The Real Nativity

Kelly Latimore, La Sagrada Familia
This, the gospel writers tell us, is where we find the sacred.  Not in a palace, not in a world where all is right and good, but in a barn.  In the midst of fleeing refugees.   In our precious nativity story is brokenness: poverty, homelessness, political unrest, and violence.  And angels.  God chose to be found in brokenness.  This is not the Good News most people were expecting, then or now.  

When people are hurting, struggling, heartbroken… there God is.  God did not fix the world and put a bow on it and say, “Well if anything is broken, it’s your fault; you were not good enough or faithful enough.”  No!  God didn’t tell us we could fix it all, either.  The gospels don’t promise us an absence of suffering.  Rather, the gospels show us that God is found right in the middle of our messes.  And so the Christ child is born in a barn, and the holy family flees for their lives. And God is the heart of compassion that accompanies us in our struggles and our fear, and sends angel choruses to sing for us when we are alone at night.  


Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
December 9, 2018

Expecting God in Unexpected Places

Luke 3:1-7    In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.  3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,  4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, 
            “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
            ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 
                        make his paths straight.
5         Every valley shall be filled, 
                        and every mountain and hill shall be made low, 
            and the crooked shall be made straight, 
                        and the rough ways made smooth; 
6         and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Advent is the beginning of a new church year.  This year, our readings are from the Gospel according to Luke.  The birth story of Jesus is a mashup of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  Mark’s gospel says not a word about Jesus before he gets baptized by John.  John’s Gospel (Not the Baptist: different John!) has the Word creating the world at the beginning of time.  He doesn’t mention anything so humble as being born a human baby.  

It’s not Matthew’s year, but I need to bring up an important theme in Matthew’s story of the baby Jesus.  In the Gospel of Matthew, the new Jewish King is born, and prophecy is fulfilled.  Matthew is big on prophecy.  King Herod takes notice, and not in a good way.  Does anybody remember the slaughter of the innocents?  That is the story where Jesus was a child refugee, fleeing violence.  He found refuge, in Egypt.  Chapter and verse: Matthew 2:12-23. That story is the basis of the old Coventry Carol, whose third verse you may not know.  

Herod the King, In his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, In his own sight
All children young to slay.

Historically, that probably never happened.  Yet it has happened, in a thousand times and places since then: leaders and law enforcement slaughtering their own people, families fleeing for their lives from violence.  It happened this year among the Rohingya in Myanmar and in several countries in the Middle East, and at our own borders. So whether or not it actually happened as Matthew told it, that story is true.  We live in a broken world.

Luke tells a different story, of a homeless woman giving birth in a barn.  If Jesus was born in Southern California, it would have been in a garage.  Luke tells of angels witnessed only by low wage workers on the graveyard shift:  we know them as shepherds. Whether or not it actually happened as Luke told it, this story is also true.

And this, the gospel writers tell us, is where we find the sacred.  Not in a palace, not in a world where all is right and good, but in a barn.  In the midst of fleeing refugees.   In our precious nativity story is brokenness: poverty, homelessness, political unrest, and violence.  And angels.  God chose to be found in brokenness.  This is not the Good News most people were expecting, then or now.  

I was at the hair stylist a week and a half ago, and I was annoyed to find I didn’t have my haircutter’s whole ear. Another client was there.  And she was a talker.  Somehow she started talking about the homeless situation.  She explained to me how homeless people were all either mentally ill or addicted, and wanted to live that way.  In other words it was their fault they were homeless.  So I parroted off some numbers for her: less than half of the people evicted from the Santa Ana river encampment were in that demographic, “either in drugs or in need of them” as one social worker put it. Many of the rest were newly homeless, due to soaring rents.  She didn’t hear a word I said.  And she kept talking.  I couldn’t walk away.  I was trapped in my chair with goop on my hair.  So I tried to listen.  I tried to understand the thinking behind her staunch belief that people could only be homeless because of their own failings, not the astronomical cost of housing, governmental inaction, and Nimbys- as in Not In My Back Yard will I allow you to build low cost housing or permanent shelters.  I dared not bring up the topic of immigration: I could guess what would happen. 

I began to understand her thinking. She was a good person, a caring Christian.  Her city government was right and good and doing everything it should.  Therefore her world was in good order.  And in order to believe that story, she had to refuse to see the suffering and need happening in her own city.  If she did see it, she would have to admit our brokenness.  So she divided the world into “us”: the good people who are right and therefore are not in need, and “them”: the people who have problems, who are the problem.  This is how she keeps those problems at a safe distance from her and her good world.  Anything different, to her, was fake news; it couldn’t be true or she would lose her identity, her conviction that she was right and good, and therefore entitled to an orderly world. 

This is a belief system that both Matthew and Luke refute in their gospels.  Matthew says it in a spiritual way, in his Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  The beaten down are blessed?  Not the right and the good in their orderly worlds?  Luke does it in a blunt and earthy way: “Blessed are the poor.”  Full stop.  That is our Good News.  ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is not gospel.  Being blessed, being seen and loved and cared for by God when you suffer whatever the cause, that’s Gospel.  There is no “us” and “them” in the Kin-dom of God.

We know this because of our shelter program. We do not fear or judge them, because we have eaten with them and talked with them, and we know they are us.  The ranks of homeless and refugees are growing in California.  Jaime O’Neill got a taste of homelessness when his retirement home went up in smoke a month ago (1) in the ironically named town of Paradise.  Fortunately he had a pension and a credit card, so he was able to feed himself and his wife, and after a few weeks they found a home to rent in Sacramento.  But in the meantime he was flustered enough to forget to buy a razor for a few days, so when he was buying underwear and toothpaste and wearing few days of scruff, in line at the store, he looked and felt the part of a homeless person, and people treated him that way.  Now he gets it.  Homeless people are not “them.” They are us, without homes. 

I have my own warped version of the gospel: I’m not doing enough.  You might identify progressive Christians by this mantra: “We’re not doing enough.”  As if it’s my job to fix everything.  None of the gospels say, “Blessed are the guilty, who think it’s their job to fix everything.”  We are invited to participate in God’s Kin-dom.  The way to do it is not to feel guilty, but to let the hinges of our hearts’ doors swing gently and easily to welcome Christ’s coming.  Where we didn’t expect it.  Our call is to find ways to make it easy and joyful to share and care and remove the barriers between “us” and “them.” 

When people are hurting, struggling, heartbroken… there God is.  God did not fix the world and put a bow on it and say, “Well if anything is broken, it’s your fault; you were not good enough or faithful enough.”  No!  God didn’t tell us we could fix it all, either.  The gospels don’t promise us an absence of suffering.  Rather, the gospels show us that God is found right in the middle of our messes.  And so the Christ child is born in a barn, and the holy family flees for their lives. And God is the heart of compassion that accompanies us in our struggles and our fear, and sends angel choruses to sing for us when we are alone at night.  

Luke’s gospel is the most socially aware, putting rich and poor side by side.  He doesn’t say being rich is bad, but he has some pretty clear ideas about what people should be doing with their money.  Luke’s is also the most politically aware of the gospels.  Our reading today introduces John the Baptist by listing all the political and religious rulers of that time and place.  You know, the ones John was thumbing his nose at by doing his own made-up rituals in the river Jordan.  He should have been doing proper rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem, whose high priests were appointed by Rome.  John was putting lie to the idea that people were good, doing things right, and their world was in order.  That was unacceptable to the Power that Be.  Neither was John trying to fix everything.  He was… baptizing.  Interesting. As far as the “good” people, the “us” people were concerned, John was just inciting “them” to rebellion, promising some mysterious new leader.  It cost him his head.

The seats of power were in Rome and Jerusalem.  And where was John the Baptist?  Out in the desert wilderness, the land of lawlessness, chaos, and possibility. Where the Spirit can grow a new thing free of political control.  Luke says, “the word of God came to John son of Zecharaiah” – that is the biblical way to introduce a prophet.  And then Luke quotes the ancient prophet Isaiah to describe John’s work.  
            Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 
            Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, 
            and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.
All is not good.  Major repair is needed.  It sounds like road reconstruction.  Read that as a metaphor for transformation.

What John actually did was baptize people.  This was not Christian baptism, our sacrament of initiation into the church and the faith. This was a renewal of their Jewish faith, a cleansing and a fresh start.  Of course he was getting them ready to receive Jesus and his message, but they didn’t know that yet.  They were just expecting God to do something wonderful among them, despite all signs to the contrary.

What are we expecting this Advent?  Some of us are weighed down by the bad news we witness.  So much brokenness in our communities, our nation, our planet.  We are not good.  All is not right. And the world is not in order.  It would be easy to assign blame to “them” – Either the suffering or those in power who allow, and sometimes cause, that suffering.  Let’s be careful, on this Sunday when we light the Advent candle of Peace, not to divide the world into “us” and them.”  That only makes things worse.  We are all broken, and in need of reconstruction, and God knows that’s OK.

So let’s take a cue from John, and prepare ourselves for something new.  What in us needs a new start?  Where among us will we discover Christ anew in this season? Hopefully we will meet the sacred here on Sunday mornings and on Christmas eve.  But we can also discover new life and transformation all around us, and sometimes in the places we least expect it.  

A child born in a barn, a refugee.  This, our Gospels claim, is the full presence of God among us.  I hope you will remember that when you see those nativity scenes.  This is Good News, because no matter what we face, God will meet us there.  Helpless? God is there.  Afraid?  God is there. Homeless?  God is there.  Grieving? God is there.  Nothing that we face we face alone.  In the long dark night, angels sing.  In the midst of the brokenness, God arrives. That is our Good News. Amen.


1) “The Camp fire took my home. Now I understand that no one ends up sleeping under an overpass by choice.” Jaime O’Neill, L.A. Times Op-Ed, Dec. 7, 2018.

Persistent Love


Disagreement is scary.  Working through differences is hard.  It’s so much easier to just walk away, as that rich man did.  It’s what people do when things get hard.  One bump in the relationship, and we give up. 

So I find it truly ironic that this man is seeking eternal life.  Because what is eternal life, except very, very, persistent love?  We don’t know how to do that.  So when we go looking for eternal life, it’s we who need to learn.  According to the Gospel of Mark, it’s not our business to earn eternal life.  Certainly “being good” won’t do it.  God has it under control.  I realize saying that is not good for church attendance, but I regard anything else as spiritual malpractice.  Do not worry about your eternal life.  Worry about practicing liking it when you get it. If we attend to the love commandment, we might actually know what to do with that eternal life when we get it. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
November 25, 2018

Persistent Love

Mark 10:17-31  As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.  19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
            23  Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”  27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 
            28  Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”  29Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,  30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.  31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

In our reading, Jesus and his followers are setting out for a road trip.  A man comes running up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  What do we know about this man?  Only that he has many possessions.  But we can infer from the man’s question that he really doesn’t get Jesus or his mission.  He’s got his daily planner and it says: workout– check, prayer– check, meeting with investment manager– check, confirm eternal life– check.  Something is wrong with this picture.  This man’s religion is all about being good– very good– and following the rules and getting the right answer every time.  And Jesus’ answer is:  “Wrong question.”  

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” says Jesus.  I love that Mark reports that, and I can’t imagine how hard it was for Matthew and Luke to copy Mark.  All the man meant by calling Jesus “good” was a social nicety.  Jesus isn’t having it.  He’s undermining the idea that “being good” is what makes us right with God, because if Jesus isn’t good, who can be?  Being good is not our goal.  It is a possible side effect of relationship with God and trying to follow Jesus.  But this guy is good at being good.  To him that’s what religion is about.  He’s so good at being good he wants extra rules to show he can be extra good.  

Jesus doesn’t give him any rules.  Jesus offers him a relationship, a challenging one.  “Sell all you own and give away the money; then come, follow me.” Oh, the man was not expecting that response.  He can’t even imagine doing such a thing.  Can you? So he’s sad, because he can’t be good enough.  And he just walks away.  So much for relationship.  I wonder, did he even notice– those beautiful words – Jesus looked at him and loved him? Did he even notice? Did he consider telling Jesus, “Whoa, I don’t know if I can do that.  But can I tag along for a while anyway?” No, he just walked away.

This man represents every person who is itchy and unsatisfied with life, knows that their relationship with God isn’t what it should be, but doesn’t want to admit that they might have to change.  Is not willing to hear something new, to accept the challenge to do something different…transformation.  His particular stuck point was that he had too much stuff.  None of us have that problem, right?  But that was not the real problem.  The problem was that when he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do what Jesus asked, he just gave up and walked away, without even bothering to continue the conversation.  When he didn’t know how to do what Jesus wanted, he gave.  He didn’t even try to return Jesus’ love. 

Love is the basis of our religion, and the subject of much misunderstanding.  One of the few rules Jesus gives us in the Gospel of Mark is:  love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it!  That’s all we have to do– ha!

According to our Bible, God loves us with a persistent love.  Don’t get the message?  Let me try again.  Blew it? I forgive you.  Come on home.  Mad at me? Let’s talk.  The cross is our symbol of persistent love: Jesus went to death and beyond to show us that nothing we do can separate us from God permanently.  “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”  And God longs for us to return that love.  

Love: what is it?  It is not a feeling.  Love is a verb, a way of being and acting that allows God’s love and power to flow in and through us.  It isn’t always easy to love.  It isn’t easy staying in relationship with people who challenge us, push our buttons. Sometimes we can’t do it.  I think God understands.  Sometimes we just need space from people we do not know how to be around.  Or maybe… we need space in our own hearts, a space that God makes, free of judgments and demands and baggage from the past, so we can receive the challenges of relationship without running away or getting our buttons pushed quite so badly. How do we make this space for love? It is a skill.  It takes practice.  It takes persistence.  

I was listening to peoples’ plans for Thanksgiving last week, and I heard a lot of complicated ways that people were trying to show up for those they loved. Having thanksgiving breakfast with the kids on the first Thanksgiving after a marriage collapsed. Having a buffet so that loved ones who don’t get on well can eat at the same table in the same house at different times.  Spending the night in close quarters with the young relatives who love us so well that we are overwhelmed.  But we go anyways. Creating friendsgivings so people who don’t have family to eat with know they are loved.  

If love is our central calling, let’s learn how to do it well.  And then be persistent in practicing that art.  That means showing up even when it’s hard, even when we know we will disappoint, or we’ve been disappointed ourselves.  This is making amends.  It means having empathy about what the other person might be experiencing, and what might be getting in the way of the other person showing care to us. The shorthand for that is: trust their good intentions.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  We can put more value on being in relationship than doing it right.  

Love can be studied scientifically.  John Gottmann is a relationship researcher.  He measured eye movements, electrodes, hormones, everything he could think of, to try to figure out what made relationships work, because he didn’t have a clue– he’d failed at two marriages.  He came with an open mind to the subject.  Now he can predict with great accuracy whether a marriage relationship will persist, based on a short observation of the couple in question, when they’re talking about a hot topic.  He speaks of relationship masters, those couples who have long and happy marriages.  First and foremost, they act like good friends, with affection and admiration for each other.  They do fight, but they seldom make it personal.  They seldom attack each other.  And they make up well.  Making up is a skill that can be learned.  When these couples interact, they have five times more affirming interactions than negative interactions. These are seldom extravagant gestures.  A small pat on the shoulder when passing the person’s chair.  A bid for attention, “Hey, look at that!”– a little togetherness.  A thoughtful nod, a smile.  Five times more affirming interactions than negative interactions. Persistent love doesn’t take people for granted. 

Gottmann can also identify couples who are likely to divorce.  They have just slightly more positive interactions than negative interactions.  Which proves what we all already know: in a relationship, negative interactions hurt more than positive interactions help.  What qualifies as a negative interaction?  It’s not always what you think.  He reads it from the body language respose of the receiver.  You can probably guess some things.  The worst kind of negative interactions Gottmann calls “The four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse.”  They are 
            Criticism: “What’s wrong with you is…”
            Defending:  “No, that’s not it!” 
            Contempt or superiority:  “You obviously can’t…”and
            Stonewalling: (I’ll just ignore them, because I’ll probably get angry if I engage..)

Even ignoring a little bid for attention counts as a big negative.  “Hey, look at that!” No response.  When someone’s bid for attention is rejected, seldom do they try again.  And so we drift apart.  Persistence is required, if there is any hope of turning a relationship around.

Disagreement is scary.  Working through differences is hard.  It’s so much easier to just walk away, as the rich man did.  It’s what people do when things get hard.  One bump in the relationship, and we give up. 

So I find it truly ironic that this man is seeking eternal life.  Because what is eternal life, except very, very, persistent love?  We don’t know how to do that.  So when we go looking for eternal life, it’s we who need to learn.  According to the Gospel of Mark, it’s not our business to earn eternal life.  Certainly “being good” won’t do it.  God has it under control.  I realize saying that is not good for church attendance, but I regard anything else as spiritual malpractice.  Do not worry about your eternal life.  Worry about practicing liking it when you get it. If we attend to the love commandment, we might actually know what to do with that eternal life when we get it.  

It’s hard to notice jokes in the Bible.  We take it too seriously.  But I think I found one today.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.  That’s just an entertaining way of saying: impossible. It is impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.  Hearing this, the disciples are confused.  In one strand of the Jewish tradition, being rich meant that God had blessed you because you had done right. That’s not how Jesus tells it.  It is impossible for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. Hearing this, some of us are nervous, because we have 401K’s and investments.  Are we rich?  We are far richer than the refugees who are seeking shelter among us. “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”  If we are practicing the love commandment we can take that for granted.  Wealth and status are barriers to our relationship with God, because wealth and status allow us to turn relationships into transactions, to buy what we need and to ignore people who can’t do the same.  “What must I do to ‘inherit’ eternal life?”  The man was trying to turn the love of God into a legal transaction.  

Jesus didn’t browbeat him.  He did say, out of the man’s hearing, “Camel through the eye of a needle.”  Commentators have tried to soften the analogy.  One way they did it was claiming there was a gate into Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle” that a camel could barely squeeze through.  No, not true.  The word might not have been “camel.”  This is true.  The word might have been “cable” the kind of cable that moors a ship.  Not a rope; a full-on cable.  Camel, cable, in both Greek and Aramaic they are only one vowel away. So Jesus might have said, “It is easier for a cable to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.”  But that’s not as good a joke, is it?  Excuse me, Jesus, did you say camel, or cable?  And he just raises his eyebrows at you, and laughs.

Overeager Peter says, “We left everything to follow you, right? We’re good, right?” Now Jesus smiles, and says, “Yes, you’re good, Peter.  And you will receive everything, including persecutions!”  A full life, the good and the bad.  That’s our reward for following Jesus.  Abundant life.  And, by the way, eternal life, whatever that looks like, the persistent love of God.  

Peter and the disciples did persist.  After one notable lapse, they stuck with Jesus. And they kept being challenged, and they kept learning that following Jesus is not about being right, or doing right, or believing right.  Following Jesus is about being in relationship, giving and receiving love, even when it’s hard; letting go of anything that gets in the way of that. That love heals, and forgives, and sees every person as beloved, valued by God. None of us is very good at this, but Jesus isn’t asking us to be good.  He asks us to follow, to keep trying.  He wants our persistent love.  

Persistent love. You’ve got it.  Let’s try doing it.  Amen.


Good News for the Earth


Proclaiming Good News.  Not every church claims a Season of Creation.  Not every church wants or needs to be a Creation Justice church.  But it is an extraordinary gift that we choose to do so. We bring something a little different to the mix thanthe Sierra Club or the Surfrider Foundation.  We sometimes undertake practical jobs like lobbying or native gardening or installing solar panels.  We also do the spiritual work of naming the earth and all its life sacred and worthy of care.  We use spiritual tools of prayer and ritual that invite the transformation of hearts and minds.  We name and grieve the brokenness of human relationships with nature.  And we proclaim Good News where we see it.  

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ

Good News for the Earth

Mark 11:12-25  On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.  13Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  14He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. 
            15    Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; 16and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.  17He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written,  
            ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? 
                        But you have made it a den of robbers.” 
18And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.  19And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city. 
            20  In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.  21Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”  22Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God.  23Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.  24So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 
            25  “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

Proclaiming Good News in the face of all evidence to the contrary: this is our job as followers of Jesus, and the job of all people seeking a just and compassionate world.  Compassionate Communication creator Marshall Rosenberg learned one way of proclaiming good new from group of women who sought social change.  Marshall sat in at their organizing meeting.  Here’s how it began.   They recited celebrations and gratitudes for seemingly mundane things that each of the members had done, and went on at some length about each of those little actions. This took over thirty minutes.  Marshall tried to be patient, but finally he couldn’t take it any more, and he asked, “Why are you spending so much time on rehashing these things?  Don’t you want to move forward?”  One of the women explained, “Marshall, we’re working on a really difficult issue.  We know we’re not going to achieve our goal anytime soon.  We may not achieve it in our lifetime.  So we have to enjoy the journey. We’ve decided to celebrate every small step we take. We are fighting for our lives.  So we can’t wait till later to celebrate. Our lives are being lived now.” 

Proclaiming Good News.  Not every church claims a Season of Creation.  Not every church wants or needs to be a Creation Justice church.  But it is an extraordinary gift that we choose to do so. We bring something a little different to the mix than the Sierra Club or the Surfrider Foundation.  We sometimes undertake practical jobs like lobbying or native gardening or installing solar panels.  We also do the spiritual work of naming the earth and all its life sacred and worthy of care.  We use spiritual tools of prayer and ritual that invite the transformation of hearts and minds.  We name and grieve the brokenness of human relationships with nature.  And we proclaim Good News where we see it.  

We are bearers of the Good News of Jesus Christ: the presence and power and love of God that meets every trial and terror, that leads us to healing and abundant life. We witness Good News in the wonder of creation, in “All our Relations, ” our connection to the earth and the life on it.  In spite of ecological devastation, we do have Good News for the earth, both the ordinary kind of news and the extraordinary kind that flows from our faith.

Here is some of the ordinary kind of good news for the earth.  While U.S. national parks and wild lands are under threat from the current administration, worldwide, over 15% of the earth’s lands are now protected in some way.  Public-private partnerships and economic incentives are being crafted around the globe to help protect more land.

California met its renewable energy goals for 2020—in 2016!  Over 30 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources. Solar is getting more efficient than ever.  In 2020, all new homes built in California will have solar panels.

Experienced political organizers who came to help organize Orange County were surprised to discover that almost everyone here, Republican and Democrat, is passionate about protecting our environment.  And in recent news, Governor-elect Gavin Newsom is talking about a fracking ban in California.  

A couple miles from my house, the Irvine Ranch Water District has a purification plant that includes the San Joachin Wildlife Sanctuary.  A series of square quaternary treatment ponds, framed with native plants, is an oasis for thousands of rare and migratory birds.  This facility creates drinkable recycled water, and is a model that people from across the country are copying.

My sermon blog got 150 page views last month.  My California native garden blog got 1800 views, despite the fact that I haven’t posted a new article in almost a year. Peoples’ connections to nature are real and life-giving.  

The “right kind of farming” can grow food for us, respect and the earth, and give farmers economic security. Wendell Berry is known for his writing about farming that is in harmony with the earth, and gives farmers dignity.  He has proposes a “farm bill” to accomplish this.  Something to lobby our new congress about? 

All this good news is ordinary, but also extraordinary.  Somebody bothered to love the land and found a way to preserve it.  A lot of people around here voted in the last election to help the planet. Somebody feels a call to plant a native garden.  The ordinary is extraordinary, because it’s all sacred. Creative transformation is at work in it, and in us.  

People are rediscovering the therapeutic value of nature.  Forest bathing is a term for meditative walking among trees. It is prescribed in Japan for its proven heath effects.  Having green plants outside your hospital window has proven health effects. 

Pilgrimages are becoming popular around the world: people walking for miles along traditional paths or newly made paths to visit sacred sites, to connect with God, the land, and themselves.  Santiago de Compostela in Spain is the most famous pilgrimage route, but routes are all over Europe.  Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and a process thinker, didn’t know what to give his godson for his sixteenth birthday.  He didn’t want to buy him stuff.  So Sheldrake offered to take him on a one day pilgrimage, less than ten miles walk along footpaths to a cathedral, followed by going out for cream tea.  I think that’s English for dessert.  They never had so much quality time together.  They enjoyed it so much they’ve done it every year since.  We don’t have ancient cathedral in the U.S.  Sheldrake calls our national wildlands America’s cathedrals, so hiking is an American version of pilgrimage.  Bring your own dessert.

We are nearing the end of our year with the Gospel of Mark.  Today Jesus has publicly taken a stand for the Good News of God. This was not good news to the Powers that Be: the corrupt Temple establishment that put Roman rule and power and profit ahead of God and human compassion.  We expect compassion from Jesus; today we see confrontation.  He even kills an innocent fig tree, to make his point.  

The problem is that Good News isn’t good news to everybody.  State Attorneys General are investigating Exxon for fraud, for hiding their role in global warming for decades.  Cities are suing oil companies for damages due to sea level rise. Children are suing the US government to cap CO2 levels, so they can have a future.  Activists have been protesting fossil fuel pipelines by turning off their valves.  This strategy of nonviolent direct action looks to me a lot like overturning the money changers tables, and it is about as well received.  These activists are using a “necessity defense,” claiming that they must shut down pipelines to prevent immanent destruction of our planet.  Occasionally that defense work.  But some states are claiming that turning off pipelines is terrorism, and legislating massive jail terms.  And we saw what happened to water protectors at Standing Rock.  The Powers that Be do not want good news for the earth that gets in the way of their profits.

At the end of our gospel reading is a provocative verse that I have struggled with. Jesus speaks of our power to move mountains. He says, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”  This is not my experience.  So let’s take it in context.  Maybe he was trying to say this.  “You can’t see how this soul-crushing system can change.  But I can.  The first step is prayer: expressing your anguish and your hopes for the future.  And then you don’t know what is possible and what is impossible.  So live as if your prayer is possible.  Live into it.” 

Moving mountains?  We know that’s possible.  Coal companies do it all the time.  And we just did it in Orange County, getting more than three times the people to vote in this midterm election than the last one, and getting national representatives who will listen to our hopes and fears.  Thousands of us picked up our little shovels, and we moved that mountain. 

It will take a miracle to stem our global population.  But that miracle already exists.  Birth control is cheap and easy to use.  Women who have access to birth control, and the freedom to use it, and safe conditions for their children to survive to adulthood, do limit their family size.  Problem solved, in theory.  OK, we still have some digging, but that mountain can move.

It will take a miracle to wean us off our carbon addiction.  Fossil fuel companies will not let go without a fight, and there are technical barriers we don’t know how to overcome.  Yet we must plan and act as though it’s possible.  We can learn from our global neighbors to enjoy living simply. We can take pride in having shared households and multigenerational households (that save lots of resources compared to big suburban homes with one or two people in them).  We can buy less and waste less.  The transformation required is huge, and change is scary.  So we take baby steps in the right direction.  Pick up your shovel; we’ve got one big mountain to move.

It will take a miracle to prevent more fires like the Camp fire that hit the town of Paradise.  Let’s pray for that miracle.  Or any related miracle we can get.  Like the infrastructure for safe evacuation from firestorms.  Like effective relief and housing for these climate refugees, and for the next climate refugees.  Generosity to address human need, and effective governmental intervention: these are miracle worth praying for. And they are possible.  

We are not slaves set by God to toil on impossible tasks.  We are beloved children of God, called to live now as if justice and mercy and hope are real, as if the earth and all the life on it truly matter.  Called to celebrate, and called to care for one another, no matter what.  This is how we live as if the mountain is already being moved. This is our good news that goes beyond what the Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation can do.

In the last line of the reading, Jesus says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.  He is inviting us to let go of the baggage that prevents us from working together to move those mountains, to let go of the baggage that prevents us from caring for each other well...  and he is inviting us to be humble.  None of us really knows how to move mountains, and some of our best ideas may backfire.  Dogmatism and scapegoating move nothing.  We need to be in relationship first, rather than being right.  We need to trust, and give grace.  We can move this mountain, with God’s help.  

So we celebrate the Good News that we see today, and we pray to open ourselves up to possibilities for transformation we do not yet see, to possibilities for healing the earth.  And we live as if all the earth is sacred, full of wonder and full of God’s spirit.  Because it is.  I finish with a prayer by Walter Brueggeman:  God of all life,
Sink your generosity deep into our lives
that your abundance may expose our false lack
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give
so that the world may be made Easter new,
without greedy lack, but only wonder…
Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen.”


The birth of the San Juaquin Wildlife Sanctuary: http://www.seaandsageaudubon.org/Chapter/PSwanSJWS.html

Wendell Berry’s Farm Bill:  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/01/opinion/wendell-berry-agriculture-farm-bill.html  See also Allan Savory’s breakthrough grazing land management:  https://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_changeAllan Savory has discovered, rediscovered actually, that grazing animals, properly managed, can heal grasslands, feed people with net positive environmental impact, and help sequester carbon.  His Institute is helping people around the world to learn holistic land management and to heal grazing lands that were turning into desert. His before and after photos are astonishing.  If you’re curious, ask Kris Percy’s sister Kate Potter.  She has used Savory’s methods. 




All My Relations


We are animals. Some Christians took Genesis too literally and believe that we did not evolve from other animals.  We did.  We are apes, apes with very little hair and oversized brains, who may be too clever for our own good.  We are among the mammals, mammals are the animals that nurse and nurture our young. Like other mammals, our brains are wired for empathy.  We can read the emotional signals of those we are in relationship with, so that we can care for each other well.  That is a survival skill that mammals share, and that has lately spawned a brisk business in cute Youtube animal videos.

Unlike other mammals, though, we can tell ourselves stories about who deserves our care and who does not.  We moderns have had the idea that the earth, the creatures on it, even some other people, are just things to be used, or problems to be solved, or even enemies.  This disconnected way of seeing the world has helped create ecological devastation, wars, injustice, and epidemic depression. This is the thinking of power over, of empire.  

Jesus invites us into a different kind of power: power with, and power for.  “All my relations” is not a quaint attribution of human personality to the natural world.  “All my relations” is a statement of deep truth that we ignore at our peril. Our well-being depends on the well-being of the earth and the lives on it.  We need to tell this part of the Christian story.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
November 11, 2018

All My Relations

Matt. 6:25-33  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’  32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.


Last month I was at Sevenoaks Retreat Center at the foot of the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia.  Hunting season had just opened, but the deer had somehow figured out that on the grounds of the retreat center they were safe. So a lot of deer were wandering the grounds.  Everyone who walked before breakfast (not me) met deer along the trails.  These deer were not tame, but one of my fellow students figured out that if she sang to them, she could get very close; they would not run away. Other people started singing to the deer, and it worked!  Deer like to be sung to, who knew?  That is true for other animals too, including people.

There was also a bear in residence at Sevenoaks.  None of us saw it, but it was leaving “offerings” around the grounds.  Some of the students starting talking about the bear as a threat, an enemy.  This was ironic, since a major point of the retreat was to honor and learn from the power of nature.  I spoke up for the bear; I said that in my understanding, if you respect a bear (and keep your food and garbage secure) the bear will respect you.   That is true for other animals too, sometimes even including people.

Today we are borrowing from Native American people the phrase “All my relations.” This phrase honors the connection we have to the earth and the life on it.  We especially acknowledge pets, those creatures that live with us, that are part of our immediate families.  But we honor God, and we do justice, when we widen the circle to honor “all our relations”– the whole web of nature that surrounds us and sustains us.  

We are animals. Some Christians took Genesis too literally and believe that we did not evolve from other animals.  We did.  We are apes, apes with very little hair and oversized brains, who may be too clever for our own good.  We are among the mammals, mammals are the animals that nurse and nurture our young. Like other mammals, our brains are wired for empathy.  We can read the emotional signals of those we are in relationship with, so that we can care for each other well.  That is a survival skill that mammals share, and that has lately spawned a brisk business in cute Youtube animal videos.

Unlike other mammals, though, we can tell ourselves stories about who deserves our care and who does not.  We moderns have had the idea that the earth, the creatures on it, even some other people, are just things to be used, or problems to be solved, or even enemies.  This disconnected way of seeing the world has helped create ecological devastation, wars, injustice, and epidemic depression. This is the thinking of power over, of empire.  

Jesus invites us into a different kind of power: power with, and power for.  “All my relations” is not a quaint attribution of human personality to the natural world.  “All my relations” is a statement of deep truth that we ignore at our peril. Our well-being depends on the well-being of the earth and the lives on it.  We need to tell this part of the Christian story.

In the creation stories of Genesis and in Psalm 8, God sets humans to rule over nature.  Humans do have a special ability among the animals to plan, and to build, and to transform our environment.  We also have the ability to choose and to consider the effects of our actions.  So among the animals we have a special responsibility to account for our care of the earth and its creatures. 

Animals have their own special abilities, some of which science is still discovering.  Most traditional cultures, including ancient Israel and Egypt and Greece, told proverbs and parables about animals and nature, to teach wisdom.  We still have a few of these teachings in the bible: especially in the book of Proverbs, and in today’s gospel reading. 

In this passage Jesus is reminding us that worry is not how God means us to live; that faith and trust serve us better.  He invites us to take our part in the dance of life, without taking on problems that are not ours to fix.  Other living beings just show up and do what they do best: birds fly and forage, flowers bloom.  We are the only creatures who try to control the future, a job that none of us can accomplish.  Jesus uses our relations to remind us to join the dance of life, not to be paralyzed by worry.

Many traditional cultures also have animal totems:  they understand that by befriending a certain animal a person can learn the gifts and skills of that animal.  Buffalo teaches strength and self-giving.  Wolf teaches loyalty.  Turtle makes a secure home.  Owl teaches wisdom and insight.  Coyote teaches humor and play.  Whatever trait you are in need of, there is an animal who has what you need, and is happy to teach you, ifyou will offer it your respect and companionship.  Are you drawn to any particular animal?

In befriending our pets we often discover love and affection and companionship, so freely given, that I feel safe to say our pets show God’s love for us.  They challenge us to love them well.  To love is to be vulnerable to loss.  Most of us have by now outlived a pet we have loved.  And so they also teach us about loss, and letting go, cherishing memories, and moving on.  

In traditional thinking, “all our relations” go beyond the animal world.  In response to indigenous peoples’ lobbying, four rivers were given the legal status of persons in 2017: the Whanganui River in New Zealand, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India, and the Rio Atrato, in Colombia.  Nobody knows what this means yet in a court of law, but it seems at least as valid to make rivers persons as it is to make corporations persons. Hopefully someday soon watersheds and mountains will be plaintiffs on lawsuits against oil companies to preserve their existence. 

We alone, among all our relations, have moral choices to make. So how will we do right by our animal relations?  Just to bring up the question is to begin to heal our relationships with the non-human world, to attend to “all our relations,” instead of treating nature like a thing, a tool to be used.  

I think it’s pretty obvious how to do right by domestic animals: simply to give them humane treatment.  Wild animals invite us to witness power and grace outside our human realm.  I am humbled when I watch the hummingbird in my garden go about her business, defying gravity, making beauty.  I am awed when the eye of the heron catches mine, as he stands still and regal on the fence behind my house.  God has whole lives and purposes that are not human, that we do not control.  In witnessing them, we can be transformed.

How do we do right by wild animals?  Give them life and a home.  The situation is dire.  Habitats are under threat in so many ways.  By giving wild animals what they need to live, we will give ourselves what we need.  By saving them we help save ourselves.  They do not need to belong to us to bless us.  

The tradition of Christian blessing of animals is said to start with Francis of Assisi in the eleventh century.  We are told that Francis frequently preached to the birds.  What could he tell them about their lives and their service to God that they didn’t already know?  I suspect he just enjoyed their company; and apparently they enjoyed his too.  The stories say that wild animals and birds came up to Francis without fear.  Maybe he sang to them.  Maybe they could tell he recognized them as his relations.  

We bless our pets because they bless us.  And blessing them reminds us of our duty and our joy, to honor all our relations.  Amen.


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What happens to animals after they die?  I do not know, but I trust that they are beloved by God. Some scholars have claimed that animals do not have souls.  Strange, since the Latin word for soul is anima. I think what these scholars mean is that animals do not face the judgment after death that our faith has taught that humans face.  We humans are accountable to God for the lives we have led, because we are conscious of the choices we make.  We are responsible– responsible for doing right; for living God’s way.  Animals don’t have this same awareness and responsibility (as far as we know.)  Animals just do what they do, and they do it well.  In their own unique ways they serve God, without having to try, without worrying about doing it right.