closed to it, just don’t believe it’s possible, don’t want to accept the invitation?  According to Process theology, God has the same dilemma.  In formal Process theology, God is not described in human terms. Instead God is like a force of nature– actually a force in and through and beyond nature.  That force is constantly inviting us into new possibilities for good: for healing and relationship and learning and celebration.  The God of Process thought never forces those things on us; instead that God lures us with beautiful possibilities, and we choose them, or not.  Sometimes we just close ourselves to God’s invitation.  And there are always more possibilities.

How do we discover God’s possibilities for our lives?  How can we be open to them?  That, to me, is one of the most important purposes of prayer.  I write in my journal, “Here is my situation, God.  What shall I do?”  A surprising amount of the time, I get a sensible answer– when I remember to ask.  Sometimes I get an answer that really surprises me.  Is it my subconscious?  Is it God’s Spirit?  I can’t tell, and I finally realized it doesn’t much matter.  What matters is that I show up and ask the question.  Sometimes my own head is an echo chamber.  When I share my situation with caring friends, they often see possibilities that I can’t.  Our Buddhist friends practice mindfulness: a kind of gentle, unattached paying attention.  Mindfulness often helps possibilities become clearer.  

When I was at the OC Pride parade this summer, checking out the booths, one of them was recruiting foster parents.  “Have you ever considered becoming a foster parent?” said the woman as I walked by.  
            “I’m hoping for grandkids someday, but no.”  
            “Why not.”  
            “I can’t because…”  That lady was good.  I listed off my reasons and she countered each one.  I started wondering, is foster parenting a real possibility?  I went home and mentioned the idea to Scott.  I thought he’d shut it down.  He didn’t shut it down.  Foster parenting.  Not likely, mind you, but it might just be possible.  Something to pray about.

I’ve been writing in my journal some other possibilities that seem pretty unlikely, but I refuse to close the door on them.  Reversing climate catastrophe.  Healing the political divide and reversing economic inequality.  My sister staying sober for more than a month or two.  None of these seem likely to me, but they are possible.  

Sometimes these possibilities just help me keep hope alive.  When I am feeling restless or brave, I ask: “What can I do to help them happen?”  It may not be my job to do anything.  Or I may discover some small action that can make a difference, usually not in the way I hope or expect.  Often the difference I make is to just to open a possibility for someone else.

A neighbor of mine has become a dear friend in the past few years.  We have walked together through a lot.  We’ve been there for each other.  There was a point, though, when I though I should give up on the relationship.  For the second time in a row she forgot she had made a date to spend time with me. Just clean forgot, made other plans, didn’t seem very bothered. I was telling myself, “She just doesn’t care enough about me to bother keeping appointments.”  

But I wondered if there was a possibility there I wasn’t seeing.  So I screwed up my courage and put on my Compassionate Communication. That’s one of my favorite possibility tools.  I called her up.  “I’m going to ask you something really awkward,” I said, “because I care about our friendship.”  That intro put her on alert that I was anxious but not angry, and I was about to bring up a hard topic out of care and not to blame her.  Then I got down to it.  “This is the second time you didn’t remember we made an appointment.  I’m feeling discouraged. I wonder if our appointments matter to you.”  She sheepishly explained that she doesn’t keep a social calendar.  Just doesn’t at all.  But she also claimed she valued our friendship.  She’s usually home most of the day and lives down the street.  So we agreed that I’d just call or knock on the door when I wanted to visit, and that has worked pretty well. 

To this day, I am almost always the one who calls her.  But I made peace with that a while back when she told me, “It’s weird, Terry, but you always seem to call when I most need to hear your voice.”  

We can’t be open to every possibility. Sometimes accepting limitation is the most healing thing we can do.  Other times, God is inviting us to something new. “I can’t,” we say, when the truth is, “I won’t.”  “That’s just the way it is,” we say, when we don’t want to get our hopes up.  Do we really know what is possible?  

I invite you to reflect now on possibilities in your life.  What in you is closed off?  What might be opened if you invite the power of God to work in you?  What might become possible?  Ponder that for a minute or two.

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An open heart is a tender heart, a powerful heart.  An open mind is a mind that can learn, and grow.  May we be opened to God’s possibilities for all of us.  Amen.

Just Shine


A story is told of a little girl who was seeing stained glass windows for the first time. It was the right time of day, so that jewels of colored light poured through the windows.  Her grandfather was telling her her whose pictures were in the stained glass.  “See, there is Peter, and Paul, and Matthew, and Mary.  They are all saints.”  “Oh, I get it,” she said.  “A saint is someone who has light shining through them.” Indeed.  In the New Testament Paul and Luke use the word “saints” (or we could translate “holy ones”) to describe all the followers of Jesus.  Not just the perfect ones.  So even you and I are saints.  They seldom talk about one saint, singular, instead almost always a group of them, supporting one another.  Jesus does not use the word saint, rather he uses follower, disciple. If we are followers of Jesus, God’s light shine through us.  

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Video version: https://www.facebook.com/terry.lepage/videos/10217632643991923/

Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
September 9, 2018

(Extra)Ordinary Service

Acts 9:36-42  Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.”  So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.


Today we heard a story about a woman who followed Jesus.  Her name in Aramaic is Tabitha.  In Greek, it is Dorcas.  Both words mean “gazelle,” the graceful desert deer that can leap so high. Tabitha is the only woman who is listed by name in the bible as a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  So how did she follow Jesus?  Apparently she sewed clothes.  

Sewing is so ordinary that you might not have thought of it as discipleship.  People like me, who are good with words, have plenty of role models in the Bible.  Prophets and preachers who share the Good News.  But God’s children have physical needs too, and I know that many of you are more comfortable serving in that way.  I know my Grandma Lucy was.  Grandma Lucy got surplus parts from clothes factories, and sewed dozens of quilts with her friends; some were made all out of collars, some all out of sleeves, to donate to families in need.  Those quilts weren’t works of art, but they were unique, and warm, and labors of love. Grandma Lucy also sewed a patchwork quilt for each of her grandchildren.  I was old enough to help with mine, so I had pride of accomplishment, of making something warm and useful and pretty out of my old pajamas and sundresses.  A lot of people besides Grandma Lucy serve God in ordinary ways like sewing.  So I’m glad Tabitha made it into the bible.  

I suspect there was a lot more to Tabitha than sewing. Her friends were weeping and showing off the tunics she had made.  In those days there was no Macy’s or Target.  All clothes were hand sewn, all cloth was hand spun and woven, all very labor intensive.  Those without the money or the relatives to do that labor had only scraps to wear.  Tabitha may literally have been clothing the naked.  Imagine: a tunic made just for you: showing that someone cared enough about your dignity to invest hours and hours of their labor into making you presentable. Tabitha would treat you like the beloved child of God you are, so that the ordinary service of sewing became extraordinary.

And there’s more. I’m pretty sure Tabitha was the leader of her sewing circle.  When she died, her friends were missing more than her flair with tunics.  We can only guess at the ways that she inspired them and encouraged them.  Maybe just by taking their work seriously.  This ordinary skill that they discovered could be a service to God.  Maybe Tabitha talked with them as they worked, about their lives and their faith.  Maybe it was her laughter, or her quiet caring.  Somehow, Tabitha showed forth the love of God with a needle and thread. Tabitha’s body is long gone from us now. But her spirit has lived on over the centuries in thousands of church sewing circles, often called Tabitha circles, or Dorcas circles, continuing to show forth the love of God through needle and thread.

 The apostle Peter was a different kind of disciple. The story says that because Peter prayed, Tabitha came back to life.  That skill is too extraordinary for me to believe.  And on this particular day, that part of our story leaves me grumpy.  So I want to leave Peter for today and skip to the book of Hebrews instead.

The book of Hebrews tells us we have a “ great cloud of witnesses,” people who came before us and were faithful in hard times.  We can remember these people when we need encouragement.  Though they died long ago, they are somehow still a part of us. Some of them are biblical characters of old, like Tabitha.  Some are historical figures whose stories can inspire us, like Harriet Tubman, a personal favorite of mine.  And some are people we have known personally, who did ordinary service, or extraordinary service, for us and with us.  The longer we hang around, the more people in that cloud of witnesses we know personally. Ordinary people who have died and gone home to God.  In the light of God’s love, we know how extraordinary they were.  Now Bill and James have joined that cloud of witnesses. 

I don’t know how life after death works.  At seminary I heard process theologians arguing over it– that was entertaining. I just trust that God has a place for us.  But I also suspect that certain church folks are not going to go marching in with the saints without stopping back regularly to encourage and support us here on earth. We are not alone.

So we can wash dishes with Brother Lawrence, and we can repair the church with Saint Francis, and we can discuss theological books with Harry Emerson Fosdick.  And through it all is the Holy Spirit, who prays when we don’t have the words, and makes of our ordinary teaching and cleaning and singing and bookkeeping and cooking and letter writing and gardening something extraordinary.  All we have to do is show up, and be willing to go with the flow of the Spirit, be part of something that is much bigger than us, that transcends time and space, the Spirit that gently sews the broken pieces of our lives and our community together. 

I believe this, but it helps to be reminded.  We need church.  This idea of banding together to follow Jesus with other living people, to know each other personally and commit to supporting one another: it’s not in fashion. Churches, even the most fundamental ones, often struggle these days to get people to make commitments of time and money.  At the same time people gobble up spiritual books and videos… The hunger for God is there. What can we as a community offer that a book can’t?  Real lived examples of following Jesus.  Complete with mistakes!  Real interactive discussions.  Although that means we’ve got to be together for more than this hour.  Books are lousy listeners.  Books give you so much advice.  I’ve read so much great advice in books it would take me dozens of lifetimes to live it all.  But I’ve never once had a book ask me, “So, how did that work out for you last week?” Nor have I ever had a book notice when I was feeling up or feeling down and ask me about it. 

We as a church may not always live up to this high calling of supporting one another on the path of discipleship.  Sometime people think the sewing is the whole point of the sewing circle, or that cleaning the church kitchen is tedium instead of privilege.  Sometimes we get caught up in our own dramas and forget to let go and let God.  After all, the church is full of people, and people are full of flaws.  And if that’s all it’s got, we’re in trouble.  But that is not all.  It is full of people surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, opening themselves to God’s Spirit, so we can show forth the love and transforming power of God. When we are willing, God’s Spirit has room to act among us, and make us more than we could ever be alone.

A particular calling of this church is not sewing but hospitality.  So in the spirit of Tabitha and all the people who love and serve in practical ways, let us remember that our ordinary hospitality makes a difference. When we bring snacks to share after worship, we are providing a excuse for people to make connections and share a little of themselves. Perhaps we even provide a meal that someone really needs. When we take time to introduce ourselves to someone new, or to warmly greet a person who is not yet a special friend, we are doing that work of hospitality, letting people know that it matters to us that they’re here.  When we invite a church friend, old or new, to share a meal, we are, and making space to know and be known in the light of God’s love.  

A lot of ordinary work is required to keep a church running.  Depending on how we do that work though, it may not be so ordinary after all.  If our intention is to help the sacred be known and love to be shared in this community, our acts of service will be extraordinary—devotion or meditation for us, and more often than we realize, a gift to someone else.  Please don’t wait for someone to serve you.  Take small opportunities to serve as those before us have done.  Do it, knowing that God can use our ordinary acts to do extraordinary things, though we may never know the details.  Do it in honor of people like Tabitha, and Bill, and James, and other faithful people who have served with an unexpected gift or a warm welcome, or a casserole, and have helped to make God real to someone in that small way 

As we mark the passing of two generous and caring souls, one of whom was so dear to so many of you, one of whom we were just getting to know, it seemed appropriate to sing “For All the Saints” as our opening hymn.  Saints are not perfect people, just people seeking to live in the light of God’s love.  Their service might appear ordinary, but nothing is ordinary when we see it in the light of God’s love for us. 

A story is told of a little girl who was seeing stained glass windows for the first time. It was the right time of day, so that jewels of colored light poured through the windows.  Her grandfather was telling her her whose pictures were in the stained glass.  “See, there is Peter, and Paul, and Matthew, and Mary.  They are all saints.”  “Oh, I get it,” she said.  “A saint is someone who has light shining through them.” Indeed.  In the New Testament Paul and Luke use the word “saints” (or we could translate “holy ones”) to describe all the followers of Jesus.  Not just the perfect ones.  So even you and I are saints.  They seldom talk about one saint, singular, instead almost always a group of them, supporting one another.  Jesus does not use the word saint, rather he uses follower, disciple. If we are followers of Jesus, God’s light shine through us.  How extraordinary you are.  Amen.



Let Your Light Shine


Our church is blessed to have a voice, in the form of our large backlit double-sided street sign on Imperial Highway.  A friend in the community, who happens to be a professor of ethics, said that our sign functions like an ink blot test– his friends and neighbors see in it what they bring to it. 

Christian ethics means different things to different people.  Really different things.  How do you make moral decisions? Is there a bright and powerful beacon in your life that invites you to life and wholeness and right relationship?  I hope so, because I try to talk about that beacon every Sunday.  Call it following Jesus, or seeking the Kingdom of God, or being filled with the Spirit.  But make it your beacon and let it guide you into right action.  And enjoy our street sign.  Or your Christian faith may be all about fences instead of beacons: rules and creeds and proof texts; who’s inside the fence and who’s out, who belongs and who’s pure and who’s going to heaven, and who’s not.  If you expect those kinds of fences in your religion, you may be in the wrong church right now.  And our street sign will really annoy you.  


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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
November 12, 2018

Ethics: Fences and Beacons

Mark 10:2-16  Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  5But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  6But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  7‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 
            Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  11He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;  12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 
            People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Our church is blessed to have a voice, in the form of our large backlit double-sided street sign on Imperial Highway.  A friend in the community, who happens to be a professor of ethics, said that our sign functions like an ink blot test– his friends and neighbors see in it what they bring to it. 

Christian ethics means different things to different people.  Really different things.  How do you make moral decisions? Is there a bright and powerful beacon in your life that invites you to life and wholeness and right relationship?  I hope so, because I try to talk about that beacon every Sunday.  Call it following Jesus, or seeking the Kingdom of God, or being filled with the Spirit.  But make it your beacon and let it guide you into right action.  And enjoy our street sign.  Or your Christian faith may be all about fences instead of beacons: rules and creeds and proof texts; who’s inside the fence and who’s out, who belongs and who’s pure and who’s going to heaven, and who’s not.  If you expect those kinds of fences in your religion, you may be in the wrong church right now.  And our street sign will really annoy you.  

We actually need both fences and beacons. But Jesus was light on the fences and big into beacons.  When he’s asked a question, he usually answers with another question, or a parable.  Not a rule, not a law!  He says, “Follow me!”  Jesus isour beacon – he goes off doing amazing things (and sometimes rule-breaking things), and we try to follow him. 

Fences are simpler than beacons.  Identify the rule and follow it.  You can stand inside the fence and say, “Look!  I’m doing the right thing, I’m good with God. Mission accomplished.” God’s beacons are always a bit beyond us. When our eyes are on the beacon we often feel that gap between who we are and who God is inviting us to become.  In fact, the closer we come to the holy, the more we can see our own flaws. That’s the bad news. The good new is: the closer we come to the holy, the more we see new possibilities for living well. 

We can also discover that we have turned our backs on the beacon and we are in shadow, moving away from God.  That’s the bad news.   The good news is: no matter how far away we are from God’s beacon, we can always turn around and face it, and start moving toward it. 

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asked, “where is the fence,” in this case about divorce. His reply condemning divorce is one of very few rules Jesus gives in the whole Gospel of Mark, and he seems to give it reluctantly. Was he sticking up for the safety and economic rights of women?  Maybe Christians in Mark’s community thought they should divorce their non-Christian spouses.  We don’t know the context.  We do know that Jesus was shining a beacon of light on the sacred covenant of marriage. Take your marriage vows seriously; they’re meant to last.  We also know that if we take our marriage seriously and it still fails, we will be forgiven.  And then Jesus moves on and shines a beacon on us that is a little blinding: “Receive the Kingdom of God like little children,” he says.  What does that even mean?  Be humble?  Be teachable? Get out of our own way?  Climb into his lap?  Whatever it means, it is surely a beacon and not a fence.

Ethics.  Fence-based ethics are different from beacon-based ethics.  I was talking to a same-gender-loving woman who was raised in a conservative Christian home.  She was committed not to have sex before marriage.  And thank God she can marry.  She said, “The bible makes a convincing case about not having sex before marriage, right?”  I said, “Let me get back to you on that.”  So I looked it up on the internet: the seven verses used to forbid sex before marriage– easy. Some are sketchy, some might apply, none are from Jesus, and all are from a very different culture than our own.  I realized I couldn’t proof text like that- grab verses out of context to make rules.  

I do ethics differently.  I point to the beacons of “love your neighbor as yourself” and “marriage as a sacred covenant” and then I try to figure out what they look like in the face of possible children outside of marriage (clearly not an issue for her), avoiding STDs, and how do you show respect and consideration to a person with whom you are being intimate and may want to just leave.  That, against the good of marrying someone you know how to love well and know you can live with. Fences are easier than beacons. 

Of course the first fence churches usually put up is: don’t question the leader.  The leader speaks for God and therefore the leader is always right.  I feel confident that nobody here believes that about me.  Thank God. Leaders are human, and fallible. Question authority.  

The Catholic Church has been in the news lately, and not in a good way.  A small but persistent minority of priests around the world have abused way too many children.  And their bishops covered it up, allowed them to repeat their crimes over and over again. These bishops were breaking no formal rules.  But why would they need one? What about the simple shining beacon of: protect the lives entrusted to you— first do no harm?  This is a long shadow over the institutional Catholic Church.  This shadow is called: “protect privilege, and ignore the suffering of the powerless.”  This shadow, in one form or another, is always with us if we have any power at all; we can only minimize it by searching all our actions in the light of God’s love for the last and the least.

A young friend of mine is part of a conservative Christian community.  They have put up a bunch of fences for her; for some reason they mostly have to do with sex. She had already had sex before marriage, but as part of her marriage preparation through her church she had to stop, and live apart from her fiancĂ©.  Now she is married and she is not supposed to have male friends.  There are reasons for these rules, but I wouldn’t submit to them. We do it differently here. So let’s do the work.  How will our church teach the sanctity of the covenant of marriage?  What shall we do to support it?  

My friend got another fence from church: you know who you need to vote for in the 2016 presidential election, despite his obvious moral failings.  Which, incidentally, was her church breaking a tax law. The goal was to appoint Supreme Court justices who could impose that church’s fences on all of us. We can faithfully disagree about the morality of abortion.  The shadow I see here is “win at any price,” The beacons of environmental protection, human rights, the rule of law, are fading under that shadow of “win at any price.” We follow a savior who surely did not win at any price.  He lost on purpose, for us, on a cross. To win human power struggles at any price is to abandon the beacon of God’s Kingdom. 

Is there a beacon to be had in politics today? I believe there is.  We have beautiful ideals in common.  John McCain’s eulogies have allowed people to express them at length. And it’s painful to see how far away we are from those.  But giving up on government is turning our backs on the precious beacon of those ideals and resigning ourselves to living in deep and destructive shadow.  We may not get very far, but we need to be walking in the right direction.  I do have one fence for myself here.  I will educate myself about the whole ticket, even the water district, and vote the whole ticket, and invite my friends to do the same. Care to join me?     

Do you talk about ethics with your friends, coworkers and relatives?  I think we can go a little deeper than the slogans on our sign.  So when somebody gives you a proof text, or says, “there’s no law against it,” you could explain that we look at ethics differently. Fences are easier than beacons, but beacons are more powerful.  Let your light shine.  We have ideals. We may never reach them, but in striving to live the gospel our hearts and minds are opened. In speaking our values, we challenge ourselves to live them.  And in following the beacon who is Jesus Christ, we discover deep integrity, and abiding grace, and the transforming power of love. Amen.


Feet on the Ground


If you believe yourself worthless, a failure, Jesus wants to empower you.  You are a child of God.  You matter.  You have eternal worth. If you have power, power to stay out of jail when you do something stupid, power to vote, power to write a check, to drive a car, to share a spare bedroom, to speak an encouraging word, Jesus invites you to spend that power to empower someone else.  To give your advantage to somebody else so they have a chance. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 26, 2018

Feet on the Ground

Mark 10:32-45  They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;  34they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” 
            James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”  36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 
            When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.  42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,  44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ talks a lot about status and power, but it’s all upside down. Follow Jesus, and give away your status.  Enter into suffering voluntarily.  Who does that?  For those of us with privilege, that is a part of our call.  We follow a man who was executed as a criminal.  Publicly shamed.  He could have gotten out of it, I’m sure.  Instead he allowed himself to be crushed by the Powers that Be, to become powerless, and then he rose, to lift up the powerless. 

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus says among other things, “I was in prison, and you visited me.”  Who’s visited a jail?  You don’t need to say which side of the bars you were on.  I have only visited a jail once.  It was a soul-crushing experience: ugliness filled every room and everything that happened seemed designed to humiliate me, show me I didn’t matter.  And I was just the visitor!  The man I visited was fortunately a short-term resident of the Theo Lacy Jail in Orange. This man had a strong Christian faith, but only the steady support of his church friends, up to and including sharing their spare bedrooms with him for months, could convince him that he had any worth, and that he could make a life outside of jail.  They did it for him because they saw Jesus in him, when he surely didn’t. “I was in prison, and you visited me.” 

How many of us were taught to achieve, to be our best, to go for it?  That’s a good thing, right?  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were taught to aim for success. They were following the new Messiah Jesus, the soon-to-be King, so they wanted to be top dogs in the new administration.  Their power grab is embarrassing: didn’t they know Jesus better than that?  Which is Mark’s way of telling us that we know better than to seek status like James and John.  When Matthew tells this story, he has the Tiger Mom of James and John do the asking for them. But Mark’s gospel was written first. Mark wants us to know: if you do have power and status, be ready to give it away for the Gospel.

If you believe yourself worthless, a failure, Jesus wants to empower you.  You are a child of God.  You matter.  You have eternal worth. If you have power, power to stay out of jail when you do something stupid, power to vote, power to write a check, to drive a car, to share a spare bedroom, to speak an encouraging word, Jesus invites you to spend that power to empower someone else.  To give your advantage to somebody else so they have a chance.  And not from a distance, but eye to eye, like we do when we share meals with our shelter guests.  

Let me tell you about a ladder.  It’s a well-climbed ladder.  I’ve spent some time on this ladder.  I never got to the top.  A couple of times I thought I got pretty high, but that ladder just keeps going up.  And it’s a rickety, slippery ladder.  Sometimes I slid down that ladder, my back end going bump, bump, bump, and I found myself in a very low place.  

Are you familiar with this ladder?  It is the ladder of worth, of status.  If you are up high on that ladder, ah, you feel good. You are really somebody.  Until you look up and notice: the ladder keeps going up.  And sometimes the ladder tilts, or we trip, and bump, bump, bump, down the rungs we go.  Less than. When we really take a dive and land down in the sub-basement rungs, we’re feeling worthless and ashamed.

What sends you up and down that ladder of worth?  We each have our own list.  Maybe your ladder is about having money or an important job.  Maybe it’s about getting someone’s good opinion. So many reasons to send you climbing up the ladder.  So many reasons to bruise your behind slipping down that ladder.  It’s the same ladder, whatever your reason for climbing it.  You could even climb this ladder because you are so in touch with God, so righteous, so filled with the Spirit.  You are an ascended master.  Then, you go through a spiritual dry patch and down you go.  Bump, bump, bump.  

Here’s a secret that some of you already know.  We can step off that ladder, stop climbing.  You can let go of judging yourself or anybody else. You can take your feet off those rickety slippery rungs and plant them firmly on God’s good earth.  With both feet on the ground, humble, we can relax, We’ve got nowhere to climb, and nowhere to fall.  We’re on God’s wide earth, with enough room for everybody.  Nobody better than, nobody less than. 

If you have spent a lot of time and energy climbing the ladder, this sounds ridiculous.  Give away your hard-earned status?  Yes, for something better.  Authentic connection with God and with other people.  

The ladder is a trick.  We never were less than, not in God’s eyes.  And we never needed to be better than.  We need to belong, to learn, to contribute, to be accepted, and valued, and loved.   And we can’t do that while we’re dangling from a ladder.  Picture two people on a ladder trying to hug.  It just doesn’t work. When we step off the ladder onto terra firma, then we can stand together.  We can see each other, eye to eye.  We can hug. 

What about all those other people, still on the ladder judging us. Yes, they’re still judging us. That’s their business, not ours. We need to find people with their feet on the ground.  People will support us, instead of judging us.

Following Jesus can’t happen on a ladder. So whenever you find yourself climbing that ladder, just step off.  Put both feet on the ground, on God’s wide earth, where you can relax.  You can be honest about yourself and not be shamed. You can love and be loved.  You can learn, and make mistakes, and not be a mistake.  You can be accepted and celebrated for being you, flaws and all.  And you can befriend people whose faces you never would have seen, if you were busy climbing the ladder.  Jesus is not an ascended master at the top of the ladder.  Somehow Jesus is in each of us, waiting to be discovered. Amen.