Transformed for joy

There’s a man named Jeremiah Moss who goes around New York City organizing people to decry the closing of some of the mom and pops establishment of the city. Every day many of them close, replaced as if in a blink by chain stores or boutique restaurants serving $36 entrees. Moss does not let this happen silently. He views this transformation of the city negatively: it removes the character, replacing neighborhood cafes with sleek glass buildings where humanity seems incapable of taking a foothold.

I respect Jeremiah Moss. The New York he moved to in the early 1990s is faintly present, and he feels unwelcome in the new place (his apartment complex is soon to turn him out after twenty years). The changes that have occurred around him have not included him or others like him. They have been driven by serving the “haves” rather than the residents of the city.

Change is inevitable. In New York, the owners and founders of restaurants retire, making way for new restaurants. Rarely are any forced out. Yet replacing cozy greasy spoon cafes with slick drug stores may harm the character of a community. 

We don’t want to do the equivalent of that in our church. Changes are happening: in three years, 55 people have joined this congregation. Weekly attendance has risen by 40%. With this new energy, new gifts are ready to be used. If we did nothing, things would change. 

Yet, I think the role of the church is, as Walter Brueggemann wrote when he described the purpose of a psalm, to “nurture, nourish, and evoke” the gifts of the people of God in the service of God. To do this now means that we should explore how we can change to nourish the people that are here, nurture their call to ministry, and evoke new ministries to serve the community. 

If we do this, I think the changes we make will be respectful of our history while becoming more responsive to God’s call upon us today. Part of our change is to create a “relational culture” so that no one feels left out, for example. Perhaps this is where our church differs from the changes Jeremiah Moss witnesses in New York: our change is about creating better relationships with one another! Our change is equipping you, the people of God, to use your gifts to their fullest. We give thanks that we're together on this. 

Shalom, Pastor Ryan

Middling through change

Dear Church!

Our worship begins a half-hour earlier this morning with a different order of worship (here's the bulletin for this Sunday). It’s a program we plan to follow over the summer, starting this Sunday and continuing until September 17, when 10:30am worship returns and a more traditional format is resumed. The change comes in response to a felt request over the past few months. In conversations I’ve had with you, and in surveys we’ve conducted, there was distinct need for fellowship — people want to connect with one another before and after worship. By moving the service a half-hour earlier during the summer, we felt that we would have more time with others in our church, as well as with each other on a Sunday afternoon. The Sabbath is important: it’s an important time for worship, but it’s also an important time to spend deepening our human relationships. “All real living is meeting,” the Jewish theologian Martin Buber said in 1973.

 Yet, as a church and as a people, worship to God is vital to our being. How can we meet with one another if we ourselves are not renewed in the act of worship to God? Or, as my mother says, “you cannot pour from an empty pitcher.” We re-formatted worship to shorten it so that the time for meeting one another is respected, but also emphasized the areas where people feel the most connection with God and the sacred in worship. Our announcements will now be made during our fellowship so that all may respond in conversation together. Our call to worship will usually be a short song that brings us together, pulling us out of the normality of day and into the joy that is worship together. Our children’s message will be right up front, when we open our worship with a Scripture reading, a story, and a prayer that frames the entire service, with everyone as active participants.

 For some of us, this may be a welcome change. For some others, it’s not. We are church together, however: called by the Spirit, we gather in worship, fellowship, and action to be a very real and present body of Christ in our community. That's why we're here, and we're glad you're a part of it. Thank you for all your gifts, your giving, and your grace.

                      Shalom, Pastor Ryan

What you intended for evil, God has turned for good

"We claim the promise of the rainbow, the promise of Creation’s sustaining love, determined to let no barriers — not gender, sexuality, race, riches, nor lack, nor any human fear — pull apart what our God has brought together in faith and love."  

—from a Litany of Pride by Rev. Dr. Wayne Schwandt

These will be our opening words for worship on Sunday. June is Pride Month across the world, a time when the love of human beings for other human beings is celebrated. We need that spirit of love today.

I am ashamed that I am a citizen of the world's largest per capita polluting nation (China has the highest overall emissions). If that wasn't enough, we're now one of three countries Syria and Nicaragua being the other two that do not belong to the international Paris climate agreement that is our collective hope of averting an already occurring global climate catastrophe. Yes, it will take at least four years for us to withdraw from the accords, but it remains a betrayal of the Creation which God has gifted us — and which is celebrated in our own Pride celebrations.

But this is Pentecost Sunday. When Jesus left, the disciples once more locked themselves into a room and began praying, fearful of what to do without direction. Then something happened, so the story goes: they began to speak in every language, able to go into the market and communicate with the polyglot people of the world. The Spirit had descended! The church was born! Pentecost! Pentecost is the Spirit of power that gives birth to the church. We are God's powerful ones, holy troublemakers charged to work for good despite all that is evil.

The Joseph story, which we will act out in joy and color this story following three months of rehearsal and dedication by so many good people, reminds us of how God transforms evil to good. It is evil that Joseph is cast out by his brothers and sold into slavery. But through tempering and learning humility, listening for God, and growing in leadership and maturity, Joseph becomes the chief advisor to Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the ancient world at the time. He does good: he prevents an entire nation from going hungry during a seven-year famine. When his brothers arrive in search of food, he gives them food. What was evil becomes good. But it required work and perseverance.

I do not know what or how good will come from this action. But my reaction is to suggest to you today, if you have not done so already, to transition your home to 100% renewable power through Interfaith Power and Light. You can do this without any physical change to your power source. Irish and I did this through their bulk-purchase program in 2013. Our church joined their bulk purchase program in 2014 and saved money over conventional power. 

If you feel called to other areas of environmental ministry, let's do it. Perhaps the good will come from waking up to the real need to do something now.

My prayer is that we let God's spirit of power move, and let good spring from evil in us and the work we do. May God be with you. 

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

Paul failed. But it worked.

I remember standing in front of the nearly 1,000 high school classmates, running for student government in the 10th grade. I got up to the podium, made a largely dramatic and forgettable speech. Just as I was about to finish, my voice squeaked. The entire auditorium erupted in laughter. Even the teachers. I was mortified, I tell ya. I never quite lived it down. 

St. Paul was, by his own admission, not a gifted orator. Yet, he stood in the Areopagus of Athens, the seat of the most gifted philosophical argument and oration of the ancient world. What has been recorded is not long, but it is passionate. It's not amazing. He tries to sum up in a few paragraphs what his faith means and why that's changed everything in the world. And he fails. At least, by the standards of Spartacus or Cicero or the great orators who stir us to action, he fails. Many scoffed. Some invited him to come back another time. He left. I don't think he went back.

Two people, Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, followed him to really learn more of what he was saying - two out of what was likely hundreds of people. But it was enough. Because the transformation that comes from seeing the world as a follower of "the Way" doesn't always need quantity, but it does need depth and commitment. It's a dedicated few who change the world. 

I saw that this week, when the nascent Annapolis sanctuary network raised nearly $1,000 to help a family pay rent after a breadwinner was detained by ICE. I'm seeing it in the community organizing effort we're engaged in as people set up one-to-one individual meetings to truly find out more about one another and form a relationship. I'm seeing it as our church responds to pleas, too. It takes a bit of getting out of our comfort zones, perhaps. But God calls us.

Why I struggle with Easter sermons (and how Mother's Day holds the answer)

"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus told a band of anxious holy troublemakers (John 14:6). It's a series of words that has been handed down over the ages, crocheted into pillows and written on careworn paper carried in wallets. Yet it has also been used as a curmudgeon against those who did not profess Christianity, largely because of the words that follow: "no ones comes to the Father except through me."

When Jesus speaks these words, he's speaking just before the day of crucifixion to a roomful of disciples in an upstairs room. They're rightly scared. Those who might be guessing that he's "going away" might not feel adequate or up to the job of carrying on the ministry for which he'd trained them. However, he's using the words not as a test to measure how and if one may be a truly faithful person. Rather, he's using them to say, "you know how to live in the world. You know what truth is. You know what matters, because you've been with me all this time." Against the competing ideologies of the time - especially the idea that the Emperor was a God - the exclusive phrase he used about getting "to the Father" (God) was intended to keep them focused on the goodness of their ministry. He was commissioning them to go out into the world, live, and teach the bold life he taught them, and not flinch. Love is that powerful. 

Those of us who are now the "body of Christ," the Church, might also feel anxious, too. We might not feel up to the task of "being the body of Christ," or "being the Church," as one UCC slogan puts it. But we are. One way we understand this is understanding what it means to be a mother. Not all of us understand or will ever experience motherhood as the physical and emotional bond that some experience. We honor that as a society and a community. But all of us, regardless of gender identity, should be able to celebrate mothering. Sometimes, mothering is giving something for the goodwill of another out of love and not expecting a reward (think of the child that doesn't say thanks after a diaper change). Or having a relationship with another person so deep that we understand their capabilities and their limits, and help them develop both. 

This Sunday, we gather to celebrate motherhood. And we gather to celebrate it as an example of what it means to live in the Jesus Way: of giving, of leading, of caring, and especially of loving as the prime motivators behind our every action.

See you Sunday, and bring a friend!

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan

 

Holy Troublemakers Say Grace

Before I finish my weekly message, I have to pause and give thanks for the life of one with whom I broke bread and considered one of the finest holy troublemakers of our time, Rev. Dr. Wayne Schwandt. He died on May 5, 2015. His ministry at UCCA, Evolve, continues to bring the message he ardently championed in our community: that you are not original sinners, but originally blessed. Wayne brought joy at the joyful times, quiet and focus and the quiet times, and prayer at the praying times. He helped our wider community heal and love LGBTQ and HIV+ people, questioning stigmas and hate not with strident challenges, but a steadfast love that resembled a bear hug (which he sometimes gave). He challenged my traditional theology to see the world as a gift, and ourselves as stewards of that gift, celebrating "creation spirituality" rather than focusing on human misgivings. Wayne, although you have been gone from us for nearly two years, I continue to be amazed from what I keep learning from you. Chuck (Wayne's husband), you are never far from my prayers.  

o00o

"You are what you eat," a kid told me. I immediately tried to comprehend how I was a hot dog, relish, bun, and tater tots. It would be weird if we simply morphed into whatever it was that we ate - and it'd be likely that we were fairly conscious of what we ate in that case, lest we wind up as some sort of cross between a cauliflower casserole and lemon meringue. Thankfully, we don't. But perhaps we do represent and carry with us the food that we eat: all the processes of life that have unfolded to bring each tiny morsel into our mouths are forever carried with us. This means that if we eat something that came from harmful farming or human labor practices, perhaps we're carrying that harm with us, too. But, we shouldn't get all wrapped up in guilt about that. 

In her book Grace at Table, Donna Schaper, pastor of Judson Memorial Church in New York City, reminds us that the food we eat is a miracle. All food is a miracle! No matter how it got to you or what its history is, it is a miracle. If we start with food as a miracle, we can begin to develop a certain reverence for it. We start to care about the food itself: where it came from, how it got here, and why we cannot let it go to waste. Perhaps just as importantly, we start to also care about the company we share it with: friends, family, co-workers, strangers sitting next to us on the bus as we wolf down a Chalupa. 

As we gather on Sunday, we'll reflect on how the Holy Troublemakers - the disciples - regained their spiritual resolve and practice by "breaking bread" and sharing meals together. As they focused on the miracle of breaking bread, I think this simple practice opened them up to the miracle of the world around them. It's not hard for us to do, either. Try it this morning. Or afternoon. Go ahead: see your food as a miracle.

See you Sunday, and feel free to bring a friend. We'll be welcoming over a dozen new members, too.

Shalom,

Pastor Ryan