Sunday, September 25, 2016

Regression to the Mean

I promise not to mention a certain real estate developer who is currently garnering an undue amount of press and publicity, but given that Jake just read us a story about the first real estate speculator in recorded biblical history, I can’t help it if you conjure up visions of a well-coiffed orange hairdo.

Apparently Jeremiah had never heard the phrase, "location, location, location" when it came to evaluating the 3 most important qualities of a parcel of real estate, however, in this generation, it is as ubiquitous as it is trite, and so much so, that its origins have been lost even to the most tenacious of word sleuths.

Among them is author and language expert William Safire, who wrote a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, prompted by a colleague working on a wedding announcement who claimed that the phrase, "location, location, location" was attributed to a British real estate tycoon named Lord Harold Samuel. Lord Samuel’s 1987 obituary names him as the phrase coiner, but in his research, Safire called the editor of the “Yale Book of Quotations”, who found the phrase used in a real estate classified ad in the Chicago Tribune in 1926. Lord Samuel was 14 years old at the time. Safire said the context of the 1926 ad suggests it was already a familiar phrase in Chicago and he further declared that phrasal etymologists are not yet finished with this challenge.

This appears to be the sort of thing that people with much too much time on their hands pursue!

We, on the other hand, are industrious Presbyterians who shun such extravagance and hence, we will cut to the chase and in doing so, will declare the thrice cited aspects are perhaps catchy, yet inaccurate.

The value of property is actually based upon only two criteria: yes, one is location, and the other is situation.

Think of all of those farmers who owned acres and acres of pasture only to wake up one day to urban sprawl knocking on their barn door! Housing developers require large fallow tracts of land upon which to sprout dwellings of sticks, bricks, and vinyl! Farmland is what feeds the beast and the beast is hungry and rich and willing to pay a tidy sum for land which was formerly only valuable to the horses or cows which grazed upon it.

Many a family has amassed a fortune by liquidating the homestead! The location didn't change -- but the situation did.

The reverse is true as well. Urban blight has consumed a massive trove of property values and we only need to drive a few blocks from here and see the shell of once valued homes now ransacked and gutted which can be had for the price of demolition. Worthless today but I talk to older members who have fond memories of growing up in those same homes.

Jeremiah was obviously tutored in the "buy low sell high" school of investment strategy.


It's 1968, Wilmington, like some other American cities, has erupted in riots and violence. The Delaware National Guard has been deployed to enforce martial law. Blocks have been ravaged, stores and shops looted, and anyone with two nickels to rub together is fleeing to Fairfax where it's safe, calm, and white.

And then...a person, one who some considered a bit daft, steps up and offers to buy a block of the still smoldering city, and not at fire-sale prices, but fair market before the trouble started. If you owned it, you'd lunge for the cash like a rainbow trout torpedoing out of the water after a plump mosquito! As you're counting the dough, he's signing the deed, has it notarized, and hands it to his administrative assistant for safe-keeping! can't believe your good fortune at unloading this worthless property...but a nagging thought worms its way into your mind...what if they aren't as daft as you thought? Maybe you're selling a little short...

You'll never know. Fairfax is very comfy -- it has its own Acme, Happy Harry's, and hardware store! Why ever leave? You have a new life, you've cashed out of the old one, it's time to look to the future and forget the old neighborhood.

As bad as Wilmington was in 1968, Jeremiah's case, frankly, is far worse!

Downtown Jerusalem is the location - in the heart of the City of Peace -- but it's far from peaceful -- it's fraught with trouble -- that starts with "T" and rhymes with "B" that stands for "Babylon!" The Babylonian army is closing in faster than the National Guard marched down Market Street and now they've encircled the city. Jeremiah is under arrest and is in jail.

He gets this crazy idea: buy land!

Jeremiah is always swimming upstream. He's constantly out of sync. He's never "going with the flow." He's a one-person "regression to the mean" machine!

When the people were happily living lives of blissful ignorance and avoidance of God's call and purpose for them, Jeremiah took them to task in the harshest of ways. He made few friends doing that but kept up despite royal pressure to cease and desist.

Now that the people are have reach the nadir of their often sordid history, Jeremiah challenges the exiled people to imagine hopeful action, he coaxes their extreme despair closer to the mean of normalcy with his extravagant purchase -- only he can't physically transact so he summons his "Man Friday" and Baruch comes running. That's right: Baruch -- not Barack and not Farogh -- Baruch! Jeremiah forks over the cash for his cousin, Hanamel's land and the family farm is now his! Baruch dutifully records the transaction and files two copies of the deed: one publicly for all to see and the other is rolled up and stuffed into a clay jar for safekeeping.

Jeremiah is carted off to exile in Babylon never to be heard from again -- but we don't know anything about Baruch other than that he's the keeper of the earthenware jar holding the deed to Jeremiah's land.

A few of you may have been lucky enough to actually have the deed to your homes, meaning that it's free and clear and you have no mortgage. For the rest of us, we still ante up the monthly payment to the landlord or bank. But whether we have a lease, a note, or an unencumbered deed, those documents represent more than ownership or obligation; they define where we call home, where we live our lives, where hope resides.

That deed rolled up in the earthenware jar entrusted to Baruch's safekeeping represents the hope of the Hebrew people. It proclaims that God is not done, that exile is not their final destination, that "the South will rise again!" Jeremiah put his money where his mouth was and backed up his musings with hard cold shekels. It was a public, collaborative, action that spoke hope in an unpromising situation and location.

We have no idea how the story ends. We don't know what ultimately happened to Jeremiah, Baruch, the deed, or the land. For all we know there's a WalMart on it somewhere in a Jerusalem suburb with a nice old Jewish man handing out smiley face stickers atop the parcel containing that jar.

What we do know is that we are called to be the carriers of hope. We're not Jeremiah in this story -- we are Baruch. We are the caretakers of hope. We hold the fragile vessel of God's promise to the world, a promise that's often a regression to the mean, a promise that says that God's grace occurs in unusual places and sometimes in contrarian forms.

Like the commercial asks, "what's in your vessel?"

What will your hopeful act be?

What will the congregation's hopeful act be?

What collaborative, inspired, public, and prophetic act will speak hope in unpromising times and places?

This is almost too easy because in the reading and hearing of this scripture, location and situation have converged and First & Central is the living metaphor of the earthenware jar and you are collectively Baruch, you are the carriers of a fragile hope.

That hope is evidenced in our engagement of youth and adults in urban mission work for at-risk Wilmington residents and in our brand new ability to host groups and run programs in ways that demonstrate our credo that “people come first and justice is central.”

That hope is evidenced in cooking classes for young people aging out of Foster Care. So they will learn important life skills of meal planning, shopping, cooking, budgeting, storage, and nutrition. More than that, they’ll be welcomed to the Corner Table where there’s a place set for them – the first taste of family and inclusion. A place setting of hope.

Both of these programs promote relationship and transformation and engagement. Both are public and collaborative that speak hope to an unpromising situation and blighted location.

This renovation project is our earthenware jar and your commitment and support -- financial included -- is the deed within.

I don't claim these the only glimmers of hope in our earthenware jar -- but they are the ones that require attention and prayer and focus now. Never underestimate the importance of this transaction. It truly is an act of faith and a tangible expression of hope.

"For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land." And young adults will again know community and desperate homeowners shall again enjoy safe and sound housing.  

We are a beacon of hope in an unpromising place.

Our location? The Corner, 11th and Market, where people are first and justice is central!
Our situation? Healthy, engaged, seeking to be exhausted in the service of all God's people!

That’s what’s in this vessel. What’s in yours?


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Middle Voice

In a day when there’s a Starbuck’s on every corner, one might ponder just why so many can’t seem to live without them. Clearly, they satisfy a need for a large swath of American consumers and I can’t believe that it’s because that many people crave over-roasted, bitter, burnt-tasting coffee! (You can immediately see that I’m a huge fan of their brew!) So let’s, for a moment, assume it’s not their coffee alone and broaden the scope of our inquiry to include places like our own home-grown Brew Ha Ha!

All you have to do is walk into a coffee shop and it immediately starts to make sense. They aren’t just stores in which to buy over-priced coffee; they are gathering places that provide a much needed dollop of social glue that helps bind the fabric of society – and not just American society and not just in our modern day.

In 1989, Ray Oldenburg wrote a book entitled, The Great Good Place, and in it, Oldenburg suggests that for a healthy existence, citizens must live in a balance of three realms: home life, the workplace, and the inclusive social place, which he terms the “third place.”

Other than the numerous personal benefits third places offer their regulars, Oldenburg advocates for the immense social value they bring, and points out their historical role, amongst others:

The American tavern during the Revolution
The French café during that Revolution
The London coffee house during the Enlightenment
The agora in Greek democracy

With the exodus from the cities after WWII, “third places” all but disappeared, with the largest causes being urban planning and suburban development. If the deterioration of American community is to be addressed, Oldenburg asserts, the third place may be a solution in reframing the way interpersonal interaction is approached, hence the rise of the ilk of Starbucks and Brew Ha Ha!

Walk into any coffee shop on any day and you’ll find small gaggles of folks around tables, fireplaces, or counters – some with laptops, tablets, or phones – but all engaged in some level of community – and the diversity of the patrons is something to admire, if not relish.

When you think about it, coffee shops may just be the modern American incarnation of the traditional British pub.

A few years ago the NY Times Travel section ran a piece called, A Pub Crawl Through the Centuries, in which the author took a jaunty trek through some of Oxford’s classic pubs, many of which date to the Middle Ages. It was more of a social experiment than a wandering through history. The author states, “Some British pubs began as simple meeting places, some as coaching inns. A good pub is a ready-made party, a home away from home, a club anyone can join.

Call me a heretic, but clearly Jesus would have hung out in a place like that. The article continued with this great theological assertion: A pub is a great leveler — not a workingman’s club, but an everyman’s club. If that’s not heaven I’m not sure I’m interested!

In our story today, there’s Jesus, parked in a pub, wolfing down a ham sandwich on crusty gluten-free bread washing it all down with pint after pint of root beer and outside the dour Scrooge-like church wardens are peering down their spectacles at the clustered crowd elbow to elbow around the plank tables with Jesus deep in discourse.

This was their community. It was their Third Place where they shared the news, blew off steam, solved the problems of the world, and “came near” this itinerant rabbi who seemed to say things they wanted to hear.

Now, Jesus sees them, they’re lurking in the doorway of the pub, afraid go too far in for fear of being mistaken as one of “them.” Jesus knows they can hear him so he decides to have a little fun and tells a couple of stories.

One’s about a sheep and the other about a coin but he used the same MadLib for each:

Which man/woman…having 100 sheep/10 coins, if he/she loses one…does not leave/sweep…go after/seek…until he/she finds it? When he/she has found it…he/she calls together his/her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep/coin…which was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents.
Notice how sneaky Jesus is?

It’s pretty clear that the lost are us lowly humans and the one who is searching is God…right? In the first case, God is the “good shepherd” – we’re accustomed to that since it’s all over the Bible and the eavesdropping Elders would have caught on – but then our subversive savior gives them reason to choke on their clenched teeth by using an image of an old widow-woman as God! God as both male and female! Wars have been fought over such things yet Jesus thinks nothing of it!

The other thing he does – twice – is to make it clear that the whole business of searching ends up as a celebration, a party – a party just like the one he’s probably hosting when he tells the story!

So the question to the uptight onlookers is simply this: Who are you ready to party with?

If your answer, like the dour Presbyterians we’re known to be, is “We don’t party,” or “We don’t party with them” then this parable is all about us!

The church mucky-mucks’ grumbling was provoked by the radical hospitality they were witnessing. This promiscuous meal sharing by the rabbi offended their sensibilities. After all, they were the ones who were intimately acquainted with rules, who wrote the Book of Order, the ones who drew the boundaries, the ones who enforced the Session manual!

“This fellow welcomes, this guy does even more than that, he seeks out sinners and eats with them.”

He hangs out in pubs, in coffee shops, in all kinds of Third Places where people—all kinds of people—gather for community, connection, and camaraderie, even perhaps, for rest, renewal, and hope.

Those people that gather? People like us? They are the lost. No, not the kind of lost that a GPS rescues; lost as in “that which is to be found,” the object of another’s search. Not a purely passive posture; yet not active either – it’s somewhere in the middle – a middle voice.

It means that we’re open and receptive to the one who is seeking us, the finder, but doesn’t mean that we are the ones doing the finding. It means that we’re actively available for God’s seeking and leading.

It’s a bit of a paradox.

It’s a working out of our own finding that is, at the same time, relinquishing of our own working since it is God working within us. Put a simpler way: our seeking is but our own willingness to be found!

That’s us: people of the middle voice! We seek by allowing ourselves to be found. We come near to God so that we too may be found confident that like the shepherd or the widow, God is indeed vested in our being found.

We come to a Third Place and people of the Middle Voice – we gather as community, coming near, knowing that God is actively seeking us and our task is simply our willingness to be found.

So here’s the last little twist of these parables:

Remember the opening line, the complaint against Jesus: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

And then the last line, Jesus’ response? “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

So who are the true sinners in the story?

Sinners are the ones who need their minds changed.

Don’t know about you, but that hits a little close to home!

As open, liberal, progressive, and inclusive I like to think I am, and we are, there are plenty of things – opinions and prejudices – that I need my mind changed about. As much as I’d like to think I’m hobnobbing with Jesus in the pub, my home away from home, I’m more than likely one of the religious insiders standing at the doorway sneering, criticizing, and drawing lines of in and out.

So, as start the new program year, as we begin this segment of our journey of faith, as we seek to be found – maybe the only thing we need to ask ourselves today is,

Isn’t it time we joined the party?


Sunday, September 4, 2016


Every “Baby boomer” in America has heard of the very lonely “Maytag Repairman” and can probably conjure up a visual of his forlorn face as he waits in his shop for a phone call from a housewife with a malfunctioning washing machine. Alas, the commercials led us to believe that the appliances were so reliable as to never need the services of a company-trained repairman. In a day when major appliances often lasted a generation and new features were rare, it was an especially effective advertising campaign and the name “Maytag” became synonymous with “value” and the brand commanded a premium price point.

But you may be surprised to know that appliances aren’t the only products that proudly sport the “Maytag” name; and the other product is, of all things, cheese!

Founded by the grandsons of the appliance magnate, Maytag Blue Cheese is produced in the same town as the washing machines, Newton, IA, and thanks to a process discovered by two Iowa State microbiologists, Maytag’s Blue rivals any other in the world. Given that the fromager employs neither a sales force or a marketing firm, the fact that anyone has heard of the product is almost as remarkable as the cheese itself.

In my former life in the hotel business in California, one of our chef’s was familiar with Maytag Blue and had it shipped across country to use it in a dressing and accompaniment for a simple, but delicious, wedge of iceberg lettuce salad.

Now this wasn’t just any ordinary salad: the produce was grown within a few miles of the hotel in nearby Ojai, CA, and was picked the same day it was served, and the bacon was from pigs who lived the good life as Southern California swine! Adding generous amounts of the Maytag cheese to freshly made dressing gave a resounding tang and texture that was unrivaled. We were, delirious about this menu item as were the many guests who ordered it.

Imagine then, our deep chagrin when a local restaurant critic pronounced our little taste of heaven as “pedestrian.”

“Pedestrian!” Ha! He was maligning our sensitive and sublime salad as lacking inspiration or excitement; dull. He was, as many restaurant critics proved to be, dead wrong. Thankfully the review didn’t seem to dampen demand and the Maytag Blue prevailed. I did, however, never forget the stinging ring of the affront of “pedestrian.” To this day, I reserve it for that which truly aspires to the glamour of mud.

Hence it should have come as no surprise when a commentator wrote that the image of the potter in Jeremiah was decidedly “pedestrian,” that my defenses were immediately deployed as Jeremiah is among my favorite of prophets and to besmirch his choice of parable was nearly unforgivable.

Alas, unlike food critics, the commentator was correct. It is, or rather, was, a decidedly pedestrian image.

Today we have romanticized the potter as an artisan reserved for juried craft fairs and overpriced ceramics in upscale tourist destinations. Pottery is now collectable art, yet there was a time, not that long ago, when it was purely utilitarian and decidedly pedestrian. It’s those qualities that serve it well as a parable, as all of which, Old Testament and New, are composed of common, ordinary, pedestrian symbols and situations.

In this case, the potter: strong, skilled, sensitive, creative, determined, and patient. The clay: messy, dirty, splatters, unwieldly, and malleable.

Theirs is a relationship that is robustly dynamic and is representative of the classic theological tension between divine sovereignty, the potter, and human freedom, the clay.  Simply put, the parable raises two salient questions:

  1. Do our human actions influence God? Or,
  2. Are we locked on a course solely determined by God?
One answer to that conundrum lies amidst a muddy swirl on the potter’s wheel.

But before we solve, or at least explore, the riddle, let’s place it in context and give our pedestrian image a tad of mobility.

Here’s where I reduce centuries of rich Hebrew history into a couple of inadequate sentences:

Begin in the year 1,000 CE – the Golden Age of Israel when David was king, the country was united, homeland security was high, and no one was worried about immigration, taxes, or universal healthcare. Alas, as we learning in this current era, we can’t keep great leaders around forever and the Camelot of David’s age soon ended with failed policies after the death of his son, Solomon. For 200 years the country floundered and deep schism and division between north and south formed and the citizenry was vulnerable to outside aggressors.

In 722, Assyria took over the northern half of the country leaving only the more sparsely populated, somewhat agrarian southern region to defend itself, which it did to varying degrees of success, until 597 when neighboring Babylon invaded and began a systematic deportation of its more prominent inhabitants.

It was in that middle time, after the north was taken over and before the south was invaded that Jeremiah was active and preaching. Bear in mind, we’re not talking about a landmass like the United States – Israel is the basic shape and size of Vermont, roughly just 4 times the size of Delaware.

It was in that in-between time that a young king, named Josiah, came into power, and unlike most of his day, seized upon his reign a time of strenuous and pronounced reform. The people had wandered away from God’s covenant, hence, in his thinking, resulting in their radical misfortune, and under his leadership, reform could redeem their ways and avoid future calamity. Jeremiah applauded Josiah’s efforts and for the most part, stayed on the sidelines and cheered him on.

Sadly, Josiah died young which prompted Jeremiah to step up his public persona and it is in that time period that we are introduced to the potter and the clay. We understand, then, that in verse 4 that, “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him,” that Josiah’s version of his country was being formed into something useful and with integrity, yet upon his death, was spoiled. Now it’s time to refashion Israel.

Now we can return to our puzzling situation in which we attempt to unravel the ongoing involvement and creative works of God in human affairs and whether or not we have any say or influence.

A few things to consider about the parable:

First, it’s clear that the potter is interested in shaping something useful – which suggests that God is deeply invested in our life. The potter doesn’t work aimlessly, every turn of the wheel matters, and God intends to shape us for purposes that likely exceed our vision and imagination.

Secondly, as we’ve already mentioned, the relationship between the potter and the clay is robustly dynamic. The potter is not indifferent to the condition of the clay just as God is not indifferent to the way our collective life takes shape.

Thirdly, there is a point in the process when the future shape of the clay is set. Consider those decisions in your own lives that determined your future: where to attend school or whom to marry or what career to pursue or when to retire or what principles or values to give allegiance.

Faith communities have watershed moments when the future is set. Perhaps it’s a decision to remain in an aging urban property rather than defect to the suburbs; or maybe it’s to call a pastor who breaks the mold rather that follow a traditional route; or maybe it’s a decision to make major and expensive changes to a classic old building to better prepare it to do ministry?

For us, today, perhaps that’s what we are experiencing. We’re in the midst of re-shaping the vessel in which we do ministry, re-casting the mold of this building to allow a future to emerge that better serves the people God has provided.

Can you see how this seemingly pedestrian building project is part of a robustly dynamic transaction that we’re having with God? I don’t ask that lightly nor is this intended as a thinly veiled appeal for more Mission Campaign pledges – but do you see this work as an ongoing conversation with God? Do you sense that God is shaping the congregation into something useful? That God is deeply invested in the outcome? That every turn of the wheel matters?

The impetus for this messy, dusty, muddy, noisy intrusion into our common life is not a fancier entrance or a modern kitchen or a facelift to our social hall – no – it’s the result of discernment and discovery as multiple groups of people attempt to do God’s work, to do bigger work in a better way.

Can you see how this seemingly pedestrian renovation will change lives? Quite possibly yours? And change those lives in ways that are far from ordinary, mundane, or dull? Can you sense the hands of God’s spirit that is articulating a vision and future that comes into our depth of field in glimpses yet gains in clarity as the clay takes shape in the potters strong and resilient hands?

We are, right this very minute, on that potter’s wheel – and yes – the constant movement can be dizzying and disorienting and full of uncertainty – but it is without doubt that First & Central is being shaped in new and challenging and exciting ways.

I promise – and so firmly believe – that if we are true to our faith, to our willingness to risk, to our commitment to serve, to our quest to be the people God needs right here and now – that we will know excitement and a future that is thrilling and invigorating and surprising – in short – done right – First and Central will be anything but pedestrian!