Friday, March 25, 2016

Palm Sunday: A Passion


The Restoration Ministries Palm Sunday service is in full swing as I arrive at the church.  They are an African-American LGBTQ Pentecostal progressive congregation, a combination of words you don’t often see. And I do mean full swing…. (There's a film crew doing a documentary about them...)

Upstairs in McAlpin, Theatre Dzieci is deep into their workshop preceding their annual production of A Passion here at West-Park. ( . I notice that my friend Pastor Jeanie and four of her volunteer crew are participating in the workshop. Dresden, one of her young volunteers, will join the cast in their performance at worship.

They’ve been here since Friday continuing their work in restoring  our chapel.
working on the chapel
They’re officially part of a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team from Sacramento presbytery that has stopped here on their way to do continued Sandy relief in Jersey. And also part of a new worshipping community Jeanie began a year ago whose one word mission statement is simply that: mission. Sandy relief, Alaska, Nicaragua…It’s an exciting model. Without a building to worry about.   This year my session has worked side by side with Jeanie’s group, and provided and shared in meals.

I’ve known her for over 30 years. Back when I was a rising young star in the church and she was a Princeton student with a limitless future. Needless to say, things didn’t necessarily work out the way either of us expected. The +/- ratio still in the balance.  But we’ve been faithful in ministry and friendship all these years. And she always brings a bright and hopeful and inviting presence to everything she does. And her spiritual authority with her group is clear. I admire,appreciate and respect her ministry, and who she is, in a very deep way.

Downstairs, Dzieci cast members are silently greeting people arriving for the service and passing out palms. The Passion will soon begin. Their telling of the story reaches into its deep archetypal roots with typical Grotowski emphasis on ritual and movement. They find the universal in the specifics of ancient text and Hebraic melody and the shadows of the Warsaw ghetto in their dress. While in the tradition of medieval passion plays (and Sarah Ruhl’s remarkable 2010 Passion Play..) their work is meta and post-modern and ancient all at the same time.

Most moving is the way the white prayer shawl that designates Jesus throughout the play is passed from character to character so that all are Jesus, all Pilate and Caiaphas, and all Judas. All victims. All perpetrators. Crucifiers and crucified. We are all sheep. And all goats. All wheat. All chaff.  The TRUTH of the Passion penetrates deeply into us. 
Pastor Jean Shaw and Dzieci's Matt Mitler
The Dzieci cast of A Passion

After the play is over, an impromptu potluck lunch is quickly organized by Jeanie and her team. Sacramento volunteers, West Park congregants and Dzieci company. We symbolically shared bread and cup together during the Passion. And now we break bread together in the most common—and sacred—of ways. Companions. Companeros.  Community.
Shared grace before a shared meal

As we leave, the Korean In2Church service is underway. Some 300. Most all no older than 30.  A place of community for them.

Holy Week has begun.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Fifth Sunday in Lent: What do you value?


Our friends from the Seed Group/open Choir are back again today to share their music.  We sing together Pharoah’s Army Got Drownded…with the Arlo Guthrie verse, Moses was the first to get the notion that the world is safer with the army in the ocean..

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, I worked for the Neighborhood Legal Aid office in the Hill neighborhood. Part of what kept me in school. Part of the Hill was African-American and part Puerto Rican. The main church was  La Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. They had a big drive to buy a gold cross for the roof of their church. The Puerto Rican Socialist Party protested this as a waste of money and energy. My colleagues ion the office were divided in their opinion. Some saw it as deeply symbolic for the community.

Let’s go back 10 years. We were struggling with what to do with church. The theological perspective of session was clear. A classic reformed theological position.   They believed that the building was created by our forebears as an asset to further the mission of the church. Not as an end in itself. The Session wanted to tear down the whole building and replace it with a new residential building with a church within it. The building would be 100% affordable housing. (This had long been the majority perspective for West Park…..)
In 1980’s, deferred maintenance was abandoned. The resources of church were entirely devoted for mission.  Pastor Bob Davidson skillfully avoided the church being made part of the landmarks district. I remember talking with a Landmarks staff person who trembled remembering …why he called me an idolator of brick and mortar, a lover of stone not the living stones. Davidson succeeded.  Anyways, the Session’s plan was voted down.

So we came up with a new plan. There would be a new church. And new building. With 60/40 affordable. Community opposition arose. There was a prolonged landmarks struggle. Over that time, we saw the affordable side disappear completely. (Although proceeds would have built 250 units in Harlem.) In hearings, I made same argument, then was a  means not an end. Our mission was for us to determine, not the city. We all know how that turned out. But I grew to understand value of building to the neighborhood. It was about more than just a view. There was meaning of and to itself in a community. In Europe there is a growing area of study of the Theology of built environment.  What we build, where and how has theological content. My theology has moved beyond materialist.
(I do need to say, however…if a community has that value, it needs to pay for that value…the church cannot shoulder that burden alone…)

That’s our question on this last Sunday of Lent…what do you value? What do we value?

This is a story of Jesus and Mary. (Not that Mary, not Mary Magdalen….and by the way, she was not a prostitute…she wasn’t called that until a decree by Pope Gregory in 5th Century when he though that Mary Magdalene was taking attention away from Jesus…)
This was his best friends’ house. Lazarus. (He loved so much he raised him from the deae…and was that really  a good idea?) Her sister was Martha, the serving  one. And Mary, the student. In Bethany. If Jesus was an underground leader, this was for him and his people a “safe house.”

This is an incredible scene. Deep and rich and sensual. The fragrance of the perfume fills the air. Judas gives a classic  materialist response.  (As a side comment, Johyn’s accusations about Judas and his and in the till are  gratuitous…though  revolutions and not for profits…like the recent revelations about the wounded warrior project have shown us how easy  it is to  feel like you deserve luxury benefits for your service, your work…)
Jesus allows himself to enjoy her lavish gift. He knows where he’s going. (And so does Mary…)

The story is found in all four  Gospels. (And no place else, no extracanonical parallels) Hal Taussig (of Union) and Jesus Seminar colleagues (and what a Quixotic venture that was …) believed that therefore there was probably a story we don’t have beneath it.

What does Jesus value? Friendship. Love. The need of friends to get us through.  And love again. This is the  most sensual Jesus. (In Kazantzakis and Scorsese’s  Last temptation of Christ Jesus has both as wives…)

The critical phrase here is The poor shall be with you always. That has been so abused as an excuse not to engage in the struggle against poverty and is a complete  misreading. Why will there always be poor? Because of sin and our nature. BUT also…if you are my disciples, you will always be with the poor…

They say our truest diary is our check book.. What do you value? What do we value?

I sing a new version of this story to the tune of  My life flows on …from last week. (by Brian Wren):

A prophet-woman broke a jar
by Love's divine appointing.
With rare perfume she filled the room,
presiding and anointing.
A prophet-woman broke a jar,
the sneers of scorn defying.
With rare perfume she filled the room,
preparing Christ for dying.

A faithful woman left a tomb
by Love's divine commission.
She saw, she heard, she preached the word,
arising from submission.
A faithful woman left a tomb
with resurrection gospel.
She saw, she heard, she preached the word,
apostle to apostles.

Though woman-wisdom, woman-truth
for centuries were hidden,
unsung, unwritten, and unheard,
derided and forbidden,
the Spirit's breath, the Spirit's fire,
on free and slave, descending,
can tumble our diving walls,

our shame and sadness mending.

The Spirit knows, the Spirit calls,
by Love's divine ordaining,
the friends we need, to serve and lead,
their powers and gifts unchaining.
The Spirit knows, the Spirit calls
from women, men, and children
the friends we need, to serve and lead.
Rejoice and make them welcome!

My friend Stephen Phelps has come to moderate the Session as they discuss changes in my call. Heading in to a time of more uncertainty and challenge. I wish I could hear the discussion. Today we will elect Russ and Pat K to positions of leadership on the Session and Dion as a Deacon. As we welcome Hugo and Arcadia back. And take a step into the unknown…..

16Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
20The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

1When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
3The LORD has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.

4Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5"Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Fourth Sunday in Lent: What about reconciliation?


Pastor Brashear and Victoire Oberkampf

 There’s just enough time to rehearse with Victoire before the service begins.  After we read 1 Corinthians 5: 16-21, Victoire sings her own arrangement of Go Tell It on the Mountain. And after Luke 15: 1-4, Amazing Grace.  (You can hear these songs here: )
                                                                                                                                                               And then time for reflection on reconciliation.
Our topic today is reconciliation.  Let me repeat these words from Corinthians:
17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 
Let’s talk in terms of a familiar story…the prodigal son…we’ve heard it so often…it’s hard to come up with a new angle..

Try something..they say to fully understand a parable, you need to see yourself as each of the characters in the story…
For the father: What your son is asking for is equal to: I wish you were dead..this is your youngest…the  baby of the family…your favorite…(so many times in the Bible, it’s the youngest who winds up with the birthright, the coat of many colors…you get the picture..) But you give in anyways….weeks, months , years? go by and you’ve heard nothing…the neighbors critical about what you’ve done…still every day, you’re looking out at the horizon, waiting, waiting….and when that day comes, you’re happy enough just to see him…so you welcome him..and of course you celebrate, and bring all your neighbors…so the boy can be restored…so community can be restored.. the new ceramic lid to our baptismal font is a gift celebrating a child, an Occupier restored to his family…

But what we don’t know is this….what if he does it again?

I’ve met too many parents over the years…in situations  especially related to drugs…met parents who have had to draw lines.. and try to live with them…and had their hearts broken over and over and over again. How many families have that one child…

For the youngest son.. everything was too good, too right, too constricting. You have to get away, just to’s OK for awhile, then it all goes bad…and you realize what it is you’ve squandered, what it is you’ve lost. You’ve got to live with the awareness of not only the material benefits you had, but the sustaining  love you threw away, didn’t take care of. Lost. Biggest loss of is the relationship…(That’s the one that gets me…loss of’s like losing a limb…) In the end…you can’t expect, you don’t deserve, but…you go anyways…and how do you respond to such a lavish, embarrassing welcome? Why no demand to prove yourself? What will the day after the party look like?

And of course, the older brother. Who has done everything asked for …and more…his whole life this younger one has gotten the attention. The benefit of the doubt. Never did his share. Just plain left with me having to run this whole place. And now he comes back and he’s welcomed? With a party? And by the way, how come everyone else seem  to know about this party except me?  Like servants are sent to invite the whole town, I’m out in the field and I don’t know? Dad, am I invisible?

It’s common among clergy to hear that members feel the pastor spends so much time with those in NEED that they never see those who are in need. The troubled, the poor, the crazy, the …who get all the attention. The steady, diligent ones who keep things going, who are responsible, who wear themselves out helping the church simply survive don’t feel seen, much less appreciated.  Why keep doing it? And if some of those who have been absent should come back, should they expect to jump right in and start deciding how things should go when they haven’t been here when things were do or die? What’s right about that?

And what about the mother? Oh, right, there’s no mom in the story. What’s up with that? Why did Jesus leave her out? (There’s a special relationship between mother and child…they’ve discovered shared cells that have passed back and forth through the umbilical chord…an awareness…a knowing…intuitive )

OK. Who was story for?  The Pharisees. We always look at them as the bad guys. They were natural allies of Jesus. They are concerned that he spends his time eating with, breaking bread with, those of ill repute, and reputations. How does that make us look? If others see so many of them around, who’s going to want to stay here? Who’s going to pay the bills for this guy? Could the Pharisees be saying we’re backing him, giving him the benefit of the doubt while the temple powers, the political powers are getting upset and he doesn’t even care?

Note the message from the father to them…it’s not your day is over, you’ve been replaced, It's you have been with me always…everything I have is yours…(the oldest son still gets his 2/3 share after all..).This is important for Christians to hear…What Jesus is saying on behalf of God…is come into the party….everyone…

There are lots of emotions in this story…Now..what if Jesus is all the characters in the parable? I’ll leave that one with you…

BUT..consider the word prodigal…what does that mean? One synonym is promiscuous…I read recently in Queer Christianities a chapter on the theology of promiscuity…it was a bit of a bait and switch advertising…not what you expect…it makes the claim that God’s love is promiscuous ……freely given, without regard or judgment or demand or….it’s just….. come in to the party….

The symbolic meal we participate in today is like that ….  .so….let us break bread together…

Victoire and I share in various variations of Amazing Grace…like the Blind Boys of Alabama..( ) I do my own Hank Williams style ( So Lonesome I could cry..) and we finish together.

Later, I’ll sing My life flows on as Pete Seeger sang it in the days of the House Un American Activities  Committee and the Red Scare:

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth's lamentation.
I hear the real, thought far off hymn
That hails the new creation
Above the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?
What through the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
What through the darkness round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I'm clinging.
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,
And hear their death-knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near,
How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile
Our thoughts to them are winging.
When friends by shame are undefiled,
How can I keep from singing?

We share bread and cup together. Then Victoire blesses us with another song…so good to have her spirit with us…

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
GOSPEL LUKE 15:1-3, 11B-32
1Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
3So he told them this parable:
11b"There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.

25"Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'"