Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Call: Sermon Preached on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Ainsworth UCC January 18, 2015

January 18, 2015.                                                                                               
Second Sunday in Epiphany.                                                                               
Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

1 Samuel 3:1-10.

                                                                 “THE CALL”


 In the name of the Triune God.  Amen.

 Samuel was a small boy.  His prospects were negligible.  His mother was unable to conceive, she prayed and her prayers were answered.  Samuel heard the voice calling him. He responded, and because of his response he helped usher in a new era of justice for his people.

 Little Mike was a small boy.  His prospects were negligible.  His parents believed and prayed, and their prayers were answered. Little Mike heard the voice calling him.  He responded, and because of his response he helped usher in a new era of justice for a nation and world.

 Ainsworth United Church of Christ was a small church.  Its prospects were negligible. The founders prayed and their prayers were answered.  They heard the voice calling them.  They responded, and because of their response they created a community that would herald and work to establish a new era of justice for a city.

 Three stories. Three calls.  Three responses.

 On this day that we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, the scriptures tell a story about God’s call and the human response. 

 Thirty years ago, members of St. Andrews and Second United Church of Christ embarked upon a unique mission together.  Two mono-racial congregations established a multiracial, multicultural community. As Samuel was an answer to his mother’s prayers, so too was Ainsworth UCC an answer to the prayers of many. Samuel was dedicated to God, so too was Ainsworth dedicated to God. Samuel was called by God to do a new thing, so too did God call Ainsworth to do a new thing. As Martin articulated and lived out the vision of the beloved community, so too did the founding members of Ainsworth UCC articulated and lived into a vision.

So where do we go from here?

The Call: The story of Samuel is one that resonates with all of us.  The story of a dark silent night.  So dark that one cannot see one’s hand in front of the face.  All that is heard is your breath entering and leaving your body. Today was like yesterday, which was like the day before. You lay in your bed, twisting from one side to the other. The unresolved problems of today promise to become the unresolved problems of tomorrow.  Tomorrow will probably be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like the day before that. 

And then there was the voice.  Whose voice is calling?  How should I respond?  Twice he rose certain that his elder was calling him.  But that was not the voice of his elder.  In fact, the wise older man counseled the young boy to return to his bed and listen with his ear and heart.  There was nothing special about the boy, nothing about his birth or family which would lead one to believe he would be a mighty prophet. He was nothing more than a young boy when he heard the voice of God to engage in a mighty work.

So the boy went back to his bed and listened. The boy heard the voice of the divine calling him by name, “Samuel, Samuel.” The young boy could not have imagined what God was calling him to do. He did not know that the voice was calling him to a life that would challenge powerful evil forces.  What he did know was that it was the voice of God so he responded, “Speak for your servant is listening” (I Samuel 3.10)

Motivated by seeking to do what was right, and not what was popular, the man who was known as Little Mike as a child often rejected the advice of his counselors and chose the more difficult path.  His support of the sanitation workers, his mobilization of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, his opposition to the War, all cost him support from many, and the toast of the establishment in1964, was on the outside with the poor in 1968. He was a man, and often had to be pushed to take actions. Young people in SNCC, and grassroots organizers such as Ella Baker, had little patience for what they saw was the calculating cautionary moves and decisions of the civil rights establishment and their leaders such as King.  They advocated in words and deeds, for him and the movement to become more radical in their critique and methods.

What those who opposed him for being too radical, and those who opposed him for being too conservative, did not grasp was that throughout his lifetime, Martin King exhibited a unique ability to see what many could not see, to embark on campaigns that were thought of as doomed, to yes, I will say it, dream, what many could not imagine. He was called to be a prophet.

In a recent article about King’s focus on economic justice at the end of his life, Washington Post’s columnist Eugene Robinson writes:” King was a prophet. His role was to see clearly what others could not or would not recognize, and to challenge our consciences."  That prophetic edge was evident throughout his life.  He continued to challenge and question.  He continued to call us to examine our lives and to think critically about where we are going. The title of King’s last book. written in 1967, was “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community”  The title of the sermon he was to preached two days after his murder was “Why America May Go to Hell”

His prophetic call and response led to his arrest more than 20 times. Those who were committed to the movement knew that freedom would not come without paying a heavy price. The heavy price is something that we so easily forget.  So as a reminder of the cost of freedom instead of hanging pictures of King standing at a pulpit, or addressing the crowd at the Washington DC Mall, perhaps we should  adorn our walls and festivities tables with pictures of Dr. King in a jail cell or his mug shots, or pictures of the tortured bodies of freedom workers.  Freedom ain’t free.

So what was the voice that called Samuel saying to the Dr. King?  Martin, the reluctant prophet, was unexpectedly called to take on a leadership role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. David Garrow in his book, “Bearing The Cross”, writes about King’s struggle. One powerful incident took place late at night on Friday, January 27, 1956.  He had returned home from a long strategic planning meeting.  His wife was asleep but he was unable to rest.  He got up made a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. He pondered about the role he that was forced upon him. A role he did not seek. A role as a leader when he was not prepared to lead. In “Stride Towards Freedom” Dr. King writes:

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.

The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone." At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.

Three days later his house was fire bombed and his family nearly killed.  One year later the King family woke up and found twelve sticks of dynamite on their front porch, fortunately the fuse had smoldered out.  King prayed,

"You gave me a vision in the kitchen of my house and I am thankful for it....So I am not afraid of anybody this morning. Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I'm going to stand up to them. Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I'm going to stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the promised land and it's going to be here in Montgomery.

Throughout his ministry, even the night before he was murdered, he would remind himself and those who shared in the struggle about this hope, this mountain top experience, the vision of the Promised Land, the beloved community.

Danger stalks those who advocate for justice. Violence and the threat of death is ever present.

More than thirty years ago parishioners at St. Andrews and Second United Church of Christ congregations believed that God was calling them to work together in unknown territory.  Two congregations with two different histories and cultures, heard the voice of God calling them strive to create a multicultural, multiracial church. This year members of this congregation are embarking on mission that will preserve on video the stories of some of the older members of this church.   We call it the “The Legacy Project”. Young people will interview older members of the congregation.  The interviewees will share the reasons why they are committed to living into the beloved community. These stories will inspire new generations.

Just as Samuel did not rest with the knowledge that God had spoken to him once, and Dr. King did not rest with the accolades he received for his work, neither must Ainsworth rest on what we did in the past. The Sacred Conversation on Race Team (SCORE- don’t you love acronyms?) is embarking on engaging our church to examine who we are and where we are going in regards to racial justice. One question we will ask you to ponder in coming weeks is: Are there any actions or values Ainsworth should adopt, drop, or adjust to more effectively manifest itself as a multiracial congregation?

The United Church of Christ’s identity campaign proclaim “God is still speaking”
A natural response to that assertion is if God is still speaking how and when do we here God’s voice?  If we are honest we might acknowledge we know what God is saying, but do not want to heed the divine call. Our statement of faith proclaim “You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship to be your servants in the service of other, to proclaim the gospel to all the word and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”

Our heritage as a faith community in the United Church of Christ testify to our commitment to struggle for racial justice.  Our commitment was evident in the solidarity and support given to the enslaved Africans on the ship Amistad in their freedom struggle in 1839. Our commitment was evident when we established and establishing the first anti-slavery society with multiracial leadership, the American Missionary Society, in 1846. When Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement Martin Luther King Jr. asks the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication (who recently celebrated his 102nd birthday) organized churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. The church’s unswerving commitment to freedom of the civil rights activists, the Wilmington Ten, the first report on environmental racism and thus pioneering the work for environmental justice, are evidence that the UCC has a rich history of advocating for racial justice.

The prophets Samuel and Martin did not rest on the laurels of their past accomplishments. Neither can Ainsworth or our denomination rest on noble efforts in the past. We may have seen from the mountain top the beloved community, but we must continue, to paraphrase Dr. King’s last speech, until we as a people get to the Promised Land.

Last week the national officers of the United Church of Christ issued a statement to the 5000 churches in our denomination.  In this document, called, “The Pastoral Letter On Racism: A New Awakening”, our national United Church of Christ leaders remind us about our history and calling:

Born in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and having deep roots in the 19th century struggle to abolish slavery, the United Church of Christ has a lasting engagement in the struggle for racial justice. The 1991 Pastoral Letter on Contemporary Racism emphasized the Seventeenth General Synod declaration that “[r]acism is a sin and an evil that stands as an affront to the Christian faith.”  The 2008 Pastoral Letter that accompanies Sacred Conversations on Race pointed out, “Racism remains a wound at the heart of our nation that cannot be wished away or treated carelessly.” These writings from our leaders during those years remind us that acknowledging and challenging racism is not new for the United Church of Christ. They also remind us that we are theologically and spiritually compelled to seek the elimination of racism within ourselves, in the church and in society.

They conclude their pastoral letter with:

In the 2015 season of Epiphany and beyond, may the Spirit of God embolden us to recognize and resist the evolving virus of racism in our social body, encourage us through our hope in Jesus the Christ to repair the breach, and embrace us all as we move into the brave spaces of interracial church relationships, more just communities, and active engagement to put an end to the evil of racism.

Let not our inaction be an affront to God. Let our actions be a sign of the healing love of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

God is still speaking.  God is still calling.

So let us listen prayerfully and proclaim prophetically. The prophet Joel stated,
“I will pour out my Spirit
    on every kind of people:
Your sons will prophesy,
    also your daughters.
Your old men will dream,
    your young men will see visions.
I’ll even pour out my Spirit on the servants,
    men and women both.
Today, as in days past, God is doing a new thing.  God is calling and the people are responding in Ferguson, in Portland, in Mexico, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa, in South America.
God continues to call and empower people for service. God called Samuel, and Samuel heeded the call.  God called Martin and Martin heeded the call.  God called the founding members of Ainsworth United Church of Christ and they heeded the call.  God is calling us, will we heed that call?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and First Martyr. December 26.

The glitter and festivities surrounding Christmas may lead many to forget or ignore that allegiance to the Prince of Peace may lead to a difficult life. Immediately following the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord the church reminds us of the cost of discipleship. 

 Today we recall the faith and sacrifice of the first martyr St. Stephen. In a couple of days we will recall how the empire sought to kill the child Jesus by unleashing its armed forces and terrorizing families and massacring children.
Pray with and for those who are enduring hardships and martyrdom in many lands today. May we commit ourselves to the way of peace. May God grant us the strength and faith that St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, demonstrated. Kyrie Eleison.
From the Office of Readings for today:
A sermon of St Fulgentius of Ruspe
The armour of love
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.
  Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
  Our king, despite his exalted majesty, came in humility for our sake; yet he did not come empty-handed. He brought his soldiers a great gift that not only enriched them but also made them unconquerable in battle, for it was the gift of love, which was to bring men to share in his divinity. He gave of his bounty, yet without any loss to himself. In a marvellous way he changed into wealth the poverty of his faithful followers while remaining in full possession of his own inexhaustible riches.
  And so the love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven; shown first in the king, it later shone forth in his soldier. Love was Stephen’s weapon by which he gained every battle, and so won the crown signified by his name. His love of God kept him from yielding to the ferocious mob; his love for his neighbour made him pray for those who were stoning him. Love inspired him to reprove those who erred, to make them amend; love led him to pray for those who stoned him, to save them from punishment. Strengthened by the power of his love, he overcame the raging cruelty of Saul and won his persecutor on earth as his companion in heaven. In his holy and tireless love he longed to gain by prayer those whom he could not convert by admonition.
  Now at last, Paul rejoices with Stephen, with Stephen he delights in the glory of Christ, with Stephen he exalts, with Stephen he reigns. Stephen went first, slain by the stones thrown by Paul, but Paul followed after, helped by the prayer of Stephen. This, surely, is the true life, my brothers, a life in which Paul feels no shame because of Stephen’s death, and Stephen delights in Paul’s companionship, for love fills them both with joy. It was Stephen’s love that prevailed over the cruelty of the mob, and it was Paul’s love that covered the multitude of his sins; it was love that won for both of them the kingdom of heaven.
  Love, indeed, is the source of all good things; it is an impregnable defence,- and the way that leads to heaven. He who walks in love can neither go astray nor be afraid: love guides him, protects him, and brings him to his journey’s end.
  My brothers, Christ made love the stairway that would enable all Christians to climb to heaven. Hold fast to it, therefore, in all sincerity, give one another practical proof of it, and by your progress in it, make your ascent together.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

I, Too, Sing America: Thoughts on the Fourth of July

I, Too, Sing America

 by Langston Hughes
I,too,sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

I am a man with a double consciousness.

In the Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. DuBois wrote,
"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn't bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”
 I remember rising early on a warm summer day, grabbing the flag, going on the roof of our home, and unfurling the flag to wave in glory. My years as a Boy Scout taught me how to care for the flag.

I remember hearing my paternal grandfather, an immigrant from Barbados, proudly proclaim, “ I am an American.” I remember hearing the stories of his struggle to come to this country and arriving on Ellis Island. Later he sent for his wife, and eventually built a home where my father was born in, and I and my sisters were raised.

I also remember hearing stories from my  maternal grandmother; stories about her journey from Virginia to New York to flee the inhumanity of Jim Crow. Raised by her grandparents who were borne into slavery, she manifested a fierce commitment to the freedom of black people. She raised her children with a deep allegiance to the freedom struggle. I remember her leading us into a southern restaurant a few days after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act to prove to her family and impress on her young grandson  that we had the right to be there and to be served.

From both sides of my family I received lessons about  freedom, about the history of oppressed people to obtain their liberation, and this country's obligation to fulfil its ancient promise of freedom for all its inhabitants. Both sides of my family came to these shores in boats, one side willingly, the other side in shackles. Both sides of my family held onto the promise of America even though America refused to embrace their full humanity and potential. 

So I approach each Fourth of July with weariness and determination; wearied by the never ending struggle and determined by the eternal promise. Like Langston Hughes, I, too, am America.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

30th Anniversary of My Ordination

On this day in 1983 by the grace of God I was ordained as a minister of Word and Sacrament by the Metropolitan Association, New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. I solicit your prayers that I may continue to keep my ordination vows and fulfil my duties of ministry by serving God's people, building up Christ's Church, and glorifying the holy and undivided Trinity. Soli Deo Gloria.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Interview with Jim Wallis

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to Jim Wallis of Sojourners .  Since my college years I have followed and admired the work of this community. 

"Sojourners is a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice. We seek to inspire hope and build a movement to transform individuals, communities, the church, and the world. With a 40-year history, Sojourners is a nonpartisan leader that convenes, builds alliances among, and mobilizes people of faith, focusing on racial and social justice, life and peace, and environmental stewardship. Working through Sojourners magazine, Sojourners’ website sojo.net, public speaking events, media outreach, educational resources, books, advocacy, and trainings, Sojourners is an internationally influential voice at the intersection of faith, politics, and culture." (from their website).

His recent book is entitled "On God's Side: What Religion Forgets And Politics Hasn't Learned About Serving The Common Good".

This interview was originally broadcast on KBOO community radio on June 10, 2013.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Progressive Portland: A Bitter Divide

The flouride ballot measure unveiled a deep divide within Portland progressive community. It became clear early on that the election would follow the all too familiar pattern of American politics of viewing one's position on an issue as the only moral, correct, logical, fill in the blank, position, and those who took the opposing view as immoral, incorrect, illogical, fill in the blank. Rather than bringing out the best, the campaigns brought out the worst. Forgive the pun, but it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. 

If those of us who call ourselves progressives are unable to model a way that allows for disagreement in a way that builds rather than destroys trust among ourselves, how can we hope to bring together communities with even stronger more fundamental differences? We all lost this evening. The winners were self righteousness and cynicism. We did not model the beloved community we often profess is our goal. We should pause, reflect, and repent. We should commit ourselves to seeking a better way together. In the words of St. Benedict, "always we begin again".

Friday, January 4, 2013

Epiphany Proclamation: 2013

JESUS MAFA. The Three Wise Men, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48399

In the first lesson for the Feast of Epiphany the prophet proclaims, "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" (Isaiah 60:1 NRSV).  For those in the Northern hemisphere who must rise out of their beds in the early hours of the morning it may be difficult to affirm this insight.  Yet, if we are observant, we notice that it is lighter earlier this week than last week, and that next week the sun will rise earlier. 

For many the fussiness of Christmas is over, except for packing and storing Christmas decorations, the thank you notes for soon to be forgotten gifts that parents ask their children to write to distant relatives, and paying the bills that will arrive in January.  Yet, before we return to the humdrum of our ordinary lives, we are called to stop and behold the child.

The light has come. 

Like the wise rulers we behold the infant and return to our worlds by a different route, intrigued and perplexed by our experience of beholding the divine in human flesh. However we soon realize that today does not look any different than yesterday, or a thousand yesterdays.  Torture, hunger, climate change, domestic violence, human trafficking, continue. Yet, we can not help but affirm the prophet's proclamation:

The light has come.

Perhaps it is because the incarnation reminds us that we are not alone.  The  struggle for justice and peace is a difficult one.  But we are not alone. 

Dorothy Sayers wrote: -->
"That for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is - limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death - he had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. he was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worth it" ("The Greatest Drama Ever Staged: Is the Official Creed of Christendom", in Christian Letters To A Post-Christian World, published by Eerdmans. 1969).

God is with us.  Emmanuel.  The light has come.

And so we enter Epiphany and Ordinary time (from the Latin, tempus per annum, time through the year)  and are invited to accompany Jesus on a journey. As we journey we will encounter wonders, disappointments, miracles, and hardships. Yet we believe. 

God is with us. Emmanuel. The light has come.

Soon the season of Lent will be upon us.  We will examine our lives, priorities, hopes, and fears. Maybe we will experience metanoia, a radical change. God only knows. Yet we know we are not alone in this journey.  

We are with our community.  God is with us.  Emmanuel.  The light has come.

But, we should not rush ahead too quickly as we are culturally programmed to do. Instead, let us recall and reflect on an ancient practice of the church. 

Before personal electronic devices, before the printing press, before most people could read, Christian communities gathered on Epiphany  to hear the dates of the liturgical year, and to be reminded how to live, that is, by following Jesus who guides us on our journey.  "The Proclamation proclaims not only dates but the reality that our lives are to be lived in rhythm with and according to Jesus’ life." (Michael Marsh). This is called the "Epiphany Proclamation".  Today many churches are embracing this ancient practice.

The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us, "always we begin again."

We are with our community.  God is with us.  Emmanuel. The light has come.

The Epiphany Proclamation 2013:

Dear brothers and sisters,
the glory of the Lord has shone upon us,
and shall ever be manifest among us,
until the day of his return.

Through the rhythms of times and seasons
let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.

Let us recall the year's culmination,
the Easter Triduum of the Lord:
his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial,
and his rising celebrated
between the evening of the Twenty-Eighth day of March
and the evening of the Thirtieth day of March,
Easter Sunday being on the Thirty-First day of March.

Each Easter -- as on each Sunday --
the Holy Church makes present the great and saving deed
by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death.
From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.

Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent,
will occur on the Thirteenth day of February.

The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on the Ninth day of May.

Pentecost, joyful conclusion of the season of Easter,
will be celebrated on the Nineteenth day of May.

And, this year the First Sunday of Advent will be
on the First day of December.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims the passover of Christ
in the feasts of the holy Mother of God,
in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints,
and in the commemoration of the faithful departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come,
Lord of time and history,
be endless praise, for ever and ever.