Dawn chorus

On an early morning I listened to what the English call the "dawn chorus:" that symphony of birdsong that heralds the start of a new day. It's especially loud in the twilight of the morning, before the sun comes up. It is a happy expectation.
     Not all expectations are quite as happy as the dawn chorus, however. It is difficult for the modern church to capture the idea that the Easter event, the resurrection of Christ, was a complete surprise. In the wee hours of the Easter morning, as our scripture from St. Mark tells it, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, were going to a tomb to anoint the body of a loved person with spices. Likely there was a dawn chorus that morning, but I doubt they heard it. I can imagine, at best, a feeling of numbness as they approached this dreadful, solemn task. As with us today, there would not be a thought that something frankly impossible had occurred in the night. 
     Today is Good Friday. It is a day of death, the "good" being a medieval distortion of the word "God" that has stuck around. To appreciate it, we would have to be willing to enter into a state of hopelessness - and be able to hold it. Beholding the death of Jesus was not something the male disciples could do: they hid, they ran, they denied knowing the man. The braver women who had followed him, and whose voices he had held in equity (in multiple examples), stayed with him to the end, and tended to the body that remained. 
     There is, each morning, a dawn chorus. And perhaps in the darkest of our moments, we don't want to hear it, or cannot hear it. Yet that does not mean it is not there, heralding a new dawn and a new day. As we go into Good Friday, I invite you to reflect on those things which block out the dawn chorus in your life: what keeps you from seeing up? On Easter, a day of the impossible, might it be possible for new life to arise from even that?

Shalom,
Pastor Ryan

Please note that I will be on vacation from Monday, April 2, through Sunday, April 8, and at a UCC Theological Summit in Cleveland from April 8-10.

Meaningful Hosannas

I just learned that Jaelynn Willey, a 16-year-old girl who was shot at Great Mills High School earlier this week, will be taken off of life support. Her impending death, though not reported at the time of this writing, will likely be a rally cry at tomorrow's March for Our Lives not only in Annapolis, but across the nation. 
     We seem to have entered a period of marches. March for Women, March for Our Lives, March for the Environment . . . and all have been relatively successful. Millions of people have showed up, raised their voices, and shouted at the places in power. The headlines have dominated news media and social media for weeks, if not months, following. The discussions have entered our homes. The memory of those events live on within us. I, for one, will be certain to tell my son, Floyd, of the March for Women in 2017 and the Black Lives Matter march of December '14 in Annapolis. 
     Marches are ancient, too. This Sunday we observe Palm Sunday, when peasants living outside the city gates of Jerusalem got so excited about Jesus coming to confront those in power that they stripped the very trees bare to wave the palms about and welcome him in. 
     Yet: Palm Sunday failed to provide much of anything. People waved "Hosanna" and they made a great noise, but it failed to reach the palace or the pillars of power. Pilate didn't care. Until Jesus upset the tables of the Temple, most people continued on their normal day without a nod toward the "Son of Man" nor the people who greeted him. By the time Jesus came to be arrested, the crowds who had supported him disappeared. New crowds that called for his crucifixion, based on his upheaval of the system, appeared instead.
    Might the same happen after our March tomorrow? It is probable. Yet perhaps the march is more of a calling, a midpoint of community action, that calls us into the work of change. After Palm Sunday, our faith calls us into the difficult work of Holy Week as the place where we encounter the true challenge of ministry (and remember, we are all ministers!). Making noise will not be enough to topple injustice. We must organize. We must develop relationships to identify the issues. And having done that (which, by the Gospel model, Jesus spent 98.07% of his time doing), we then move to act in Holy Week style. Even then, if we follow the example of Jesus, our actions might seem a failure -- at least at first, as is the lesson of Good Friday and holding onto a sliver of faith when all feels lost.  
     My prayer is that something comes of this March that effects meaningful change that allows for human thriving in our time and our place. But should it not be immediately forthcoming, my prayer is that we continue to work together, build healthy relationships with our community, and do the work of coming together in the model of Holy Week to effect meaningful, substantial change, such that our "Hosannas" ring true, and no more children are taken off of life support after having been shot. 
     May God bless you and keep you.

Shalom,
Pastor Ryan

What our children know about death

"Mom, do we lower the flag each time a person dies?" said an eight-year-old child whom I'd baptized some years earlier. We 15 students, parents, and community friends stood around the flagpole of a local elementary school for 17 minutes on Tuesday morning, organized by Jamie Calloway-Hanauer. We were observing one minute for each person killed at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine's Day of this year. The children were intent on playing around with each other, and yet they talked candidly about death in ways that I often wish adults would. They expressed their sadness that someone was "so upset that he killed 14 kids and three coaches." One child said the spirit of the 17 was in the breeze, but questioned why it "had to be so cold?" At the end they all hugged, falling down and laughing. 
     Our children know much about death and guns - more than perhaps we expect they do. It made me sad that they know all of this. Yet as I left the place, I reflected on how this honest understanding of the relationship between death and guns by even our elementary school students holds out a hope for real change. If they understand the connection, as they grow and begin to take responsibility, they can demand what current generations have been unable to secure for years -- as the 7,000 shoe memorial outside of the Capitol viscerally reminds us. 
     Of course this does not mean that we do not act now, heaping upon our children our own responsibilities. But it means that our household investment in raising our children well, our church's deep investment in Christian Education, and our community work on the support of children's growth, must remain primary. As Proverbs reminds us, "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray." And as we all know, good training comes from setting good examples. I pray that we continue to set those good examples. 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Buried treasure

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  -- St. Matthew 25:29

Read the above verse again. Jesus apparently said that. "More will be given" to those who already have the most, and those who have nothing will have even more taken away. What could Jesus have been thinking?

Short answer: we don't know. But that's the beauty of parables. They remain open for debate and discussion 2,000 years after they were received. 

On Sunday I'll suggest that what Jesus has said above is a truth of this world. It is true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Over the past decade, that's been especially true in the United States. Income inequality is the highest it has been since 1929 (source: Piketty). 

The response of the church to all of this has ranged from complicit to toothless in the course of 2,000 years, if not longer. We may even encourage the ruthless pursuit of capital that creates the inequality gap! I think Jesus tells us this story as a warning: if we don't do anything, or keep doing what faith communities have tended to do in the face of injustice, nothing will really change. The rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer, until there's a systemic failure, and the cycle repeats. We have a different calling: to do something different -- powerful -- alongside the work of the Spirit to change the "world as it is."

Our third quarter newsletter is linked to this letter. You'll see in it a church doing something different. We're showing up to community organizing training with the IAF. We're engaging in relationships that make a clear difference to refugee and immigrant neighbors. We're breaking the conventions of religion with our Evolve creation spirituality ministry. We're imagining new ways to engage children and youth in discipleship. And we're making disciples of one another. I give thanks to God for you and for the journey we are on. 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Filled with power

"But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might . . ."  Micah 3.8a

This Sunday we leave the Exodus journey behind us. We move forward a thousand years, and we consider what happened to the descendants of those freed slaves and if the promised land truly became a utopia. Spoiler alert: it didn't. We hear the words of the prophet Micah, calling out the priests and rulers who have lost their way and corrupted justice. But he refused to lose hope in the promise God gave to those slaves. He proclaimed that he was "filled with power" and was working to restore justice in the land. And to some extent, he did. But not alone. 

We travel even further in our Gospel. We hear Jesus’ admonition to listen to the Pharisees, but not to do what they do as they don’t follow their own advice. He calls out for humility, for humanity, for people recognizing the divine in one another and not placing themselves on a higher level than any other human being. He trained disciples in a ministry of loving other human beings. 

Our Interim Conference Minister, the Rev. Denise Mason Bullit, reminded those gathered last night at the second planning charrette that as a church, our primary mission is to "make disciples." We agreed with vigorous head-nodding. Micah's prophetic words were there to give hope to those who felt powerless against a ruling totality that was corrupt and unjust. Jesus' work involved sitting down and making sure that each person, whether rich or poor, knew that they mattered to God. They did that by making disciples; that remains the calling of the church today. We are called to make disciples: to create a congregation that knows that it matters to God, and can go into the community reminding the hopeless that each person matters to God. 

All of this comes against a backdrop of this past week: a domestic terrorist attack on a church in Texas and a by-election that heralds a triumph of diversity across our nation. The church is a preacher of hope, and a voice and presence for love. We cannot succumb to the reign of fear that dominates our politics. We’re called to listen to our message of hope and inclusion and, against that backdrop of real fear, embody love in our community, as disciples. That's hard work. But I give thanks to God that we're imagining the tools and facilities we need for that -- with no clear idea of precisely where the Spirit will guide us. But amen! It is the Spirit that leads us. 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Standing on the banks of the River Jordan

Then and there God said to him, “This is the land I promised to your ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the words ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I’ve let you see it with your own eyes. There it is. But you’re not going to go in.”  Deuteronomy 34.4

 

This line never seemed right to me. Moses, who led the people out of Egypt from slavery with God's guidance, is told that he will not get to dwell in the promised land. He sees it with his own eyes, and he dies. God buries Moses. No one knows where. 

It wasn't until I lived in Naples, Italy, that I began to understand this idea. The motto of Naples has long been, "see Naples and die." It sounds morbid. And yet, the sentiment was perhaps best explained by the novelist Alexandre Dumas, who said: "Naples is the flower of paradise. The last adventure of my life." The place was teeming with life. It was maddening. Chaos. Raw. Beautiful. And messy. The ancient sentiment of "see Naples and die" expressed an idea that once one had seen Naples, one could be assured that she had lived a full life, and therefore die having no regrets.

Moses lived a full life. He had opportunities to not live such a full life, of course. He could have ignored the plight of the Hebrews and never gotten so angry at an Egyptian overseer than he took his life. He could have remained a shepherd in Midian, and never worried about those he left behind in slavery in Egypt. But God interrupted his life. But God does that to all of our lives. He responded - even if reluctantly! - to God's call. And I think that even though he never stepped foot in the land promised to his ancestors, he didn't need to. He lived a full and good life, one full of meaning. I can only imagine the emotion that old man would have felt knowing that the newborns born on that Exodus journey were born free of slavery's bondage and would set their feet on a land of freedom. 

See you Sunday, and invite a neighbor. 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

 

Luther's 95 Theses Were Never Nailed to a Door

As we honor the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this Sunday, we might be tempted to go back to this idea of a 33-year-old monk named Martin Luther disrupting the entire Roman Catholic establishment by nailing 95 theses to a door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Except that he never did that.

Most likely, Luther's 95 theses were written and submitted to be part of academic dispute. They were intended as a corrective to widespread corruption in the Roman Catholic church. The corruption itself spread from an injurious level of taxation that existed to justify a war against the Turks, who were pounding on the gates of Vienna, as well as repay the debt incurred in the building of the extravagant St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Further, priests were encouraged to sell "indulgences," certificates that purported that the buyer, for a set fee, had shortened his or her time in purgatory merely by making the purchase. Luther had trouble with these practices on many levels, including the lack of any mention of purgatory in the Bible. 

But this argument was never nailed by Luther to a door. Yet, its effect was more profound.

As a recent New Yorker article suggests, Luther's argument took root because the people were ready for it. Their church had become corrupt. They did not trust their leaders. Knowledge was becoming more widespread, and the thirst to know more about the world was real. Luther questioned a stranglehold that was being maintained for selfish purposes. The church had become a political body whose interest was not the thriving of human life. Luther became a folk hero because, while he did not nail things to a door, the effect resonated with a people hungry for real change and belonging.

Phyllis Tickle suggested a few years back that every 500 years we encounter a major Reformation. What's more, the people participating in that Reformation are usually unaware of just how profound it is. We might actually be in a new Reformation right now. We're feeling the energy of a new "something," as was evident in the charrette on Thursday night. But what will it look like? Are we ready for that challenge? Can we sustain the relationships we've forged with one another as we go through the reformation together?

I pray it is so.

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

About as interesting as a neutron star collision

"Neutron star collisions may have created most of the gold in the universe."

-- Science, as of this week

Wrapped around the ring finger of my left hand is a neutron star collision. Probably a really, really old neutron star collision that, after floating through the chaos of the early universe, was drawn into a gravitational cluster that became a planet. That planet sprouted life, and with that life, intelligence: you, me, our ancestors, possibly even our children. Those intelligent people began to find ways to value things. One of those ways was to mine the gold, melt it down, and stamp it with images of rulers, something they called "coins." Those coins became portable property, a shared standard of exchanging wealth for a piece of property we valued. To express value, we often covered something in that gold as well. Or wear it around fingers to remind us of something of value.

Few of us pay for anything in gold coins anymore. Most of our wealth flits around in electrons, transmitted by magnetic stripes on cards between accounts of vendors and payees. Yet we understand the concept of gold, or those electrons, representing value in a world that relies upon the exchange of material wealth. 

Jesus doesn't deny that we live in such a world. When confronted by Pharisees intent on trapping him in Matthew 22:15-22, he examines a coin and declares that it, having been stamped with the image of Caesar, belonged to Caesar and should be returned to him. To function in the world around us, we use money imprinted with the images of a modern-day empire. It, and the values of the empire it represents, are woven into us in ways we cannot escape.

Yet underneath all of that is the collision of neuron stars. That is, underneath that image of Caesar, and masked by those electron blips, is something so awesome, so ancient, so beyond understanding, that we can scarcely comprehend it: a collision of neuron stars! That image of Caesar rubs off of coins -- ask any numismatist. Empires rise, and they fall. The stars they attempted to control outlast them, returning to gold and taking on different forms in different times. Through it all, we are called to look beyond those decaying empires and images, and instead value what truly matters: wonder, perhaps; or the relationship that lies behind the ring on my left hand; courage that enables us to reach out to a sister or brother and accept their help; and more. 

This Sunday, not only will we share in worship, but we'll also share an opportunity to look beyond where we are now and begin to focus on shaping a mission and vision for our church. To do this, we have to look beyond the "gold" of our current value structure and begin to imagine a new one - one that God is calling us into, and one that is as awesome as neutron stars colliding. And we'll begin to put that into practice as early as next Thursday, October 26, as our Planning Charrette kicks off to take that vision and turn it into physical structure. 

This is an exciting week for UCC Annapolis. Let's continue on this journey together.

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Justice and mercy and faith

"For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have pursued without neglecting the others."  

Matthew 23:23

I cannot really contain my excitement! Over the next month our church will engage in some heavy spiritual lifting and discernment. I love what happens when we start to seriously discuss and live out of faith together in deeply profound ways! 

Two events in particular stand out:

Sunday, October 22, following fellowship with our refugee family: Mission and Vision Workshop

Thursday, October 26, 6:30pm: Planning Charrette (Session 1) to begin thinking of what requirements we have of a potentially new building expansion and development.

These events are both starting points and the culmination of nearly a year-long effort to envision what UCC Annapolis is to you, the people, friends, and community partners of this congregation. 

As we engage on this work, what gives me joy is that we are called to remember why we are doing this project. It's more than simple physical expansion to accommodate growing numbers of people on Sunday worship. That's a privileged challenge to have! Rather, it is taking this gift of an opportunity to think through what God is calling us to be in service to our community. The possibilities are daunting, but uplifting.

Jesus' statement in Matthew 23:23 reminds us that often our understanding of faith is perfunctory: do as you are told, and you're in God's good graces. Our life goes further -- that our call as children of God is, on top of the graceful giving, to strive for justice, mercy, and faith. This is not a new teaching: it's woven into the Ten Commandments, the law of Leviticus, and the words of the prophets. 

As we embark on this work together, it gives me great joy that we keep in sharp focus that call to justice and mercy and faith, and that what we create with God's grace is in the service of those aspects of ministry that are most needed in our community. 

Thank you for all your gifts, and your giving.

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

  

Got Straw?

One of the main reasons I give for procrastinating on a project is that I just don't have the right tools. I'll look at the amount of work, assess what I need to complete the project, and then assign myself the task of finding the right tools to do the job.

This can take months.

Having the right tools to do a job makes work much easier. In our modern era, we get cordless 18v power drills, for example, that are capable of quickly and efficiently putting screws in place in a fraction of the time hand-twisted a screw in would take. And with these tools comes to ability to do more work, more effectively.

Except when we do not have the tools. In our Scripture reading from this Sunday, the Hebrews request of the Egyptian Pharaoh permission to go into the wilderness and pray and worship their God. This frightens Pharaoh because it means that the Hebrews, who have been slaves of his kingdom, are finding their identity by finding their God and each other. Letting them gather together would allow them to understand how powerful they really are. He denies their request.

But like any shrewd person in power, he also realizes that his workforce will sooner or later become aware of their power and organize to seize control of their own lives from him. So, he distracts them by making their jobs harder. 

"Cease giving the people straw," he declares, forcing them to source the straw necessary for the creation of bricks in a country that is mostly arid land, while maintaining quota demands for workable bricks.

What are ways that you, and maybe some people you know, have been denied "straw" in their workplaces? What are ways that the denial of something essential for our lives has been missing for so long that we do not even know that it's missing? That's what we will explore this Sunday. What is missing? Where is the straw? What do we need to source that should be reasonably expected as part of our lives that is missing? 

See you Sunday!

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Remorse following Charlottesville

"To this day you haven’t shown any sorrow for what you have done. And you haven’t revered me or followed my Instruction and my laws that I set before you and your ancestors."

-Jeremiah 44:10, Common English Bible

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations."

James Baldwin, 1965

On Wednesday afternoon I received an invitation to join community prayers that evening at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Eastport. The white clapboard church was filled. Black, white, Latino: all together in one place for a one hour prayer service in a church without a web site. Historically an African American congregation, that night it looked, as Pastor Jerry Colbert intoned, like "the kingdom of heaven." Pastor Meredith Wilkins-Arnold, lead pastor at Calvary UMC in Annapolis, was the first invited pastor to offer prayers. She admitted to arriving there with a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach for what is occurring in our nation. She admitted to not having the words to speak. And the congregation assured her that was alright.

IN our grief over the events in Charlottesville, we will, for a brief time, lack words. Yet even without the words, actions are occurring. Around us - including last night at the Maryland State House - monuments to the old South are being removed. The motivation behind these removals is clear: fear of rallies and riots that will topple them. No city wants to be the center of another Charlottesville event.

I agree that these monuments must come down. Yet I disagree with the motivation behind removing them in this moment, for they are being removed out of fear of public riot. More appropriately, these should be removed out of remorse for what they represent. Certainly, public figures such as our own Gov. Hogan have expressed "revulsion" at what happened in Charlottesville. Good. Yet that revulsion should turn to remorse through reflection of our own participation in the systems which tolerated such figures in the first place. 

Those figures, whose statues were generally installed between 1890 and 1950, represent a nostalgia for our common history: a time when people were treated as property - slaves. Lives were lost fighting for the privilege of treating people as slaves, and the United States Supreme Court once decided that people of African descent counted not as full persons, but 3/5 of a person - a "compromise" reached by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott case as a way to keep southern states from seceding the Union. The compromise didn't work, but the attitude of white supremacy remains entwined through Jim Crow laws, redlining of cities including Baltimore and no doubt Annapolis, the New Jim Crow, and the overall disregard for black and poor people that rings true today in our education systems and opportunities - no matter what words we use.

As James Baldwin makes clear, we carry this history with us. President Trump's emboldened nativist approach to the violence in Charlottesville is, I am afraid, morally indefensible. It is horrifying that we are in such a place in our history that people are unashamed to fly Nazi and Confederate battleflags in our communities, surrounding churches with torches and chanting, "Jews will not replace us" (see Rev. Traci Blackmon's interview below). It is beyond the pale that, for some, those who resist this effort are somehow "equivalent" in blame for the violent actions in Charlottesville. After all, both of my grandfathers fought in a World War against Nazism and its representations, as I'm sure many of your ancestors did, too. Monuments of people wearing the uniform that attempted to validate slavery - a uniform worn by our own ancestors - cannot be "beautiful" in public parks. How could they be? They represent a hate that may not even be overt, but is certainly woven into the layers of our nation's history, and is burrowed into each one of us in ways that we may not fully appreciate. Yet we have tolerated them for many years. 

Our calling is to be aware of our history and how it is played out today. And it is to move from a place of fear and revulsion to one of remorse should you find that you have benefited from the morally repugnant aspects of this history. Yet we also cannot wallow in that remorse. Our Scripture for this Sunday is from Matthew 15:21-28, when Jesus calls a Syrophoenician woman (read: not Jewish) a "dog," and yet quickly regrets that characterization, corrects himself (this is important!), and then celebrates her faithfulness and inclusion amongst people of faith. We are called to do the same: recognize our part in the pain of the world, express that remorse, take actions to tear down such a system, and then call upon God to work within us and each other to reveal the kin-dom of heaven in our midst. Thanks be to God.

The below is an interview of Rev. Traci Blackmon, Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. 

Walking on water

I'm fairly certain that if I were in a storm-tossed boat fearing for my life, and I looked out across the water and saw someone walking ON water coming TOWARD me, that I might think there's a ghost on the water. I'm not sure I believe in ghosts, but at that point, as with anyone in a fear-for-my-life situation, I'm sure I would believe in practically anything. Such is the case in the story of Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14:22-33

I won't get into the literalness of this story. I will suggest, however, the deep truth of this story. Peter asks, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." Jesus responds: "Come." And Peter does. And for a brief instant -- almost like an Acme cartoon of yore -- he walks on the water before slipping in and begging for help. It's a testimony to Jesus' sense of humor that shortly after this story, Jesus gives Peter the name "Cephas," which means, "rock" -- as in, "sinks like a rock." Yet, as builders understand, rocks are also good foundations.

Much of what our faith commands of us is impossible. "Feed the poor." "Clothe the naked." "Heal the sick." We could try tackling them head on, but direct charity doesn't seem to solve the long-term issues facing our community. Instead, we're called to tackle the systemic issues that contribute to the visible problems. We can feel as if we're in a perfect storm, being asked by God to do an impossible thing. We have just enough faith to hear the command to do something, but once we step out of our boats, we lose confidence in our actions. What we're doing runs counter to what we have been taught.

This Sunday, we'll explore what it means to walk on water: to be persistent, keep our resolve, and have more than a little faith. I've seen this community blossom into one of joy despite the real struggles facing our community. And perhaps you've noticed that the greater the struggle, the more we put into it, despite the despair that is felt at times, the joy we experience together has been far greater.

See you Sunday, and bring a friend.

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan 

Wrestling

Sometimes when writing a sermon, we encounter an Old Testament and New Testament reading that just work well together. In studying through them, it's clear that they have great interplay. Sometimes, especially with Isaiah, we get New Testament texts where Jesus even quotes the Scripture for us! Writing such sermons around such themes are joyful. 

On the other hand, sometimes we get texts where there's a good deal of tension between them. Tension is a good thing. Without it, we don't get stirred up enough to act. This Sunday holds two such texts. In one, Matthew 14:13-21, we find Jesus feeding 5,000 people in a desert space. It's a nice, happy text, right? And the other text, Genesis 32:22-31, has Jacob wrestling God beside a river throughout a long and seemingly lonely night. God provides in one, and in the other, God wrestles and throws a hip socket out of place.

But perhaps it's more like this. It's probably clear that Jesus shared the meagre food that he and the disciples brought to that place with people around them. People then aren't far different from you and I: no one travels into the desert without food and water. But likely, it didn't become a real meal until people started sharing with complete strangers. And then, in this massive crowd of thousands imitating what Jesus traveled around Judea doing one table at a time, they got to know one another and discover ways they could work together in the future. 

To be so generous as to share and not only that, but to enter into meaningful conversation over food and drink, means that one needs to wrestle with what would keep you from doing that. What keeps us from sharing our resources, or giving generously of time, talent, and treasure? What holds us back and prevents us from giving of ourselves? 

In the story of the feeding of 5,000, it's clear that by being generous and not hoarding for oneself generates the truly desired outcome for all: that there is enough!

See you Sunday, and bring a friend.

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

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The kingdom of heaven is like . . .

“What you have received as heritage, take now as task and thus you will make it your own.” -Goethe, quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan

 

What is the kingdom of heaven like? Maybe you're thinking clouds and harps. Maybe you're thinking peace and justice and pearly gates. Maybe you're thinking of nothing at all. When Jesus was asked this question, he started by talking about mustard seeds. In particular, he talked about mustard plants.

This is an unusual place to start a talk about heaven. In Maryland, we don't have mustard plants sprouting up in unwelcome places. In ancient Palestine, mustard plants sprouted up as unwelcome weeds in various different places. They weren't welcome, and they proliferated in maddening and pungent ways. To a shocked audience, Jesus described the hoped-for bliss of Elysian Fields as an unwelcome plant with a pungent odor that houses all the birds of the air. 

I think Jesus was telling us that the kingdom of heaven is like a NIMBY project. NIMBY, that lovely acronym for "Not In My Back Yard," are necessary projects for the benefit of the community that people don't want in close proximity to their own property, such as public housing or electric wind mills. They disrupt what people want around them even whilst providing a community public good. 

I think this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It's something that is needed but disrupts our own sensibilities for the common good. What are some things you can think of that are ways the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives and disrupts us, even makes us uncomfortable? How does our church live into those projects? How might we hear God calling us to live into them? Our heritage is full of unwelcome projects that benefit the community of God. As the Goethe quote above reminds us, we have to take this heritage as task to "make it our own." 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Climbing Jacob's Ladder: losing, but getting back up

I write this having just learned that a person with whom we have worked closely will soon be deported to his home country. For fifteen years, he's been part of our Annapolis community. We have rallied around him. We have shouted his name and his case at the authorities. We have called our senators. One of us went to a senator's office to ask that he intervene. 

But. 

We lost.

We lost because the world as it is not the world as it should be.

We didn't give up. Our Missions Team is actively working together to come up with ways to help our friend once he does go back to his home country. We've developed support networks for his family in Annapolis so they can go to school at get good paying jobs. With the Annapolis Sanctuary Network, we are collecting funds to assist other refugees. We're working actively with CASA de Maryland to be part of a solution. If we truly feel called to this ministry - and some of us clearly do, however, we'll want to form real, close, and meaningful relationships with people.

I am told by many of you that, "God has a plan." I don't doubt that for a moment. Perhaps at this point, God's plan is to remind us just whose country this is and who is supposed to do something about it: us. This was a nation founded on the hope for those who do not have enough, wherever they were in the world, so that they might come to a place of having enough. It has not always looked like that, but it is the hope. And if we think about any situation in which an injustice deprived people of their personhood and belonging, such as the story of organizing around the Civil Rights movement as Charles Payne tells it in this article, people have organized together to demand that justice.

Not just shouting and carrying signs and assumed their rightness. Organizing..

It's how the Israelites escaped Pharaoh. It's how Jesus started a movement. He found out what people cared about and brought them together. It turns out most of us have a lot in common; we rarely need to be told what matters. We simply do not know or believe that we can influence the world around us -- or, that God's Spirit is with us.

The "summer of transformation" that we're currently are working through is about that. It's about climbing a ladder that God has given us, and developing the courage together to be able to move up each rung and with each rung, bring us closer to the world as it should be, the promised land, Zion, the land flowing with milk and honey. It means we have to work, mostly on better relationships and trust building! And as a ladder is connecting knots and ropes, we are invited to connect ourselves together and get to know and trust the people with whom we live, work, and worship. It won't be fast work. It never has been, and it never will be. As our story tells it, it took forty years for the Israelites to reach the promised land, a number significant not so much for its accuracy as the representation of the amount of time it takes for a shift in community culture, or a new perspective on the world, to occur.

I'm on that journey with you and God, getting to know each of you and people I don't know, shifting our world toward the world God calls us into, climbing each rung of Jacob's Ladder as we go. I hope you are, too.

Let's get organized together, thanks be to God.

Shalom,

Ryan

Sanctuary

Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord God: Though I removed them far off among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a while in the countries where they have gone.’ - Ezekiel 11.6 ESV

“Sanctuary” has become an important term for me in the past three days. In our church, there’s the proposal to change the sanctuary somewhat by trialling the use of chairs in place of pews for the summer in the first couple of rows. But then there’s also the sanctuary we call “home.” On Tuesday, one of our members called me up after picking up a woman out in the pouring rain from a bus stop. The woman was homeless, had fled a domestic violence issue in Baltimore, and was relying on the minimal shelter of a bus stop to sleep and maintain her for the past couple of weeks. After trying to get her into a shelter and finding them full, we used church resources to put her into a hotel for two nights. The next day, she went to a doctors appointment, then to social services, and still had no where to go. She kept in touch with me and our church member, asking for prayers, knowing that she had one more night of clean sheets and a roof. 

Thursday morning, she called me up and asked if I would pray with her over the phone as she prepared to check out. I did, praying for open doors, patience, strength, and courage. I prayed that help could come from unexpected quarters, citing the parable of the Good Samaritan. I could not imagine her position. It’s never easy to tell someone that the time is up, and to go back outside, knowing that she was likely returning to a bus stop. Having just moved into a new house, this is even more keenly felt.

A couple of hours later, a social worker from YWCA called and said we could get her into Sarah’s House, the main shelter in Anne Arundel County, if she went to social services in Glen Burnie right away. It took the better part of the day to make that happen, along with some disappointments that almost derailed the effort, but we got her to Glen Burnie. She slept in Sarah’s House last night. She gave thanks to God to be there. 

Later on Thursday, I received a call from Suzanne Martin, who coordinates the Annapolis sanctuary network for immigrant justice. Guillermo, a person whose family we have supported through that effort, had been denied a Motion to Remain. This means he could be deported anytime. An appeal is being lodged. Still, this is a heart-wrenching for his family, who have permission to remain. It is difficult for those with whom he worked. He has no sanctuary, sharing a two-person cell with two other people in Frederick. Yet yesterday afternoon, another church member, me, and Suzanne sat down for coffee and discussed a scholarship to AACC for his daughter through the sanctuary effort, for she is here having been granted asylum.

Finding sanctuary will mean different things based on circumstance. It may be a motel room or Sarah’s House. It might mean a sanctuary for worship. It could mean an education. In the course of two days, the people of this church explored all of those meanings in great depth, emotionally and otherwise. There was success and failure. There is prayer. There were tears of joy and tears of grief. 

These have been a stressful few days. I had hoped for restful days leading up to General Synod so I could read and prepare for that event. Those church members who have been working on these issues also had other plans, too. Yet this is a calling, and I give thanks to God to be part of a church that lives its life in such a way. These are not rare stories in UCC Annapolis. May we all be so blessed.

Thank you for all your gifts and your giving. 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan