It's All Sacred


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

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

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 18, 2019

It’s All Sacred (A Last Sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Enough

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

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

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
August 4, 2019

Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Paying Attention


I sometimes hang out with chemists at UCI, my husband’s colleagues.  I’m their go-to garden consultant, which just goes to show you that a little knowledge is better than none.  Recently I got to catch up with Elizabeth at a party.  She grinned enthusiastically when she saw me, and said, “Thanks for the gardening advice, it’s working great.”   Twenty minutes later she thanked me again, and told me that her new garden is thriving. 
            The third time Elizabeth thanked me for helping her garden, I said, “Wow, I’m so glad I was able to help. I told you a bunch of stuff.  Which piece of gardening advice is the one that you keep raving about?”
            “Oh,” she replied. “It was that last thing you said.  You told me my plants will do well if I just pay attention to them.” 

Mystics tell us that we can discover God anywhere and everywhere, if we pay attention. We can join the sacred dance.  If we surrender our judgments and worries and expectations, we can begin to hear the sacred music that always surrounds us. We can faithfully follow the One who leads the dance, if we pay attention.  That may be too lofty a goal for you.  Maybe you just want to appreciate nature’s beauty, or live your values in hard times, or show consideration to your friends, or have a thriving garden.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” We are not told how Martha responded to these words. I hope she took a deep breath, took off her apron, and sat down next to Mary, ready to pay attention. 

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
July 21, 2019

Paying Attention

Luke 10:38-42  Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  40  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  42  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Our reading today is one of the profound little stories found only in the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s stories about Jesus emphasize his compassion.  Jesus is breaking boundaries of class and ethnicity, and empowering women.  I treasure this particular story because it has been interpreted as God inviting women to choose scholarship and religious pursuits over housework.  Over the centuries that interpretation has empowered a lot of women.  But like all Gospel stories, it is open ended.  It’s meant to be the beginning of a conversation.  Each time we read it, it may strike us differently. 

What struck me this time around was that Mary was paying attention, and Martha was not.  Martha was doing good work—showing hospitality to Jesus and his twelve or so friends who had descended on her house.  Thirteen young men eat a lot, and there was no takeout pizza to be had anywhere! Martha knew how to play the hostess, how to feed a crowd.  She went on autopilot, falling into that familiar role of running a household and ordering her younger sister around.  I can relate. What she was not doing was paying attention to Jesus, to the unique opportunity he was offering.  Those disciples knew how to barbecue their own fish.  By insisting on doing what didn’t fit the situation, Martha made herself miserable.  

Mary was paying attention, both to her own values and to what was happening to right then.  We can assume she was usually a helpful younger sister.  But on this day she realized that this guest was special.  He didn’t live nearby; time with him was precious. And he had a message she needed to hear. So she put aside her usual helper role, and received what was being offered to her in that special moment.  Because she was paying attention.

Are we paying attention?  Do we notice the special moments happening around us, and receive the gifts they hold for us?  Do we listen to what the sacred might be saying to us amid the hustle and bustle of our lives?  Do we pay attention to how our values intersect our everyday choices?  We won’t pay attention all the time; that would be impossible.  But some of the time we can slow down, because it does take time, to listen, choose how best to respond, not on autopilot or according to some fixed set of rules, but according to our values, our intuition, our best wisdom, and what is happening right now.  

American Buddhists are all about paying attention. They call it mindfulness.  They practice it by meditating.  Mindfulness is not an end in itself.  It’s a way of showing up ready to engage life on life’s terms, getting perspective, a little space from old thoughts and behaviors so that we don’t have to run on autopilot, so we can can best receive what the world has to offer us now, respond out of choice instead of habit.  That’s hard work.  Well, not hard, exactly, but relentless.  You can’t get mindful and stay mindful; you’ve got to do it over and over again.  Christians know about paying attention too.  We might call it prayer from the heart, or being spirit-led, or seeing God in all things, or following the lure of God.  

Paying attention.  Knowing about it and doing it are two different things.  I have been trying to paying attention for about a month now. Every day I set my intention to pay attention.  For at least some small part of the day I actually succeed.  Which is fabulous, because my other option is not paying attention at all. And I’m learning so much!  

I journal, and that helps me pay attention. For instance, I’ve been paying attention to the value of consideration, and noticing the times I’ve treated people poorly, or at least some of them.  Someday I hope to notice this real time.  But in the meantime, by noticing, I can clean up my messes after the fact.  

I pay attention to social issues.  I do research, to try to figure out what’s really going on.  That’s hard emotional work.  I pay attention to my feelings, give myself space to grieve.  

Sometimes I actually pay attention in conversations, to what the other person is saying, instead of what I’m thinking about what they’re saying.  Paying attention is what makes relationships work.  Actually seeing the other person with their feelings, hopes, longings, fears, instead of our projection onto them who we think they are, or should be. We say of children, “She just wants attention.”  Of course. Children needattention, like they need food and water; without it they can’t thrive.  Attention is a gift we give to one another.  

I’ve also tried a new kind of paying attention: just tuning into my senses and taking things in.  I think the Buddhists call this Vipassana.  I have no idea if I’m doing it right, but it’s fascinating. I scan the road during my commute to Irvine, just seeing what my senses take in, instead of playing podcasts.  The light and shadow, the texture of the asphalt, the weeds in the cracks, things I’ve never noticed before.  Paying attention while driving, what a concept.  It might help me live longer. 

Paying attention that way in my garden and on nature walks has been mind blowing.  It’s like opening a book and finding pop-outs, so much is there that I don’t usually notice.  The flowers seem to dial up in color till they’re fluorescent.  

I’m also trying to notice when I don’t pay attention at all, when I tune out.  Binge-watching Netflix, sitting down at my computer and coming back to myself a half hour later not having done the thing I sat down to do, that kind of thing.  Am I resting and getting refreshed?  Or am I getting stiff and preoccupied and anxious?  Do I want to chill  for a bit? Or am I just on autopilot?  Am I hiding from something I don’t want to face, I don’t want to feel?  It’s funny how just noticing that I’m hiding brings some relief, and eventually I get brave enough to face that thing I’m hiding from. 

Psychologists tell us that we live in an age of fragmented attention.  “Look! Shiny!”  Computers, video games, social media, ads, news that shocks and panders… all these things grab at our attention.  They will control us if we don’t control them.  I have no idea how to fix this even in my own life, perhaps especially in my own life.  But I’ve started to pay attention to it happening.  And the more I actually pay attention, the more likely I am to catch myself before a half hour has gone by.

An important part of paying attention is watching my judgments of myself for not “doing it better,” how they can make me want to give up the whole project.  I can go there.  Or I can choose to just start paying attention again.  Or I can take a break.  Either way, I let go of judging my performance for a little while.  What a relief.  So here’s a thing I’m learning.  If I’m judging, labeling, shoulding… anyone or anything, I’m not paying attention. 

You know that person who’s always right?  Who can rationalize what they believe despite the facts?  They’re not paying attention to what you’re saying, or to any new information that doesn’t fit into their already existing system of thought.  In order to learn anything new, we have to really pay attention, make space in our brains for new input that might challenge our old ideas. Things change.  People change.  If we want to live in the present instead of the past or our own fantasy, we have to pay attention.

It takes time.  Children often do it naturally, but most of us adults have to deliberately step out of busyness and demands and worry and distraction.  Poor Martha didn’t do that.  In my experience the busier we get, the less useful we are. Taking time and pausing, we have a better chance to notice that one thing that is needed right now.  

You give your pastors two weeks a year for study leave.  That’s smart of you.  I’m going on a week-long study leave, starting Saturday.  “Mindful Relational Leadership.”   It’s taught by a Buddhist climate activist.  I’ll be practicing paying attention with the pros.  I hope I’ll find some like-minded people to ponder this special moment in history, to pay attention together to hard truths and learn from each other how we might respond.  I’ll also get to face all the judgments I have about my ability to meditate, or lack thereof, and about Buddhist theology being dished up as self-evident truth.

Paying attention to my reactions: annoyance, judgment, anxiety, the occasional manic excitement…that’s part of the deal.  Because when I notice my reactions, I see the habitual thinking that may be preventing me from paying attention.  I can choose to think and act differently, if only for that moment.

I sometimes hang out with chemists at UCI, my husband’s colleagues.  I’m their go-to garden consultant, which just goes to show you that a little knowledge is better than none.  Recently I got to catch up with Elizabeth at a party.  She grinned enthusiastically when she saw me, and said, “Thanks for the gardening advice, it’s working great.”   Twenty minutes later she thanked me again, and told me that her new garden is thriving. 
            The third time Elizabeth thanked me for helping her garden, I said, “Wow, I’m so glad I was able to help. I told you a bunch of stuff.  Which piece of gardening advice is the one that you keep raving about?”
            “Oh,” she replied. “It was that last thing you said.  You told me my plants will do well if I just pay attention to them.” 

Mystics tell us that we can discover God anywhere and everywhere, if we pay attention. We can join the sacred dance.  If we surrender our judgments and worries and expectations, we can begin to hear the sacred music that always surrounds us. We can faithfully follow the One who leads the dance, if we pay attention.  That may be too lofty a goal for you.  Maybe you just want to appreciate nature’s beauty, or live your values in hard times, or show consideration to your friends, or have a thriving garden.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” We are not told how Martha responded to these words. I hope she took a deep breath, took off her apron, and sat down next to Mary, ready to pay attention. Amen.

Learning to Be Neighborly



Some of us have perfectionist tendencies.  We like to do things right the first time. We like to complete the project on time, over spec, under budget, and get the gold star.  I think Jesus asks something different of us.  Give me your whole heart, he says, and keep moving toward a way of living and loving that you may never arrive at in this life.  Recognize how broken this world is, and how you participate in that brokenness whether you intend to or not. Then bring your broken heart to God, and God will attend to it.  And if we are willing, yes, Jesus has some big jobs for you.  We will not do those jobs perfectly.  He only asks that we do them faithfully.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
July 14, 2019

Learning to be Neighborly

Luke 10:25-37  On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
            26  “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 
            27  He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 
            28  “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” 
            29  But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 
            30  In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him.  35 The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 
            36  “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 
            37  The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 
 Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I love watching the different ways Jesus interacts with people in the Gospels.  

Consider those who judge, who are busy telling other people how to lead their lives, and the rules they should follow.  How does Jesus treat them?  Not well!  He has no patience for that kind of behavior. “Woe to you hypocrites!”  Good reminder that it’s not our business to judge; we don’t need to tell other people how to be faithful.

Jesus acts another way toward those people who think they’re doing a pretty good job being religious and come to him, asking, well, how am I doing?  I have my ticket to heaven because I’ve done all the right things, don’t I?  Or do I need to check a few more boxes?  The questioner in today’s story and the rich young ruler are in this category.  To them Jesus says: You think you’re righteous?  No, one more thing you have to do.  And it’s a big one.  To the rich young ruler: give away everything you own and follow me.  And to the man in today’s reading: give care at great personal cost to someone you’re expected to hate.  So if you think you are “justified,” you are doing everything right in your Christian walk, don’t tell Jesus about it.  He’ll make sure to assign you something above and beyond.

Jesus acts a third way toward those people who approach him with humility, longing to be close to him, knowing their flaws, knowing that they need mercy and love in order to be right with God.  Every time Jesus encounters such a person, his response is to reach out to them, forgive them, love them.  Ah, humility.  Maybe this is the approach we should try.

I found a little quiz on Facebook a while back. “How well do you follow Jesus?” The questions were very biblical, things like:  Have you visited any prisoners lately?  Do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?  Do you love God with your whole heart, and mind and soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself?  I didn’t complete the whole quiz.  I got too discouraged about how poorly I was doing.  Later that day I remembered:  humility! Maybe that quiz had put me just where Jesus wants me.

Some of us have perfectionist tendencies.  We like to do things right the first time. We like to complete the project on time, over spec, under budget, and get the gold star.  I think Jesus asks something different of us.  Give me your whole heart, he says, and keep moving toward a way of living and loving that you may never arrive at in this life. Recognize how broken this world is, and how you participate in that brokenness whether you intend to or not. Then bring your broken heart to God, and God will attend to it.  And if we are willing, yes, Jesus has some big jobs for you.  We will not do those jobs perfectly.  He only asks that we do them faithfully.

In this parable, the obvious big job is to love: to show love to neighbor in a practical and extravagant way.  Go beyond feeling loving feelings.  Go beyond writing a check to a charity.  Goout of your wayto help someone who needs help.  Take a risk– stopping on the dangerous Jerusalem-Jericho road was a real risk.  An injured man on the side of the road could have been a decoy: a trap set by bandits. People who really need help are often in risky situations, situations that we hesitate to step into ourselves. And they could be scamming you. Our hesitation is sensible.  The Gospel: not so sensible.  The parable invites us to give extravagantly: that Samaritan gave care with his own hands, he took a detour to a safe resting place, he took money out of his pocket for the injured man’s board and care. 

To go out of our way to help a neighbor is the obvious big job in this parable.  There is a less obvious big job.  That is to love a neighbor whom we are expected to hate or avoid. Jews versus Samaritans, a brief summary:  six hundred years before Jesus’ time they were the same people, with the same religion. When the nation was conquered, the upper class were deported to Babylon and became Jews.  Those left behind, the poorest city folk and the subsistence farmers, became the Samaritans.  Their religions were so similar that you and I probably would have trouble telling the difference, but Jews and Samaritans managed to detest each other anyway. Each could refer to conflicts in the recent past as proof of the untrustworthiness of the other.  On a good day they just stayed out of each others’ way.  

Jews and Samaritans, neighbors in conflict, an old, familiar story.  As Christians, we follow a Teacher who told us to love enemies, to forgive, but that hasn’t kept us free of war or injustice or prejudice.    Imagine how it grieves Jesus, what some of his followers have done.

Drawing lines between “us and “them” has always been a convenient way to unite “us” by scapegoating and demonizing “them.”  Our faith allows us no such lines.  Right now immigrants and refugees are the “them” who are victims of government policies designed to create fear and to dehumanize. In recent weeks, we have received reliable reports of immigrants and refugees, including innocent children, being held by our government under conditions not fit for the worst criminal, conditions that can be argued to be concentration camps, conditions of hunger, filth, neglect, contagion and untreated illness, lack of sleep, conditions that will scar children for life, that have already killed children.  How can our government commit such atrocities? Unfortunately it’s easy.  Follow orders.  Act in secrecy.  But most effectively, do not see the people being harmed as people.  Demonize them.  See them as other, not like us, a threat and a liability.  It’s easy to do this; we humans are wired for it.  And our faith teaches us never to let that happen.  

Who is my neighbor?  The immigrant our government put in a cage.  We have a voice; they do not. We have resources; they do not.  We can vote; they cannot.  So… a bunch of us were at the Lights for Liberty candlelight vigil this past Friday, and that is a beginning.  Your Council will be exploring more opportunities to advocate for immigrants and refugees.  

Witnessing these horrific actions toward immigrants is hard emotional work.  Not only is the human toll painful to witness, but the cognitive dissonance, the gap between our nation’s stated values of liberty and justice and this inexcusable reality, this shakes our very identity.  It is so much easier to look away, to pretend it’s not happening. Or to find some excuse why it’s excusable, it’s not that bad.  It’s that bad.  I thank you for having the courage to face this very painful moral issue.

This a time of soul-searching, searching for the soul of our nation that is threatened by cruelty and hatred.  Let me suggest that we at Brea Congregational roll up our sleeves and get personal.  Raise your hand if you personally know a refugee waiting to learn whether they will be deported.  Do you know a person who doesn’t have papers to be here legally?  How about a Dreamer, a DACA recipient?  Maybe we need to get to know these people, hear their struggles, befriend them, make real investments in their freedom and their livelihoods.  That’s a big job.  That’s what a Good Samaritan would do.

Immigrants do have Good Samaritans here in Orange County. Friends of Orange County Detainees was founded in 2012 by some white church ladies at Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Church in Lake Forest.  The Friends are about 75 volunteers who have been visiting immigrants and refugees in detention while they wait the months or sometimes years for their cases to be resolved.  Some of these detainees hadn’t ever had a visitor and wondered if anyone even knew they were still alive.  Sometimes volunteers speak the language, be it Spanish, French or Haitian Creole. Sometimes they use a phone app and fake it.  These Friends contact families back home and let them know the refugee is still alive. 

Immigrants and refugees seeking asylum are not criminals, so while they can be detained indefinitely, they are not entitled to legal representation.  If they have representation, odds are in their favor to win their case.  If they don’t have it, they are almost always deported. Friends help them find legal representation.  Sometimes they pay their bail.  And when detainees are released, they give them food and clothes, a bus ticket to relatives, or help finding a shelter.  And followup.  Help finding school, and jobs.  Some of those detainees are transgender.  Relatives wouldn’t take them in.  Nor would shelters. So one of the Friends opened her home to them.  She has temporarily housed twelve transgender women by now, and one of them has claimed her as an adopted mother.

My neighbor Betty is a Friend. It’s through her that our warm clothes found their way to detainees last Christmas.  Betty pays detainees’ bail out of her personal budget.  She also hits up our neighborhood email list, so now I’ve paid bail too.  Betty is retired, but not retired, if you know what I mean.  She is frequently gone for weeks at a time, staffing a shelter in Tijuana housing Haitian families waiting to claim asylum.

Talking to these detainees, Betty hears about the horrors they left behind.  Death threats from crooked politicians; the people already murdered.  The harrowing route to our border, the family members who died along the way.  Spoiled food in jail.  Loneliness and despair.  And gratitude that somebody cared.

Orange County is getting out of the immigrant detention business.  The last immigrants will be gone from Theo Lacy jail in a few days, relocated to the largest private detention facility in America, Adelanto, in the high desert northwest of Victorville.  Despite Adelanto’s fearsome reputation, visitors are hearing from immigrants that they’re being treated better there than in Orange County.  But they are more isolated.  Friends are wondering what they can do now.  And so are we.  

Our religion does not ask of us success or perfection.  God knows our society is very broken.  We are asked to step up in the middle of brokenness, not to fix things beyond our lower to fix, but to witness to the love and justice of God, to show we care. It may break our hearts.  It may break our hearts wide open, to contain more love than we knew was possible.  May God guide us to reach out to make the other a friend.  Amen.

Living, and Speaking, the Message


There is a story about one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson.  After years and years of trying to get sober on his own and failing, he had some kind spiritual awakening that allowed him to stay sober, barely… and he was so excited, he wanted to share it with every other drunk, so they could all be cured.  He went to hospitals and found lost-cause drunks and preached his cure to them.  After some months, he had not one success.  He despaired of this mission to his long-suffering wife Lois.  “This isn’t working.  Not a single one of the guys I’m trying to help has stayed sober.” Lois replied, “It is working.  One of them is sober.  You.”  

Being successful is not the point.  The point is speaking and living your truth, your hope, from God and for God.  If someone else gets it, more power to you.  You may never even know that someone got it.  You’ll get it, if you keep seeking to live the message of God’s presence and love and power in our world.  May you preach the Good News in your own unique way.  And sometimes, use words.

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Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
July 7, 2019

What Message?

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20   After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.  2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.   Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.  4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.  5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’  6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.  7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house.   Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’   10  But when you enter a town and you are not made welcome, go out into its streets and say, 11 “The very dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off to your shame. Only take note of this: the kingdom of God has come.”

            16  “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” 
            17  The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”  18 He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.  19  See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.  20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” 

There is an old argument in Christian circles about preaching the Gospel versus living the Gospel.  Both are important, and both are challenging.  So I have my eye on how Jesus instructed these first preachers out on the road: how were they supposed to live the message they brought? 

See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals…  No personal firearms.  No pepper spray.  Be vulnerable.  On purpose.  Take risks to share the Good News.

and greet no one on the road.  Don’t get distracted.  You’re on a mission.

Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.That’s different.  As if peace was an active force that could be given or taken away.  Maybe it is.   

Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide.  Do work on behalf of your host.  Be humble.  Accept your room and board.

Do not move about from house to house.  Your host will get to know you, warts and all.  Build relationships; make them work, don’t run away when things get hard.

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; He’s talking about Jewish Kosher food laws: don’t be fussy. Don’t argue about details of religious observances.  

Care for the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’  So that’s what the message is: “the Kingdom of God is near you.”  And that message is lived by caring for sick people, valuing them, bringing them hope and love.  

In the synoptic Gospels, the message is not, “Believe and be saved.”  It is “The Kingdom of God is near.”  Time to live our lives as if God is real, and making a difference in our world.  What kind of God?  That’san important question. If it’s a God who only comforts you and never challenges you… you obviously haven’t read the Gospels.  If it’s a God that burns people in hell forever… no thanks.  If it’s a God that always agrees with you?  Or sides with the people in power against the powerless…call me skeptical. 

Humility is in order when we start talking about the gospel and the God who invites us to share it.  We need to tread carefully.  And some things we can affirm.  Our God is not interested in defending borders; our holy book keeps demanding that we treat strangers, foreigners and immigrants like citizens and as neighbors.  Our God cares for all children, perhaps especially when their skin is brown and they walk fifteen hundred miles to find safety. Our God demands of us peace when violence seems the only answer.  Our God judges us for how we love, not who we love.  

So what kind of God does your life preach?  At this church I hear your actions preaching that God cares for the earth, and the creatures on it.  I hear your actions preaching that God cares for all people, especially those excluded by other churches, and those excluded by our white culture and our society’s worship of money.  We preach it on the street sign and I preach it on Sunday morning.  And then we try to live it.  

If you grieve that you don’t live the gospel as well as you’d like, you’re in good company.  If your heart is breaking for how far we are right now from the Kingdom of God, mine too.  We don’t have to know how to fix things.  We can speak up about how we should treat people, all people, and then try to live into that.  We have a voice, thanks to our Constitution.  We can ease suffering, offer dignity. We can tell people that we do what we do because of our love of God.  Jesus never asked us to bring about the Kingdom of God, just to allow it to start working in us and through us.  To live the message, in the midst of a real and broken world, and to share the message.

Francis of Assisi was a lover of animals, a rebuilder of churches and a powerful lay preacher.  Francis founded a renewal movement in Christianity that emphasized equality, whole-heartedness, and love of nature.  He was reported to have said, “Preach the Gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.”  It turns out that’s not exactly what he said, but you get the idea.  Francis himself preached often, but his actions made real the gospel he preached, showed people the kind of God he wanted them to know.

Francis loved to rebuild churches, because in a vision he heard God say to him, “rebuild my church.”  God was probably speaking metaphorically about the church’s integrity and sense of purpose rather than the actual brick and mortar, but Francis attended to both. He had been a spoiled rich kid, but as a preacher, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty for God.

Francis made all the members of his order take a vow of poverty, because he grew up in a household and a culture where money was power and he know how money distracted and corrupted and alienated people, especially those most in need of Good News.

Despite his penchant for repairing churches, Francis loved preaching out-of-doors, in nature, where passers-by could gather and listen.  People who might never go to church.  People too poor, or too wounded, or too cynical to ever willingly step inside a sanctuary: Francis brought the message to them.  And in his open-hearted words, many of them they found God.

Francis was a preacher, and most of you are not. I know you try to live the message, and you’ve hired me to preach it.  But in your own way, you too need to speak a word now and then, to say how you do what you do, and why you do it.  We can be grateful that we are free to use our voices to speak about our faith, and to speak as witness for those who have no voice.  You don’t have to be eloquent.  Just let people know that you have a message inside you that you are trying to live.  

Someone who was formative in my upbringing mentioned a few months back that she prayed about something.  “Oh, do you pray much?” I asked.  “Oh yes, all the time,” she said.  I never knew.  The whole time I was growing up, I heard her say grace at meals, rote prayers on Sunday, nothing more.  I wonder if I would have grown up differently if I had known that she was praying all the time. I wonder what I preached (or didn’t preach) to my own son. 

When I go to a rally I wear my minister’s collar with the revealing white tab. People know I am there because of my faith.  I preach without words. You will have to use words. They can be simple words. “What would Jesus do?”  Or clever words.  “Jesus, save me from your followers.”  If you’re doing what you’re called to do and you say why, your words will be profound. 

What happens when you preach and live your message? Not usually the fabulous success that we hear in this reading.  The disciples return and they’re high-fiving each other, and Jesus is using a little exaggeration when he talks about seeing Satan fall from heaven.  Maybe he saw a shooting star….  Such a successful message!  I wish Luke had omitted that part, because it puts the emphasis on the success, instead of the message.  

There is a story about one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson.  After years and years of trying to get sober on his own and failing, he had some kind spiritual awakening that allowed him to stay sober, barely… and he was so excited, he wanted to share it with every other drunk, so they could all be cured.  He went to hospitals and found lost-cause drunks and preached his cure to them.  After some months, he had not one success.  He despaired of this mission to his long-suffering wife Lois.  “This isn’t working.  Not a single one of the guys I’m trying to help has stayed sober.” Lois replied, “It is working.  One of them is sober.  You.”  

Being successful is not the point.  The point is speaking and living your truth, your hope, from God and for God.  If someone else gets it, more power to you.  You may never even know that someone got it.  You’ll get it, if you keep seeking to live the message of God’s presence and love and power in our world.  May you preach the Good News in your own unique way.  And sometimes, use words.  Amen.