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This Is Not a Metaphor – Sermon from Sunday, November 13, 2016

// November 14th, 2016 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Readings: Isaiah 65.17-25; Luke 21.5-19

Before I begin, I want to clarify some labels that I will employ throughout. When I say “we” or “us,” I am primarily referring to those who regularly attend this church. However, because I know these people well, I know that most, perhaps all, voted for her, so it is not at all unfair to think that when I say “we” or “us,” I am referring to those who voted for her. Part of my task today is to provide some comfort to those who are heartbroken, including myself. I have definitely taken a side in this and I want to be honest about that. So, when I say “they” or “them,” I’m referring to those who voted for him. I want to assure anyone who voted for him that this is a sacred space where people speak as honestly as they can and give one another all the grace they can. Our aspiration is to always create a space for open dialog, so that we can come to mutual understanding and respect. You might have to undergo some extreme vetting before communion, but it’s nothing personal.

This is not the sermon I intended to give. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate to procrastinate, so I looked at today’s lectionary passages a couple of weeks ago. Luke tells us of the signs of the impending apocalypse and tells us what we will suffer along the way. Isaiah speaks to the Israelites returning from Babylonian exile to discover that others occupy the houses that they built, that someone else eats from the garden of their labors. I thought that I would be speaking from a place of victory. I thought I would describe, as honestly as I could, the experience of apocalypse and exile of the other side, the losers – in his parlance – so that we might be compassionate to our neighbors, the ones who would certainly find themselves disappointed, if not heartbroken and fearful. And yet…

The funny thing about an apocalypse is that we know neither the day nor the hour when it will strike. We don’t know if we will be the builders and gardeners one day and the exiles the next. It’s a shocking thing to wake up and realize that we are the aliens in this world. Now, it looks like the promise of hope that Isaiah offers, that we knew – we just knew – we were taking one step closer to, is actually still in the uncountable years ahead.

But the reason we rehearse this narrative of birth, death and rebirth, of creation and destruction and creation again, Christmas and Good Friday and Easter and Advent, the reason we tell this story over and over again is that, at some point, this is not a metaphor. I always expected the calamity would come with age and that, lying on my death bed, I would have the comfort and courage of knowing the story. I could confidently drift into oblivion without fear or regret. But calamity came early – for us. For them, calamity has been coming for a while. Oblivion has been right on the horizon for a long time.

I have attempted in the past few weeks and even since the election to engage my family, who decided to support him. They are they. The engagement has been on Facebook and many have cautioned me that this is not a place for dialog. However, this is the place we most often meet and communicate. I submit that we must learn to use it well, to have meaningful conversations over the cyber. For years, my family and I have simply ignored one another. They pretended not to see the den of iniquity I was living in, the path of sin I was taking us down. I scrolled right past the videos of the screeching blonde woman and the casual racism. We agreed to disagree. But that doesn’t produce understanding; it only thickens the walls of our bubbles. I decided to engage, mostly by asking questions, but also, as gently as I can, refusing to let untruths go unchallenged. We can’t simply abandon the possibility of holding facts in common. Through some difficult conversations and some additional reading, this is what I learned of their apocalypse.

First, there is a very real economic calamity in the rural United States. For much of the 20th century, ironically due to the progressive politics of organized labor, we had a thriving working class. You could get a job at the local factory, make a good wage, buy a house, and raise a family. My cousin, who is my mom’s age, by the time he finished his blue collar career, made good money, had a pension, and, between shift work and accrued vacation time, only worked about 100 days out of the year. His job mostly consisted of watching dials that only moved if there was a problem. So he spent most of his time at work peddling side businesses, whatever home sales product was in fashion. On the weekends, he went to the dump, picked out serviceable items for repair and sold them. With all of this, he had a house and a few acres. He had every toy he could imagine. My redneck cousin was the first person I knew to have HDTV and a satellite dish with movies on demand. It was a good life.

But over the last 30 years, that has ceased to be the case for communities like his. As we know, those blue collar jobs have moved overseas. Regardless of what anyone says, they are probably not coming back. You just can’t compete with those wages and the demands of investors for ever greater profits require CEOs to make the move or lose their jobs, golden parachutes notwithstanding. In many places, a town has one factory. When it closes, the town shuts down. That is the reality for many of his voters.

There is also, if we’re being honest, racial anxiety. White people have had a pretty good run. But by 2050, the United States will be majority non-white. White people, for the first time are having to confront the possibility that their success is not entirely due to their own labor. I heard one person say it this way: as a white person, you used to have to have a plan to fail; now you have to have a plan to succeed. There is now competition for the jobs they took for granted. And all these people complaining all the time, upset about things that happened 150 years ago. They are made to feel guilty for things they didn’t even do. They are tired of the accusations, the snide mocking of the Hollywood elite and the academics. Of course, few people think they are racists because racists are bad people – and they are not bad people. They’re right; they are not bad people. I know my family to be kind and generous, always willing to help a person in need. However, there seem to be limits to their kindness and generosity. As with all of us, it is usually reserved for the people nearest us. It can even cross racial lines because you and the black people in your little town have an understanding. They have the chance to be one of the good ones, as long as they are polite and respectful. It’s the others, the ones on TV making trouble in Baltimore and Ferguson and Dallas, Texas, that are the problem. They are the sign of things to come. We can’t make light of this anxiety. It is a real sense of loss that we gain nothing by mocking.

Finally, there is a spiritual anxiety shaped by a very particular theology. Yes, it is fundamentalist and it is evangelical, but it is more than that. It is, in may ways, the antithesis of the way that we talk about God at Church in the Cliff. It buys completely into the hierarchy. It sees God as an actor in history, sitting on the throne of judgment. They are always on the lookout for the apocalypse and they know that our nation’s sin will trigger it. It seems that their faith has centered on two things: abortion and gay rights. They truly fear that, if our nation continues on its path of tolerance for those things, God’s judgment will be rendered. Worse, if they don’t combat this slide at every turn, their souls and the souls of their loved ones are in jeopardy. Eternal life is at stake here. Again, we can disagree, but we can’t mock their fear. A failure to understand these things, to speak meaningfully to these things is what gave us him.

This man came along and took God’s name in vain – truly – and said, “I am the One.” He spoke of culture wars and minority insurrections and they were terrified. He told them that the time was near, the time that their temple would be torn down, and they followed after him. He told them he could bring manufacturing back. He told them their economic anxiety was the fault of a host of others – non-white others, non-Christian others. He told them he would give them judges that would stop our slide into immorality and spare us from God’s judgment, earthly judges to keep the ultimate judge at bay. Because we had no answer to these claims, because we wrote their concerns off as silly or perverse, who could they follow but him?

Luke’s Jesus tell us in the NRSV not to be terrified. However, it’s one of those words that a translator could take in a lot of directions. It suggests being startled, like when Lisa doesn’t hear me come into the kitchen and suddenly turns around to find me there. So we could say, “Don’t be surprised.” Don’t be surprised when these things happen. This is reinforced by the claims that all of this is necessary. The Inclusive translation chooses to say, “Don’t be perturbed.” I had to look up the precise definition, but one meaning is “to throw into great disorder.” This is an entirely different, yet still rich word. I can imagine many of us feel as though we have been thrown into great disorder. This is the nature of apocalypse: the world is thrown into disorder where everything you thought you knew is no more.

We were surprised and we were thrown into disorder and now we are terrified. We are hearing of culture wars and white racist insurrections. We know that with trade wars and broken alliances nations will rise against nations. We know that unlimited fracking will cause more earthquakes. We know that climate change will create more famines and plagues. These are dreadful portents and signs from heaven. We know that all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years is under attack. We know that we are at risk of violence, that our families may be torn apart by deportation or the dissolution of our marriages. We know that we face death, whether by policy or police or pogrom. Worst of all, we know that we have been betrayed by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends.

So feel your fears. Accept them. Because they are real. Luke warns us of what is to come. When you take on the name of God, the name of Christ and Sophia and the Word and the Light of the World and the Bread of Life, of Allah and Buddha and Krishna – by whatever name you call that which orders the world toward good – when you take on that name, there will be resistance. When you act for justice, when you build those houses and plant those gardens, you will be brought before the powers and principalities of this world and held to account. You will be held to account for not getting along, for disruption of business as usual, for rebellion against the status quo, for indecency in the public square, for impoliteness at the family table. You should be afraid because the calling of God is into the place of conflict, into the pain and suffering of the world. You should be afraid because Jesus came, not to bring peace, but a sword, a sword that divides brother from sister, parent from child, cousin from cousin, and friend from friend. If we do the things we ought to do, we might lose the people that we love, people who are invested in the status quo, invested in the way the world is with no imagination of what it might be – constantly looking backward rather than forward. It hurts.

It hurts to lose them, but it also hurts to know they could not see a future with you in it as you truly are. Turning back the clock, making America great again, implies that we were great when you were not, when you didn’t exist. When you hid away in the corners of the Black Cat Lounge and the Stonewall Inn, we were great. When you served us dinner and mopped our floors, your eyes downcast and speech deferential, we were great. When you made our grapes and our lettuce magically appear in our grocery stores, freshly washed of any reminder of you, we were great. When you stopped speaking your mother’s tongue and wearing the clothes she made you, we were great. When you stayed at home baking cookies and standing by your man – then we were great. If we were just more like them, behaved in the ways they demand, loved the people they love – and convert or conquer the rest – we – all of us – would be great again. It is as though your existence, living into the truth of who you are without shame or fear – that is what caused us to go astray.

Feel your fears and your grief, but don’t let them consume you. Give yourself a chance to grieve; allow yourself to be angry. This will also give a moment to let things play out, to see if moderating forces can be brought to bear on the one that says, “I am the One.” I also don’t want to cede the power of good and the hope of justice. This is not a time for despair, but a time to work because we believe in the promise of Isaiah, that there will be no more weeping or cries for distress. We believe that we can be reconciled, that the wolf will lie down with the lamb. But we also believe that the serpent must be content to crawl on the ground and eat nothing but dust. Whatever hurts or destroys has no place on God’s holy mountain.

So what do we do? How do we come back from exile?

First, we take on God’s name. We continue to practice justice. We continue to stand with those who are threatened and assaulted. This alone provides a witness to the name we claim as our own. Many will come in God’s name, but we must not allow people to be fooled. In the living of our lives, we provide testimony to God’s goodness.

Second, we must actually testify. We will be called to account. When we are, Luke’s Jesus tells us not to prepare a defense. It could be read to mean that we should just wing it, that the Holy Spirit will magically move our tongues and flap our lips and everyone will be convinced of our righteousness. Does that really happen? Instead, I wonder if the call here is to be open to the moment, vulnerable to the person standing right in front of you. We’ve all had those conversations where both parties simply rehearse the arguments they have had a million times. You’re not even listening to each other. You’re just waiting for the other person to stop talking, so you can make point number three in your surefire winning argument. Does it ever work? But if you really listen to one another, really pay attention and make yourself present, you hear more than any argument could tell. Behind the “they took our jobs” rhetoric is a father struggling to feed his family or a mother who doesn’t have time to help her kids with their homework. Behind the racial anxiety is a kind of isolation. Behind the fear of judgment is a lack of alternatives. In our lives and in our speech, we can be that alternative, our loving engagement can be the remedy to that isolation. Nothing transforms the other like real relationship, being present to their pain and their wonder and allowing them into ours. They cannot withstand this; they cannot contradict it. Because it’s not an argument; it’s a relationship.

If we do these things, we will gain our souls. We will be able to stand without fear or regret in the full truth of who we are as God’s children. Only then can we have reconciliation. Only when we regard one another fully, only when we bind our lives together in mutual respect can the wolf and the lamb feed together and the lion share straw with the ox.

Never give up on the promise! We did not know when the apocalypse would come and we do not know when the promise will be fulfilled, but we must always live into that hope. If we do, it will certainly come sooner. If we build and plant, then we might live and eat. We will not labor in vain and our children will not be born to calamity. And we’ll do it together. There will no longer be an us and a them. We will all be a we; we will all be us. That is our hope and God’s promise and I believe it to be true because this is not a metaphor.

Finding Life in a Place of Death

// March 28th, 2016 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

This was the sermon from Easter Sunday:

When the women go to the tomb on that Sunday morning, they are expecting to find a corpse. Because Jesus died after noon on a Friday, it was not possible to properly prepare his body for burial. The women who had followed him all the way from Galilee returned on Sunday morning to complete the task. They would perfume the body with spices, then tuck it away in a little room to decompose. In about a year, their Jesus would be nothing more than dry bones, collected, rearranged, and moved to make room for another body, the dead piled on top of the dead. The women came to the tomb expecting death.

But a funny thing happened. When they arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled away. This stone is a large, heavy, wheel-like disc that rolls in a track. It is a cold, hard boundary between the place of the living and the place of the dead.

This is how we like it: death behind a wall where we can’t see it. Underground. Made up and dressed nice. Somewhere in the far future behind years of healthy eating and miracle drugs and desperate surgeries. We live as though life and death are binaries, separated by a wide chasm of good choices. But that boundary is not so thick, not so heavy, that chasm not so hard to cross as we would like to believe. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the hands of angels move it aside so that we can witness the truth.

The women came to the tomb expecting death and we often do the same. We worry about death. We fear it. But that fear turns in on itself and somehow brings death closer. We buy guns and build walls and pray to Jesus to take us home. But Jesus never left.

The women came to the tomb expecting to find the dead body of Jesus, the man who they followed from Galilee. For three years, they supported his ministry. They travelled the long road to Jerusalem, the road to suffering and death. They followed him because he offered them salvation.  He offered them freedom. He offered them equality. He offered them a voice, a voice that was their own. They came to the tomb expecting to find all their hopes and dreams lying dead, a lifeless body torn apart by a cruel empire.

Instead, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. It was not what they expected. They were perplexed, anxious, confused. Thankfully, there were some friendly angels in fabulous clothes to remind them of what they already knew: that Jesus told them this would happen. Speaking with the eschatological title “the Son of Man,” he told them that he must be handed over to sinners – for Luke, the wealthy elites who oppressed the common people – be crucified, and on the third day rise again.  This must mean that Jesus was, in fact, alive. They were in the wrong place to see the risen Christ because they were looking in the place of the dead. Where they expected to find death, they found a hint of life.

Both Mark and Matthew tell us that they left with joy, fear, and amazement, but Luke simply says they returned from the tomb and told everyone the Good News. Because the tellers of the tale were all women, the apostles were of course skeptical. You know how women are. They get all emotional and excited. They can’t be taken seriously. They certainly can’t be president. We need the reserved dignity and moderation that is the nature of men.

The Gospel of Luke has been called “The Women’s Gospel.” Luke features women far more than Matthew and Mark. For every parable about a man, there is a corresponding parable about a woman. Yet there is a tension in Luke’s treatment of women. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others have pointed out that, while Luke features women, he does not often give them a voice. Over the course of Luke and Acts, women become less prevalent. The resurrected Jesus does not appear to women in the Gospel of Luke as he does in Matthew and John. The women an empty tomb with an angel and men get the risen Jesus. And yet, here, I think, is an opportunity to read against the text or perhaps excavate things that Luke hints at, but can’t fully live into. It’s possible that Luke is describing what happened after Jesus’ death – the gradual marginalization of women – while suggesting that it should not be so.

Chief in the evidence against Luke is the fact that the women’s account of the tomb is dismissed. Peter believes enough to go check, but his amazement seems required to validate the claim. When Cleopas and another disciple meet Jesus unknowingly on the walk to Emmaus, they cite the women’s account with some skepticism. Though Peter was amazed at what had happened, the takeaway seems to have been that no one saw Jesus. Then he says to them: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” Perhaps I am being a generous reader, but isn’t it possible that Jesus is including the women among the prophets here? They spoke with divine beings and delivered the good news of the resurrection. In Cleopas’s remarks to Jesus, he repeats that it was the claims of the women that are in question and Jesus’ response is that they are foolish not to believe the prophets.

Luke’s Gospel has also been called “The Gospel of the Poor.” From the beginning, Luke sets up the story as a cosmic battle between good and evil and the good characterizes the lowly, the laborer, the outcast, where the evil characterizes the high-born, the powerful, the elite. Sinners are rich and the righteous are poor. The arc of the narrative is to overturn the current order to strike down what is high and raise up what is low.  It’s known as “The Great Reversal.” In many places in Luke, women are the representatives of the lowly, especially widows, those who depend on societal support. So if we are looking for the righteous in our world, we need not be restricted to the widow, alien, and orphan, though those are often good places to start. We simply have to find whoever is marginalized in our world.

When we are confronted with the weighty matters of glory, our first step should be to listen to the marginalized, to those who come face to face with suffering and death. When the black community says that they are being terrorized by police, as they did for years before the Rodney King beating, as they did for years before Ferguson, we have to listen. Instead, we wait for video – and not just one! After Eric Garner is strangled and 12-year-old Tamir Rice is shot and Sandra Bland is harassed, arrested, and found dead in her cell, we’re still not sure. We find ways to dismiss their claims, to blame the victim. We advise them on how to behave properly, to be respectful and do what their betters tell them to do.

When queer kids tell us about bullying at school and the rejection of their families that leaves them homeless, we tell them to toughen up or deny who they are. When women speak of their hardship in having their only source of medical care taken away, we tell them to just go to another doctor. When the impoverished cry out for food, shelter, health care, and safe communities, we tell them to move and get a job. When the victims of global poverty and endless war try to do just that, we tell them to wait and wait and wait. When people who experience death on a daily basis – sometimes literal death, but often the smaller deaths of being told they aren’t good enough, don’t belong, or don’t matter – when the suffering cry out to us we turn a deaf ear.

But these are the witnesses to the resurrection. Only by going to the cross and seeking out the dead can we find life. So, for those of us who are privileged – and I would bet that everyone in this room is privileged in some way – we can only see the resurrected Jesus if we walk alongside those who suffer. This is the Gospel. As James Cone says in A Black Theology of Liberation, “there can be no theology of the Gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community. This is so because God is revealed in Jesus as a God whose righteousness is inseparable from the weak and helpless in human society.” If we cannot even listen to those who suffer, we have no part of the Gospel.

We see this Gospel in action. Out of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland – the list, sadly, goes on and on and on – out of these tragedies, we see the BlackLivesMatter movement finally expressing the frustrated dreams of a generation that saw the hard fought gains of their mothers and fathers taken away – taken away in the War on Drugs, trickle-down economics, voter suppression, unequal housing and education – the list, sadly, goes on and on and on. Out of the AIDS crisis that devastated the gay community while the White House denied its existence, we got an organized resistance that fought for same-sex marriage and non-discrimination ordinances, and continues to fight to maintain what has been gained and gain even more for our queer family. Out of this latest in the ongoing assault on women’s rights and fundamental dignity, I believe we will see women empowered like never before. This is not “just” politics. This is the resurrection life.

It is not that this suffering and death is somehow justified or “worth it” or “serve a purpose in the greater scheme of things,” but that it can be redeemed. Those deaths – whether of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, or of queer people at the hands of parents and closeted bullies, or of women at the hands of abusive spouses or substandard medical procedures – those deaths can never be justified. They are never worth it. But contained within each of these moments of suffering, there is the possibility of new life just waiting to be witnessed and proclaimed and fought for. If we turn our eyes away from death, we never get to see life. If we cover our ears to lament, we never get to hear exultation. If we don’t go to the tomb and we don’t pay attention to those who do, we are fools and we will miss out on the greatest gift in all creation.

The women went to the tomb expecting to find death. But in that cold tomb of despair, they found the hope of new life. This is the Gospel. This is the Good News. This is the resurrection.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Apocalypse!

// November 22nd, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Tomorrow is the last Sunday in the liturgical year, which means that it is our annual imagining of the Apocalypse.  It is “Christ the King” Sunday, the day that Jesus returns to earth to sit in judgment of the world.  It is the end.

Then the strangest thing happens: Advent.  We immediately begin to celebrate the birth of God into the world.  We wait in anxious anticipation, imagining what that will be like, how a world with God’s presence will be different.  How is it that we don’t already know?  Jesus just came back.  The world was judged.  It was the end.

We imagine finality, but the world keeps turning.  We attach our hopes to a singular end without understanding that the Alpha cannot also be the Omega unless everything loops back on itself.  For a singular point to be both the beginning and the end is a circle, not a line.

We think that a line will give us certainty.  God is all-powerful and has provided a path for my life and a path for history.  My only task is to walk that line or not, though ultimately it doesn’t really matter.  The line goes on with our without us.

When we imagine God’s presence in the world oriented along a line, we shortchange God.  Virtue, value, and meaning are transacted from on high without God being fully present.  We imagine that God’s presence is limited by time and space, not valid in certain states.  We imagine that God is here for some and not for others.  We imagine that God answers some prayers and not others.  We imagine that some of us are not worthy or capable of God’s presence in our lives, whether through shame or pride.  God’s presence is bound by our proximity on that line.  Worse, we act these things out in our lives, in the way we structure our society and institutions, and then we wonder why this year saw the same terrible things as the last.

This Advent, we are going to offer something different.  We propose that God is fully present to, for, and in everyone and everything all the time.  God comes into the world as we come into the life of God.  We participate in the process of becoming, co-creating the world with God.  We have agency.  And responsibility.

Please join us during the season of Advent as we explore process-relational theology and what it might mean for our understanding of prophecy, prayer, and power.  This Sunday, we will spend a little time deconstructing the idea of kingship in the Christian tradition, talk about why it matters, and then begin to reconstruct an understanding of Emanuel, God-with-us. 11am, Sundays at Church in the Cliff.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

St. Fred Rogers

// October 24th, 2015 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

I haven’t really watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was a kid.  I don’t remember much about it except what has been parodied: the song, the sweater, the tennis shoes, vaguely the puppets.  So I decided to refresh my memory and watch a little.  It all comes rushing back, mostly this character: Mr. Rogers.  Although, by all accounts, it is not a character.  He is, as he always encouraged his viewers, simply being himself.

Fred Rogers complained of the parodies that they made him look too wimpy.  Lest I be sucked into that wimpiness, lest I be transformed into such a gentle and anemic form, I finally sat down to watch American Sniper this weekend as well.  It’s quite a contrast.  I’m not sure Chris Kyle watched Mr. Rogers growing up.

Kyle’s philosophy was simple: find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, make the world better.  However, the subtext of the film was the ultimate failure of this philosophy.  I have no doubt that Chris Kyle was a man of honor and conviction, a man who cared deeply about the people in his world, a man who would do anything to protect them.  He claims not to regret the people he killed, only those he was unable to protect.  It turns out that there are always bad guys.  It turns out that in seeking vengeance, we only create more violence and death, even to those we profess to love and intend to protect.  It turns out that finding the bad guy and killing the bad guy doesn’t actually make the world better.

It also turns out that those who are put in a position of finding and killing the bad guy are often traumatized by the experience.  Chris Kyle, like so many other veterans, suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He couldn’t sleep and when he did, he was haunted by nightmares.  He drank heavily.  He flew into fits of rage.  He felt isolated, unable and unwilling to talk about what had happened to him and how it made him feel.

Fred Rogers famously testified before Congress to defend funding for public television.  What people don’t know about Fred Rogers’ testimony before Congress was the reason he had to fight for funding in the first place.  The budget for national public television was threatened in response to the first national episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which imagines war coming to Make-Believe.  War is overcome with creative “peace balloons,” but more importantly with the refusal of the governed to go along with the fearful policies of King Friday.  The analogy was obvious and Mr. Nixon was never one to let a slight go.  But Mr. Rogers was no wimp.

In that testimony, he said, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”  That sounds like something Chris Kyle needed to hear after four tours in Iraq.  Rogers went on to exalt conversation over confrontation as dramatic content.  He would rather depict two people working out feelings of anger together than show gunfire.  Mr. Rogers knew that honestly understanding our own feelings and being able to communicate about them, respecting ourselves and others as full human beings, was far more powerful than any weapon humankind has devised.  That sounds like something Richard Nixon needed to know.

Each saint we have canonized has some rough spots.  This sometimes produces some anxiety, whether it’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s disturbing coziness with Southern racists or Johnny Cash’s lifelong dance with amphetamines.  Our hope is that talking honestly about those things will paint a broader picture of healing and redemption, of the miracles that are possible in a human life.  With Fred Rogers, there is no such anxiety.  He knew exactly who he was and knew the power of being just that.  He made every person he encountered know the same thing.  Most importantly, he knew the power of such a posture to transform the world and he lived every day to spread that message.  Mr. Rogers was no wimp; he was a saint.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the gentle and powerful life of everyone’s neighbor, Fred Rogers.  Won’t you be my neighbor?

Grace & Peace,
Scott

St. Samuel Mockbee

// October 17th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I am so thankful to Fred Pena for bringing Samuel Mockbee to our attention.  When the saints series was originally conceived, I had in mind people who had some direct impact on who we are as a church.  My thinking has since changed for the better.  There are so many who labor out there in the world, who are doing work that could and should inform what we do.  Even if we don’t know who they are now, we are all a part of the same ecosystem.  It’s almost like there is something unseen flowing through all creation and history and we all find ourselves a part of it.  Probably no one has ever thought of that before.  I’ll have to come up with a name for it.  In any case, Samuel Mockbee floats in the same stream as the people of Church in the Cliff.

Mockbee grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, oblivious to the racial segregation that both tore apart the world around him and made possible the privilege he enjoyed.  But he was profoundly affected by the death of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers who was killed by the KKK near Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Chaney had also grown up in Meridian, a scant year apart from Mockbee.  Yet, their worlds never intersected in their youth.  When he entered a desegregated army, he was, for the first time in his life, shoulder-to-shoulder with people of color.  Over time, he became aware of all the many ways he benefited from being white.  He also began to understand how those benefits came at great cost in the lives of people of color.

Following his Army service, Mockbee attended Auburn University and received his degree in architecture.  As he began working as a young architect in the South, he realized that many of the victories of the civil rights movement were not present realities for impoverished people of color in the South.  As an architect, he wondered what he could do to change that, to affect the material reality of people living in poverty.  One thing he knew: architecture was the domain of the rich, safely distanced from poverty, and it was taught as an abstract, theoretical practice that sustains that distance.

With this in mind, Samuel Mockbee started the Rural Studio.  Architecture students from Auburn spend a portion of their education building homes and civic buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama, one of the most impoverished counties in the South.  Students work in cooperation with residents as clients to build buildings that respond to the realities of their lives.  They not only design the buildings, but do the neck-down work of construction.  Because their clients are in poverty, they build sustainable, low energy footprint homes.  Because money is short, they use innovative building techniques that use recycled, salvaged, and waste products.  Yet they are not bland boxes in which we might stow away the undesirable.  Rather – to echo language that Mockbee uniquely applied to architecture – they are homes of distinct beauty, nobility, and decency.

Samuel Mockbee was certainly an imaginative person.  He must have been to be so innovative with such limited means.  In his paintings and assemblages, which feature his clients alongside gods and goddesses of the Alabama landscape, real objects and symbolic expression have equal weight, as if they inhabit the same world, as if they speak to one another.  If we understand one, we might have a key to understanding the other, and then we might understand something about the whole.  One commentator noted that Mockbee’s entire life and work “may have been simply the cast off foam from a vast imaginative sea.”  Somehow, out of that fecund abyss, Samuel Mockbee formulated a vision and made it real in the lives of students and clients.  He not only changed his corner of the world for the better, but created a model for how we might approach the most tenacious problems through cooperation, mutual respect, and living life together.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the life and work of St. Samuel Mockbee.

Proceed and be bold.
Scott

St. Johnny Cash

// October 9th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Perhaps more than any other person we have canonized, Johnny Cash exemplifies what we mean by saint.  Not that he was a pure, moral, and good person; he was not.  But integral to sainthood is the hagiography, the story of the saint that we tell.  We know they are not entirely true, but we tell them because we are really telling a story about ourselves and who we might like to be.  In the case of Johnny Cash, he has done much of that work for us.

Johnny Cash was a legend in his own time.  He was a walking, talking mythological figure.  Much of what he said about himself was not true.  His stories changed over time, often becoming inflated with each retelling.  Yet, the embellishments to the kernel of truth often told of a greater truth about the man.  Part of our task this Sunday will be to unravel the man from the myth.

What is true is that Johnny Cash was born in the midst of the Depression to a cotton farmer named Ray.  Ray was a mean man, passing on the ill treatment he suffered at the hands of the older brother that raised him.  Ray was an alcoholic and meanest when he was drunk.  When Johnny’s older brother Jack, a young man so virtuous that everyone knew he would be a preacher from the time he was twelve, was killed in a sawmill accident, Ray let Johnny know that God had taken the wrong son.  Johnny believed him; he carried guilt and grief all his life.

The only cure for the guilt and grief was faith and love.  Tragedy and the compassion and faithfulness he saw from others in the face of it strengthened his faith in God.  His love for June healed him.  Johnny Cash was able to take his suffering and his feelings of unworthiness and turn them into deep compassion for others and a yearning for social justice.  He was a champion of everyday folk, those who were down on their luck or had taken a wrong turn in their lives.  He thought everyone should have a shot at redemption.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we honor the life and legend of St. Johnny Cash.  If you are inclined, bring an instrument and join in the singing and playing.  We’ll do a run-through around 10:30.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Vote Annette for Co-Pastor!

We will vote this Sunday to add Annette Owen to our staff as a part-time co-pastor.  This will entail an addition of $500 per month to the budget.  If you are unable to attend, please make your vote by emailing board@churchinthecliff.org.

St. Rachel Carson

// September 25th, 2015 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

This week we continue our canonization of the saints.  Don’t be distracted by that Pope guy trying to steal our thunder.  We totally came up with this idea first! One of the joys this year has been the engagement of the community.  Several of our saints are on the list because of the passion of people other than me.  That puts me in the wonderful position of having to learn about these saints so that I have something to say.  I love being taught by the people of Church in the Cliff!

I had never heard of Rachel Carson until Lisa suggested her canonization.  As I dive into Rachel Carson’s life and work, I can see why she came to mind.  She has been called “the patron saint of the environmental movement,” so we are not the first to trod this ground.

Carson was a marine biologist who spent most of her career working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries reporting data on fish populations.  Through this work, she began to understand how we are all a part of the vast interconnectedness of nature.  She also saw how humans have an almost unique power to alter that web of relationships, often for the worse, and sometimes irreparably.  She called for a new mindset among naturalists and policymakers, from conservation, the preservation of a few, isolated resources, to environmentalism, a consciousness of our power and our vulnerability in nature.

This was a monumental shift, perhaps enough to achieve sainthood, but it is unlikely she would have had the impact she had if it weren’t for her beautiful and passionate prose about nature.  She first showed her skill in 1937 in an article for Atlantic Monthly.  In “Undersea,” Carson takes the reader on a journey across the vast diversity of conditions and creatures of the ocean.  In an age before we had a dozen nature channels – and long before those nature channels gave up on showing us nature in favor of Nazis and aliens – her writing made this hidden world come to life.  For example, she describes the tide and its effects so vividly that it not only makes you see it, but you feel you are involved in it: “Twice between succeeding dawns, as the waters abandon pursuit of the beckoning moon and fall back, foot by foot, periwinkle and starfish and crab are cast upon the mercy of the sands.”  In one sentence, we understand how everything is connected and how vulnerable it all is.

She credited her love of nature to her mother and she sought more than anything to pass that love on to others.  The last book she worked on before her death, which she didn’t finish, but was published after her death, was called The Sense of Wonder.  It is, in a sense, a book of parenting advice about cultivating the sense of wonder in children.  But more than that, more than a simple how-to – she would never have made it in today’s world of listicles – she relates in her deft prose her experience of being in nature with her grandnephew, Roger.  She took him on walks on the shores and in the forests of her home in Maine before he could even do the walking.  She said, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, and an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”  I’m not yet sure what her religious beliefs or practices were, but that sounds a lot like worship to me.  Would that we all might rediscover that joy, excitement, and mystery.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we remember the life and work of Rachel Carson, the patron saint of environmentalism and a saint of Church in the Cliff.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

St. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

// September 19th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This Sunday begins our annual canonization of the saints.  Now for the explaining of the rules and the making of the disclaimers.  Candidates must have been dead for five years and they must have performed miracles.  In our understanding, a miracle is when the world is pushed off of the track it was on, knocked out of its orbit, so to speak.  Essentially, the world became a different place because of this person.  We understand that reality is often more complex than the hagiographies present.  The stories we tell about our heroes say more about the storytellers than the subjects of the stories.  We understand that our saints were not always virtuous or heroic and we try to be honest about that, but we are mostly interested in the miracles.  Those actions and their effects tell us something about how we might live more fully into the world of God’s dreams.

We begin our series with a pivotal figure in the struggle for women’s rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Stanton, at the young age of 33, had the idea to hold a convention on women’s rights.  Along with the Quaker minister Lucretia Mott and other women, she organized the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19 and 20 of 1848.  At the convention, attended by such luminaries of progressive politics as Frederick Douglass, Stanton delivered her Declaration of Sentiments, which included her demand for voting rights for women.

Her support for women’s rights was tireless and fearless, even at the risk of alienating supporters.  For example, she opposed extending voting rights to black men without also extending them to all women.  This view produced a schism in the fight for women’s suffrage.  Later in her life, she spearheaded the production of The Woman’s Bible, a commentary on all mentions of women in the Bible written by women.  She took the position that organized religion created a society in which women were expected to be subservient to men, so changing religion was at the heart of changing society.  For this, she was pushed aside in the suffrage movement with the thought that such radical thinking might undermine the chances of success.  As is often the case, the suffrage movement succeeded by embracing a mainstream idea: a world bounded by home and hearth, womanhood as keeper of morality.

It is an interesting coincidence then that this week the lectionary presents us with Proverbs 31.10-31, the Woman of Worth.  For many women growing up in church, this became the ideal for womanhood.  Some embrace it; some reject it.  As with any biblical text, it is not often read with much nuance.  People tend to focus on the woman’s devotion to husband and family, whether they find that posture comforting or alienating, so it becomes a bludgeon of expectation or an effigy to be burned.  That’s definitely a part of the text.  However, it also contains the potential for liberation.  In contrast to how we might normally think of women in the ancient world, the woman is active, strong, and productive.  She makes business deals and advises the men with her wisdom.  She brings home the not-bacon and fries it up in a pan.  The wealth and status of the family depend on her, not the man.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we put the life of St. Elizabeth Cady Stanton in dialog with the biblical Woman of Worth as a frame work for talking about women in church, society, and politics today.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Christ-Sophia

// September 12th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

A Note from the Board: Co-Pastor

The first time you came to Church in the Cliff, you probably heard some things you had never heard in church before.  I’m not talking about our foul-mouthed taco vendor, our secret Enneagram code words, or the occasional obscure philosopher.  I’m talking about Sophia.  You’ll hear this term in our welcome and in many of our hymns.  You might have read the footnote on the program that briefly explains it.  (Yes, we’re nerds; our program has footnotes.) You might have gone home and googled Christ-Sophia and found something that might be a cult.  (We have no connection to them, FTR.)  Perhaps it seems a little weird and disorienting.  Some hear that language and never return.  Nevertheless, we are committed to it.

I’ll explain in more detail what (or who) Sophia is on Sunday, but I’ll provide something brief here, just so we’re on the same page.  Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom.  It is used frequently, sometimes in reference to Jesus.  At times, such as in Proverbs 1-9, in Sirach, and in the Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom (Sophia) is personified as a woman.  Even more important, she is understood to have some intrinsic relationship to God, coeternal, coessential, and co-creative with God.  One could fairly say that she is a person within the Godhead, as one would speak of Christ or the Holy Spirit.  But all of that is kind of abstract.  In my experience, most Christians don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Trinitarian doctrine or the essential nature of the Godhead.  So, while these things are important to consider, our real commitment is something more pragmatic.

As Mary Daly pointed out more than forty years ago, “If God is male, then male is God.”  If God is a man, then God is for men, concerned with the things of men.  I’m not using the term “men” to refer to humankind; I mean the gender.  Most people would admit that God does not have a gender, but might insist that we should speak of God in masculine terms because that is how the Bible often refers to God.  However, as Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  If we don’t speak of God in feminine terms, then women are excluded from the life of God.  We automatically construct a hierarchy that diminishes the lives of women.  Women do not hear their presence in the life of the Church.

Fortunately, the Bible provides many ways of speaking of God. God is bread, water, breath, a shepherd, a gate – and God is a woman.  God is a mother hen gathering her brood.  God is a mother bird hovering over her nest.  God has a womb.  And God, as Sophia, stands on the street corner trying to coax people to her way – to the Way.  If God is All in All, then that must include some notion of the divine feminine.  If that is the case, then we must speak of God in all that God is.  Women must hear their lives reflected in the life of the Church and the life of God if our God-talk is to be the Good News.

It does seem strange at first.  When I first came to Church in the Cliff, inclusive language hit my ear wrong.  I didn’t understand.  It was disorienting.  That’s good!  In my experience and in my study, God is in the business of undoing us, pushing us out of our comfort zone so that we see the world anew.  It didn’t take long to adjust.  After about six months at Church in the Cliff, I had trouble attending churches that use exclusively male language for God.  It now hits my ear wrong in the exact same way that inclusive language did before.  Even more, really; I wince when I hear it.

I am blessed by the strong and brilliant women that began this church so many years ago and sustained it for so long.  I am blessed by the strong and brilliant women who continue to assert that they have a place in the life of God.  I am blessed by the strong and brilliant women that are Bible scholars and theologians and who continue to consider the weightier issues of the Christian faith.  All of these continue to make God present in my life and in the life of the Church by showing a fuller picture of what divinity looks like.  Our church and the Church are blessed by the full participation of women in the living of the Gospel.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we discuss the feminine divine, the cross, and the relationship between wisdom and salvation.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

A Note from the Board: Co-Pastor

The Board would like to invite the congregation into a period of discernment about hiring Annette Thornberg Owen as a part-time co-pastor.  Annette has her Masters of Divinity from University of Chicago and was formerly a Pastoral Resident at Wilshire Baptist Church.  She has also worked as a chaplain and in non-profit through AmeriCorps.  We are thrilled to have Annette and her partner David in our congregation!

So that you can get to know Annette better in a pastoral context, she will help lead services in the coming weeks.  Also, we will have a couple of Q&A sessions coming up.  We’ll get you time and place as soon as we nail it down.  We will also provide details about pay, budget, and responsibilities over the next couple of weeks.  Our goal is to have a vote October 11.

The Cause of the Poor

// September 5th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Plus: Saints 2016

Y’all may have noticed that I’m not great at details or schedules.  That makes following the lectionary a danger zone for me, so I keep telling you we’re going to talk about things that, it turns out, we are not.  I am truly thankful for your grace.  This is all said to preface the news that we will not be explaining everything about Christ-Sophia this week.  The lectionary, unfortunately for a smooth pedagogy, decided to give us some wisdom from Proverbs a week before reading the beginning of Proverbs that sets up the whole thing.  The good news is that the text we are assigned is perfect for Labor Day weekend.

We seldom notice that Labor Day is not just summer’s last gasp, filled with swimming pools and grills.  It is actually about labor.  Not just a rest from working, but a celebration of the labor movement that created labor unions that gave laborers bargaining power against management – management that worked people to excessive hours in unsafe conditions for little pay, management that created company stores that kept their employees in virtual slavery.  In this period of unfettered capitalism, great wealth was generated, but most of that ended up in the pockets of the people at the top, the people who had the means to manipulate political and economic systems to their own ends.  Because laborers fought for their rights, corruption was contained and income inequality shrank in the first half of the 20th century.  When labor was at its strongest, the country prospered and the lives of ordinary people improved.

The power of unions has shrunk drastically over the last 50 years and the results are stark.  Those at the bottom of the wealth ladder earn low wages in mostly part-time jobs.  (I saw one study lauding the “increased leisure time” for people at the bottom!)  Those in the middle now inhabit a perpetual state of quasi-labor: cell phones on, checking email, retraining, laying awake at night wondering how to not be fungible.  Those at the top continue the hiring freezes, wage stagnation, and reduced benefits that they discovered people – unorganized people – would live with during the recession and make short-sighted investors happy in the recovery.  Corporate profits skyrocket while labor struggles: CEOs now make 354 times the wage of their lowest paid workers.  Perhaps most concerning, the graft of the 19th century is now mostly legal with the wealthiest people attempting to buy the political process.  It does not have to be this way.

Certainly, this is not as God would have it.  As Proverbs tells us this week, God pleads for the cause of the impoverished.  Repeatedly, we hear about how any regulation, any organization of labor, any protection of the common welfare puts a stranglehold on business.  Frankly, God doesn’t care.  God instructs farmers to leave a portion of their harvests for the poor.  God instructs lenders not to charge interest.  God instructs debt-holders to forgive debts regularly.  Such things do not maximize profits; they do not produce excess capital for investment.  Instead, they care for those who are impoverished.  They interrupt the cycles of poverty in which people find themselves to give hope.  They contemplate a common welfare that is only maintained when it is maintained for everyone.  God gives these instructions, but people must carry them out.

The solution to the problem of poverty is complex, so complex that it might seem to be impossible, but if we begin, as God does, by pleading the case of the impoverished, maybe there’s a chance.  Rather than concerning ourselves with the economy as an abstraction with its own intrinsic value, perhaps we should, as God does, concern ourselves with those in need.  Perhaps we should, as God suggests, organize our lives, our society, our political will around those who struggle the most.  This may deny a few the opportunity to amass the wealth of Solomon, but it might more closely mirror the world of God’s dreams, a world where everyone has a seat at the table and everyone can eat their fill.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about poverty, equality, and labor.  And probably robots.  Robots are important.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Saints 2016

As is our annual tradition, we gather the Tribunal for Canonization of the Saints (that’s you!) to consider the cause of certain individuals, now deceased a minimum of five years, who have performed miracles that have set the world on a different (and better!) course.  In particular, we select people who are in some way indicative of what Church in the Cliff is about and, in some cases, without whom Church in the Cliff would not exist.  We have five slots and seven nominations this year, so I’d like to get some feedback from people.  I would also appreciate it if people who are passionate about one of these individuals would participate in the canonization service.  Here are the nominees:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Church in the Cliff was formed, in part, to provide greater opportunities for women in ministry.  Almost everything we do is informed by feminist discourse.  More importantly, the life of Church in the Cliff is enriched by the strong, brilliant, passionate women who have participated in church leadership from the beginning.  It is unlikely that any of them would have done that without Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  She was one of the first to assert the equality of women in the church, to suggest a liberating reading of the Bible, and to advocate for the use of feminine language for God.  To that effort, she spearheaded the production of The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895.

Martin Luther King.  It is unusual that a Sunday passes at Church in the Cliff without mention of Martin Luther King.  In fact, his name is invoked so regularly that it has seemed cliché to canonize him, so we have chosen to highlight others ahead of him.  But perhaps the time has come.  In addition to the profound effect he had in civil rights, his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” could arguably be an amendment to the canon.  He was truly a martyr, his life cut short just as he was setting his sights on even larger problems than those in which he had already triumphed.

Fred Rogers.  Many of us grew up in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  We learned about kindness, compassion, and puppets.  Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, became the moral center for a generation growing up in a world wracked with cultural upheaval, violence, and corruption.  Even now, any time something bad happens, there is probably a Fred Rogers quote to give us hope.

Samuel Mockbee.  Growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, Samuel Mockbee was driven by a need to right wrongs using the talents that he had in art and architecture.  He created the Rural Studio program at Auburn University, which taught students about the social responsibility of architectural practice. The program built sustainable architecture in impoverished areas of Alabama using novel materials that would have otherwise been waste.  He helped revitalize Hale County, Alabama, while protecting the environment and inspiring young people to shape their world for the better.

Pseudo-Denis.  Also known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Denis wrote a body of literature that was hugely influential in Christian theology, particularly Christian mysticism.  His work often functions as a bridge between Christianity and non-Christian thought and practice, ranging from Zen meditation to deconstructive philosophy.  If you practice centering prayer, you owe a debt to Denis.

Johnny Cash.  This almost needs no explanation.  Not only was he one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, the Man in Black was driven by his faith and his experience of the shadowy sides of life to care for those that no one else cared for.

Roger Williams.  Williams founded the colony of Providence, in what was to become Rhode Island, on the principle of religious freedom.  Though he was a Christian, he had the novel idea that Christianity should succeed or fail on its own merits rather than by government coercion, that each faith is enriched in dialog with others.  As a result, Providence was open to all.  In fact, in addition to founding the first Baptist church in the New World, Williams helped build the first synagogue.  He advocated for fair relations with Native Americans and was an early abolitionist.  Whatever Baptist identity Church in the Cliff clings to, it is embodied in the life of Roger Williams.

Please email your thoughts to pastor@churchinthecliff.