A lot of these programs were actually disempowering, Cronin-Furman found. They kept women at home, disconnected from their networks and from opportunities to organize. One government official told Cronin-Furman that despite years of training programs, she had never seen any of the women earn a living from these skills. “It’s not just that they failed to help,” Cronin-Furman said. “It’s that it actually made them worse off, cutting them off from political power.”
This sermon was delivered at Church of Peace, United Church of Christ, in Rock Island, Illinois, on October 15, 2017. The scripture for this sermon is Mark 3:19b-31.
Last summer, I went to the United Church of Christ’s General Synod. This is the big meeting we have every two years where delegates from all over the denomination come together to elect officers and debate resolutions and do all of those kinds of things. And as part of this, there are youth and young adults who are encouraged to speak… to bring a ‘youth perspective’ to issues facing the church.
One of the resolutions this year was about gun violence. It was a resolution calling on Congress to allow the Center for Disease Control to study gun violence and to suggest methods to improve gun safety. And whatever you think about guns or gun control or anything like that, I want you to consider something: if today is an average day in America, 93 people will die from gun violence, 58 of those will be suicides, and the CDC is not allowed to study that.
And I want you to consider something else: if tomorrow is an average day, somewhere in America a classroom of children will have a drill where they hide in a closet and stay quiet. And they’ll have that drill because we’re afraid that someday won’t be an average day, and that staying quiet in a closet in a classroom will keep our sons and daughters alive.
When delegates were talking about this resolution, some young people got up to speak. They shared their stories of hiding in closets and making escape plans and going through active shooter drills and hearing the simulated sound of gunfire. And a little while later an adult stood up and said that he had been through active shooter training and that some elements of their stories — like the simulated gunfire — weren’t true.
Today’s reading starts with four simple words: “Then he went home.”
It sounds good. It sounds comfortable.
Jesus is a nice Jewish boy and — and even here in the third chapter of Mark — he’s been out in the world for a little while. He’s been baptized by John. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast out demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees.
Then he went home.
And then things got out of hand.
Today, we’re continuing our series on choosing family. Today, we’re talking about sons and daughters. And that’s a bit of a clunky way of talking about children. And that’s a weird word. Sometimes, ‘children’ means ‘offspring’. My brother and I are the children of Robert and Janet Warfield. Sometimes, though, ‘children’ means ‘not adults’. A group of ten year olds is a group of children. A group of forty year olds is not.
And sometimes, in families, that line between being a child and being a child gets blurry. We all know that feeling, right? That feeling we get when we go home and we’re not just our parents’ children, but we’re treated like our parents’ children? That feeling when we know we have a role we’re supposed to play and a lane we’re supposed to stay in?
I wonder if Jesus felt that when he went home.
Because when Jesus went home, the crowd came together and they couldn’t even eat. And then things got out of hand. Some of the people were coming to be healed or have demons cast out or hear some good news. But others were saying, “He has gone out of his mind… He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
And that, for sure, was not okay. If people really believed that Jesus was out of his mind — if people really believed that Jesus had Beelzebul and was casting out demons by the ruler of demons — that wouldn’t just be bad for him. That would be bad for his entire family. This was a time and a place and a community where you really could ruin a family name. Everything could fall apart. And Jesus’s family isn’t going to have any of it.
Now, I don’t have children, but I’ve seen that expression on parents’ faces — I’ve been the cause of that expression on parents’ faces — when they think their child is misbehaving in a public place. It’s a combination of embarrassment and shame and fear of judgement. And imagine that feeling, but a thousand times worse because there’s not going to be any understanding shrugs from strangers. People are saying that Jesus is out of his mind, that he’s an agent of the devil.
So Jesus’s family goes out to restrain him. That word — ‘restrain’ — is important. It’s the same word that gets used when people go out to arrest Jesus later. That’s how serious this is. Jesus’s own family goes out to kind-of-arrest him because he is a threat to the family; because he is a child who is out of control; because he isn’t playing the role he is supposed to play.
And when that guy at Synod stood up and said that those young people had embellished their stories, he didn’t touch them, but he restrained them, too. They were children who were out of control; they weren’t playing the role they were supposed to play.
But those youth didn’t stand for it. The next morning, there were speak outs, when anyone can take the microphone and share their thoughts or make an announcement. And some young people — some sons and daughters of this denomination — stood up and reminded us all of two things. First, that they are not the future of the church, but the present of the church; after all, they were speaking at Synod because we needed their perspective. Second, that no one would dismiss the experiences of older delegates, and no one had the right to dismiss theirs.
I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of the youth of the United Church of Christ. I don’t know if I’ve ever been as committed to a standing ovation. Because here’s the thing: Jesus did something like that, too.
When Jesus’s family went out to restrain him, they found the crowd. And some people said to Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you.” And Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers? They’re here. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”
Look, I know. That sounds like rejection. It sounds like Jesus is saying that his mother and his brothers and his sisters aren’t his family. It sounds like the people who raised him don’t matter anymore. it sounds like he won’t be coming home again.
And, so often, that’s what it sounds like when the young people in our communities — when our sons and our daughters — insist on a new way of doing things. We see congregations shrinking and fraternal organizations closing and millennials and post-millennials killing fast casual restaurants and cereal and napkins and diamonds and dozens of other things… and we think they are rejecting us.
But Jesus isn’t rejecting anyone. He’s inviting his family into a new possibility.
You see, Jesus isn’t be the holy infant, so tender and mild, anymore.
He’s been baptized. He’s been tempted in the wilderness. He’s called some disciples. He’s healed people and cast our demons and preached to crowds and challenged Pharisees. And while he might still be Mary’s child, he isn’t Mary’s child anymore.
And his family has a choice. They can try to restrain him, or they can walk alongside him. They can try to hold him back, or they can be part of a common vision and a supportive community. They can try to arrest him, or they can follow him into the Kingdom of God.
This work — the work of being church — will not soon be over. Tomorrow there will be hungry people to feed. Next week there will be strangers to welcome. Next month there will be sick people to visit. And on an average day next year there might be 93 deaths from gun violence, 58 of them suicides. The work of the kingdom goes on and I doubt I’ll live to see it finished. Our ancestors laid the foundation, and we have continued the work, and our children — and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and our great-great-grandchildren — will keep going until that long bending arc of history finally reaches justice.
Our sons and daughters are not the future of the church. Our parents and grandparents aren’t the past of the church. Together, we are all the present of the church. Together, we hold onto the best of the past and embrace the best of the future. Together, we bring diverse perspectives and powerful experiences. Together, we strive to be one family defined by the will of God.
And when we do that, the possibilities are endless.
Last week, my denomination — the United Church of Christ — released a bit of bad news. Fourteen people were laid off as the national setting of the denomination reorganized itself around new mission priorities. Among the transitions are the combining of operations and global ministries; the combining of justice work and local church ministries; and the combining of Publishing, Identity, and Communication with the Office of Philanthropy and Stewardship to form an Office of Philanthropy and Marketing. As a colleague and friend who used to work at the national offices pointed out on Facebook, this continues a precipitous decline in staff there: from around 300 near the beginning of the century to slightly more than 100 now (someone else pointed out that there were more than 400 in the early 90s).
These layoffs aren’t surprising. The national setting and muddle judicatories have been shrinking as long as the denomination has existed. Every year brings predictions about when the United Church of Christ will close its doors, even if individual congregations keep going.
One of the biggest challenges for the United Church of Christ is how money flows through it. Offerings are collected in struggling local congregations. Some of that money — almost always a shrinking amount — is sent to middle judicatories. Those struggling middle judicatories then send some of that monty — again, almost always a shrinking amount — on to the national setting. The pie keeps getting smaller every year and at every level, and much of the reorganization at every level is about surviving on less and less.
And, unfortunately, too many of the expressions of the United Church of Christ — from local churches to the national setting — respond to that shrinking pie by focusing on how they can get more instead of how they can connect more. We focus more and more on our hubs; we focus less and less on our networks.
Let me give a simple example. The new Director of Marketing and Philanthropy will be tasked with raising money for the United Church of Christ, meaning, by and large, the national setting and its initiatives. She will also be responsible for developing stewardship materials for local congregations. Historically, those materials include some third-party books on stewardship, as well as annual themed posters, bulletin inserts, pledge cards, letters, and so on (which, of course, local congregations have to pay for). That means she’s focused mostly on raising money for her hub: the national setting.
What’s missing? Real coaching and training for the local congregations who want to support the national setting and who are themselves struggling. In other words: the creation of networks that will connect professionals and successful congregations with congregations that they can help.
And that’s also true on a broader scale. As a denomination — and like many other mainline denominations — we are focused on the survival of hubs, from local churches through middle judicatories to the national setting.
But any future for the United Church of Christ, I suspect, isn’t found in keeping hubs alive. It’s found in creating and sustaining dynamic networks. If the United Church of Christ wants to be an effective denomination in the future, it needs to invest in serving and connecting its local congregations, covenanted ministries, and other expressions. For example:
- we might invest substantially in a group of consultants and coaches focused on stewardship and church vitality
- we might look at how congregations who are successful at a certain ministry can be connected to congregations interested in developing a similar ministry and share resources
- we might provide smaller congregations merge into single church bodies with multiple campuses
- we might investigate what new models of membership — models that recognize that fewer people are likely to belong to the same congregation for their entire lives — might look like
There are any number of options here, but they are all based on networks. And it is investment in creating and sustaining those networks — not keeping hubs functioning — that will help the United Church of Christ remain a powerful force in the future.
The survey, which was conducted in 2016, asked respondents 10 questions, on which they were then given a score from 0 to 100.
In all, the average consumer score was 54. About a third of all adults in the U.S. have financial well-being scores of 50 or below, meaning they struggle to make ends meet or experience material hardship
Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that Puerto Rico is in crisis. While President Trump as tweeted attacks on the mayor of San Juan and other Puerto Rican leaders who have criticized the government’s response, FEMA and other agencies – both public and private – have been working to help the people of Puerto Rico. Whether the response has been adequate or not, untold numbers of people are waiting for food, water, medicine, power, and other necessary resources. It will take decades, perhaps even generations, to fully recover.
And because the need is so dire, many of my friends are reminding people that Puerto Ricans are Americans and that many are veterans.
And that’s true. Puerto Ricans are, by law, American citizens (even though residents do not have a vote in Congress and are not allowed to vote in presidential elections). And tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have served in the United States military since World War I. If we are grateful for the service of American veterans, we are grateful for the service of Puerto Ricans.
But none of that matters.
All that matters is this: Puerto Ricans are people in need. Before anything else, they are people in need. That should be the sole criterion on which we base our response.
So go, donate. I recommend the United Church of Christ’s disaster ministries 2017 hurricane fund, which will support efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and wherever else help is needed. The reason I recommend them it simple: in a few months, memory will fade and other disasters will dominate headlines… and the United Church of Christ will still be working where help is needed today. The United Church of Christ provides the longterm support that is needed in disaster recovery areas.
A while ago, Jacobin published an article titled “A Foundation, Not a Net.” Here’s an excerpt:
A better metaphor, both in terms of accuracy and rhetoric, would be the foundation. The welfare foundation provides a universal set of services on top of which people can build their lives. It is a permanent support structure, not a temporary failsafe. The precise mix of welfare benefits individuals get will of course vary depending on what stage of life they are in, but the welfare state as a whole is there for them at all times, giving them the stability to do everything else they want to do with their lives.
Go read the whole thing, of course. The basic idea is that the welfare state isn’t a safety net. Pensions, social security, medicare, public education, and other entitlements and services aren’t things that people rely on in a disaster. They are “universal services for life events that basically everyone goes through.”
I wonder if we can think of charity in the same way.
Often, when we think about charity, we think of it as a safety net. Sometimes, that means that we think of it as something that people use when the high wire snaps (during a disaster). Other times, when we see people in the safety net a lot, we think of it as something that people use because they can’t do the work to use the high wire successfully (they’re lazy, entitled, dependent, and so on). At its worst, this becomes charity skepticism: the idea that the safety net entangles people, and that people start treating it as a hammock.
But, at its most basic, charity is something deeper than that. The word ‘charity’ comes from the Latin word caritas. In Latin Christianity, caritas was one of two words used to translate a Greek word: agape. The kind of selfless love that God shows the world and that we are commanded to show each other.
I would like us to imagine charity as the love we owe each other; the foundation on which people can build their lives. Sometimes, that might look like a robust welfare state providing education, social security, and access to health care. Sometimes, that might look like private philanthropy providing community centers, child care, and cultural opportunities. Sometimes, that might look like personal charity providing someone with a place to sleep or a hot meal.
In every case, it means not having to worry that taking a risk – whether that’s leaving a soul crushing job or leaving an abusive relationship – will result in destitution. A charitable community is a community where there is a foundation for life; where people are free to create their best selves in covenant with each other.
This sermon was delivered at Metropolitan Community Church of the Quad Cities in Davenport, Iowa, on September 17, 2017. The scriptures for this sermon are Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.
A little over a month ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, a young man named James Alex Fields Jr drove a Dodge Challenger into a crowd of people, hitting a sedan, which hit a minivan, which pushed into the crowd, injuring nineteen people and killing one. The person who was killed was Heather Heyer, who was a paralegal and a waitress, and who stood in solidarity with people who needed someone who was relatively privileged to stand in solidarity with them.
If it had been any other day, James, like so many other misguided young white men who kill, would have been tagged as mentally ill or misguided or a bit of a loner. But this time the nation saw a pattern. James was misguided. James was a bit of a loner. James may have even been mentally ill. But James was also an unabashed white supremacist who chose to march with others like him while chanting racist and anti-semitic slogans. And who chose to drive into a crowd of people.
And a couple of days later, Heather’s father Mark stood in front of cameras and forgave James.
And I cannot imagine how he did that.
In today’s first reading, we see Joseph and his brothers. When Joseph was younger, he had some dreams. And he told his brothers those dreams. And his brothers were jealous because those dreams seemed to mean that Joseph was important. So they sold him into slavery and told their father that he had been killed. Y’know, like brothers do.
Joseph became a slave in Egypt. And because of his master’s wife, he became a prisoner in Egypt. And because of his skill at interpreting dreams, he became a chief administrator in Egypt.
And then there was a famine. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food. Eventually, they met Joseph, who kept his identity secret. And, after some trickery and accusations and false imprisonments and threats, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and there was joy and celebration. And it turned out that Joseph really was important.
And then Joseph’s father, Jacob, died. And here are Joseph’s brothers, worried that Joseph might still be upset that they sold him into slavery all those years ago. So they go to him and they say, “Dad said — y’know, on his deathbed — that you should forgive us.”
And Joseph replies, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good… Have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
And I cannot imagine how he did that.
If there is anyone who has the right to hold a grudge, it’s Heather Heyer’s parents. Her death wasn’t an accident. It was at once purposeful and impersonal, the act of someone with a hateful ideology who wanted to hurt as many people as he could.
If there’s anyone who has the right to tell his brothers to pound sand, it’s Joseph. Whatever good had come out of his ordeal, he was enslaved and imprisoned and lost out on years of his life.
Forgiveness shouldn’t be this easy.
No, that’s not right. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world. Mark Heyer shouldn’t have to live with the burden of hating James Fields. Joseph shouldn’t have to live with the burden of a grudge against his brothers. No one should have to live with the ceaseless work of stoking the fires of our anger. Forgiveness should be one of the easiest things in the world.
Being forgiven shouldn’t be this easy. Grace shouldn’t be so cheap. And it can almost sound like Jesus says that.
There once was a man who was called before the king. Now, the man owed the king, like, two million dollars. And he did not have two million dollars. The king was going to make him sell everything he had to pay the debt. But the man fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the king was moved. And the king was merciful. And the king forgave the debt. And the man walked out.
Before long, that man ran into a neighbor who owed him, like, ten bucks. And the man told his neighbor to pay up. But his neighbor didn’t have ten bucks and he — who owed so little — fell on his knees and begged for mercy. And the man wouldn’t have any of it and had his neighbor thrown into prison and other people saw all of this and told the king.
And the king… got mad. And the man was called before the king. And the king said, “I had mercy on you and forgave your debt, but you can’t forgive your neighbor?” And he sent the man to prison.”
And, for a moment, it almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven is hard. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that grace comes at a cost. It almost sounds like Jesus is saying that being forgiven requires something.
It’s easy for us to fall into that way of thinking. It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven, Joseph’s brothers have to fall on their knees and recount their wrongs and beg Joseph for mercy. It’s easy to think that, in order to be forgiven, James Fields has to fall on his knees and make his confession and beg Mark — and, even more, Heather’s spirit — for mercy.
It’s easy for us to think that, in order to be forgiven for all that we have done, we have to fall on our knees and break down in tears and beg God for mercy.
But the cost of grace is so much less… and so much more.
The man who had two million dollars forgiven wasn’t free just because he had his two million dollars forgiven. He wasn’t free until he could escape the cycle of borrowing and lending that had ensnared him. And I want to be clear here: he wasn’t in that cycle just because he had owed two million dollars; he was in that cycle also because he cared about the ten dollars he had lent out.
It was only in forgiving the debt of his neighbor that he could truly be free of the debt he owned. As long as he still cared so desperately and angrily about his neighbor’s debt, he was still trapped by his own.
Or, as St. Francis put it so elegantly, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
I don’t know if Joseph’s brothers ever let go of their jealousy and their hatred. I hope that they did. I hope that they could accept that they were forgiven and live the rest of their days in mercy.
I don’t know if James Fields will ever let go of his prejudice and hatred. I hope that he will. I hope that what he has done and what he now faces will change him. I hope that he will accept the forgiveness that has been offered to him. I hope that he will live the rest of his days as an instrument of mercy.
And I don’t know if I will ever let go of the thousand little slights that I hold onto. It seems like too much. It seems like too much to say that I will not be part of the systems of debt and shame and anger. It seems like too much to let go. But I pray that I will. I pray that reaching out for God’s grace will force me let go of the weights that hold me back: the people I hold down.
The cost of grace is so little. God offers it freely.
The cost of grace is so much. We have to give up all those things that make us think that we’re better. Or that we’re more important. Or that we have a right to throw our neighbor in prison or the power to sell our brother into slavery.
And I pray that you and I and all of us can pay that price. Then we will have a world of peace and love and pardon; of faith and hope and light and joy. Then we will live in the Kingdom of God.
Recently, I’ve had a few conversations about church membership. The simple fact is that most mainline congregations are facing declining and aging memberships, and some of the congregations want to do something about it. And I always answer the same way:
I’m not concerned with membership; I’m concerned with engagement.
Membership in most mainline congregations is a formality. Someone who has been coming to worship for a while might take a membership class where they learn things about that congregation and its denomination. Then they stand in front of the congregation some Sunday morning and make some promises. And the members of the congregation who are there that morning make some promises. And the new member signs a book.
Now that person is a member. And the perk is that they can serve on committees and vote in the congregational meeting. And if they don’t show up for a few years and somebody bothers cleaning up the rolls, they’ll be taken off the membership list. Yay.
Engagement is a way of life. Each summer, at the church where I’m a member, we have Christmas in July. That Sunday morning, we collect diapers and toilet paper and feminine hygiene products for the food pantry. And this year, a young woman who is not a member and who occasionally comes to services reached out to her friends and said,
My church is doing this thing and I think it would be great if you got involved. If you want to give, but don’t want to come to services, let me know. I’ll get your donation and take it myself.
I don’t know if that young woman will ever stand in front of the congregation and make promises and sign a book. I don’t know if she will ever become a member. But she is engaged. She may even be more engaged – at least in this one thing – than some of our members.
We know for a fact that not all members are involved in the life of the congregation. We know that not everyone who is involved in the life of the congregation is a member. We know that someone who is engaged in the life of the community makes more of a difference than someone who is not, even if they aren’t a member, and even if the person who isn’t engaged has been a member for forty years.
And yet we spend so much time and energy worrying about membership when we should be focusing on engagement.
I’m not saying to ignore membership. Membership, probably, still matters. But if we focus on engagement – if we focus on getting people involved in our communities, without worrying about whether they take the formal step that improves our numbers in the yearbook – then membership, if it matters, will follow.
I’ve written about the National Association of Nonprofit Organizations and Executives before (here). They’re the organization that suggests that nonprofit organizations should pay their board members, and that the primary responsibility of those board members is to support a strong executive director.
Recently, I received an email from NANOE letting me know that I’ve been nominated to sit on their Board of Governors. Of course, this isn’t the same as their Board of Directors. No. The Board of Governors is a large group of people who are tasked to review a handful of documents that NANOE is preparing:
- New Guidelines for Tomorrow’s Nonprofit (2nd Ed.)
- Harnessing the Power of Differentiated Relationships
- Evaluating Impact: Before, During, and After Growth
Naturally, members of the Board of Governors must be members of NANOE. That means paying $100 a year for the privilege of reviewing and providing feedback on these documents. That’s right, an organization that wants you to start paying your Board of Directors believes that I should pay them so that they can use my expertise.
Why, it’s almost as if NANOE is kind of a scam!