Monday, May 26, 2014

Infinite Abyss

Upon arrival, before so much as a word to anyone, he sets out to get the lay of the land. Walking the streets, inspecting shops, reading signs, chatting with folks: listening, observing, and taking it all in with a keen eye and ear to what makes the locals itch. 

That’s the key, of course, finding out what makes them itch, what discomfort or dissatisfaction or desire he can exploit, a chink in their aloof armor, into which he can wield his appeal.

Then he sees it and he knows it’s his way in. They may not recognize the significance right away but once he draws them in and exposes this insidious gap in their carefully examined world – he’s got em primed for the pitch!

As soon as the brand new pool table came into his view, Professor Harold Hill knew that his community exegesis had just hit pay dirt.

It’s becoming a buzz-word in the church world: community exegesis. In short, you gotta know the territory!

Any seminarian knows, and often dreads, the word: exegesis. It literally means “critically examined” and is often applied to literature and especially, but not exclusively, to the Bible. The purpose is to mine truth; truth for our lives. We can exegete any text that holds value and purpose and people in seminary spend a huge amount of time doing just that.

Here’s a sample:

Think of any book that has meaning for you – doesn’t have to be a sacred text and fiction is fine. If you’re doing this with the Bible, you’re likely thinking of a particular passage.

Ask yourself a few questions:
  • First of all, are there any problems with the text – are there ambiguous words or words that don’t seem to fit?
  • Where does the passage fit relative to the rest of the book? Is it a comment, or an aside – or does it keep the plot moving or develop a character?
  • What kind of writing is it? Prose? Poetry? Narrative? Conversation?
  • When was the passage written? What time period is it set in?
  • What’s the social, political, or cultural context?
These are just some of the questions that a serious student of the Bible might ask about a passage. They are designed to push toward a deeper, multi-dimensional understanding peeling away layers of editing or mis-interpretation and finally arriving at what will hopefully be a kernel of meaning. The joyful, and equally frustrating result, is that two people can go through the exact same process with the exact same text and arrive and two very different kernels! It’s what keeps life interesting and Bible scholars in business!

Yet the gist of the process is to look more closely, to listen to the text and the author and the story with unvarnished senses, to, as much as possible, check your preconceived notions at the door and be open to the unexpected, seeking perhaps, to engage on a personal and direct level.

“Community exegesis” does all of that but not to literature, but to a neighborhood and asks questions like…

·         As you stand just outside your house or apartment or church, what do you see as you look in each direction? What do you hear or sense? What activity do you notice?
·         As you walk the community, what do you notice about the architecture of the houses or buildings? On average, how old do you think they are? How much renovation or rebuilding is going on?
·         Does your community feel like a cared-for place?
·         What indicators of transience do you observe? Does the community have a feeling of permanence or change?
·         Is there a freeway or major highway close by? If so, try and imagine this area before it existed. Who has gained and lost by its introduction?
·         Stop—sit if you can—what are the smells and sounds of the community? How quiet or noisy is it?
·         What public spaces are provided for children, teenagers or adults? Are they being used? If so, in what ways?
·         Do you pass any churches or religious buildings? What does their design or appearance communicate to you?
·         Imagine yourself as an old, infirm person with no car, or as a young child living in the middle of this community. How disadvantaged or advantaged would you be with respect to shops, churches, parks or schools?
·         Are there places in your community that you wouldn’t go? Why?
·         Where are the places of life, hope, or beauty in this community?
·         What evidence of struggle, despair, neglect and alienation do you see?
·         What sense of connection do you feel to your community as you walk though it?
·         In what ways do you sense God’s presence where you live?

Through careful, sensitive and critical observation, your task of community exegesis is to discern the truth of God’s presence where you live. Quite simply, it’s about reading your community as one of the primary texts of daily life—one through which God speaks.

“The Music Man” wasn’t looking for God, necessarily, although Professor Hill did end up with Marian the Librarian and, one can assume, a transformed life; but the Apostle Paul did have a divine purpose as he did his community exegesis in Athens, and, without reducing the Book of Acts to a saccharin bit of musical theater, I do hold that the processes of Harold Hill and Paul of Tarsus were remarkably similar: Walking the streets, inspecting shops, reading signs, maybe chatting with a few folks: listening, observing, taking it all in with a keen eye and ear to what makes the locals itch. 

Paul’s answer to Harold Hill’s troubling pool table was the all-purpose monument to the “unknown god” he discovered while walking Athens.

The Athenians lived a life of leisure spent in hours of intellectual gymnastics. Picture Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard at a Starbuck’s in Cambridge chewing on the latest gossip in the world of theoretical physics! They thrive on the discussion, the exchange, and the pursuit of knowledge – the more obscure the better! They would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new!

Paul knew this because he did his community exegesis:

"Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god. '”

Rather than condemn the Athenians, Paul acknowledged the well-spring out of which the panoply of worship poured.

Rather than dismantling the religions of Athens, Paul affirmed their quest.

Rather than scoffing at their misdirected reach, he underscored the reality of spiritual intuition that drove them beyond the gods they knew toward the unknown god for which they groped.

From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

Mathematician, philosopher, and Christian writer, Blaise Pascal made a similar claim when he wrote that there is an “infinite abyss within the soul reserved for God alone!”

It hard for me to get my head around an “infinite abyss” but I do understand an itch. Blaise Pascal may be smarter, but I’ll stick with the sadder but wiser Professor Hill.

What’s the itch?

Everyone walked into this room this morning to satisfy an itch.

An itch to make music – to sing or perform.
An itch to see your children in church.
An itch to satisfy a sense of duty or habit or rut.
An itch to be entertained.
An itch to be with friends.
An itch to hear or say something that inspires or challenges or teaches or provokes.
An itch to explore spirituality.
An itch to confess.
An itch to be forgiven.
An itch to plead or pray or praise.
An itch to sense God’s presence.
An itch to explore a world other than your own.
An itch to hear a story that might change you.
An itch to find your purpose or calling or service.
An itch to be with people want to know you, who care about you.
An itch to connect.
An itch to know again and again that you are fully known, fully loved, and fully claimed by God.

Yes, we may enter these doors because we hope to satisfy an itch – and a wide variety of them; but we leave for one very simple purpose: to serve God by serving our neighbors and our community. We can’t do that unless we first know God, unless we know ourselves, and unless with know our neighbors.

I’d challenge you – even today – to practice a little community exegesis. If you think you know your neighborhood inside and out – come downtown and exegete First & Central’s. You decide the boundaries based upon your understanding of the city, your comfort level, and your sense of what church is. Text me or email me – now – and I’ll reply with a simple one-sheet pdf of instructions for an exegetical walk. Pick a place, any place, and try it.

Then send your impressions, reactions, surprises, disappointments, or joys at what you found and we’ll share them – take a walk with your family, your partner, friend, your spouse, your parent, your dog – and do a little community exegesis. You may be surprised at what you see that you didn’t know was there. You gotta know the people and you gotta know the territory!

This would be a fun little homework assignment if we just left it there but alas, if we’re going to be faithful exegetes of the biblical text, we have to take one more step.

After Paul introduced the Athenians to the unknown God for whom they were groping – the creator of heaven and earth, the one in whom we live and move have our being, Paul brings the Athenians face to face with a decision:
Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse. Their quest for the unknown god was over but that simple knowledge was not good enough. God is not a shiny object we can put on the shelf and admire or haul out for special occasions. God demands response and decision and loyalty. God requires action and service and change. God is not placated by talk and exchange and debate. Now, some of you may think, “uh huh…ok…see you next time if it’s convenient” or maybe you’re saying to yourselves, “we do plenty – he’s always asking for more and more out of us and blaming it on God,” or others might actually be thinking, “maybe he’s got a point. I’ve been sitting here long enough. I’m gonna do that walk thing of his and see where I can serve or how I can help get the church more involved. I’m gonna do my homework and try to make a difference.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, "We will hear you again about this."

So…my only hope and my most fervent prayer is that you will decide to “hear again about this” because I assure you…we’ll be talking again about this!

Professor Harold Hill disembarked in River City with the intention of deceiving good people with false hope of transforming their children’s lives – but got caught when one person believed in him. Paul wandered Athens with the intention of bringing life-giving testimony about God in Christ – and a number of folks got caught in his message of hope. I don’t know why you walked in here this morning – but I hope you leave with faith renewed and the desire, quest even, to know your community, to know your neighbor, and to know God – not a god who is unknown – but God who is near and in whom we live and move and have our being!


Sunday, May 18, 2014


It’s just a brick. It’s an ordinary brick from a building built in Wilmington in 1885 that was demolished over a hundred years later and in that time, the brick was a witness. What it saw and what it heard were the stuff of discovery, deposition, and testimony in the case of “John A v. Castle” brought by the ACLU of Delaware against the State of Delaware and its then governor, Mike Castle, over the deplorable conditions of the Ferris School for Boys.

Those conditions are detailed in the 28-page complaint filed in US District Court which eventually decided the case in favor of the plaintiffs which resulted in sweeping reformation in the housing and rehabilitation of adjudicated and incarcerated youth in DE. So much so that today Ferris School is held up as a model of juvenile justice.

Yet the brick on the shelf in the offices of the ACLU wasn’t a witness to a model program but to a Dickens work house in which, according to the complaint: 
Defendants have subjected plaintiffs to overcrowding; life and fire safety hazards; unhealthy living conditions; inadequate medical, dental and mental health care; abusive punishment and disciplinary practices including isolation and other forms of physical and verbal abuse; improper classification; inadequate and inappropriate education, rehabilitation and treatment programs; lack of due process; unnecessary and improper restrictions on communication such as the mail, telephone, visits and access to courts; and denial of privacy and dignity.
 Judy Mellen was the Executive Director of the ACLU for 17 years and organized that suit against the state. After retiring as Executive Director, she served on the Board of Directors for another decade. Last week she completed that service and I asked her what stood out among her 27 years with the organization. She didn’t think long and quietly said, “closing Ferris School.” Her face clouded as she recalled the conditions the children were subjected to. Her choked voice simply said, “It was awful.” 

As a result of prevailing in the lawsuit, Ferris School was closed and eventually redeveloped with a new facility built, while the original structure remained as a ghostly reminder of abuse and neglect. In due course, the 1885 structure was demolished and as a token of appreciation, Judy was presented with one of the bricks.

It’s just a brick and it’s more than a brick: it’s a living stone of history that bears witness and serves to convict those who dare forget the atrocities imposed upon Delaware’s children.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.
First Peter is a book of the Bible we don’t hear very often. It pre-dates most of the Gospels and draws upon very early Christian writings, liturgies, and hymns. Its context is what compels the sermon today:
Placed in a social context whose core values were to be rejected, Christians faced the problem of slander and misunderstanding from their neighbors, former friends, and families. Christians were not to go out of their way to be offensive or condemnatory, but in the final analysis, when Christian values conflicted with those of the society around them, Christians were to remain faithful to their core convictions, even when that entailed suffering, however undeserved it may have seemed.
 Roman society was hierarchical, and suspicions about foreign religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, included the fear that conversion would impair such established hierarchical relationships and cause slaves and women, for example, to misbehave.
Women, like Judy Mellen, misbehaving.
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.
A spiritual house where justice the foundation, compassion the rafters, peace the floorboards, faith the beams, and service and worship are the windows and doors.

A spiritual house where all are welcome and none are shunned.

A spiritual house where what is believed is known by how lives are lived.

A spiritual house where all can wonder, all can question, and all who wander are not necessarily lost.

A spiritual house where all can dream.
… that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
 … that children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
 I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Iconic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. – a prophet rejected in his day who nevertheless changed the course of history and whose memorial on the Mall, that same space in which he first proclaimed his dream, is a living stone that stands as witness to both the power of the Gospel and the depravity of man.

The centerpiece for the memorial is based on a line from King's "I Have A Dream" speech: "Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope” A 30 feet-high relief of King named the "Stone of Hope" stands past two other pieces of granite that symbolize the "mountain of despair." Visitors figuratively "pass through" the Mountain of Despair on the way to the Stone of Hope, symbolically "moving through the struggle as Dr. King did during his life."

Today that living stone of hope stands as a witness to both progress made and justice eluded. It testifies, like the Ferris brick, to the good that is possible and the evil that is probable. Just like the First Peter’s audience, our example is Christ, who also suffered unjustly. Yet as Christ did not abandon the world, neither were, or are, his followers to do that. Faithful Christian conduct could and will effect changes within society – even and especially among those willing to misbehave!

Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; a royal priesthood, a holy nation, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of God who called you out of darkness into God’s marvelous light.

It was just a brick – but to the children released from the hell-hole that was their prison – it was the first to fall that allowed God’s light to shine into the awful darkness of their lives. To them it’s not just a brick but a living stone of the good that people can do when they are willing to faithfully misbehave.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

We'd best get moving!

I have come to know you as a patient bunch, and, if I may push my understanding, I’d also say that you’re a group that “trusts the system.” For the most part, this is a congregation that does things “by the book” – as long as the rules are not morally or ethically objectionable. We practice what Thoreau said, and words that have stuck with me since I was introduced to his writing in the 10th grade, “resistance to unjust laws is morally permissible.” You have done that and you have trusted the system when you did it: above board and fully satisfying all required reporting.”

In fact, you’re doing it now.

The PCUSA is governed by a written constitution, one part of which is entitled, “The Book of Order.” It gets a re-write every two years in spite of not being easy to change. Minor changes, however, really clarifications, happen with no muss or fuss. Other things, especially anything dealing with human sexuality, garner lots of angst, anger, and anxiety. We’re all very tired of the decades of fighting over the ordinations of openly gay and lesbian folks, and thanks be to God, while the path is far from easy, the legislative barriers are down.

This year, the General Assembly meets again in that garden spot of the Midwest, Detroit, MI, and again, temperatures and tempers will rise and spike over the current human sexuality fight: same-gender marriage.

Just to be sure we’re all on the same page: even though many states have either voted to allow or their courts have struck down prohibitions on same-gender marriage, Presbyterian ministers are forbidden to officiate at said ceremonies nor may congregations allow their sanctuaries to be used to host them.

“Resistance to unjust laws is morally permissible.”

The Session of this church some months ago unanimously agreed to change its by-laws to allow all weddings in this room and anywhere else in the building. Further, New Castle Presbytery has a “stand down” policy about prosecuting those of us that perform them. Tim and Randy, our Parish Associates have done them and I presided over a wedding in here a couple of months ago. If the Presbyterian Police show up and drag me out by my stole you’ll know why!

But this isn’t a sermon about renegade pastors or congregations, it’s a sermon about identity, about declaring who you or we are, by what we do or refuse to do, and, given the fact that we had a baptism and will have communion, this is one of those 1,000 word sermons and I only have 560 more to go!

In the portion of Acts that Ellen read a few moments ago, Luke described the church as a type of experiment in communal living – a commune of the 1960s. Folks gathered for teaching, fellowship, prayers, and sacraments – today’s a pretty good example of continuing that tradition. Then Luke continues: all who believed had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and distribute the money to all who had need. Well, that ain’t gonna happen! Clothing drives are one thing but that’s just hippy talk there!

If it makes you feel any better, and not to completely let us off the hook, scholars of the rational stripe don’t believe that’s a factual depiction of  the early church but really an idealized vision of what it could and should be. I’m not sure how a church with an endowment fits that depiction but standing in the pulpit of a church with a few shekels in the treasury does give one a moment of pause.

Speaking of money in the bank…

A few years ago the church was left a bequest and after season of discernment and prayer, Session decided to invest most of it and allow the increase to fund future programs, while allocating $400,000 of the bequest to be used in direct mission and outreach. The stipulation is “first-person ministry” – not writing checks but putting the money and people to work in the community.

A task force has been meeting since late 2012 and recently completed a significant phase of its work. The details of its recommendations will be the subject for a later sermon.

Today I want to convey something that organically emerged and was captured by one of the task force members. Here’s how he put it:

These are the goals, ideals and themes which supply the framework for the design and implementation of the program [under consideration].  It is a reflection of the process the Task Force has undertaken and is consistent of who and what First & Central is.  The six themes are listed in no particular order or priority.

  1. Progressive congregation
  2. Charity, justice, and advocacy
  3. Greater Wilmington area focus
  4. Ecumenical / Interfaith
  5. Building relationships
  6. Impact and residual
Two comments:

1.  The composition of the task force is very diverse, which means it’s representative of the congregation: young and old, gay and straight, long-term and shorter-term members, men and women, urbanites and suburbanites, Delawareans and “others”, yet the group naturally formed their conversations around these principles.

2.  These themes describe nearly perfectly what it means to be a church of the city – not in, or about, or from – but of. First & Central was birthed in the dust of the city and thrives today midst grit and glass.  The city not always a hospitable environment but a church of the city requires the nutrients of soot and siren, commerce and crime, building and bustle. In those, a church of the city finds life and finds it abundantly.

So we still gather, like those first followers, for teaching, fellowship, prayer, and sacrament. We don’t pool all of our resources, but we do seek with diligence and integrity to serve the people God has called us to – inside and outside these august walls.

First & Central is a church that knows who it is. Our identity is clear and shared. Living it is a continual challenge and one we often fail to meet yet falling short does not weaken will or dispel zeal.

Knowing who we are as Christians, as followers of Christ, is “job one.” Figuring out how to live out that identity is the job for the rest of our lives.

You may be a patient bunch but we serve an impatient God. We’d best get moving!