If We Fall in Love with God’s Earth, We Fight for Her! Sermon delivered to the UUA in Petaluma

The Voice of the Earth in Genesis 1, Norman Habel, The Earth Bible Project

I am Earth, I was first revealed when God summoned the primal waters to part. I came forth from the waters as a living domain with the potential to give birth. I count this a great honor and grounds for celebration. I am a valuable part of the cosmos.

At the request of God, I brought forth, like a mother, all the flora that covers the land. I gave birth to vegetation that has the capacity to reproduce. After the flora that comes from within me is interconnected with me and is nurtured through me.

At the request of God, I also brought forth, like a mother, the fauna that live on the Earth. They are my offspring and depend upon me for subsistence. All fauna depend on the vegetation I produce for their survival and enjoyment of life. I am Earth, the source of daily life for the flora and fauna that I have generated from within me.

Sad to say, there is another story that has invaded my world, the story of the so-called god-image creatures called humans. Instead of recognizing that these god-image creatures are beings interdependent with Earth and other Earth creatures, this story claims that the god-image creatures belong to the superior ruling class or species, thereby demeaning their nonhuman kin an diminishing their value. Instead of respecting me as their home and life source, the god image creatures claim a mandate to crush me like an enemy or slave.

My voice needs to be heard and intrusive story about the humans in Gen. 1:26-28 named for what it is from my perspective: the creature of a group of power hungry humans.

Sermon:

In the mythic story of Creation in six days, God rests on the seventh day. Genesis 1 is a mythic story that speaks about our origins. But this is the same story told from a different perspective. Biblical scholar and founder of the Earth Bible Project Norman Habel re-envisions the story told from the Earth’s perspective and voice. This has the impact of de-emphasizing the anthropocentrism or the view that humanity is exceptional and above all species. If we could listen to the elements and life on Earth, we would receive a harsh critique on on human greed and selfishness. Further on in the story is the verse:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

This verse has been used to justify our exploitation and use of the world. It implies a patriarchal exceptionalism and used to justify industrial and corporate plundering of the Earth. We humans have elevated our position in our arrogance. Everything has been made for our benefit and use. We can do whatever we want to the land, soil, water, air—the terrain we name Earth. The first chapter of Genesis—God says six times, it is “good,” and the last time it is “very good.” God creates for intimacy and delight. It communicates a major truth of our planet and the universe, everything is interrelated. We are all interconnected to each other and everything else.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, observes, “We’re running Genesis backward, de-creating.” Let me talk about “de-creating.”
There is the denial of climate change by the current Trump administration. Scott Pruitt was named as head of the EPA, an organization to protect our environment and health. And he is attempting to undo EPA regulations for the sake of fossil fuel companies. Mr. Pruitt belongs to a Baptist church in Oklahoma that believes that the Earth was created some five or six thousand years ago. Mr. Trump has withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce carbon emissions in our country. He has signed an executive order that allows coal companies to dump coal ash no longer in ponds that impact aquifers but now directly into the rivers—water supply for towns and cities. The President has asked his Secretary of the Interior to eliminate or reduce the national monuments so that corporations may drill for oil and gas. He supports the Canadian Keystone XL pipeline to cross the largest aquifer in the heartland that provides water to millions of families and farmers. There are numerous oil spills such as Deep Horizon in the Gulf. We frack the earth to withdraw natural gas and oil. We poison the waters and create earthquakes.

Our overdependency and now political resistance to renewable energies are warming up the planet, and the glaciers are melting. Sea-level rise is proposed by the end of the century to rise by 8-11 feet. The earth is heating up. At preview of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood at Cal State University, Northridge, I was on a panel when a Muslin woman scientist spoke about the temperatures for one week in the summer of 2016 in the Arab Emirates reached 160’s Fahrenheit.

Last week I attended a UCC environmental retreat, I heard a presentation from a clergy from the island nation of Tuvalu, square miles, 12,000 indigenous people in the Pacific Ocean. The nation is sinking, and few nations are listening to their pleas. Very sad and prophetic of the future. I also heard the youth Water Protectors from the Standing Rock Reservation. Impressive group of youth fighting to safeguard their water from the Dakota pipeline. The water protectors listen and fight for the water and land with courage and love be.
Our addiction to beef is leading to massive deforestation of the Amazon forest or palm oil in the deforestation of large tracks of jungle in Indonesia. We do this regardless of the consequences to the planet and other life. We have lost 100 million trees in the Sierras through drought, beetle infestation, and apocalyptic raging fires.

Corporate greed and our own consumerism outweigh the lives of future generations of human animals and nonhuman animals. The sixth extinction of nonhuman life is taking place right now.

Contemplative spiritual teacher and writer Matthew Fox sums our situation aptly, “the killing of Mother Earth in our time is the number one ethical, spiritual, and human issue of our planet.” Nothing is more real, and we have little time before the tipping point where the planet’s temperature rise of 4 degrees Celsus will be inevitable and all life will face unparalleled disaster.

The Earth reading does not continue to include the verses that God rested on the seventh day. For many Jews, the seventh day becomes a Sabbath time of rest, re-creation, and erotic delight. In the Jewish tradition, when you make love on the Sabbath, you are twice blessed. Try preaching that in a mainline Christian, and congregants panic. I did in a LGBT church, and one bright congregant asked “if we are twice blessed then are we also twice blessed on the Muslim and Christian Sabbaths.” I said, “Of course, you are blessed twice to the third power which is eightfold.”

There is a cultural amnesia on “Why God rested?” We forget that for the previous verse in Genesis 1:28 to subdue and dominate the Earth. Unless we come to some appreciation of God’s resting, we will take the Earth as place to dominate and exploit. Why does God rest? One of my favorite, eco-spiritual authors, Norman Wirzba writes,

God takes complete delight in what is made. Delight marks the moment when we find whatever is in our presence so lovely and so good that there is no other place we want to be. All we want to do is to soak it up, be fully present to it, and cherish the goodness of the world God has made. Something so good cannot be enjoyed from a distance or in the abstract. It requires the deep knowledge that comes from “union,” from tasting of it. (Wirzba)

When God takes delight, the evolution of the world becomes creation. “Creation” is a theological term arising from delight, union, and erotic intimacy with the world. I understand creation as “seeing the world or nature as God sees it.” We need more “delight” in the Earth, for Sabbath delight arouses in us the excitement and intimate connection with the evolving world. Let quote Wirzba again on a Sabbath perspective.

No creature, no body whatsoever, should be neglected, despised or abused. Each body is God’s love made visible, touchable, smellable, hearable, and delectable… Nothing in God’s creation is to be despised or forgotten. (Wirzba)
Here in this spirituality of delight is the realization of bodily interrelatedness, the basis of a spirituality of compassionate care for all life and for the Earth. All bodies, whether human animal and nonhuman animal, matter to the Creator, and they should matter to all spiritual peoples.

This delight in the Earth, I would suggest, reflects the 7th principle of Unitarian Universalism: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This is the truth of all spiritualities that live with Earth and all life.” We are all interrelated, everything in the universe, including the divine is interconnectedness.

A possible solution to human de-creating or ego-centric relationship to the world is our eco-conversion. “Eco-conversion” is turning away from human self-centeredness to understanding ourselves as part of a network of life, and that everything is interrelated. Once we let go of ego-centeredness and view ourselves an interdependent with the Earth and the web of life, we become a part of that interdependent network. It opens us a new relational understanding with the natural world and that God interrelated with the Earth and all life. Eco-conversion is viewing all life as God views life.

We must recover and re-connect our bodies with the Earth, the land, and other life. In fact, I would argue that all of us need to compost the Earth and the interrelatedness of all life into our spiritualities. It connects us to God’s delight in life and the Earth.

Humanity is greedy for more; consumerism without restraint drives us to want more and better things. It is not an ecological economy, but driven by corporate greed over the need of life. What is missing in many of our lives is intimacy with and delight in nature, which is linked physically and spiritually with the Earth. In his book, Home Ground, Language for an American Landscape, Barry Lopez writes,

Many American poets and novelists have recognized that something emotive abides in the land, and that it can be recognized and evoked even if it cannot thoroughly plumbed. It is inaccessible to the analytic researcher, invisible to the ironist. To hear the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice, one has to wait for it to speak through the harmony of its features—the soughing (moaning) of the wind across it, its upward reach against a clear night sky, its fragrance after a rain.

I suggest that you take your church outside into nature. There John Muir found the beatitudes in the Sierra mountains, he found baptism in the glaciers. He practiced an ancient form of meditation, lectio divina, meditative attentiveness of scripture. Desert fathers and mothers in Egypt transferred these techniques to nature. Galileo spoke of two Bibles: the Hebrew-Christian Bible and the Bible of Nature.

Engage Nature meditatively, listen. Listening is paying attention. Pay attention to the trees, vines, plants, streams, and nonhuman animals. Petaluma is extremely blessed with enchanting and beautiful , and I am enchanted by its forests, love the Armstrong Forest, the ocean coast, the green hills and life abundant. Pay attention to the landscape and to the web of life, and I guarantee that you fall in love with the Creator’s Earth.

Mystics, conservationists, biologists, and religious founder found the divine present in nature. Moses discovered God in a burning bush and on a mountain top, the Buddha under the Bodhi tree, Jesus in the Judean wilderness, Mohammed in a cave outside of Mecca, and numerous indigenous peoples as they listened to the voices within natures and followed their spirit guides.
The Buddha discovered the interrelatedness of everything under the Bodhi Tree, and this is the foundation for Buddhist compassion for all life.

In the spirit of the Buddha’s discovery, the Engaged Thai monk, Buddhadasa, lived in a forest jungle Watt in Thailand. He writes,

The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise… then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.

When I was in Thailand, I met an Abbot of a Forest Watt. When he discovered that I was not only a professor in Buddhist studies but also a Christian clergy, he shared an observation, “At the level of meditation, we agree on love.”
Jesus, in his forty days in the Judean wilderness, preached the kindom of God that was grounded in a primary ethical principle: “Be compassionate as Abba God is.” God’s compassion was directed to humanity and to the entire Earth, the web of life. If I had the time, I could explore more spiritual traditions: But the Buddha and the Christ agree: We are all interconnected with the web of life, the Earth is in us and all life.

Go out today and cherish the hills and the environment here in Petaluma. Fall in love, connect with a tree or flower, or your non-human companion animal, walk in a garden, the John Muir Forest, or canoe down the Petaluma River. If you fall in love with God’s Earth, you will share God’s delight and passion for life. Let us join together to fight for the Earth and all life. Join me as I found a green team in the UCC, let us delight in life together.

My Farewell Sermon as Pastor at MCC United Church of Christ

Compassion Grows–An  Excerpt from Henri Nouwen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUkZTR0pPLQ

Several years ago, I asked all invited speakers who preached at our anniversary to imagine this was their last sermon. It was based on an academic movement in universities to ask a professor to imagine giving his/her last lecture. After 13 years, this is my final sermon at MCC United Church of Christ. So here goes my attempt:

I am grateful to this church for many reasons. We have done great things over 13 years.

Let me start personally. I met my future husband Joe at Claremont School of Theology when I was invited to speak about Queer Theology. As we quietly dated, he came to Sunday service one week. And Larry Duplechan, during announcements, mischievously asked, “Are you not going tell us about your guest?” Larry had outed us, and I speak for myself, that it felt like my family had to give their stamp of approval. Joe grew into his ministry and finished his work at Claremont with two Masters. Our non-legal holy union was blessed in 2007 in this church by Rev. Troy Perry, and he legalized our marriage a year later with several others. That night of illegal wedding, I promised him that there would be a day that I would follow him. I have honored that commitment, and I follow him to Petaluma in a couple of days. Joe was ordained as a clergy here.

I am grateful to you for your faithfulness to Christ, and I take so many wonderful memories of all of you with me and those who have moved away or passed: Ray Therriault, Bob Cross, Roberta, Elinor, Dante, Gerry, Barbara, Joe, and Gregoir to name some. I grieved with you at their loss while we remembered and celebrated their lives. Their stories as well as your stories are woven with my own.

I am grateful to Venus and Emily for rescuing Friskie on the streets, after canvasing the neighborhood for the owner, but they slyly brought him to church after I lost my dog of sixteen years ago. I wouldn’t touch Friskie then because of my grief, but as I was talking with Roberta, Friskie jumped into my lap. And he became part of my family. And he loves to come to church.

But not all memories have been good. There were troubled times, drama, and pain directed at one another. I publicly apologize for my contributions to causing pain, whether rightly or wrongly. People left over disputes on using inclusive language, music, spouses, because I was male, Avatar, the service was too liturgical and not evangelical enough, the age of the congregation, and many other reasons.

But this church known for resisting change has changed over 13 years and achieved remarkable accomplishments. Let me share what stands out:

The greening of our church: We made the Earth a member of our congregation and embarked on a journey of living more sustainable with the Earth from solar panels, to retrofitting the campus to more efficient energy and water usage, the garden and the garden. The garden has been a gift to us all. We were named the first Creation Church of the UCC.

I am grateful to Michael and James who painted the mural for celebrating LGBT families and relationships on the wall. They started the process of jackhammering the asphalt to create an herb garden in front of the mural. But they unleashed the gardening passion of Gregoir who jackhammered more asphalt to create our garden.

We led the campaign to raise monies to place solar panels for Las Memorias AIDS Hospice in Tijuana. They have half of the needed solar panels, and we have freed up funds for people living with HIV.

I can remember the feeding programs, knitting scarfs for the women’s shelter and for the homeless, and knitting caps for the LGBT retirement at Triangle Square.

We produced and launched Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi: It became a missionary arm to tell the story of LGBT inclusion to numerous venues: churches, Edinburgh and Dublin Fringe Festival and off Broadway. The cast became an unchurched church speaking about radical inclusiveness of the Jesus/Joshua story. And he cast produced a documentary of their journey and faith—Playing with Redemption is now on Netflicks. They were a wonderful ministry outreach. But we have produced Godspel, The Man Who Killed Jesse James, and Vicki’s one woman play.

Paul Allison would not forgive me if I did not mention the acquisition of the pipe organ from MCC San Francisco when the building was condemned.

I remember Daddy Nick, who suffered a broken hip, and recovering in our living room for 8 months. Nick became a deacon, and then in gratitude he with a crew of folks renovated our kitchen.

This church has recognized my difference from the first time I interviewed when I identified as Buddhist Christian. You have welcomed all visitors with an extravagant hospitality in your midst– all who were non-Christians as fellow sojourners and companions on a variety of paths to discover the mystery of God called by many names.

As the denomination MCC has declined significantly, you struggled with myself about the future of the church whether we should dually affiliate with the United Church of Christ and after months of prayerful discernment chose to dually affiliate.

Of course, we know how to party and throw events: Out at the Circus with fire-spinners, jugglers, and high-wire acrobats and lots of fun; Our Night of Intercultural Music and Dance in our garden, concerts and plays, square dances and celebrations. We love to celebrate life. There is so much I can speak of our success, and I have so much gratitude for our work together.

Now, you have chosen an interim pastor, Rev. Pat Langlois. The board has taken a leadership role with confidence, and I believe that the best days of growth and service are ahead.

But I want to share some words of wisdom. There are a few words of wisdom that I learned over the decades and want to leave with you.

The first is that this church and all other churches need to follow the path of compassion. The video of Henri Nouwen’s words on Growing Compassion are pertinent, for they are expansion of Jesus, God’s prophet of compassion: “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” (Lk. 6:26) Jesus rightly connects compassion with Abba God, the source of compassion.

Jesus’ compassion is kindness towards a stranger that is unexpected. Compassion is linked to generosity, empathy, sympathy, and mercy. The life of Christ reflects for Christians the very essence of the meaning of compassion. Christ has also inspired Christians throughout history to found hospitals, care for the poor, feed the hungry, work in leper colonies, create schools for the children of the poor, fight for the vulnerable, and other such charitable acts. It is also Christ’s example that challenges Christians to forsake their own self-interested desires and act compassionately towards others, especially, but not exclusively, towards those in some type of distress or need.

Christ says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.” This is an organic metaphor used by Jesus in his farewell discourse to indicate the interconnections between us and the risen Christ. Our interconnectedness with Christ the Vine becomes the basis of Christian compassion and Christians living together in the world and with the world. As individuals and as a church, we needed to be rooted in God and Christ. When rooted in God’s compassion, we become a school of compassion, training others on Christ’s path of compassion. Grow in God’s compassion, and imitate Christ’s compassion.
Make compassion a part of your life, and you will turn things around in the world. If you treat others the way that you want them to treat you, it will be a more compassionate world. You do compassion acts, and you will make a difference by making this world a bit kinder and interrelated.

Henri Nouwen writes about Christ’s compassion:

Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human (and all life: my corrective).

When we recognize our pain and suffering, we connect deeply with other people’s pain and suffering. One of the insights of both Jesus the Christ and Siddartha the Buddha is that everyone experiences suffering and pain. Compassion becomes a means for us to connect other people’s pain and suffering and find common ground.

Compassion tears down walls between us and other people. Jesus encouraged his disciples to follow the example of the Good Samaritan to reach out beyond people like us to those who are different, strangers, and enemies. When the Samaritan looked into the eyes of the man beaten on the road to Jericho, he recognized a common humanity—that could be “me.” The Good Samaritan did not confine his compassion to his people alone but to a Jewish stranger. Jesus asked his disciples not to confine compassion to their own people and friends, but to the stranger and even to an enemy.

Let me take a sideline to help contextualize a story from Karen Armstrong, religious scholar and compassion activist; When I was youth, I read the Iliad more than 20 times. At first, it was about ancient Greek myth and culture, but there was an intimate relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I identified with that intimacy and did not name myself as gay.

One of my favorite authors Karen Armstrong in a speech promoting the Charter of Compassion, draws an example from Homer’s Iliad. Achilles has withdrawn his men from war against Troy. Unbeknownst to him, his intimate Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor. He engages in combat with Hector, the champion of Troy and is slain. When Achilles experiences the death of his intimate, he is enraged and grieved. He challenges Hector to combat and kills him. He strips Hector of his armor and ties his feet to his chariot and parades the mutilated body before the walls of the city to dishonor the corpse.
Achilles refuses to bury or turn the deceased body of the trojan prince for burial. In Greek religion, an unburied body damns the soul to endless loss and wandering. Hector’s father, King Priam disguises himself and makes his way through the Greek encampment to Achilles’ tent. He drops his disguises and pleads for the body of his son. Achilles looks into the eyes of his enemy King Priam weeping, and Priam asks him in tears to remember his own father. He recognizes a common bond of suffering, and the two men weep together. They recognized the divine in each other and share compassion for each other. Achilles tenderly lays the body of Hector into the feeble arms of Priam. This is compassion in action—a recognition of our common humanity.

Compassion in action, to me, is defined as the ability to step back from any personal differences I may have with another human being and see that person as they are at their core, as another child of God, and acting in accordance. It is the ability to look past the details of what creates the illusion of separation between myself and another child of God who is on an equal plane to me in the mind and eyes of God, and behave as if I cannot see that which may create division. It is seeing clearly through the eyes of love, letting love filter out conflict, letting love guide my actions. It is remembering that no matter what differences another person and I may have as individuals, that we are both are children of the same God. My faith calls me to display the same unconditional sense of love and care to that person that God shows me. Remember Christ’s words, “When you do this to the least, you do it to me. “

One of the great accomplishments of our church is the expansion to the Earth. Compassion is the language of the Earth and life, it is the grace of realizing our interrelatedness to everything. It is incarnational and risen Christ whose roots are deeply found in all life and all matter.

We are aware that our bodies are not limited to what lies within the boundaries of our skin. There is no phenomena on this planet that does not intimately concern us or involve us. Our ego-centered existence only separates us and distances us from the suffering of other humans, animal species, and the suffering of the planet.

We practice compassion to save our planet. we save the Earth for those who come after us. We protect the Earth because we are motivated by compassion and respect for all things, animate and inanimate. We respect and care for life, for we inter-exist as siblings before God.

Anyone feeling compassion sees no boundary between one’s self and others, we feel compelled to do something when a fellow creature of God is hurting and suffering–whether it is another species, a human, or the planet. Christ has helped to realize that all life suffers and that Christ suffers with us.

I end this reflection with a paraphrase of Teresa of Avila’s prayer:

God has no eyes in this world, but ours, to identify injustices, to see a better way, to locate and reach out to those in need;
God has no ears in this world, but ours, to hear the cries of those in need, to listen with love and compassion, to hear the need in another’s voice and minister to them;
God has no mouth in this world, but ours, to speak out for justice, to offer words of encouragement and support for those in need, to let others know how much they are loved;
God has no feet in this world, but ours, to walk the extra mile alongside others who need a friend, to travel to places to help those in need, to go and share God’s Love with those who are not aware of it;
God has no hands in this world, but ours, to heal the sick, to create sanctuaries for other life who have loss space, to carry those who cannot walk on their own, to hold someone in our arms when they need comforting; to recycle and create environments of sustainability, not waste;
God has no mind in this world, but ours, to seek and find ways to make our lives and those of others better, to create works of art and ways of sharing, to create a better world and to arrest the causes of global warming. God has no heart in this world, but ours, to feel and share love with all others and to love God’s creation—the Earth.

The Wayless Way (Jn. 10:1-10)

This is my next to last (or penultimate) sermon at MCC United Church of Christ.

I want to share this week, lessons that my life have taught me and hope that they may be useful to your own spiritual journey.

The imagery of gates is used in today’s reading of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. And that the gatekeeper opens the gate for his sheep. Jesus continues on: He calls his sheep by name and leads them out, and the sheep will follow him because he knows them by name. But the disciples don’t get it. So, Jesus explains that he is the shepherd and that he is one who enters the gate as the shepherd. Jesus continues by saying, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and pasture.”

In other words, Jesus is the gate of salvation, the entrance for the sheep and for other sheep who do not belong to his flock. Before I try to unpack the image of Jesus as the gate, I want to talk about a major frustrating but ultimately rewarding spiritual experience that happened to me more than thirty years ago. It shaped the direction of my life and gave me the freedom and the grace to move in unexpected ways.

I made a Zen Buddhist retreat at the Spencer Abbey, A Trappist monastery—under the direction of Joshu Sasaki Roshi, a very stern and non-smiling Zen teacher. In a private audience, he gave me a mind riddle or koan to figure out. He took his walking step and hit the floor and said: “You hear the sound: God hears the sound. How do you experience God? Go and meditate.”

Zen Roshis give mind puzzles such as the sound of one hand clapping or show me your face before you were born. In my return audience with the Roshi, I answered, “God is the between….” I thought that was not a bad answer. But the Roshi said, “No, go meditate.” All weekend I tried to answer the mind puzzle, but failed. The Roshi kept stating, “Too much thought.” At the end of the weekend, I went for a final meeting Sasaki Roshi, and I confessed I did not know. He smiled and said, “In the sign of the cross, how do you experience God? Same answer…” The question became life search: “How do I experience God? Where is God?”

It would be years before I experienced an answer. What Sasaki Roshi was doing was pushing me beyond word and concept to direct experience of God. He jolted me out of conceptual understanding to a path of grace, awakening me to new possibilities and openness. This questioning search is different from a calculating mind. A calculating, rational mind is always resisting, trying to find an argument based on its preconceived ideas and opinions. What did I learn? What is the answer?

I am ready to share my answer. Listen to the description from South African theologian Albert Nolan, it is pertinent to my experience:

The inner work of personal transformation is like a creative work of art rather than like a planned step-by-step journey along a mapped-out of road. There is no path that is forever fixed…It is, rather, what Meister Eckhart calls a “Wayless Way.”

The answer is the Wayless Way in which I learned to become open, inclusive, and attentive to life within me and around me. Eckhart’s metaphor of the “Wayless Way” recognizes that all people are called to God; God is inclusively available to everyone, but each person’s journey is distinct from others. You and Christ determine your trajectory of the Wayless Way and the possibilities are limited by your imagination and lack of mindful openness.

I was accepted at Harvard University to follow the Wayless Way of Christ as I engaged in Buddhist Studies. There I became a Buddhist Christian and discovered the path of compassion. Christ preached, “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” (Lk. 6:36) And Buddha and his followers taught the path of compassionate action. Compassion was the path of grace for myself. I realized that Jesus, God’s Christ, was greater than the church and even greater than Christianity. Christ was found in other religious traditions, and I found myself open to follow the Wayless Way, a path with no fixed direction that I could map out. It was the path of the Spirit opening, awakening, and transforming through grace. I learned that when Jesus spoke of taking up your cross and denying yourself, Buddhism stressed letting of ego-centeredness. Both stressed other-centeredness or interrelatedness of grace. The Wayless Way was enriched and widened beyond my imagination. The Wayless Way is openness to God’s grace here and now! My answer is to the koan is mindful openness to the risen Christ.

Matthew Fox understands the spiritual dimensions of grace surrounding us as creativity.

Creativity is intimate because it is most truly, spontaneously, and totally. It is also intimate because it is the Spirit through us in so profound a way that Eckhart says God “becomes the space where” we want to act….it is a place, a space, a gathering, a union, a where—wherein the Divine powers of creativity and the human power of imagination join forces. Where the two come together is where beauty and grace happen and, indeed, explode. Creativity constitutes the ultimate in intimacy, for it is the place where the Divine and the human are most destined to interact.

The answer was “mindful openness” to be found in each incarnated moment, in sound of a walking stick and experienced every time I made the sign of the cross. God was neither the sound nor the sign of the cross. But God was experienced in the momentary sound when I experienced it with a heart of prayerful awareness or was mindfully present in making the sign of the cross. prayer. Buddhists names this Buddha nature, and I name it God’s presence.

Mindful openness has guided me to a progressive vision of God’s inclusive love and Christ’s radical inclusive ministry of unconditional love in the open table. I find God’s grace in the most unlikely places as I become aware of Christ’s presence. My mission has been and is find to find God and Christ in everything.

The koan that Christ gave me for my life is today’s gospel saying. “I am the gate.”  But in reality, it is the koan Sasaki Roshi gave me. While my Catholic tradition as youth claimed: “There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.” I intuited that it was wrong. “What about faithful and good Protestants?” The Protestant answer that there is no salvation outside of Christ also presented a problem to me. “What about good non-Christians who live such moral and faithful lives than many Christians?”

That original koan that Sasaki Roshi propelled me into doctoral studies at Harvard, and it was through everyday experience of the classroom with non-Christian brothers and sisters that I mindfully realized Christ was not a gate excluding other people of faith. Later I celebrated eucharist as a Catholic priest, and a Hindu female student and a Japanese Buddhist student came to communion. As a priest, I was supposed to deny them her communion because they were unbaptized and non-Catholic. But how could I deny any human God’s grace? It was not mine to deny but only to make accessible. So, I began to practice an open table.

My experience of the Wayless Way was so involved in coming out as gay after ordination. I hid who I really was from all except God and Christ. I found acceptance as “beloved” of God. God loved me as a gay man, and I was an original blessing and creation. As I came out, my family and church told me that I was excluded from God.

However, I continued to find Christ as God’s unconditional love for me as a gay man as I discovered Christ’s love for non-Christians. It was there as God was found in the sound of the Roshi’s stick. Once I opened myself; my life was complicated with Frank Ring, another Jesuit. And I fell in love with him. I did not know what to do. “How could I be a priest serving God’s people and love Frank?” I struggled with this life dilemma, and I realized that it was the same koan that the Zen master gave me. In prayer and discernment, God answered my open mindfulness consistently over a year, “You called to be both priest and lover!” And I left the Jesuits to follow the path of Christ as both priest and lover. I lost friends and family over the decision to follow Christ in the gay community. God becomes the space where I wanted to act and live. The result is that you have no idea where you will end up in following Christ: North Hollywood 13 years ago and now Petaluma.

I hated the 1980s and early 1990s because they were saddest and most painful years of my life. Along with many here, I experienced loss on an unparalleled scale, hundreds of friends to HIV/AIDS. I loss Frank and my brother to AIDS on the same day. What did the churches do? Few cared for the people I loved; many of the churches turned their backs on people living with AIDS. Where was the compassionate Christ? Not in the churches that turned their backs on gay men living and dying with AIDS.

I found the sound of the walking stick striking the floor in the undiscovered grace and heroic love in the lives of many who died of AIDS and those who loved and cared for them. I was one who loved and cared. Christ was found with suffering ignored by many Christians. Meister Eckhart’s words –“God becomes the space where we want to act.”—became real. God becomes the space where I responded compassionately and fought for my brothers. I joined ACT UP, and I realized that ACT UP was more a real church than Christian churches. It was God’s space, and I chose again to act in God’s space of compassion. Members of ACT UP fought for justice from a spirit of compassion and love for their friends and loved ones. Outsider space again was where Christ was present. I was open to discovery of the presence of Christ outside the church. I wrote Jesus ACTED UP in four months out of anger at the churches and compassion and love for Frank, my brother Bill, and my many friends whom churches excluded. Never have I been so intensely and passionately inspired than during those four months of writing.

When I first came to MCC Greater St. Louis to do a workshop, I attended service. I heard the MCC invitation to the open table. It was the joyful invitation of the loving God who was present in the sound of the Roshi’ s stick, which brought me to study other religions and see the grace of God within them, which, in turn, helped me to realize the grace of God in my coming out and love, and which helped me to hear MCC’s open invitation at table and become a MCC clergy. It was the on-going discovery of God’s presence.

The invitation to the open table each Sunday deepened my understanding of the radical inclusive message of Jesus and his ministry of compassion. I led to a wider vision of God’s inclusiveness of the Earth and envisioning the community of life as part of our church.

Jesus Christ is indeed the gate of divine inclusiveness and unconditional grace. But the living Christ is not a narrow gate as many want the Christ to be. Jesus Christ is the gateless gate—the divine and inclusive space where we want to live and act. In other words, Christ is the gate whose infinite width and inclusive openness is beyond human imagination, whose love and compassion are boundless, and whose presence is universal and found in places of exclusion. Many non-Christians hear the voice of the shepherd, and they enter the same gate as you and I but travel a different path.

In todays’ scripture Christ announces, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and pasture.” I want to paraphrase a Zen koan to end:

God has no gate,
A thousand roads lead to God.
When people pass through Christ the gateless gate,
they freely walk between heaven and earth,
they walk the path of God’s inclusive grace,
ever infinite, widely inclusive, and unimaginable discoveries
outside all boundaries.

Earth Day Sunday 2017 at Redlands UCC

The latest report from scientists is a sobering report. The glaciers in Greenland are melting faster than first thought and now the western ice sheet in Antarctica with a sea level rise of 5-6 feet or more by 2100 and 20 feet by 2200. Already at high tide, the oceans are flooding the streets of Miami, and most of Florida is 1-3 feet above sea level. Coasts are threatened around the world, and a large majority of humanity live near the oceans.

The Trump administration has declared war of the Earth, denying the existence of climate change. Trump’s executive order this week attempts to roll back all the climate initiative of the Obama administration and its commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. The EPA have removed studies of carbon atmosphere studies, looking to remove discussion of the science that studies global warming.
Today, our scripture is the story of the Garden of Eden, but it is not just the story we are accustomed to hearing. It is the voice of the Earth. Just shifting the story from the human story-teller’s voice to the Earth mind remind us to listen to the voice of the Earth today.

God loves planting trees. The original garden. envisioned in the story of Eden, is a royal park full of trees or a grove of trees. God delights in planting trees. Trees are significant in the biblical and religious stories of humanity.

Let me focus on trees for a moment. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna observes:
The birth of trees is truly the most blessed in the world, for they contribute to the well-being of all other creatures. Just as no one needy returns disappointed from generous persons, so too one who approaches trees for shelter. They meet the needs of others with their leaves, flowers, fruits, shade, roots, bark, wood, fragrance, sap, ashes, and charcoal.

Trees are symbols in the spirituality of humanity—representing symbols of life, abundance, generosity, energy, food, strength, shelter. Trees are gardeners in their own right. They provide shelter for other species—plant, nonhuman animal life and insects. Leaves fall and decompose to create a rich humus-like soil. Trees circulate water from their roots into the trunk and branches. They protect biodiversity. Trees capture carbon dioxide and release oxygen that we and other non-human life require. Trees live in communities, and they are one of the most ancient life forms, for they stabilize the weather and are useful for recycling water. They are intelligent and have stable children. I have met redwood trees who are 800 years old and few trees 1600 years old in the Armstrong Forest in Russian River. They have stories to tell us and a wisdom to communicate to us if we chose to listen. In fact, the midrash on Eden came from a morning walk among the ancient redwood trees in the Armstrong Forest with my husband and companion dog. I listened to the trees and found a deep spirit within them, connecting to God’s Spirit and the risen Christ. And I realized that they were faithful gardeners as intended by God.

The female Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari Mathai writes, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.” Mathai has founded a movement whose goal is the reduction of poverty in Africa and environmental conservation. In order to protect biodiversity and forests, China legislated a law requiring its citizens to plant 4 four trees or pay for the planting of four trees. China has remained the top in human planting of trees in the world.

God creates the earthling—adamah from the humus of the Earth. The soil is able to hold God’s breath, and God is concerned for the earthling and creates animals for companions, but that remains unsatisfactory. So God e divides the earthling to create humans male and female. God compassionately cares for the welfare of each creature and the dirt creature now male and female. The Earth rejoices in all her children.

God commissioned the walking dirt creatures to care and serve the garden. And the walking earthlings followed God in gardening, caring and tending the community of the soil. They learned to work the abundance of life in the garden—preserving and caring the community of trees, plants and vegetative life, and other life. God expected the walking earthlings to follow in God’s vocation as gardeners and gave them one instruction not to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil.

Of course, we know that in the familiar fable, the couple in the garden ate from the fruit of the tree of good and evil at the prompting of the serpent. They became aware of their nakedness and now separated themselves from the animals in their nakedness.

And the Earth lamented, “Sadly, they lost all connectedness to myself and their siblings. They forgot their humus origins.” God placed them outside of Eden to learn how to re-connect to the Earth community once more. Humans, however, forgot a deep truth of the soil that all life shares a common ancestry from the humus or soil and are a part of the community of my body.

As I wept at the loss of my earth children, but God comforted me with hope. One day there will be a new earth creature (adamah) born again from the soil. He will be born from a cave tomb in a garden and become a great gardener, carrying on the mission of his parent who loves gardening. He will instruct humanity on gardening once more, and they will return to the community of the soil and once again connect to all life forms as an interdependent community of the soil. Hope was born once more in my dreams….

Humanity has lost its connectedness to the Earth and other life. Humans forgot their origins from the Earth and their soil community. Humanity is placed outside the garden to learn how to re-connect to the Earth. Instead we have continued to separate ourselves from the Earth and all other life.

Note that the Earth has not transgressed any intention of God. Nor have the trees, the plant life, or animal life. Both Celtic and Orthodox Christianities maintained that the Earth never fell. It still retains the holiness, its original innocence and blessing, beloved of God and carrying on their intended mission by God.

God comforts the Earth with the promise of new Adam, born in a cave with animals. He would be lifted upon a tree and die, but he would be buried in a cave in a garden. Let me point out that Golgotha was originally an olive grove of trees as well as Gethsemane and the grove of the resurrected Jesus. This new Adam, the risen Christ, will be a true gardener, following in God’s footsteps

Today humanity suffers from anthropocentrism, we are the center of the world. Everything is for our benefit. The Earth is our warehouse of resources to use whatever we choose. Animals exist for our purpose, and they are soulless, and we can hunt, abuse, and kill them for our use. They are inferior. We suffer from an arrogant apartheid the Earth and the community of life. Humanity practices an exclusivity not only with other humans but also with all life. We are exceptionally arrogant, and we are conditioned by our culture and religion to separation. Separation from the Earth is pervasive in our culture. That is why we can pollute, dump radioactivity and toxic chemicals into the environment. We can frack the Earth and explode mountain tops to get at coal. We factory farm, and not only raise and slaughter animals inhumanely, their waste releases methane into the atmosphere. It heats up the atmosphere 40 times more than carbon pollutants. If we reduce our eating of meat produced from factory farming, we could significantly reduce the warming of our climate.

And I will say strongly, “If we are separated from the Earth and the community of life, we are also separated from God.” We have as a church defined our ministry the radical inclusive love that Jesus practiced. There was a time when I as a gay man, along with other LGBT folks, were excluded, and we had to form a ghetto community to survive and practice our faith. Tearing down all walls that exclude and separate is not only the mission of Jesus but is our church mission; radical inclusivity and extravagant hospitality to everyone. And I would add to all life. I am proud that my own church made the Earth a member of our church eight years ago, and today they renew their covenant to the Earth and all life.

Christopher Uhl, a Professor of Biology and Ecology, has been interested, for decades, in environmental healing. You might be surprised. He understands that responding to the environmental crisis is not by repairing the environment. He argues that we first need to repair ourselves. This means to change our attitude and perceptions of ourselves and the Earth. That means we need to break down the conditioning of separating out our selves.We need to awaken, letting go our ego-centeredness and realize that we are interconnected with all life and the Earth. We are not above or separated from the Earth, but participants in the Earth community.

Chris Uhl talks about antidote to anthropocentrism that we are practicing here, for the solution is radical inclusivity. He writes,

Inclusivity is grounded relationship whereas exclusivity stems from separation. A consciousness rooted in inclusivity generates trust, one moored in exclusivity foments fear—especially, the fear of the Other. When our goal is exclusivity, we silence those with whom we disagree; but when inclusivity becomes our goal, we to create a world that works for all. (Uhl)

Inclusivity is the key, it tears down the barriers with any person or being or even the Earth. When I read John’s Gospel, there is the affirmation in the prologue: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” A Danish theologian, Niels Gregersen writes,

…the incarnation of God in Christ can be understood as a radical or deep incarnation, that is, an incarnation into the very tissue of biological existence, and system of nature. Understood this way, the death of Christ became an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life as well as with the victims of social competition. God bears the cost of evolution, the price involved in the hardship of natural selection.

This means that Christians hold a deep incarnational viewpoint that God’s incarnation did not start with Mary’s “yes” to the Angel Gabriel and her pregnancy. It started before the big bang and during the big bang when the molecules of Christ were formed. like our own, 15 billion years ago and later would form the embryo in Mary and the physical body of Jesus. This process of deep incarnational roots would spread through the resurrection of Christ into the Earth, all fleshy life, human and other, and the entire universe. The resurrection would tie us to risen Christ in a soil community in the Earth’s story. Jesus would become a new Adam.

Jesus described himself as the vine and us as the branches. The risen Christ is mistaken by Mary Magdalene as a gardener. What a prophetic insight Magdalene makes. The risen Christ restores us as members of the soil community, the community of the Earth.

Thomas Berry writes,

We come into being in and through the Earth. Simply put, we are Earthlings. The Earth is our origin, our nourishment, our educators, our healer, our fulfillment. At its core, even our spirituality is Earth derived. The human and the Earth are totally implicated, each in the other. If there is no spirituality in the Earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves.

Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff claims, “the human being is the Earth who walks.” Or Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh , “We are the Earth and the Earth is in us. We have always been one with the Earth.”
Sallie McFague writes,

I am of the earth, a product of its ancient and awesome history, and I really and truly belong here. But I am only one among millions, no billions of other human beings, who have a place, a space, on the earth.

Pope Francis I reminds us, “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7). Claim your earthiness this Earth Day. Our siblings are suffering and dying. If we proceed as we are doing, a sixth extinction will occur in the near future. So today I want you to remember the theme of my new book, God is Green: If you fall in love with God’s Earth, you will fight for the survival of the Earth. The risen Christ is incarnated in all life and in the Earth. Let us practice our incarnational discipleship as gardeners and may the Trees this remind us that God intended us to be Gardeners.

The Queerest Week –Palm Sunday 2017

I have written queer theology for the last 27 years, and I now write about a period of 8 days, the queerest days that I can imagine. I am speaking from the moment that Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey to God’s resurrection of Jesus from the death.

Now let me dispel a notion: I am not writing about LGBTQI concerns, they are included but not the focus this morning. Queer theory and queer stories focus usually on LGBTQI concerns and inclusion in history, but I am speaking about God’s dream for life and humanity, and that dream is very queer. It is God’s unconditional grace and love for creation and all life.

Let me define queer for a moment. To “queer” is to interfere or disrupt. It is to transgress exclusive categories, notions, boundaries, and all boxes. I queer Christianity because it has remained exclusive, often violent and oppressive of someone or some life. Queering exclusiveness is to interfere and spoil exclusiveness and make it more inclusive.

My colleague and friend Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng, understands queering as eliding dualism. Dualism is a destruction form of binary thinking used by dominant theologies, church leaders and politicians. It separates the world into male and female, culture and nature, the have and have-not, human and non-human, and so. For Patrick, God’s love is queer because it elides such thinking and behaviors. Dr. Justin Tanis comprehends queer as dawn or dusk, that liminal or ambiguous space between night and day. My deceased theologian and friend speaks of indecent and perverse. In Luke’s gospel, the Temple high priests bring a charge against Jesus before Pilate: “This man has perverted the nation.”

I have engaged with God’s Christ in Jesus of Nazareth. God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit have made me “queer” and more so over time. I describe myself as “a queer seeker of God and disciple of an even queerer God.” Jesus laid the foundations of ministry and message of the companionship of empowerment or kindom of God as a “topsy-turvy and upside-down kindom. He opens God’s table to everyone and upsets nearly every religious Jew of his time. Just listen to the parables of Jesus—the Good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the mustard seed, the baker woman who sneaks leaven into 50 pounds of flour, and so on. They provoke and disrupt religious exclusivism that reserves God’s grace and favor for the chosen “holy.”

My often quoted author, Diarmuid O’Murchu, calls the parables as “enlightened confusion.”

The story Jesus told them turned their world upside-down,
Bombarding every certainty they knew.
The boundaries were disrupted,
Their sacred creeds corrupted,
Every hope they had constructed,
Was questioned to the core!
By the story ended,
Stretching meaning so distended,
What they had known for long before.

O’Murchu speaks about Jesus’ parables. But what if we understand the gospel stories of Jesus as a parable about God? God is queering in the story of Jesus on a massive and unprecedented scale, not since the big bang. God has incarnated in a human being—such a queer and scandalous notion. God is queering and communicating a thoroughly queer and radically inclusive love. All are beloved—all humanity, all life, and all creation. No on is left behind or out.

Let me point out the queer highlights of this week:

For Jesus, God was a king unlike all kings and rulers. God’s rule was “queer,” meaning “not fitting in, strange, at odds with, out of place, disruptive, blasphemous, revolutionary, dangerous, outside the box, or my word “mischievous.” It is a topsy-turvy non-ruling but luring us through unconditional gift and love. God’s strategy is never coercive but always luring us through unconditional grace and love.

The Temple high priest and his colleagues brought Jesus before Pilate with the charges: “He perverted the nation.” Here “perverted” means inverting religious values, hierarchies, breaking all sorts of purity codes and religious laws for the sake of compassion. Jesus was always out of place; a peasant was meant to be quiet and subservient to the rulers of the Temple. Jesus spoke out compassion and was not afraid to break religious rules to extend God’s compassion.
Let’s examine today’s gospel a little more carefully. Unfortunately, the distribution of palms on Palm Sunday has become a spiritual blessing for us today. Many Christians tie up their palms into a bow and hang the palm crosses in their homes. And I am not opposed to anyone doing so if you determine to ask God to make you a bit queerer. But Palm Sunday has a deeper meaning than just the palms. Jesus rides on donkey into Jerusalem accompanied by a ragtag group of male and female disciples.

Jesus enters Jerusalem or to use biblical scholar Warren Carter’s phrase “making an Ass of Rome:” The conflict between Jesus and Pilate begins the day that Jesus enters in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and praised as the “Son of David.”

Roman entrances into city were always triumphant. No red carpets, but soldiers trumpeting, followed by cadence war drums sounding the entrance of the conquering hero. In this case, it was Pilate who represented the triumphant Roman Empire and Emperor Tiberius. Days before Pilate rode on a war horse from the sea resort of Caesarea followed by marching his Roman legionnaires with standards, Pilate entered Jerusalem as conqueror and made it clear to the populace that the Rome was in charge of their city and their lives. They paraded and displayed extravagantly the power of Tiberius Caesar and Rome. It communicates Roman greatness and military power, reminding the crowds that they were conquered by the powerful Roman legions—the greatest power in the world blessed by the Gods. Augustine was the true Son of god Apollo, and the savior of the world.

But Jesus intends to literally make an ass of Pilate and Rome. He choreographs his own dramatic and symbolic entrance into Jerusalem. He queers some of the Roman ritual entry or rather mischievously reframes them as symbolic challenges. His entrance into Jerusalem reminds the Jews of their religious history in which God enters the holy city to serve, not dominate. He chooses an ass, not a war horse in which Pilate rode into the city. Matthew remembers the line from the prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, your king is coming on an ass”(9:9). The rest of the verse states that your king comes triumphant and victorious, and humble riding an ass.

Jesus is recognized not as a king but more likely anti-king. He teaches humility, non-violence, compassion and love, forgiveness, and peace-making, empowerment through mutuality and service, not conquest and domination. God’s community is constituted by a new a kinship as children of God—not be wealth, prestige, gender, or ethnicity. It is constituted by God as Abba, our parent in love with all and equally. And God lives within us and in our midst.
Another example of this last week of Jesus’ life that reveals God’s queer activity among people as empowering mutual companionship is the Last Supper. Companionship is created when we share food together, and we eat with God in our midst. Companionship was based on exclusion but gathering together to eat with God and one another.

I want you to remember the video from Centering Prayer this morning, Eating Twinkies with God. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9N8OXkN0Rk It expresses the incarnational vision of the Last Supper and Jesus’ ministry of eating together with God and finding God present.

There is no question that for Jesus the Last Supper had to be open and inclusive. I cannot accept the readings of the Last Supper as an exclusive meal. It goes against the very queer nature of who Jesus was and who God is. People from the highways and byways were to be invited into the meals. It was populated with diversity: outcasts, prostitutes, abominable people, tax collectors, those folks that terrify Pharisees and Christians alike. He did not moralize, berate them how to change their lives, or threaten them that could not share the table if they did not change their ways.

In Christianity’s Dangerous Memory, Diarmuid O’Murchu describes Jesus’ parables, healings, and ministry. The description is equally applicable to his meals and his to Last Supper:

They defy the criteria of normalcy and stretch creative imagination toward subversive, revolutionary engagement. They threaten major disruption for a familiar manageable world, and lure the hearer (participant) into a risky enterprise, but one that has promise and hope inscribed in every fiber of the dangerous endeavor.

There were no hierarchies at table, no one in charge and in power. There were only those who voluntarily served others, gladly washed the feet of their companions, who assisted folks at table to heal from the years of religious abuse and oppression. And God was mischievously present through each other. Jesus encouraged them to dream a future with hope, with God with shared resources and the abundance of food created by the companions of the bread and the cup.
Jesus’ Last Supper, like all his meals, undid social ordinary patterns and hierarchical behaviors, introducing people into a new egalitarianism, an equality before one another and God. No Roman official like Pilate would ever serve food to another person, especially with a male lesser of status or serve even his wife. No religious Jew would invite men and women together at table, suspected impurity and sinfulness.

And then there is the radical service of Jesus at table that evening– washing the feet of his male and female disciples. This was the service of only household slaves or women. No free male would do such a washing service because it demeaned his masculinity and patriarchal authority. Jesus turns the social hierarchies inside out, breaking down the gender boundaries and social hierarchies. There is only table fellowship of mutual service and equals, revering those who were the socially least, and inviting the disciples to imitate Jesus in his act of foot-washing.

Finally, Jesus dies a cruel death inflicted by the powers of imperial domination and religious exclusivism, always an unholy marriage of violence. It is an ultimate queering of human expectation, God’s vulnerability and suffering on the cross. God understood vulnerability in the incarnated Christ on the cross, and God identified with the suffering Christ and the least and vulnerable humanity and life in history. We have no comprehension of the depths of God’s suffering for all suffering life, but we do have a window into the depth of God when Jesus told his disciples: “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” Abba God suffered and died with Christ out of compassion, for God has suffered with all suffering life and human life. God the Creator becomes vulnerable and experience suffering the incarnated Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit that groans and suffers with all created life. This is the queerest notion of God in history—God who becomes vulnerable and experiencing suffering. God is with us in so many unimaginable ways.

But the queer God surprised all of us. God said “no” to such violence and cruelty, God proclaimed a “yes to unconditional love” on Easter Sunday. Next Sunday I will speak how the queer God queers death for resurrected life!

Jesus the Refugee

Immigration and refugee settlement continues to be one of the most politically polarizing issues in America during the 2016 election cycle and the recent president’s executive order to ban immigrants and refugees from seven countries to enter the United States. I am not neutral on the President’s ban on immigrants and refugees. There are many issues that involved, from the targeting Muslims as a religion and the impact it has on families and business in the US. In addition, his ban places a death sentence on LGBT refugees from the seven countries that were targeted.

We have a banner on the church that reads, “Immigrants and Refugees Welcome,” with the image of Mary carrying the infant Jesus and Joseph leading the donkey to Egypt. Ironically, Joseph was displaced to Nazareth from Bethlehem, and he comes to Bethlehem for the census and cannot find shelter as a native son. Now Rev. Al Sharpton tweeted, “Before you head to church today, remember to thank God for his son, Jesus a refugee who fled to Egypt.”
But the response from fundamentalist Christians to this tweet: “They went to pay Taxes in Egypt. They went home. YOU need to pay your taxes and learn Bible!” Fox slammed Sharpton similarly for using Jesus to tackle the Trump ban.
Now to those who claim that Mary and Joseph went to Egypt to pay their taxes, there is no scriptural evidence from the Gospel of Matthew. After the visit from the Magi, an angel appeared in a dream and warned Joseph: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.” (Mt. 2:13) Fleeing to Egypt to avoid death is not going to Egypt to pay taxes. This is really “fake” truth or invention of alternative truth to support the ban by racist Christians.

But after the birth of Jesus, Mary with child in her arms and Joseph flee from the persecution of Herod the Great, who dispatched his soldiers to Bethlehem, to kill all male infants from age 2 and under. At the heart of the gospel story, when Mary and Joseph took their infant son Jesus and fled to Egypt, they became refugees. They journeyed as refugees to Egypt.

Joseph took his family and fled to Egypt. There they lived lives as aliens, outsiders. They didn’t speak Demotic, the language of 1st century Egypt, and they were relegated to the most menial of labor. I am awed by the depth of their pain and suffering of refugees. There is often loneliness and strangeness of living in a foreign country that places a strain on immigrants and refugees. Jesus’ parents experienced what it meant to be refugees from violence and seek re-settlement. It is part of the gospel to proclaim Jesus the refugee. Jesus was an alien and refugee, and later an outsider.

Our biblical heritage is full of stories of the chosen people as immigrants and refugees. Abraham migrated from the city of Ur to Canaan, seeking a better life and opportunities. Jacob and his sons and their families migrated to Egypt due to famine, and a couple centuries later, the Hebrews under the leadership of Moses fled slavery and oppress in the Exodus. Ruth migrates with Naomi from Moab to Canaan, and Ruth a foreigner becomes the great grandmother of King David. Many Hebrew families were forced into captivity and go into exile by the Babylonian conquest. The exile was a forced migration and resettlement. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures are full of migration and refugees.

I would argue creatively that God’s incarnation in Jesus is also migration from God to humanity—God with us. As I mentioned in the birth stories of Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled Bethlehem to Egypt to save the life of Jesus as an infant. They were refugees in Egypt.

Now listen to this story of Maria: Maria, a refugee from a different part of the world, perhaps Syria, was 20 years old when she also had to flee a step ahead of soldiers.

My husband woke me in the middle of the night. He told me we had to leave right away. He had a warning that soldiers were coming. We could take only what we could carry. I wrapped the baby to keep him warm. We walked for days. Later, we heard what the soldiers did: they killed all the boy babies in our village. Where we live now, the food and the language are strange. My baby is growing up without knowing his home country. Built isn’t safe to go back, not yet.

This story sounds very close to the story in the gospel of Matthew and the flight to Egypt of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. I am horrified that the holy family as well as Maria, her husband, and child could be turned away from our country and not granted political asylum. The holy family would now be turned away by homeland security and to go back to Bethlehem.

In our country, we welcome immigrants with green cards, except from the banned seven countries where the Trump administration designated. There are, at least, 12 million undocumented migrants in the United States, and there are nearly two million dreamers, those who were brought to the US as children by their families. They made no decision on their own to cross into the US legally, and the Obama administration asked those dreamers to register. They are terrified at the new administration targeting themselves for deportation. Or those who have crossed the southern border from Central America, fleeing for their lives. We welcomed several refugees from San Salvador, who fled for their lives because they were gay. They were threatened and beaten up for being gay.
Numerous Christian churches and Jewish synagogues have adopted Syrian and other refugee families in their relocation to the US. Refugee families migrate from their home countries from the circumstances of war, oppression, and poverty. All of us, unless descendants of Native Americans, are immigrants. How many Europeans and other nationalities migrated to the US because they were persecuted? Many Europeans came to North America because of religious persecution and oppression while others came for economic opportunities. But they not learn from their experience and appreciate the indigenous people in North America. We displaced many Native Americans from their lands and forced them to live on ghettoized reservations. And now we displace them with oil pipelines. And in the future, are we prepared for the hundreds of million and even billions of human beings who will be climate refugees.

I am the a 3rd and 4th generation descendant of immigrants to the US from both sides of my parents. I suspect that many of us here this morning could claim the same. My Greek grandmother and her sister came from the Greek island of Samos through Ellis Island. They were both unable to read or speak English then. But on Ellis Island were written the bold words of Emma Lazarus:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! (Emma Lazarus)

The American ideal, enshrined in these words at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, are embodied in our scriptural tradition of welcoming the migrant and the refugee. Do we dare look upon those strangers, refugees and immigrants welcome them with the value and love that God has for them? Or do we fall into the hysteria and exclusivist vision of rejection espoused white nationalist and racist Christian churches intertwined in a holy union of nationalism with hatred and bigotry? For remember Christ’s words, “Truly I say to you, just as you did not do to one of the least of these, so you did not do it to me.” Do we dare to reject Christ in the face of the immigrant and the refugee? I will never reject the Christ in the refugee and the immigrant. My roots and your roots go back to our ancestral immigrants and refugees.

As you listened to the various scripture verses read antiphonally by Layne and myself, we realize that our religious ancestors in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were often migrants and refugees.

Jesus teaches us how we individually and collectively treat the least of our sisters and brothers–who are now refugees and immigrants– is the way we welcome and treat him. In the world’s refugees, we encounter the refugee Jesus.
In an article on refugees in the Dictionary of Christian Ethics, Roy Branson observes that:

While Christianity affirms the importance of the individual stranger, it also values community. The sanctuary movement [that is, the historic practice of offering sanctuary to those fleeing danger] not only draws attention to the exile but also to the cities of refuge. As in designated Old Testament towns, and in British and European cathedrals into the 16th century, security from retaliation and injustice must be provided … The theme of exiles and pilgrims as the chosen of God, who must in turn welcome the stranger, is so strong a theme in biblical faith that it creates a presumption in favor of admitting the immigrant, granting asylum to the refugee, and treating the alien as an equal.

The church consists of “foreigners and exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). It was a church of independent women, slaves, various ethnicities, and different classes that came to together as Christians. They were outsiders and from many cities. Many LGBT folks have been treated as foreigners and exiles. The same Christians who do not welcome us, usually do not welcome refugees and exiles; they are outsiders to be feared and shunned. These Christians express an amnesia of their biblical heritage. But they ignore God’s preferential care for the outsider, the foreigner, immigrant, and refugee. One UCC clergy, Rev. Matt Fitzgerald, involved in a Syrian family re-settlement program at St. Paul’s UCC in Chicago, observed:

The people of Saint Paul’s know what it is to be ‘a stranger in a strange land…Therefore, our church has a strong, clear, continually rewarding spirit of hospitality. Welcoming a Syrian family felt like an extension of who we are, rather than a new direction or a risk. Our simple act of Christian hospitality looks bold because of President Trump’s anti-Christian executive order. In a time like this, all the church has to do is be the church for our light to shine brightly.(Supporting the Stranger, KYP)

Like Jesus, we know what it’s like to be outsiders. Many of us have been targeted and excluded as outsiders, despised for sexual orientation or for gender variance. In the world’s refugees, we meet Jesus Christ the refugee. We must reject the racism of the Trump ban, the fears building the wall, and any deportation force that takes away our neighbors. It is not acceptable to surrender to policies based on fear and racism,

Pregnancy an Birth: Creation and Incarnation (Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20)

Luke’s gospel chapter 1 is about pregnancies: 1) the pregnancy of Elizabeth in her old age, who carries in her womb the future John the Baptist. 2) the pregnancy of young 13 old Miriam, who carries Jesus in her womb.
I would like to share some reflections this evening: My first is that pregnancy results in birth and life. All women reflect a deep mystery of Creation in pregnancy. I am actually speaking about gestation in the womb and do recognize that it usually takes a male and female to bring about pregnancy. Now I am speaking as a male, and I think a mother who could describe pregnancy better than myself from first-hand experience.

For me, creation is a stunningly amazing act of God’s generativity that is directed towards life. Years ago, I read a German theologian who wrote about creation. He imagines before the Big Bang, all space in the universe and beyond was God’s space; it was filled by God alone. Just before the Big Bang, God withdrew from God’s space to make room for creation. God creates by letting be, by making room, and by withdrawing God’s self to allow the infinite space of matter expanding into galaxies and beyond. This has been traditionally interpreted as God creating the universe from nothing. But this is more richly understood as maternal gestation in preparation of the birth of the universe. Like pregnancy, God’s womb is an act of hospitality, a welcoming into being. Several feminist theologians have strongly suggested this is analogous to pregnancy:

And it is clearly the parent as mother that is the stronger candidate for an understanding of creation as bodied forth from divine being, for it is imagery of gestation, giving birth, and lactation that creates an imaginative picture of creation as profoundly dependent on and cared for by divine life. There simply no other imagery available to us that has power for expressing the interdependence and interrelatedness of all life with is ground. All of us, female and male, have the womb as our first home, all of us born from the bodies of our mothers, all of us are fed by our mothers. (McFague)

All life-giving activities result in birthing. Women during their gestation period reflect God’s creative process of making room in God’s self for the birth of creation. This metaphor portrays how we live in the womb of God’s universe that has given life to us and an infinite multitude of life. As we born into the universe, perhaps the Holy Spirit might be understood as the umbilical cord that continues to link us to our divine parent. This means creation is till in the womb becoming what God intended.

Let me shift to Mary’s pregnancy. Mary becomes pregnant without Joseph as father. Being pregnant without a finalized marriage left Mary and Joseph in a socially awkward and religious predicament. The gospel of Matthew pictures the dilemma that imposes upon Joseph a difficult decision whether to divorce the pregnant Mary, denounce her, or finalize the marriage until God came to him in a dream and revealed that this was God’s birthing a child. English author Nick Page writes, “The story of Jesus’ birth is not one of exclusion, but inclusion…Joseph’s relatives made a place for Jesus in their heart of their household. They did not shun Mary, even though her status would have been suspect and even shameful (carrying an illegitimate child) they brought her inside. They made room for Jesus in the heart of a peasant’s home.” Joseph and his family made room for pregnant and unwed Mary in their family. Making room or hospitality is really inclusion; it reflects the reality of God creating the universe and us. God is about radical inclusive love, making space within God’s self for creation and birthing life. This making room is manifested in Joseph’s inclusion of Mary and Jesus into his own family. Hospitality is a sort welcoming into the womb of the house and family, for it is what church is.

Mary travels with Joseph to Bethlehem. The physical ordeal of riding on a donkey during pregnancy for several days is hard for me as a male to physically comprehend, and I suspect that the ride to Bethlehem induces labor pains and the birth of Jesus. The couple cannot find any room in Bethlehem and search out shelter in a canvasserie (cave-like shelter for travelers) that house domestic animals outside of Bethlehem.

“Is there room in our inn (or church) for Jesus?” In this time of fear, undocumented folks in the US fear that there is no room for themselves in our country. They remain publicly unwelcomed. Many folks of good faith are asking themselves: “How can we — and our world, our state, our church — make room for the politically unwelcomed who are undocumented?” A 83 year old Jewish atheist whom I met at a wedding that I officiated here, asked me, “how can I make my house a sanctuary.” Another non-Christian friend has told me that he has a secret underground room with electricity and water and that he plans to hide undocumented folks threatened with deportation. These and others realize that hospitality, making room for those at risk and emotionally traumatized by the political election, has become too real in reflecting the story of the birth of Jesus and the later need to flee as refugees from Bethlehem as Herod seeks out to kill Jesus and his family.

Now Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger, a feeding trough. The feeding trough is the least of all social places to lay a newly born infant. But the Christ child shares space with domesticated animals. We often take that as poetic convention that adds a warm familiarity or sentimentality to our Nativity crèches. The manger reminds that non-human animals are considered by humans as lower than the least human and just barely above slavery, a prominent institution of burden and oppression that kept the Roman Empire working. But I take the birth of God’s incarnate child in the canvasserie with non-human life and laid in a manger a evelation: it points out that we human animals share space with non-human animals from God’s perspective. Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently in Hebrew scriptures, suggests the importance and the belovedness that God has for non-human animals. “God so loved the world that God sent God’s only begotten child….” (Jn. 3:16) The manger reminds that God is not born just for humanity, but for all non-human life and the Earth. God became flesh dependent on the eco-systems for nourishment and protection. Christ’s birth calls us to recommit to protect the Earth and all life: the trees and life in the rainforest, the whales, the oceans and the lands. These share earthliness as the new Adam, the divine earth-creature is born.

The marginal location of the birth of Jesus makes it accessible to the marginalized shepherds outside of the town of Bethlehem. Angels appear to the shepherds, announcing “Today in the city of David, is born a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds are told to search for a sign—a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This, of course, is an unusual sign for a Savior and Lord, born in a cave with non-human animals. And in Luke, shepherds, outsiders and despised Jews, came to venerate him in a feeding trough as Savior and God’s Child. They did not leave their flocks behind but brought them along. The shepherds too found inspiration and hope for then and the future, for an innocent child in a feeding trough illuminated by a star and the arrival of expectant shepherds who experience wonder. This child born in a cave is good news for marginalized and despised shepherds, but this good news for all who are poor and oppressed. And the shepherds returned praising God for what they had experienced.

One of the strong and clear messages from the Nativity of Jesus is that we Christians cannot truly love the infant Jesus without loving nature, other life, and the marginalized. But there are some important words that we often overlook: “Mary treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” Treasuring the words of the shepherds and their coming to see the birth of her child and pondering this in her heart are important part of the Christmas story. We are called to treasure this story and ponder its meaning for ourselves.

Treasuring and pondering are the essential skills for meditatively comprehending God’s incarnation. Mary gives an example of how to become pregnant with the living Christ and birth Christ into the world. Christ becomes a part of our fleshly and metaphoric wombs, and that means men as well as women. By saying “yes” to God’s offer of grace and unconditional love to the Angel Gabriel, Mary becomes pregnant with the divine Word, the Christ. Through faith, Mary comes to ponder and keeping in heart the finding Jesus in the Temple, his ministry and death on the cross, and his resurrection. By paying attention to the gospel story tonight and other gospel stories, we carry mindfully the incarnation of God’s compassion in the world within ourselves.

We are called in this story to pay attention to God’s enfleshment as a newborn baby. The birth of any baby elicits an emotional response for care. This becomes ironic for us. We are called to care for the well-being and nourishment in the infant in the manger. Our invitation to use our instinctual desire to care for the well-being of the God become child. Heart and mind become mindfully focused on this child before us tonight, everything else in our lives becomes secondary to paying attention and caring for the Christ child. This same attention of heart and mind to the infant Christ becomes an invitation to pay as close attention to the poor and suffering in the world, human and non-human life and the Earth herself.

One author writes,

On Christmas Day, we are invited to the humble place where God is new and needing. We are to practice thinking and caring for what is not me, or even us, to rethink how we are in the world, how our doing affects the welfare of a world inhabited by God who at this moment needs for us to pay attention (like Mary) and out of that that attention to create the conditions of health and security at the manager (which is everything in the world). (Kristin Swenson)

My colleague and clergy friend, Tom Bohache, writes something complementary:
…incarnation is an acceptance that we bear Christ within us—the part of God that is instilled in us to bring forth from ourselves the offspring of Christ-ness: self-empowerment, creativity, awareness of creation, joy, love, peace and justice-making to name a few.

Tom Bohache acknowledges when we follow Mary’s example of treasuring the moment and keeping it ever mindful, the mystery of the Nativity lives on in us—we become pregnant with Christ and we too give birth to Christ.

…the Nativity is the realization that Christ will be born, no matter what the circumstances. No matter how hard it is, no matter how perilous the journey, no matter that folks might not receive us, once we agreed to give birth to Christ; most will go about their business and oppressing others. Some, like King Herod, …will seek to destroy what we have birthed; they will seek to take our Christ presence away from us.

God’s blending of the human and the divine in the birth of Christ is God’s greatest work, Christ is the blueprint of what is happening to us tonight. The reality is that during Advent the gestation of Christ within ourselves leads to Christ’s birth in us. The scandal of God’s birth in human flesh is that it is not once and for all; it is promiscuous. It happens hundreds of millions, if not billions of time, that God is born in us. We become Christ living in the world, manifesting God’s forgiveness, love, peace, compassion. We are infused with Christ, thus like Christ we become God’s eyes; God’s arms and legs, we become God’s compassionate incarnation. That is truly a radical mystery because God is willing to be ultimately inclusive by emptying God’s self in a network of humanity, all life, and creation alive. Creation and Christ’s incarnation continues to happen, and there is no stopping this flow of radical inclusive love. Love conquers not only death but all obstacles to life-giving and birthing the abundant, unconquerable compassion of God in creation, in the reality that we know. Merry Christmas, for you have birthed tonight as the Christ child. And we sing with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on the lowest margins of the Earth…”

The Tree of Jesse: Isaiah 11:1-10

Come Promised One!
Do not smile and say
you are already with us.
Millions do not know you
and to us who do,
what is the difference?
What is the point
of your presence
if our lives do not alter?
Change our lives, shatter
our complacency.
Make your word
flesh of our flesh,
blood of our blood
and our life’s purpose.
Take away the quietness
of a clear conscience.
Press us uncomfortably.
For only thus
that other peace is made,
your peace.
-Dom Helder Camara

This second Sunday of Advent reminds us that we are waiting with anticipation for the fulfillment of this vision of Jesus leading us to the peaceful reign of God, where God lives among us in peaceful harmony. Martin Luther King Jr. claimed, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice.” For those dismayed with the election results and their consequences, we need to hold in faith the statement Martin Luther King Jr. The prophet Isaiah speaks of the “stump of Jesse.” The stump of Jesse offers us hope, peace, and the regeneration of spiritual vision that God is presence and God is Emmanuel.

I remember in Catholic school we had a Jesse tree for Advent. Jesse trees are an old Advent custom, dating back to the European Middle Ages. They were used to tell the biblical stories from Creation to Christmas. There were twenty-five stories from the Bible told and ending with Luke’s story of Jesus born in a cave and laid in a manger.In a time when literacy was low, the Jesse tree was an educational opportunity to relive the biblical events leading to the birth of Christ. But the Jesse tree was used to speak about the genealogy of Jesus from Jesse the father of the great King David in the Hebrew scriptures to Jesus his descendant.

Now picture what a stump looks like. It is a tree chopped down to a stump, and most view this as an eyesore. I had one in my yard in St. Louis. It was 30” diameter, and it took a year to chop this hard wood and getting to the rot. There were no ragged branches growing out of the stump. It was about 2 feet off the ground and quite dead. If there were branches, I would have let them grow because it was a wonderful old maple tree. New life from a stump is a wonderful sign of rejuvenated life. It gives us hope.

Isaiah is a story teller, a prophet– whose purpose to speak forth God’s truth to the present generation. Christians from the first generation on, have understood this truth of the Jesse stump from the prophet Isaiah as a fore- telling of the coming of Jesus and how God’s reign will continue to be made visible and tangible among us. The prophet Isaiah offers a vision of God’s presence through chosen people to “a new David,” who will lead us and all life and all creation to a place where we co-live in peace with ourselves, other life, and the Earth as well.
Stumps on the ground are often able to regenerate into new trees, sprouting new growth and branches. A stump sprouts can grow very quickly and sometimes become viable trees themselves due to the existing life and vitality in its roots. Life regenerates from the stump. Likewise, Isaiah provides a vision of the coming messiah:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The time of the prophet Isaiah was a perilous time. Israel was divided into kingdom, Northern Israel and Judea. And both were threatened by the superpowers at time—Egypt and Assyria. Assyria would conquer Northern Israel and transports it aristocracy into exile, and Assyria would lay siege to Jerusalem and fail. In other words, Israel’s enemies had tried every way to seal off the stump of Jesse that was the root of the throne of David and had taken the Israelite elite into exile. Jesus’ ancestors suffered all this and more. And yet, somehow, there was still life still stirring in this old stump. Jesse was the stump, the father of epic colorful King David of the Hebrew scriptures, but Jesse was the son of a colorful, non-traditional family. His grandmother was Ruth, a woman from the country of Moab and not a Hebrew, and she was bonded to Naomi. Jesse’s grandmothers were Ruth and Naomi. Ruth lost her husband, the son of Naomi, and followed Naomi from Moab to Israel with these words:

Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you.

Women who loved women have often used this scripture for their holy unions. But let me tell the story of Ruth a bit further. Ruth accompanies Naomi back to Israel, and Naomi instructs Ruth to pick up the left over grain in the fields of her relative Boaz. Boaz notices her. And Naomi instructs her to go to Boaz at night and uncover his feet in bed, and she does so and becomes pregnant.
At the end of the Book of Ruth, the women come to Naomi, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed, who became the father of Jesse who was the father of David, a shepherd boy that became a leader. Some LGBT Jews and Christians understand this as an alternative, bisexual family. These are the marginal ancestors of Jesus.

When you think about it, it is an odd image to use to describe Jesus. He’s the new King of Israel, and he is described as a fragile branch growing out of an unsightly old stump. Not a very triumphant or powerful image. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about coming to terms with the profound knowledge that God choses to become human and vulnerable, a defenseless human baby, dependent upon parents to survive. His parents would be unable to find shelter except in a cave with domesticated animals, and he was placed after his birth in a wooden manger.

Neither a baby nor a small branch growing out of stump is going to last long in a hostile world. The little shoot branching out of the stump could be cut down at any moment. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew tells how King Herod tries to cut down that branch and brutally kills all innocent male infants in Bethlehem from age two and under. The political world of power, greed, and intolerance cannot accept the possibility of a peacemaker. Religious and political empires, led by Herod or represented by Caiaphas and Pilate, would later join forces to crucify this child of peace—who threatened the very fabric of oppression and violent power.

God risks vulnerability in the branch of the tree of Jesse, a little child. What is true about branches growing on trees is that they branch out right on the edge of the trees. New growth is produced right at the very outward edges of the tree, and it builds outward, fragile branches and leaves. The human birth of the incarnate one was born out of a tree which had been chopped down to a stump, and God chose to bring new shoots out of the stump.

It is ironically that Jesus was adopted by Joseph a carpenter and wood artisan, and that Jesus would also become a carpenter in his years. The Jesse tree buds into new life as Savior and Messiah, but the lineage and theme of trees continue in the life of Jesus.

That new shoot of the Jesse tree, Jesus, is chopped down again and hung on the cross. In Greek Orthodox icons of the crucifixion of Jesus, there is a scull at the foot of the cross. Greek Orthodox uses the scull at the foot of the cross to mark the location on the Golgotha where Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove, Jesus was betrayed to the Temple guards, and on Golgotha, once a garden grove of trees, Jesus was crucified on the dead wood of the cross. Even with God’s presence in Christ things never went without obstacles and challenges. But God brang resurrected life out of the stump of the cross. Jesus becomes the new Tree of Life on Easter morning.

Symbolically, the lineage of trees from the Jesse tree expands in communities of trees down the age to the risen Jesus, the Tree of Life. I now cannot look at a tree or a community or forest of trees without seeing the Jesus the Tree of Life is rooted in all trees. The incarnate one is rooted into the Earth and the community of Earth life. The incarnate God has roots in the Earth.

Our God is totally green vitality, and great medieval abbess and saint, Hildegaard of Bingen, called this vitality of life that is God—viriditas, the greening vitality. Our God resurrects and sprouts new green life when the forces of violence and power try to deforest the world of hope and peace or when they chop down the giving tree. Branches continue to sprout, small at first but grow into a strong tree. Or when they take God incarnate, the Christ, and nail him to dead wood, God’s presence brings resurrect life in the risen Christ.

There is another parable about the Tree of Jesse. Harper & Row published a children’s book in 1964—The Giving Tree, a story by author Shel Silverstein. I used the story narrated on youtube several years ago. The book is about an apple tree and a young boy who have a connection with one another. In childhood, the boy plays with the tree, climbing the tree, swinging on branches, and eating apples. I could identify with the boy and the apple tree. In adolescence, the boy wants money, and the tree offers her apples to sell. In adulthood, the adult now wants a house, and the tree offers her branches to build his house. In middle age, the man wants a boat, and the tree offers her trunk to be cut—leaving a stump. In the final years, the elderly man just want a quiet place to sit, and the tree provides her stump as a seat. She is happy in total giving to her beloved.

There is no question for me: Jesus, God’s Christ is the authentic giving tree. He gives and gives abundant life and grace to us. Like the giving tree, Christ continues to give to humanity love and compassion. Christ—Abba God and the Holy Spirit—continually offers divine life to us. So I want you think about Christmas trees, but don’t stop with Christmas but all trees as symbolizing the giving tree of Christ.

We look to Christ’s arrival again to bring the fullness of God’s peace. On this Second Sunday of Advent that anticipates peace, we that the Spirit of Christ is hovering over us and looking for fertile ground from which to grow up a new branch out of the old stump. Isaiah proclaims,

On that day, the branch of Jesse, shall stand as a signal to the peoples…

What are the edges of your life that you need to pay mindful attention to start growing in Christ’s peace? What are the parts of you that feel unfinished and vulnerable, that you are afraid to let out into the light? I confess that I worry for our Earth and all life with the election.

Today’s scripture and sermon expresses that the moral arc of the universe—God’s presence—will be long and bend toward justice and love. Look at every tree today and see the Tree of Life that triumphs over the Roman and religious empire that crucified Jesus.

I look at the election and the President-elect. Every appointee, has been racist, climate deniers, and definitely anti-LGBT. I worry over the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the Water Protectors. And I student asked me this week if the Water Protectors will prevail, and I said, ‘I don’t think so. Trump has investments in the Dakota pipeline.”  But this morning some 2100 veterans arrived at Standing Rock to stand with the Water Protectors non-violently. Several weeks ago 500 clergy from a number of denominations, including the UCC and the UCC Environmental MInister Rev. Borrks Berndt, stood with the Water Protectors. (At lunch,I read on CNN that the Army Coprs of Engineers denied the Dakota  Oil Company a permit to cross the Sioux reservation. The Spirit works with surprises.)

And I fear for the undoing of the Paris Climate agreement and the EPA, protections against global warming. These are big challenges to us emotionally, but we need to hold with faith that Christ is the trunk of the Tree of Life, and you grow as living branches of the giving Tree. The true giving Tree will trump all greed, all hatred and racism, and environmental obstruction. The moral arc of the universe will triumph in favor of life, but there may be costs on the way. Have faith this Advent, Alleluia!

Day of the Dead: All Saints Where are beloved dead? (Jn. 6:37-40)

We heard this morning in our centering prayer, Richard Feynman’s PS in his letter to his deceased wife D’Arline. Richard Feynman was a noted American physicist who worked on the atomic bomb, and he was a Noble Prize recipient in Physics. His PS —“PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.” Death intrudes upon our lives, whether we like it or not. It is an inescapable fact of life. Everyone will die, and that includes each one of us. Feynman’s PS struck me funny the first time I read it, but it hits every person who has experienced lost and grief that they feel like Dr. Feynman. A dear one, just moments or day before alive, but the life force or spirit has moved on. Where do the spirits of deceased loved ones and friends go?
I co-wrote with a colleague Dennis Klass a book: Dead But Not Lost: Grief Narratives in Religious Traditions. It came from coffee each morning before class, where we shared our expertise in religion and the psychology of grief. The book is about the gap between the living and the dead and how people have tried to bridge that gap. First I need to tell you that Dr. Feynman was an atheist, for him there was no supernatural world for him to access his wife. But his love for deceased wife continued. Almost every human being has experienced the continued bond of love or friendship after someone has died. We all find ourselves there sometime in love, grief of love lost and closeness giving away to physical absence. I want to come back to this point shortly.
Our afterlife conceptions and theologies have been impacted by our modern cosmology, the story of the universe. Traditionally, the address was understood as God’s place as heaven, purgatory, and hell. It was this world, Earth, transitory illusory, sinful, and fragmented. The next world is real, eternal, and whole. Heaven was envisioned in sky with clouds, and that was where Jesus ascended to be with God. Hell was imagined as a place of fire underground. Heaven, hell, and purgatory were understood to be physical places until the 20th century. Because of death, in this this old model, we become cut off from the cosmos, for death separates us from time and space. God’s space is envisioned separated from the universe, above or outside of the universe. I think this is disincarnational as well as not connected to the story of the universe from the big bang on.

These afterlife images no longer hold our attention, and we are like Feynman’s dilemma of no knowing the address of his deceased wife. Where are our beloved deceased? What address can use to mail letters? Where do we find or speak to our deceased loved ones? Death is a stark physical absence. We miss our loved ones, and we would give anything to hear their voice, touch them, and be and share with them again.
My answer is simple but has a depth of unfathomable mystery as well. I look at human grief at loss of someone dear, and I find people across history and many cultures– bridging the gap between this world and the address of the departed.
For example, the Romans had feasts and picnics with the beloved dead at their tombs, a sort of Day of the Dead that Mexicans now celebrate. Other people have bridged death to access their loved ones through the dream world.
My colleague Dennis colleague Dennis Klass counseled, listened to, and remained a member of bereaved parents. Parents clung to pictures of their loved ones or some meaningful item, some wrapped the clothes of their loved one in plastic wrap to preserve the scent of their deceased. I have inscribed a Catholic Missal with words written by my deceased spouse Frank: ”You are my priest forever…” It is a linking object given to me, and I remember the occasion vividly. The missal stirs memories in myself, and I now can smile and feel his presence with that missal. We have all mementos because they are doorways to God’s space where are loved ones abide. And many folks will tell you stories how dead loved become present to them.

I want to read a section from Dead But Not Lost:
The most sense (of bridging the gap with the dead) is presence. Sometimes the presence is undifferentiated, a feeling of “something there,” but just as often the sense of presence is quite specific, as in one bereaved parent’s report, “I just knew that Jim was watching over me through all that.” Memory is a special kind of presence. Often the living recall the words or deeds of the dead as guidelines for present behavior. At other times memory is reverie in which the time becomes more plastic so that past and present can merge. Living people also maintain contact with the dead through linking objects. Being near the object evokes the dead’s sense of presence. The objects can be physical—for example, an article that belonged to the deceased—or nonmaterial—for an example, a song that deceased liked.
Presence can appear or become real in physical absence. Christ is present in the remembered ritual of breaking bread and sharing the cup, yet he is physically absent. He is simultaneously present and absent like of our beloved dead.
A clue may be located in our traditional Christian notion of the communion of the saints. When we celebrate our Sunday eucharist, our dead are with us. The living and dead come together at the table. When we intentionally or unconsciously remember our loved ones absent through death, we open a door way to Christ’s space and presence.
If our deceased loved one are with Christ, they are closer than we are to Christ. If Christ is active and present in our world, then those with them are active in some fashion in this world–through memory and the love in our hearts. Then our loved ones are present as Christ becomes present to us in the linking objects of bread and wine and the open table.
Heaven and hell have evolved into states of being, states of joy and states of suffering. All of us have experienced emotional/physical states of joy and pain. This is built in our universe. We are trained here in our worship to learn how to live in infinity. Our lives are attuned to resurrected life but also aligned with the suffering of the cross.
We are mixtures of attunement and estrangement. We live in a world of change, birth, decay, death, and rebirth. The cycles of life and the seasonal cycles of nature provide us a clue to our lives.
As a Christian person of faith, I turn to Christ’s death and resurrection. It points to change, dramatic change of Christ dying on the cross, and God resurrecting Christ from the dead. The continuity of God’s Spirit points to life and transformation. This has an impact on traditional and fundamentalist understanding of the end of the world.
Jesus ascended to God’s space. I use God’s space rather heaven. It is how Jesus phrase “on earth as it is heaven.” Jesus envisioned God’s space as interlocking space, inclusive of heaven and earth, which intersect and interlock in many ways. This sounds to me like quantum physics and a quantum universe, not above or outside the universe, but intersecting with our space and time. At the end of time, they will be one universe: God space and our universe. God’s space is not above or under the Earth or outside; God’s space co-exists quantumly with our space, whereby our universes are knitted together, which builds matter and energy into molecules, plants, other species and us together. This quantum universe preserves our consciousness after death with the possibilities envisioned by God of learning to live into infinity.
God is not out there, or above, or beyond. Jesus’ revolutionary way of speaking about God as God’s kindom is to proclaim that the kindom of God or God’s presence is within us. God’s space is where the presence of the risen Christ and our deceased abide. But they break through into our universe whenever we do something to remember them.
There are two folks whose thought impacts my notion of death.
The first is St. Augustine who wrote these words: You have us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. We have been created and intended to abide with God in God’s space.
The second is Wendell Berry—a great American author, farmer, and poet—who lived with the land and nature for some eighty years. Diarmuid O’Murchu writes,
People who work closely with nature, especially in environmental and ecological settings, often attain a high level of spiritual awareness. Their rootedness in creation awakens in them a sensibility to the sacred, which then becomes a catalyst for spiritual or religious exploration. (O’Murchu)
Likewise, Norman Wirzba, a Duke theologian, claims, “Gardens are places where people learn that death is not simply an end to life, but a vital ingredient and partner in furthering life.”
Wendell Berry speaks from a land wisdom from his rootedness in farming and co-living with nature. He speaks with a land wisdom, how God has given us God’s breath to breath. He hearkens to the Genesis story where God took a clod of clay and breathed into the clay to shape and form the earth creature (adamah).
He notes that at the end of our lives with our final breadth, God takes that breath back into God’s self. That unique breath abides in God. Our vitality, our energy, or consciousness is taken into God’s self at our death.

Pause and Pay Attention (Luke 19:1-10)

It is hard to practice radical compassion. Practicing compassion requires several movements. It often, when we are distracted or fully overloaded with many stimuli, we need to pause and take a breath.

Zacchaeus has two obstacles, one is physical and the other is socio-religious. First he is short of stature, and he cannot see over the crowds. Secondly, he is an outsider, a despised tax collector, he collects taxes for the Roman occupiers. Both obstacles are related. His shortness prevents him from overlooking the heads of the crowds. But his social occupation makes it so the crowds who hate him as a national traitor will not make way for him to see Jesus coming. No one will budge and stand aside for him to see. Zacchaeus is shunned as a social pariah and outcast by those who follow a sin management religion with clear walls and boundaries to exclude. I have maintained a sin management religion or church is graceless. Such a religion is graceless when it creates scapegoated folks, stigmatizes them as sinners, and excludes them the faith community. It minimizes, at the very least, grace or overburdens grace with a sin management strategy of connecting to God. But that type of religion is graceless, and it uses shame, guilt, and exclusion to rule people. It leaves out the heart of God, unconditional love. God loves us into loving.

When Zacchaeus, tax collector, climbs a tree to secure Jesus’ attention, he catches Jesus’ gaze in one of those moments of a pause, then noticing him in the tree and waving and trying to secure his attention. He sees the man in own particularity. His attentiveness is open, non-reactive curiosity.
Jesus pays attention to his surroundings, the people in the crowd as well as the man in the tree waving and trying to get his attention. Frank Rogers, in his book, Compassion in Practice: The Way of Jesus, writes:

…we pay attention. We simply notice non-reactively and non-judgmentally what others are doing and what they look like while they are doing it. We gaze upon them contemplatively, the way of the artist would observe them or as if they were character on stage or in a film. In the same way we cultivate a radical acceptance of our interior movements, we nurture a welcoming posture and expansive hospitality toward people we are beholding. This is how Jesus gazes upon people.

People present themselves to Jesus for healing physically or for acceptance from outcast/impure status. But Jesus also pauses enough during his ministry to notice people. I hold that Jesus’ saying in Luke 6:36 is central to Jesus’ teaching and ministry: “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” He takes the time to understand and assess their social situation.

Jesus pays attention to people. He comprehends people and their behaviors in their own context. Initially, Jesus does not react, but as he understands a person social reality, he responses without judgment and compassionately. And this was a common everyday experience around—people excluded for religious reasons and prejudices. Suffering and emotionally pained individuals were not invisible. Human beings have an uncanny ability to ignore the pain of others, and we make them invisible even when a person sits on the sidewalk with a side, “Am I invisible?”

He is open to their pain and suffering. He is initially non-reactive but becomes responsive to their human situation. His responsiveness includes a loving gaze, trying to understand their social experience. He reads their emotions, their bodily messages.

Bodies and bodily actions can communicate as much as words. Bodies carry the scars and wounds of our emotional and physical struggles. Facial gestures likewise communicate our feelings and struggles.

The gospel carries numerous stories of people’s pain, their grief and oppression, and their heart-felt sorrows. Jesus breaks rules and laws only for the sake of compassion. His healings on the Sabbath or the healing of the centurion’s boy are examples. Compassion is the driving force of his ministry.

When Zacchaeus catches his attention, Jesus recognizes the man’s humanity. He sizes him up. His shortness of stature and the crowd’s reluctance to allow him through indicate that this man in a sycamore tree is a socio-religious outcast. Zacchaeus is tainted because he collects taxes for the Romans, impure Gentiles and conquerors. He is a national traitor. “Zacchaeus

What is remarkable about Jesus to me is Jesus manifests compassionate for those he meets. It propels his ministry of radical inclusiveness and unconditional love in his invitation to an open table.

Compassion is dangerous. The Dalai Lama has said, “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.” Compassion for the outside or the suffering is always counter-cultural and resists cultural norms and power structures. Compassion creates upheavals, for it challenges the core of our prejudices. And we all have been conditioned to some form of social prejudice.

Jesus invites himself: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I must stay at your house.” Jesus, who invites all sorts of suspect people and sinners to the open table, invites himself into the house of known public sinner in Jericho. I want to talk about Jesus’ action here.

Two weeks ago, I preached at the Convention of the Eastern Oregon Episcopal Churches. While preaching about the Great Feast in Luke chapter 14, I talked about Jesus’ open table that tolerates no outsiders.

The open table includes the virtues of extravagant hospitality, but it overlaps with compassion, forgiveness, and unconditional love. It occurred to me that Jesus was the open table, he embodied the open table and God’s grace. It is easy for us to understand Jesus as the open table. But his invitation to the open table transforms us also into God’s open table.

Therefore, when Jesus invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home, Jesus brings God’s open table into his house. He is God’s table, he incarnates God’s compassion and unconditional grace. The radical of his invitation into Zacchaeus’ house is not unnoticed by the crowds of Jericho. He went into that sinner’s house. You hear the voice of the crowd murmuring; “Jesus has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” The crowd is often the ones who are scandalized Jesus’ behaviors. Compassion is God’s interruptive, and I would add, God’s liberating grace. It forces the crowd to question their religious expectations and norms.

Jesus creates the open table space within Zacchaeus’ home; he brings the sacredness of compassion, hospitality, and unconditional grace there. Zacchaeus is surprised as well. He has been ostracized, treated as dirt and a traitor by the Jewish community of Jericho. He defends himself before Jesus: “Look, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Jesus accepts the tax collector as he is. He does not require him to give up his profession. Jesus declares to Zacchaeus and the crowds, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Jesus has alleviated the outcast status of the tax collector. His “today” declaration says to Zacchaeus and the crowds; he is a part of God’s community. Compassion not only alleviates suffering, but it transforms Zacchaeus.

Once more Jesus has messed up the socio-religious lines and barriers that protect the insiders from the sinful outsiders. But the real question is “who is the outsider?” Zacchaeus is the sinner and outsider to the Jericho crowds. But I would suggest that crowds are the real outsiders because of their exclusion of God’s table. God’s hospitality messes up Zacchaeus as well as the crowds. For what they believe and practice creates social walls and barriers, and it messes up psychologically and causes suffering to the tax collector but it also messes up those who excluded him.

God’s hospitality disrupts all religious barriers that human beings build. God’s hospitality disrupts those human walls and tears them down. All walls are broken down, even the walls between human and divine. By pausing, listening, and paying attention to the pain and suffering or the deep cries of another person moves us beyond pausing and listening to acting lovingly and with care. When compassion moves us to compassionate action, we see the real beloved child of God, a sibling in need. We unite with Jesus’ compassion and God’s compassion by becoming God’s compassion to another. But grace rebounds on us, for the grace of compassionate love transforms us as well. Our self-less love delights in our compassion connects to a wounded person like Zaccaheus. We recognize his humanity as Jesus did. We bring the open table of grace and hospitality to Zaccahaeus.