Image of a cross in front of a cloudy sky. The sun is breaking through the clouds and shining the sunlight on the cross.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem, NH April 4, 2021

Happy Easter, beloved, the journey of darkness is over, and He is Risen. Love is … Wait, I mean Christ is Risen. Not yet at-one with the Father; but has conquered death and Love is… One moment, I mean not yet at-one with God. The prophecies are now fulfilled as the only begotten Son is revealed as our messiah on this Easter morning. Love is …difficult to express. Difficult to express in today’s world when we are in the midst of many – many different journeys of shadow. Words get in the way of expressing the beauty of this Easter morning. Words get in the way of having a conversation about the shadowy journeys we are walking in throughout this life. Words get in the way of embracing the celebration of Love Revealed on this Easter morning. However, words are important as they allow us to reveal the light of Love, like never before. 

Before we begin, would you pray with me

Holy Loving God, who revealed Your Love for us on this Easter morning, open our spirits to Your Love once more – reveal its beauty and make us whole through Your Word. May the words from my lips only speak of Your Truth, o’ God, and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You.

Now beloved, our world today is struggling with many different journeys of shadow. And I like that phrase – especially today – for it shares a different reality than simply saying a social justice movement – an issue – or even the sins of our world. This phrase changes the context to imply that these sins have not come to an end. And, that understanding is healthy; for, they have not. We are not in the kin-dom with Christ – yet. We are still on these earthly journeys along rocky paths. Sometimes the wind is at our back with a smooth downhill road. Sometimes the path takes us up the sheer climb of a mountain with a death-defying breath in each and every handhold. And sometimes – sometimes we witness the glory of Love revealed. Revealed when we come to an oasis in the desert – as people start to think differently about a journey of shadow. 

And we have seen these rest stops on the various journeys – many times. In fact, I am sure each of you – can recall at least one of these glimmers of paradise when Love has been revealed. Perhaps the end of slavery came to mind – though the journey of equality is not over as our society still struggles with racism; maybe, the affirming love we have here for the LGBT+ community – though this journey of equality is not over as this love is not fully revealed to all; or perhaps you thought of equal voting rights, an end to required gender norms, and an increase in educational resources regardless of gender – though this journey of equality is not over as we are still struggling to understand one another, and words get in the way.

Words get in the way like in our scripture this morning from the Gospel according to John. For, the author reveals something that is often overlooked: Mary Magdalene came to the tomb – alone, a clear difference from the other Gospels. Yet, when Mary refers to not knowing about Jesus’ whereabouts, the word used is “we” – “we do not know where they have laid him.” This point changes the context according to the theologian Gail O’Day who understandably believes that the author is not only having Mary represent all followers of Christ; but also, Mary is “ironically echo(ing) one of the decisive misunderstandings of Jesus’ ministry” i.e., “whence Jesus comes and where he is going.” So, why did Jesus come? To save us from sin as the Gospel of Matthew does explain Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” I believe so; but does the scripture tell us how we are saved? Not precisely and this difficulty along with the word “sin” becomes the basis for the misunderstanding around Jesus’ ministry of why he came, especially because there is still sin in the world – journeys of shadow – the Way has not been achieved in the kin-dom of God, for us – yet. Therefore, we fumble with words – not fully understanding Jesus’ ministry or where he went. 

However, the ambiguity of words throughout the Gospel of John also allows us to witness the Good News on this Easter morning – witness a reprieve from the gender equality journey of shadow – and witness God’s Love…revealed. For, here in this passage Jesus says, “go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to the Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” On the surface, this good news alone is beautiful; for Jesus by using this double identification formula of “the Father and your Father…my God and your God” is sharing that what is true for Jesus is now true for all the disciples. Moreover, this truth of the Way is for all of us as Mary is, as you remember, representing all the faithful throughout this scripture. 

Further, this beautiful representation of equal leadership in the early Church is highlighted by the word, “brothers.”  Not because of how we understand the word in English today or not even fully because Mary is the one commanded to bring this message, but because the original word in Greek was “Adelphos” which is not gender limiting, here. In fact, the word is being used inclusively to identify all of Jesus’ disciples as his family according to O’Day. Much like today when we use the word “guys” to inaccurately, and sometimes harmfully, describe a group of men and women. Again, words and the misunderstanding of words get in the way of witnessing the inclusive beauty of what we are trying to say and our scripture which does welcome all people into the kin-dom of God. Yet, when we know the context of the place, culture, and time – then – and only then is the Good News revealed.  

Still, one part of the story eludes us: The Love revealed today? For me, this part is the most beautiful aspect of our scripture reading and the gift from God which is now revealed to all of us because Jesus brought us all into his family. That aspect is the word “Father” and the relationship with Jesus as God’s “Son.” Now, I imagine the understanding of Father in reference to God could and does seem harmful to some people, especially as God created us all in the divine image and we humans have a hard time thinking beyond the physical image of a body, of a male or a female body, of gender identity. However, the reality is that we do not know God’s gender. Is God male as represented by Jesus – female as represented by the Holy Spirit – both? 

We do not know; for, our words are broken, and this truth is why I refer to God as both he and she. That said, we do understand the relationship between a loving parent and a child. We understand the love a Father must have when he watches his Son struggle on a journey of shadow; so, other children may see the Way. I can only imagine the many loving Mothers amongst us must also understand the immense Love God has for all of us to allow harm to come to her child; so, we may all witness the Way through the journeys of darkness. Imagine that for a moment, could you do what God does and allow your child to suffer – so, all your children could find their Way. Could you allow one parent to suffer – so, all people could possibly find their way back to you. The amount of Love that God reveals to us is the Good News beloved – it is a love I cannot imagine but this is the Love that God reveals on Easter morning. How are we revealing Love to God? Are we embracing these journeys of shadow and revealing God’s Love to one another? Are we climbing those mountains – risking all to reveal Love in every breath – are we listening to the meaning behind broken words and trying to find the Way to hold one another in Love? I pray that you are as our journey is not over – yet. Jesus’ journey of shadow is over when he reveals the Way to be free of sin along these journeys of shadow. But beloved disciples, our journeys are not yet over as we are not in the kin-dom, yet. So, let us remember the Love Revealed through God, Christ who shows us the Way, and the Holy Spirit which breathes divine Love into every one of our lives. May you always witness God’s Love Revealed and be a reflection of that Love as we walk through the journeys of shadow – together. Amen

“The Stumbling Block of Justice”

The black and white image of an open book with pages on either side turned into middle to reveal a heart shape. The words "Love above Knowledge - 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13" are written below the book.

Presented to the First Congregational Church of Salem January 31, 2021

All of us possess knowledge. We know things. We know the reasons behind the conflicts last year. We know the reasons for the issues from the capitol conflict to the racial justice protests. We know their truth that feeds the movements…but, what is the Truth?

What is the Truth of God? What is the Truth of God and are we living that Truth? This question is where we must begin as disciples of Christ: What is the Truth, are we living that Truth, or are we doing the opposite by eating an idol’s food? Thereby, creating stumbling blocks for others to find their way to the Truth? These questions filled my heart this week as I continued to pray for all people. 

Would you join me in this prayer:

Holy God of Healing make us whole once more with Your Holy Loving Truth for all people. Heal us with Your Love, God, for Your people are broken and we need Your Love to replace what we think we know with that which is Your Truth called Love. May the words from my lips and the meditations on all our hearts be pleasing to You.

Now in the UCC we do not usually speak about “the Truth” as we encourage each person to discern how they witness God in their lives. The problem with this practice is that we have, at times, been seen as wishy-washy, vacillating in our beliefs, not standing for anything. Many of us use phrases like my truth and your truth to demonstrate the variety of ways God is revealed through human beings. That said, there is the Truth – the Truth of God which was – is now – and will be forever – Love. God created all people as equals through this Love. That is the Truth – pure and simple. No one is greater or lesser than anyone else as we are all equally created in forgiveness, in brokenness, and in Love. 

This Truth, beloved, is why we, in this community, have sought out many ways to bring awareness to the issue of racial inequality over the month of January, why we are seeking awareness of this issue through studying a book on Anti Racism, why our confirmands are now seeking racial inequality awareness as part of their confirmation classes. We have witnessed this Truth of Love for all and are choosing to live that Truth as disciples who reveal God’s Love by loving one another. 

That said, there is a problem with the Truth that is revealed when humans get involved. When we think we know the Truth and we are really only speaking about our truth. We, as a community, have grown in awareness about racial inequality; but are we living in the Truth of Love for all people or are we simply shifting our Love to another group of people? Beloved, this question leads us to one of the great stumbling blocks in social justice. Basically, when we realize God’s Love is for everyone and we wish to stand up for that Love; we will come to the quandary of how do we Love all people even those who are the enemies of our truth – our idea of justice – our ideologies?

When we know their ideas are so hateful – how do we love them? When we know our truths are right – and their idea is wrong – how do we live in the Truth? When we know that the best way to move forward is by oppressing the other voice – how do we walk with God? This problem, beloved, is a stumbling block of social justice which happens whenever we forget to love God first – in all things.

We see this problem in the apostle’s First Letter to the Corinthians when Paul reminds the Church of Corinth about love. For you see, the Corinthians have a moral struggle happening within their community. A moral struggle as to what to do about those people – those people who do not believe as they do – those people who follow false idols. The other in this narrative are the pagan’s in the town of Corinth who have a set of sacrificial rites which directly oppose the early church’s belief of their truth according to the theologian Victor Furnish. Namely, the Corinthian truth is that with Christ we no longer need to sacrifice our livestock to God and are risking our immortal souls by engaging this practice with the pagan’s false idols. 

Now this may not seem to be on par with racial justice – economic justice – or any other justice in our world today; but that is because these justice issues are the ones affecting us today. In the time of Paul when the world was about to end and we had to be ready for the Parousia – the end times – the coming of Christ, this issue was just as important. This issue and the understanding of their truth was not only important, it was an existential crisis, a concern for their very existence. For, if the people of Corinth did not follow their truth – they believed they would be destroyed forever by God. Much like people today seem to believe that if their truth is not followed – the environment will be destroyed – democracy will be destroyed – all black people will be destroyed – free speech will be destroyed – their very ideology will be destroyed. 

To this idea Paul writes “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” To know – or rather think we know – Paul says is wrong, we do not yet have the knowledge. We do not really know the reasons for the issues from the capitol conflict to the racial justice protests. We do not know what truths people are feeding upon – we do not know what is within their hearts; but Paul says anyone who loves God is known by him. Known by her – known by God. This is not a simple phase. When we are known by God, we are called by him to be disciples following the way to the Truth – The Good News – The Love of God.

Paul even goes on to provide an example of how to reveal this Love when we are called – when we are called to engage with people who are our enemies – and who threaten our very existence; and this beloved is the Good News of our scripture this week. For, Paul says, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” In other words, the truths of the pagan and the Corinthians are not the Truth – neither makes us better or worse. However, if we eat that food, that truth, the divisions which continue to “other” people as enemies, even if we do not believe they are our enemies – will make “a stumbling block to the weak.” We will be revealing not an example of the Truth of God’s Love for all people but our truth that our way is right, and their way is wrong. To this Paul stands for God and says, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”

As you may have guessed, I am using this food today as a metaphor in Justice issues – the food that feeds the movements and divisions is not the Truth of God’s Love for all people but it is our truths – our many varied truths, perspectives, and opinions. The food is heaped out in our silos and feasted upon by the many. But, to eat of that food and recite those same mantras from our silos is causing people to fall – is causing division – is causing people to move away from the Truth that God Loves all people and we are all equal under the divine. To share what I mean in the realm of racial justice it was only a few months ago when a woman went into a Walmart to buy a cake for her father retiring from the police department. She asked for a Thin Blue line cake which honors the people who serve our communities; yet the bakers refused her request by saying that the Thin Blue Line symbol is racist. Beloved, I must ask: is that love? Or did these bakers hear only their truth and ate only of the food of the racial justice movement? How can dishonoring someone they never met further racial justice or be loving to anyone?

More than likely, the weak who heard their truth will either eat of the same food and divide themselves even further from the police or eat of the food that racial justice is hateful to officers and divide themselves further from the people seeking racial equality. So, how does eating of this food help us come to the Truth of God? Let me say, it does not. “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” I will not eat that food that all police are racist – or all African Americans are criminals – All republicans or all democrats are bad – I will not eat food that will divide but instead follow the Good news – the Truth – the Love that God created us all equally; for, love builds us all up and that Truth will guide us as we seek justice.

For, each way to reach justice by way of the Truth will be different. It may be simply scrolling past the comments on Facebook – it may be turning off the News when the rhetoric begins – it may be simply changing the subject of a conversation. It requires us to live into the Truth of God’s Love and be an example of the Truth for all to witness. This Good News, however, does not mean we sit idly by as black people are oppressed for their skin color; but it does mean we do not demonize all police officers as racists because of bad actors. It means whatever we do, we start with the Truth of God’s Love for all people. And witness the whole of the issue – good and bad by all actors honestly to find a way to the Truth of God’s Love for all.

This Way is not easy, though – for, humans are broken, easily drawn into the conflicts, and quick to share the knowledge that we Know – but instead of that path, let us follow the way we are called the way of discerning what we think we know and ask if that is the Truth – if our truth is also Loving to all people – even our enemies – If so then we are following in the Way of Christ. If not, we are probably hitting a stumbling block of Justice and may need to consider another way to find God’s Loving Truth while seeking Justice for all. May your days be full of the Good News – the Truth – the Love of God for all people in all ways. Amen