Faith is Verb… Musings by Pastor Tony April 14, 2017

I listen to a podcast called On Being, in which the host, Krista Tippett, interviews people representing varieties of faith and spiritual issues. This week’s episode was with Fr. Richard Rohr, the author of Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, which many of us read a few years ago. He is a Franciscan friar who leads retreats and teaches contemplative practices to deepen spirituality.

One of his comments about our faith journeys caught my attention, particularly in this Holy Week, when we remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Fr. Rohr said that our faith journeys start with order, then we go through a period of disorder, and then we reorder our lives. Where we think we have power gets disordered as we become powerless and learn how to be in the world differently. Our faith journey cannot be complete without this disordering, when we face our vulnerability and know that something else, God, is in control.

Broadening this spiritual sense to our American society, we went through a time of order in the 1950s and 60s, and we have been in a time of disorder for several decades. Now we await a reordering of our world, which may be happening in fits and starts these days. Of course, when there is order things are stable; yet the order comes at the cost of some people having to live within a defined role that doesn’t allow their unique beauty to shine. Disorder calls our attention to those people, who in the reordering, gain justice to be recognized for their beauty. The reordering time is a time to makes sense of the disordering.

As I listened to this podcast in this Holy Week, I was reminded about how disordering Jesus’ death was, and how his resurrection was the start to a re-ordering of society. The reordering spanned more than 3 decades, through the Jewish peasant revolt and the Roman retaliation with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. There was an order to Jerusalem and Rome before Jesus died, and before the Temple fell, and those events disordered Jewish society and began reordering the world, which we remember this Holy Week. God stepped in and changed the status quo, and the journey required the powerlessness, vulnerability of the cross. And we claim that God can do this again. That is the beauty of Easter.

On this Good Friday, may you remember God’s disruptive, disordering power, that calls us into a newer reordering of justice and peace.

Blessings, Pastor Tony

If you’d like to listen to the podcast, here is direct link https://onbeing.org/programs/richard-rohr-living-in-deep-time/

Pastor Tony’s Sermon March 19, 2017

John 4: 5-42               3-19-17    ACCUCC        Rev. Tony Clark

LISTEN TO THIS WEEK’S SERMON BY CLICKING HERE!

…”Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”…

 

a woman arrives

dusty from a day in the desert

dry-mouthed she approaches

the mouth of life-giving water

a well

and

a man

who promises life

not just the day-to-day drudgery life of a divorcee

not just life-less life supporting yet another man’s life

but a life-giving life beyond today,

beyond tomorrow and beyond all time.

she of shame–

ashamed by divorce,

a shame to her community–

she of shame shamefully speaks to a man,

who promises life

not just a same-old-same-old day-to-day lifeless life

in another broken marriage

but a life-giving life built on a relationship of wholeness.

She of many relationships

that all ended the same

that all ended in shame

divorced by four or five men

marriages arranged then rearranged

she,

at the mercy of patriarchy,

at a well, abandoned, alone again.

he, a desert preacher

healer, rabbi, teacher

he, who crossed boundaries of race and gender,

offered living water

to those born to the wrong race or the wrong gender,

he, who spoke life to those living life-less lives,

offered a spring of water gushing up to eternal life

to the dusty dry-mouthed desert divorcee.

Are you? said she.

I am, said he.

Are you the One? said she.

I am he, said he.

Are you the Messiah, said she?

I am the bread of life, said he.

I am the vine, said he

And we are his branches.

I am the light of the world

And the doorway to God

I am God’s resurrection

And I’m the good shepherd

I am, said he,

I am

the way the truth and the life.

Life he promises.

Not life of day-to-day drudgery and dullness

but life beyond these days

life that is full of

wellness, fullness, and healing wholeness

life beyond today’s divorce and shame

life beyond tomorrow’s marriages

either arranged or rearranged

life beyond all days

a spring of water gushing up to eternal life

I am the Way the Truth and the Life

I am the Way

on which the lonely are liberated

and the secluded included

I am the Truth

speaking relation to isolation

where love is celebrated.

I am the Life

that offers living water

into dry dusty desert drudgery

and if you come, you shall not thirst.

For those whose throats are dry with delusions:

Here, I offer living water, a well of wellness

for those who thirst for love and inclusion:

Here, I offer living water, a fountain of fullness

for those who live broken lives:

Here I offer living water, a spring of wholeness

for those driven by dry desert desires:

here, I offer living water, an eternal gush

Those who thirst for wholeness

will not stay parched

and the thirst for justice,

shall be quenched

And those left lonely abandoned alone

Shall find fullness in life with the One.

I am, said he, the water of salvation for this thirsty world.

In this world, we thirst and thirst and thirst unfulfilled

I offer water and eternal life,

your thirst quenched, your life fulfilled.

she of desert desire, of thirst and shame

spoke words that we would claim

she said, “Sir, give me this eternal spring water,

that I may never again come lonely or ashamed,

that my race may not be declaimed

that my gender not be slandered

that the boundaries I cross to be in this place

be brought down by God’s life-giving grace

Sir,” she said, “may this spring,

this fountain,

this well

provide life-giving water for our thirsty world.”

Amen.

Pastor Tony’s Sermon March 12, 2017

John 3: 1-21         3-12-17         ACCUCC                  Rev. Tony Clark 

LISTEN TO THIS WEEK’S SERMON BY CLICKING HERE!

…For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here’s the point. God didn’t send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction. 

No one who believes in Him has to fear condemnation, yet condemnation is already the reality for everyone who refuses to believe because they reject the name of the only Son of God. Why does God allow for judgment and condemnation? Because the Light, sent from God, pierced through the world’s darkness to expose ill motives, hatred, gossip, greed, violence, and the like. Still some people preferred the darkness over the light because their actions were dark. Some of humankind hated the light. They scampered hurriedly back into the darkness where vices thrive and wickedness flourishes. Those who abandon deceit and embrace what is true, they will enter into the light where it will be clear that all their deeds come from God.  (The Voice)

 

Here we are, at the lighthouse, the place of in between-ness— in between land and water, in between light and shadow, in between salvation and temptation. We stand here with Nicodemus, in between the physical and spiritual, between belonging biologically to a family of people and belonging spiritually to God. We are children of DNA and messy births and dysfunctional families, and we are children of spirit, of wind and the breath of God that blew over the waters at the Creation.

We stand here pondering our existence, and pondering our place in the world; we are fallible, finite, physical beings standing at the face of an infinite Divine energy that is the source of all that we can see, all that we are, all that we can experience.

“How can this be?” ask Nicodemus. How can we be born again, from above?  Nicodemus is a literalist who questions the spiritual, poetic side of Jesus. Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel as a philosopher and poet. In John’s gospel, Jesus gives out mantras and phrases of poetry and beauty like they are Zen koans, calling us out of literalism and into the spiritual realm of metaphor and magic. Nicodemus, representing us all, is a student asking the quantum physics professor, “How can light be both wave and particle? How can color be both physical pigment and narrow bands of light?” Nicodemus is interested in how we can be both physical and spiritual, a question for all of us born human and yet somehow connected to God.

In my own quest for how to be physical and spiritual, I learned that, in many languages, the word “faith” is both a noun and a verb, both an object and an action. Perhaps Nicodemus, if he were here today, might ask out loud, “How can faith be both a noun and a verb?”

Love is both a noun and a verb. Trust is both a noun and verb. Faith, in other languages like the Greek that John wrote in, can be both noun and verb. But in English we have faith—like it is an object to hold or to withhold. Faith, as a noun, can be contained in an urn on the fireplace of our lives. Faith, as a noun, might be a club to which we belong and from which we exclude others, or faith, as a noun, might be a club used to beat someone with. Faith, as a noun, becomes a belief that can be tested against dogma, and can be measured against doctrine, and can be determined to be less than whatever gold standard is created by some human somewhere.

John’s gospel only uses faith as a verb. We do not have faith, a noun which can be used as a weapon or a wall; we are doing, living, being faith.

If faith is a verb, then maybe we could also think of Christ as a verb, living, moving, blowing, as a presence and an action. Christ is the living Word of God; the opening of John’s gospel, just a few chapters before we meet Nicodemus is this, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.[1] John’s claim is that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and John tells us “What has come into being in him was life, and life was the light of all people….” The Word of God, born as Jesus Christ, is light, both wave and particle, both noun and verb. The Word of God was born a biological being, Jesus, and somehow also the spirit of God, Christ, that lives and breathes and shines light into shadow.  Jesus Christ– both particle and wave, matter and energy, noun and verb.

And you and I are also both matter and energy, pulsing like a wave and solid as particle. We are biologically born of flesh and bone, and we are born from above, born of spirit, born of water. We have faith and we are doing faith. We are love and we are loving. We are loved by God, who so loved the whole world—no exceptions—that God sent us more love, Jesus Christ, who told us to continue loving each other. God so loved the world—no exceptions—not the color of your skin nor the gender of your body nor your sexual orientation nor your country of origin. God loved us all, frail, fragile, finite human beings who, like Nicodemus, ponder our existence and purpose, and maybe even our faith.

When faith is noun, it can be an object that is scarce or rare. When God’s love is a noun, it can be a thing to be held onto and treasured, excluding others from gaining access to it.

However, Faith, like love, as a verb, is an experience that comes when you taste and touch, when you look and hear, and when you live. Faith is knowing, trusting, believing that God is around you and in you, and that God is around and in all the other people, and God is around and in everything in this world that God so loved that God offered us this reminder—Jesus Christ.

And we forget this simple thing. The Word of God, who is love and life and light—became flesh and dwelt among us, to remind us; yet we forget, we have forgotten, we are forgetting what was originally said. 2000 years later and we are still forgetting. We have made a noun what God intended to be a verb. We quantify, count, contain both faith and love, measuring it against a gold standard, and condemning those—sometimes even ourselves– who cannot live up to this human measuring rod. We build walls, we close bathroom doors, we deport others to keep them from getting to our birthright, our blessing that we believe is ours alone.

We have forgotten that all who accept this light and life and love, become children of God. This light, this love is not a noun that we can hold or withhold. It is a verb, a wave, an energy that cannot be contained by walls or bathroom doors or detention centers, and it cannot be withheld by deportation. It cannot be contained by bodies of skin and bone, it cannot be contained by the walls of our ever-pumping hearts. It cannot be held by our hands that slam doors shut or kicked out of this place by our feet. It cannot, because it is not a noun, it is not a commodity in short supply. It is a verb. Love is a verb, acting, moving, flowing with never-ending energy. Faith is a verb, which lives and expresses this love.

Christ is a verb, a wave of energy, who can penetrate walls and doors and detention centers. And God so loved the world that God gave us this verb.

May we live it, and do it as God intended. Amen.

[1] John 1: 1, 3-4, 14. NRSV.

Pastor Tony’s Sermon March 5, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11  3-5-17   ACCUCC             Rev. Tony Clark

LISTEN TO THIS WEEK’S SERMON BY CLICKING HERE.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Right after Jesus was baptized, he went to the wilderness to fast and pray, and, hungry and alone, Jesus was approached by Satan who tempted him three times, first with food, then with spiritual power, and third with political power. Although these temptations were specific to Jesus’ faith and  calling, the temptations also connect to the very human needs of food, spiritual connection, and being loved by other people.  When taken to the extreme, the human need for food, clothing and shelter becomes the temptation we call materialism or selfish individualism; the need for spiritual connection at its extreme becomes a faith solely focused on God and not community; and the need for being loved by other people becomes egotism or self-centeredness.

The faith of Jesus was at the center of his temptations; likewise, our own faith can also be central to our temptations. When our faith becomes perverted and moves toward its extremes, the temptation toward fulfilling individual needs becomes a selfish personal salvation, the temptation toward spiritual connections becomes being spiritual but not religious, and the temptation toward self-centeredness raises our desire for our religion to be at the center of the world’s power.

Faith itself– having faith, being faithful—is tempting, and for this we must pray.

This week is the first Sunday in Lent, a time of turning. We begin to turn away from Christmas and toward Easter. We begin to turn away from our old selves and turn to ponder toward what Jesus is calling us. Last week, we stepped into our little boat and shoved off, this week we turn from the shore behind us toward a far shore, a beacon of light beckoning us toward it. We turn toward a lighthouse, a symbol for us this Lent.

As you think about a light house, what does it mean to you?

[warning, security/immovability, shining light into the darkness, beacon, rotating, uniqueness, “A very present help in trouble”, staffed, lonely, magnification, point of reference.]

We interact with lighthouses differently from the land than we do from the water. The rotation of light gives a pulse, a rhythm of shadow and light.  For sailors, the light itself offers assurance that land is not far, and it offers a warning to stay away from these rocks. Being a lighthouse keeper was a lonely, isolated job, and it was something that was relatively respected and required to mark harbors and ports.

Our faith is like a lighthouse. It can be lonely and necessary. It can be a beacon of assurance, and it can be a warning to stay away. It can be a light, and faith can be a shadow for many who have been hurt by faithful but inflexible people. Faith can be a salvation and faith can be a temptation.

It is right at this edge, this in-between zone between salvation and temptation, between shadow and light, between land and water, where we will reside during Lent; it is right in this in-between zone where our faith is formed and forged, where our faith is trusted and tested, where our faith is torn down and built up again. Each week we will approach this lighthouse, this symbol of in-between-ness in our prayer time, offering prayers to the God of the In-between as we navigate our human needs and desires.

Faith itself is a temptation. It is tempting to rest in the faith, to believe that faith alone will save you. But we all know that faith alone will not save us from a nuclear holocaust or when the oceans rise from global warming. Faith alone will not reduce hunger in the world; faith alone will not produce bread from stones. Believing that Jesus is your PLS—your Personal Lord and Savior—and this personal faith will save you is the temptation shadow side of our individual physical needs, and it moves us away from the communal and caring aspect of our faith.

Another temptation of faith is the idea that Faith is safe, and that it can be trusted, but never tested. This leads to a sense that life and faith are separate things. On the secular side this is the “spiritual but not religious” version of faith—a belief in God but distrust of a community of faith. In this belief, neither the community is trusted, nor is the faith tested. For people who belong to a community of faith, separating faith from life becomes a Sunday-only faith, where faith is practiced with a community, but only on Sunday. The faith and community are trusted, but the faith is left at the doorstep after coffee hour and it remains untested by the world and life out there.

Yet another temptation of our faith is this egotistic idea that our faith should be at the center of power in our world. This is the way we grew up, with church guiding our secular world. We had Christmas pageants at school, blue laws that kept grocery stores and gas stations closed on Sundays, and morality codes about alcohol purchase on Sundays. We grew up understanding that Christianity was intertwined with our civil society and our government. We could have all power, rule all countries of the world, but like Jesus tempted by the Satan, we could do that if we stepped into the temptation of losing the centrality of the faith. The church could be at the center of society, if the church does not push too hard for justice.

It is my belief that a church on the margins can more easily speak about the people on the margins. But moving toward the margins, which is what we are doing right now in this new Reformation moment, is hard. We have to give up the tempting idea that we grew up with, that the church is central to the world’s powers.

All of these temptations start with a genuine need for salvation—food, spiritual connection, being loved by others.

Today, on this first week of Lent, we stand at this in-between-zone by this lighthouse acknowledging the place where water and land meet, where light and shadow meet, where our faith is trusted and tested. We stand between salvation and temptation, calling ourselves back to a faith-centered life that serves others, is integrated into all we do, and accepts–or even welcomes—marginalization as a spiritual discipline.

We step away from the temptations of our faith and into the salvation of our faith during Lent.

Today, As we move toward our prayer time, I encourage you to begin thinking about a temptation you would like to lay down for Lent. It might be a physical desire that has turned into an addiction—food, sex, alcohol. It might be a spiritual distraction like anger or animosity. It might be something like work-aholism or over committing, which rise out of the desire to be liked by everyone. Begin to name this for yourself. What has turned from a salvation into a temptation for you? The offertory will give you some time to think about this, and then during our prayer time, I encourage you to come forward, and light a candle as a symbol of the burden you offer to this space.

If we can move our temptations of our faith toward the salvation of our faith, we might experience what Jesus did in his Temptation. As we heard in the reading, after Jesus turned away from the Temptation, The devil left him us and angels came to wait upon him. May this be true for us in this Lenten in-between time.  Amen

 

Pastor Tony’s Sermon February 26, 2017

Mathew 17: 1-9     2-26-17      ACCUCC      Rev. Tony Clark

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

 

The gospel reading today is called the Transfiguration. Jesus, and a few leaders of the disciples head up to a quiet place to meditate and pray, and while they are there they shared an ecstatic experience. It is an irrational, unexplainable, communal vision of Moses and Elijah meeting with Jesus, who glows bright white with light. After that kind of extreme event the disciples want to mark the occasion. God intervenes and says to listen to Jesus, his beloved anointed Messiah, who tells them not to mark the occasion; in fact, don’t tell anyone until after Jesus died and was resurrected.

The disciples, James, and Peter and John, were in a mode of discernment: they went someplace to pray, they had a mystical experience together, then they decide what action is needed to follow up. They wonder toward what is God calling them with that experience. They looked to a variety of tools to help them discern—the experience itself, as well as scripture symbolized by Moses and Elijah, and their tradition which called for marking big events with altars. They listened for God’s voice and they discerned God’s direction, which was to listen to Jesus, who then said totell people about the experience, but only after Jesus had died and was resurrected.

Today, we are called to make sense of our experiences, relying on scripture, reason, tradition and our community, in order to discern where God is calling us.

Today is the last day for our boat theme. Each week since mid-January, we’ve added one more thing to our boat as we’ve worked through this metaphor of finding our faith and being disciples down by the seashore. We placed a lamp, to guide our journey, and fishnets to catches people. We placed life jackets to save our lives when the storms get rough. We added some provisions, to nurture our faith. We placed some rope to tie us together, and We set an anchor to hold us in this little harbor of love. Yet this little boat of our faith was built to move quickly across water, so we must pull up the anchor, move out of our little harbor, and set sail.

And for us to set sail, we need the ability to steer, to control our destiny a bit. We need something that helps us find our direction.

We set sail for a far point on the horizon, our destiny, God’s desire for our community. To get there we must set and steer a course, and at times we must correct the course. What is it that will steer us there? The rudder of our faith, which is the act of discernment. Discernment is the ability to figure out toward what God is calling us. We cannot sail without a rudder; we cannot pull it up when we are in the middle of sailing; neither can we ever stop discerning toward what God is calling us, and deciding if we are still headed in the right direction, or if we have gone off course. Without discerning God’s call and vision for us, we drift around, moving with the current and winds that take us where they would.

Discernment has gotten a bad rap here at Arlington. We’ve taken on several discernment programs in the last few decades. We took on another last year, the New Beginnings program. Many of these seemed to have fallen by the wayside. We did the discernment program and then the sense was that we did not follow up. Whatever we discerned seemed too tough or too unattainable or too much out of our comfort zone, so we set aside the discernment. We set into port, dropped our anchor, and we pulled up the rudder and maybe even got out of the boat for a while.

Our anchor is love. We love really well here at Arlington. We have deep relationships. We stop by with food and send cards to those who are sick. We hold potlucks and celebrate birthdays with cakes. We make sure that those who can’t drive get here on Sundays. Our anchor is love, and it keeps us safe in this little port, with good relationships and deep love.

Our latest discernment process, New Beginnings, pointed out that our finances are in good shape, our building is not a burden to us, and that we area caring congregation. We do relationships well, we love well.

However, what the New Beginnings’ also pointed out is that we are weak on both mission and spiritual formation. The New Beginnings process was discernment, guided by prayer and listening, scripture and our tradition.  It moved us toward discerning that far point on the horizon toward which we sail.

In October, as the New Beginnings small groups came to an end, we gathered our concerns for the world around us, and we arranged them into four sets of core values we hold here at Arlington Community Church. They are: Justice, Making the World a Better Place, God is in the Room, and Living Beyond Ourselves. The group on Justice has met more than the others and is discerning and creating a program for our mission life together.  The other small groups meet today as one group to decide how to support the Justice group. The plan is a challenge to all of us to see ourselves, each of us, as ministers, who uphold the values of experiencing God, changing the world, helping others and doing justice. As we said a few weeks ago, we are salt of the earth and light of the world; yet each of us is but one grain of salt, one match in the darkness. It is together that we fill the salt shaker, together we light the world. Each of us is ministers, and together our ministry reaches into the dark places and brings light.

Once final plan and program are finalized, then we as a congregation will discern again whether that the point on the horizon toward which God is calling us. If so, then we need to keep discerning, keeping checking it out to make sure we are on the right course. As a congregation, we need to be in a constant state of discernment, watching for rocks that might get in our way, and for storms to ride out, and how long to set down the anchor and wait in the harbor. We ask, “Who needs the life preserver blessings of God?” and “When do we cast out the net?” and “When do we break out our spiritual provision?”

Discernment is a constant steering device for our faith. It is like the rudder of a boat on the sea. We must continue to discern at all times, focusing on God’s call, or else we will be adrift, without a vision, without a direction, without a way to gauge our progress.

So today we place a rudder on our little boat, to steer us toward God’s beckoning light. And now, with our little boat set with provisions and life preservers, we set sail; we ask you to climb on board. Join us on the journey. Our boat is not intended to sit in the port forever, gathering barnacles and sea slime. It is intended to sail, to move people and ideas to far-away places.

What is that far spot on the horizon? That is the point toward which God is calling us.

May God’s light shine clear, may we see the rocks and shoals before we go aground, may we weather the storms and not be anchored too long, and may we not drift so far that we cannot correct our course toward the destiny to which God calls us.

Amen.

Faith is a Verb… Musings by Pastor Tony, February 24, 2017

Vitality: the capacity to live and develop.[1]

The United Church of Christ has developed a questionnaire for churches to evaluate their vitality[2] and their capacity to develop and grow. Here are the top 10 questions; how would you rank Arlington Community Church? Ask yourself, “What role do I play in helping this congregation be vital?”

  1. There is excitement about the future here.
  2. There is a clear sense of mission here.
  3. This place has lots of meaningful activities.
  4. This congregation is always ready to try something new.
  5. This place incorporates newcomers into the congregation’s life.
  6. This place seeks out and uses the gifts of members of all ages.
  7. This place helps to build strong, healthy relationships among members.
  8. This place manages disagreements in a healthy respectful manner.
  9. This congregation equips members to share their faith with others.
  • This place interacts with the local community.

With the New Beginnings[3] conversations last year, we began the work of Revitalization, and we discerned that for us to remain vital beyond our next few decades we need to clarify the vision of our life together as congregation to focus more on life-long spiritual formation as well as mission and service to our community.  We divided this work in terms of our values: Making the World a Better Place, Faith (God is in the room), Justice, and Helping (Living Beyond Ourselves). Several people are working on creating a vision, based on those values, for our ministry together; we will be discussing and discerning these as a congregation in the next few months.

I encourage you to think about how we continue to develop the life that is here at Arlington Community Church. How is faith a verb for you? how is Arlington Community Church a verb for you? How are vital?

I look forward to the conversations.  Peace, Pastor Tony

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vitality retrieved 2-8-17

[2] This report compares vitality to ministerial excellence. The questionnaire on vitality can be found on pages 43-45. http://uccfiles.com/pdf/UCC-Congregational-Vitality-and-Ministerial-Excellence-Report.pdf

[3]  The New Beginnings report can be found here http://acc-ucc.org/new-beginnings-report/  see page 15 for discussion on our current activities and recommended goals.

Pastor Tony’s Sermon February 19, 2017

Matthew 5: 38-48     2-19-17        Rev. Tony Clark         ACCUCC

“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 

Today is the fourth Sunday that we are working on Jesus’ teachings called the Sermon on the Mount. Although the Sermon on the Mount goes on for a few more chapters, we are stopping here as the church calendar calls us onward.

We started with the Beatitudes, blessings for people who are not feeling blessed, and we claimed them to be life preservers for when the storms get rough. Next, we heard Jesus tell us all that we are salt of the earth and light for the world, but that none of us does that alone; we claimed these to be provisions for our faith journey, remembering the community we are journeying with. Then we heard Jesus stretching the law, reminding us that the laws are there to build and strengthen community not divide it. This we claimed as the rope, the tie that binds us. Today we think about loving not just our friends, but also our enemies, which is an anchor to our faith.

In this passage, Jesus asks us once more to expand our thoughts and actions. When asked to go a mile, go an extra one. When asked to give your coat, give your cloak as well. When asked to love your friends and family, love your enemies too.

Jesus never made it easy to be fully faithful disciples of his way. But he also gave us tools to work with—blessings for when the storms get rough, friends and community to share the work, rules intended to build up that community. Once again, though, he asks us to stretch the idea of community to those with whom we fundamentally disagree, and even to our sworn enemies.

As I hear this, folks, I think this may be impossible. I want to believe that a new world can arrive where there are no enemies, that there are no divides, that we can agree on how to care for the least in our society. I’m not so sure anymore. The Cold War has been over for almost 30 years now, and yet we are still afraid of Russia. And we have added enemies in those years: ISIS, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Taliban, and we worry now about China. Democrats seem to be the sworn enemy of Republicans and vice versa. Is there something in our humanity that requires an enemy, a scapegoat to put the blame on, or even just someone to disagree with? Maybe.

However, Jesus believed that humanity could actually expand beyond hatred and conflict into a state of justice, peace, and love.

And it’s not just Jesus who speaks of this. Most world religions get us to step out of the hating our enemies and into loving them. This is not an easy task for those of who haven’t reached the Buddha’s enlightened state, or Jesus’ personal connection to the Father, or Gandhi’s inward peace that led him to his non-violent protest.

Their ideas about love were radical and stood in the face of political powers that see the need for enemies, scapegoats, and conflict. Seeing love as a power greater than the Empire eventually got Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, among others, killed.

This “love your enemies” thing that Jesus talks about is difficult. Remember the beatitudes? Blessed are you who are reviled and persecuted for righteousness sake. Jesus gave that blessing to any of us who try to expand our love toward our enemies.

Today we claim that love is an anchor to faith. It keeps us held I a claim port, holding us near the gospel, anchoring us from drifting away into open seas. The image of an anchor can mean many things, as can any of the metaphors we’ve used for our boat theme. The anchor keeps us from drifting away, but it can also keep our little boat from doing what it is supposed to do—travel quickly in water.  While the anchor of love holds us near the shoreline as we rest, it must be pulled into the boat for us to travel far away.  The anchor of loving your enemies can hold us in a blissful meditative state, and this can keep us from moving into the open water of faith. If the rope gets wrapped around your ankle as you throw it overboard, if you take this truth of love into unrealistic realms of always needing to agree with each other, you might be pulled over and drown.

Love your enemies. That doesn’t mean change them or insult them or even necessarily agree with them. Love doesn’t mean that you are romantically involved with them; it means that you see their humanity at its core and understand that we share something, even if it is not ideology. Love their humanity in order to collaborate on bringing God’s kingdom to reality.

In a workshop on conflict resolution[1] that I attended, I learned that collaboration comes only after you can find the simple similarity both sides can agree on. Of course, this means that you are willing to even sit in the same room together. What do we share, what is it about you that is the same in me? A conflict about sharing resources means that we might need to stop talking about ownership of limited resources and come together about our shared values. If we can’t agree on our shared values, then maybe we can agree on our identity as children of God or that we agree on being part of something greater than ourselves. At the simplest level, we might need to find and agree on our source of life, and then we need to do the simplest thing we all do, breathe.

I may not like you when we argue about money or this building we share. I may not even really understand why you value one behavior over another. However, if we just sit and be in prayer together, maybe we can find spiritual commonality. At that level, we are not enemies. If we cannot even do that, then we can sit and breathe together. At that level, we are biological beings needing the same thing—air to fill our lungs and flow through our blood bringing fresh oxygen to the whole body. Deep breathing lowers blood pressure, reduces the fight or flight instinct, and gets us into a peaceful feeling. Eating together shares a common biological need for food and the spiritual need for companionship. I can love you at that level.

This is the deep sense of love that Jesus asks us to move into—seeing the other not as enemy but as human. In this spiritual state of shared humanity, we can step out of the competition and rejoice that each of us is beloved of God.

At our core, we share biology, the need for oxygen and water and food and shelter. At core, we each love our children. At core, then, maybe we can agree not to kill each other, because of love for our children. At core, you are beloved of God, just as I am, and God’s love is not a scarce limited commodity owned by one party; it is an abundant, impartial love. Therefore, be perfect; offer impartial love even to your enemies.

It is all too common a human fault to call forth our enemies to challenge them, change them, or even just insult them. This is a challenge to our faith. Our faith is being tested just about now, and we could use a calm port to rest out this coming storm! Time to drop the anchor for a bit and remind ourselves what that anchor really is about. But remember that our little boat of faith is intended to move through the water, not just rest forever in port.

When you are weary, when your enemies are at your throat, when you are reviled and persecuted and people utter all kinds of evil against you—remember those words from the Beatitudes?—put on your life preserver to weather the storm. The life preserver is the reminder that you are still blessed and beloved by God. Then, as you pull into a quiet port, move to the anchor, the anchor of our faith—love even your enemies. Drop the anchor to remind yourself that your enemies are beloved by God, too. And then when you have rested and reminded yourself of the shared humanity of living in God’s love, you can weigh the anchor, bring it up, carry it with you, as you move on into the ocean of life. Once you are rested and have remembered this love for humanity, you do not need the anchor to hold you in place; in fact, you need it to go with you. Staying in the meditative space of love is blissful, but it doesn’t really solve the problems of the world. In order to do that, we actually have to set sail, set forth, step out of this place and go do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

We gather each week in this port, for an hour or so, to rest in the peace of God’s love. I don’t know about you, but I need a port each week, where I can drop anchor and rest, away from the storms of Facebook and Twitter, away from bickering partisanship, scapegoating, conflict and sworn enemies. I need this place, this port, this place of calm and rest.

So thanks be to God, As the storms of life are raging, this port is here. May it be here for years to come. Amen.

 

[1] Notably, Clergy Leadership Institute’s Appreciative Way led by Rob Voyle. Here is a link to his article “From Conflict to Collaboration.” http://www.clergyleadership.com/training/collaboration-prog.cfm

Pastor Tony’s Sermon February 12, 2017

Matthew 5: 21-26        2-12-17 Rev. Tony Clark            ACCUCC

LISTEN TO THIS WEEK’S SERMON BY CLICKING HERE

[ 5: 17-20   ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.]

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

This is the third week of four that we are in the Sermon on the Mount, which takes up the entire fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This third section of the Sermon on the Mount follows right on the words we heard last week about the law, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets…”

From there, today’s passage starts with a common Jesus phrase, “you have heard it said…” which points us back to ancient scripture—sometimes the words of the prophets, but usually the laws of Moses.

Just as in our time, laws that were written by people long dead had to be interpreted for the times, and just like today there was the question whether the law should be interpreted to the letter or to the spirit of the law.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discussed laws about murder, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, revenge, and finally hating your enemies. Jesus pushed his society to step beyond the letter of the law and live into the spirit of the law, which intended to build and maintain relationships in community. If you spend time with these passages, and I hope you do, you may struggle with how strict Jesus was on adultery or divorce; remember, though, that he was encouraging the patriarchy to see women as people with whom men must relate.

Today we are debating laws that were written centuries or decades ago— the 13th Amendment as it pertains to current incarceration rates of African-Americans, the meaning of the right to life as it pertains to the beginning and end of life, and laws about who can get married. We are also still debating what it means to be neighbor and what it means to be enemy.  As you read the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ pronouncements, ask yourself, “In these laws that we are debating today, where might Jesus expand from living strictly in the letter of the law into a more relational way of living?”

We Arlingtonians have taken a big risk. In the midst of uncertain times, in the midst of the anxiety and fear that runs through our culture right now, in the midst of hearing about churches closing left and right, in the midst of feeling like the future of Christianity, our country, and even our world is uncertain, we as a congregation have decided to stay here. And not only stay here, but to update our facility and make it shine.

We have voted ourselves into a capital campaign which will match funds from our annual budget and funds available from the Endowment to do the work on our facilities. In uncertain times, this is a vote of certainty. It is a pledge, an offering, of great proportions to say to the uncertain times: we are certain that God needs us now and into our future more than ever.

It is a statement of certainty, it is a statement of faith, it is a statement of relationship between all of us and God, a statement we make with our offerings.

The passage we read today is a jarring juxtaposition between giving an offering and the commandment not to commit murder, which Jesus expands to include anger toward another. After reminding us of the commandment not to murder, Jesus said, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” And after that he gives a story about being jailed for not paying a fine.

It is jarring to hear something so familiar and comforting, giving an offering to church, stuck between comments on murder and anger and the talk of being put in jail. We take an offering every week, we hear great music, Koa and Alia help me take it up front, and we pray over it and move on out of our worship. It is not something murderous, not something angry, not something to be compared to jail.

Yet, I do believe that the offering we take and the pledges we make to our annual budget and to the capital campaign belong right here in this passage, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a passage about discipleship and living in the community of Christ. The offering, as common as the 5-minute ritual we do every week, is not something any of us does on our own. It is something we do as community. It is something we do in relationship to one another. It is something we do in relationship to God and to our whole world. We set aside a portion of our budget to serve meals at GRIP, to give to Heifer Project, and to go to our denomination to maintain church camps and have leaders help us with things like the New Beginnings process. Together we put money in so that our building can be maintained for groups to have safe space to have an event. We do this in relation to everyone else who puts money in.

And, hopefully we give our offering in relationship with God. Jesus said that your offering should be given with a pure relationship to your sister or brother in faith which helps support a pure relationship with God. Jesus said, “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  In other words, clear your heart before giving your gift, because any gift given when there is spiritual weight in your heart will carry that weight with it into the offering plate.

This is not easy. While I expect that most of us have kept the commandment not to murder anyone physically, I wonder how many have ever thought, “I could kill him!”  If that is a fleeting thought, great, but even if it doesn’t become action, that thought can linger and brew into a dark cloud that hangs over all relationships, particularly the one with God.

Every family I know has a story about the aunt or the cousin or the father who never spoke to the rest of the family after some slight that occurred decades ago. In my family, it was my grandmother’s sister who visited with her children when my mother was young.  She felt my mother got more attention than her children, and she kept that resentment her whole life, so that I never met her but only saw very old pictures of her.  Resentment shows up in the families of our faith, too—Cain and Abel who disagreed about whether being a shepherd or a farmer was more pleasing to God; that resentment ended in murder, and Cain became un-Abel to stay in relationship with his family or God. Jacob and Isaac argued about their father’s blessing and ended in a decades-long exile from home for Jacob. These stories are there to remind us that resentment, anger, murder are all spiritual events that mar the relationship not just with another person but also with God.

Jesus implied in this parable that if your heart is harboring resentment toward another person, your relationship with God is not clean and your offering will not be given in purity.

I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about the offering in that way. I don’t give much thought to my offering as reflection of my relationship between my neighbor and God. It’s something automatic, a repeated thing I do, and now it is automatically sent to the church from my bank. You will notice that I physically connect with it each week by tapping my phone, a symbol of the electronic giving, on the plate. This week, though my offering is a chance to reflect on any murderous or angry thoughts, any resentment I’m harboring, and how pure my relationship is with God. It makes me think about the ties that bind us together as a community—the idea of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of letting go of resentment in order to be in purer relationship with each other and God.

Jesus said that your offering does not merely reflect a sacrifice of time or money, but a sacrifice of ego, a humbling of spirit before God. The offering we take each week, the Capital Campaign for which we are seeking pledges, is a time to reflect on our relationship to each other and to God.

We Arlingtonians have voted to take a risk, to say that in these uncertain times our faith is certain, and that as a congregation we are committed to deepening our relationships, and to maintaining the ties that bind us with each other and with God.

God, as we take the risk to remain in relationship with each other and you in this place, move us to the spiritual place where all our gifts are given with pure hearts. And, God, when that is just not possible, may our prayers and blessings make these gifts reflect a purity of the intent for the gift. Amen.

 

 

 

Faith is a Verb… Musings by Pastor Tony February 10, 2017

I’ve been noticing a general sense of anxiety these days, and even though our current political climate is the focus of it right now, I believe this is just a release valve to let out the pressure of something much bigger. For years in religious circles we have been talking about a new Reformation of the church that is happening now that some experts call the Emerging Church. It is likely that the future church will emerge to look radically different than what we have become used to in the last 500 years since Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church.

Reformations do not occur in a vacuum. The Reformation that began in 1517 took shape in an explosion of communication following the creation of the printing press (ca. 1440). The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation took place with the Spanish Inquisition in the background (started in 1478), which ordered Muslim and Jewish people to convert to Christianity or leave Spain, and also alongside the global expansion of the Age of Discovery, which was initiated by Columbus’ first expedition to what we now call the America’s in 1492. The Protestant Reformation also overlapped the beginning of the Scientific Revolution; John Calvin, the second-generation leader of the Protestant Reformation, was a contemporary of Copernicus, who published his work on the orbits of the planets around the sun, ca. 1543. The 16th century was also the age of political upheaval as nationalism overtook the Holy Roman Empire in England (remember Henry VIII?), Germany, France, and other European nations. How anxious would it have been it to live in that era?

Jesus’ reformation also took place in a time of significant cultural upheaval. Jesus was born less than 70 years after Rome overthrew a number of smaller states with ties to the Greek Empire. As well, Judaism was ripe for reform; in fact, there was a peasant revolt in Jerusalem (ca 66-73) that included the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Roman forces, when that happened, the power of Judaism dispersed from the one Temple system to regional synagogues, and animal sacrifice, once the central ritual of Jewish worship was no longer available. Take a minute a reflect on the theological shift that occurred because of that-how and where would you make a perfect sacrifice to God without a Tmeple? The fall of the Temple was contemporaneous to the rise of Christianity in places far away from Jerusalem like Corinth, Rome, and other cities around the Mediterranean. Christianity rose in popularity in the broader Roman Empire in part because Christianity used Jewish thought to speak directly to a cultural debate about the role of freed slaves and women in Roman society. How anxious were the lives of those people as they faced all those radical changes?

Religious Reformations, like the one we are living through, are part of larger societal upheavals that include geopolitical, economic, intellectual, communication, and religious institutions, and they are naturally times of high cultural anxiety. The anxiety we are feeling these days reflects the turmoil we have been living through in all areas of life: financially moving from paper to digital, communication increasing exponentially through the internet, exploration of space and our universe, geopolitical power shifts, and religions. As we shift more globally in all realms, our faith that used to focus on our own denomination’s correct way to God is becoming more welcoming of all connections to the Divine, even those beyond Christianity; this a huge theological shift that we and all faiths are dancing our way through on a global level.

If you are feeling anxious these days, you are not alone. Your anxiety is real and it is based on lots of upheaval in our world. In these days, as anxiety rises, take a deep breath, and remember what God tells all people who encounter the Divine in scripture, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” That may be easy for an angel to say! For us mortals we have to keep being reminded.

May you remember God is with us even in these moments of huge upheaval.

Peace,

– Pastor Tony

Pastor Tony’s Sermon February 5, 2017

Matthew 5: 13-20     2-5-17           Rev. Tony Clark         ACCUCC

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

 

What is this? You could probably taste this if I gave it to you right now. But if I put it in a pot of soup? Probably not.

What is this? If I lit this single match in this sanctuary at midnight with the lights off, you could see the flame, but it probably wouldn’t help me get to the door without tripping.

Jesus said you are salt of the earth and light of the world. However, each of us is just one grain of salt or one little light in the world. Not much on our own, but together salt enhances flavor, and together all the light beams illuminates a darkened room.

Friends, today, we have added a few more grains of salt to our little salt shaker, we’ve added a few more beams of light to all of ours, and it is together that we enhance the flavor and light up the world.

In modern English we have one word for you. It stands for you as one person, and it also stands for all of you. Most other languages differentiate these, including ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The passage we read today is totally directed to you—meaning everyone in hearing distance. If you are from the South, it’s the difference between y’all, and all y’all. Jesus says, “all y’all are the salt of the earth. All y’all are the light of the world.” And that last verse is this: “Unless all y’all’s righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never reach the kingdom of heaven.” This is not an individual mandate. This is a comment that only together will any of us reach the kingdom. Living into God’s will is not just about personal living in the ways of God, it is about how the community together discerns and acts in the ways of God.

Today we just increased our “all y’all” capacity. These seven people bring their grain of salt, their little light, and add it to ours. Actually, all of them have been adding their lights to ours in lots of ways, so what we did today was recognize that they are us and we are them. We simply acknowledged their salt and light in our midst, and we celebrate that our saltcellar got a little fuller and our light in the darkness got a little brighter.

Our faith is stronger when we practice it together. Our faith is fuller when we together work toward the fullness of our neighbor. Our faith is richer, tastier, lighter and brighter, when we recognize that the kingdom is intended for all people together and none of us alone. We perform our sacraments—Communion and Baptism—in community because our faith is stronger when we do it together.

Participation in the kingdom is about relationship, not just my own right relationship with God, but our right relationship with God and all of God’s creation. Righteousness is following God’s law, and it has nothing to do with how well I or any one of you follow that law; it is about how we all discern and follow that Law together. Christianity is never about me alone. It is about all of us together, all the grains of salt, all the beams of light. It is about love and peace and justice as it is practiced by all of us together.

In this passage Jesus said, “If you break one of these commandments, you will be considered the least in the kingdom of God.” Jesus doesn’t say, “If you break one of these commandments, you will be out.” He says you be the least in the kingdom. That means that you are still in the kingdom. But he also says that those who keep the commandments and maintain relationship with God and God’s creation, all y’all will be great in the kingdom. The commandment is about relationship. It is about seeing who needs a hand and reaching down to bring them up. It is about treating your neighbor as you would be treated. And not just one of you, treating all neighbors as all y’all would be treated.

All y’all together are salt of the earth; all y’all together are light of the world. Don’t hide your saltiness. Don’t hide all y’all’s light under a bushel! All y’all, let your light shine! The kingdom of God is intended for all, and we are called to make sure everyone gets there. Today we have a few more grains of salt, a few more beams of light to help us do it.

Blessings on you who have joined us today; may your light be added exponentially to ours. Blessings on us who receive them today; may our light be seen beyond our doors. Blessings on our neighbors and all creation; may our light shine so that everyone can reach the kingdom together. Amen.