a blog about faith and life by Rev. Cindy Maddox

Posts tagged ‘United Church of Christ’

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim

walls.jpgLast night I dreamt I was Muslim.
I did not wear hijab
but I wore it in my heart
and they knew
and it was enough.
At first we could avoid them,
taking alternate routes,
changing our plans because we could not
change their minds.
Avoidance kept us safe.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
The escalation came without warning.
Stone walls and iron gates kept us in or out
I was never sure
We huddled together
safety in numbers or barreled fish
I was never sure
We prayed
I watched
I was never sure
.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
Or maybe I was an ally,
with them in body
because solidarity demands not spirit
but flesh and blood
messy incarnation
.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
I woke up afraid.

Last night I dreamt I was Muslim.
I woke up afraid
of what I must do
now that I am

awake.

 

Meatloaf Sermons

meatloafI love to preach. I enjoy the research—the exegesis we preachers like to call it, which is a seminary-approved term for sitting around reading commentaries. I like to learn, like to sort through the variety of opinions about a text and come to my own understanding. I enjoy trying to find something relevant to my community in this ancient text so far from our own context. I love the writing, the crafting of sentences and paragraphs that I hope will bring the message alive for my congregation. And I love the preaching itself, that time when I stand before my people and share what is in my mind and on my heart, and pray that it reaches theirs.

Faithful to what I was taught about preaching by Dr. Thomas G. Long, I try to name the goal of the sermon, worded in infinitives: To teach them that, or to motivate them to, or to challenge them for, etc. Then I try to balance. Preaching can’t be all teaching, or we forget to apply it. It can’t be all comfort, or we get lazy. It can’t be all challenge, or we get tired.

Recently I’ve been on the challenge side of the equation. I have called my congregation to action. I have been stronger and more pointed in my speech. This serves an important purpose, but I know I can’t do it every week.

So this week I promised a meatloaf sermon. Comfort food. Not too spicy. A reminder that we gather at the table as one family. The lectionary text for this week even cooperated. It seemed, at first glance, like a good scripture for a meatloaf sermon.

Not only was I wrong, but I neglected what else meatloaf means to me.

I was twenty-five years old and had been in a miserable marriage for more than three years. My husband was emotionally abusive, and it had recently become physical. But I had been taught that divorce was wrong. I believed that it was my responsibility as a Christian woman to stay, to deny myself, to pick up my cross and follow Christ.

Then, a few days before Thanksgiving, I took off my wedding ring to make meatloaf. And then I couldn’t put it back on. I just stared at it. It was not a sign of my covenant. It was the symbol of my imprisonment. I decided that I could not worship a God who would sentence me to that.

I never put that ring on again. Six weeks later my sham of a marriage was legally dissolved.

So yes, meatloaf is comfort food. But it is also resistance food. It is the food that empowered me to stand up to a bully. It is the food that reminded me of my own worth and value. It is the food that reminded me of what covenant really means … and what it doesn’t.

This Sunday I will be true to my word. I will preach a comfort-food sermon. It will be more consolation than conviction, more blessing than challenge, because that’s what we all need.

But do not believe for a minute that it will be giving in or giving up. Meatloaf can fuel an uprising.

Real or Not Real?

I don’t usually post my sermons here but thought I would share for those who are interested. This is my sermon from 1/22/17.  You can read below or watch it Here.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Preachers aren’t supposed to start their sermons with long quotes. We are told it loses our audience’s attention. But I have realized that I am perfectly capable of losing your attention all by myself so why shouldn’t I give somebody else the chance?! And this writer describes the situation in Corinth so well that I want to share his words.

James Waters writes: “In 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Paul is attempting to counsel a community that, much like our own today, is trying to navigate political schisms and quarrels amongst its members regarding which figurehead was the most authoritative or best suited to be the leader of the Corinthian Church. Much of this conflict within the church can be traced to the social, political, and religious dynamics of Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing. There was no particular event per se that caused this climate—there certainty wasn’t an 18-month election cycle which riled everyone up. Rather, many different factors made the city a breeding ground for tumultuous episodes. Corinth was once a Greek state, but had been conquered and destroyed by Rome, and then rebuilt as a Roman Colony in 44 B.C.E…. Because the Greeks bought and traded slaves all over the Mediterranean region, Corinth consisted mostly of Jewish, Syrian, Greek, and Egyptian freed men at the time of Paul’s writing, and boasted a multiplicity of laws, political structures, cultural customs, and religions. Despite this plethora of ethnicity and culture however, the Greco-Roman values of honor, wealth, and power remained the defining measurements of social status … and the dominant religious system was that of the Roman Imperial Cult [which meant worshiping the emperors as divine]. Such realities made Corinth a dog-eat-dog city; the political-economy and the religious dynamics made the city one of perpetual competition.”[1]

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that an argument over leadership arose in the Corinthians church. They divided into factions, boasting of belonging to Paul, who planted the church, or to Apollos, who grew the church, or to Cephas, whose role is a bit unclear. So Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters… that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Aw, isn’t that cute? Isn’t it sweet that Paul thinks everyone can agree? Like that is ever going to happen in the church!

But actually, that’s not what he meant. He wasn’t a babysitter telling the children to all get along and say you’re sorry and shake hands. Paul was focused on more than keeping the peace. The way he saw it, the divisions were “merely a presenting symptom of an underlying problem: the Corinthians [did] not understand that the cross of Christ was God’s way of upending their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.”[2] They were still living by the dominant values of Rome—wealth and power—instead of the values of Christ.

So Paul reminded them that they weren’t baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. They were baptized in the name of Christ, and so it was about time they acted like it. It was about time they focused on living not by the rules of the kingdom of Rome, but by the values of the kingdom of God. To whom do you belong? If you belong to Christ, then stop defining others by status. If you belong to Christ, then stop defining yourself by power. If you belong to Christ, you belong to one another.

Paul wasn’t saying “everybody just get along.” The gospel is not about “getting along with one another” but about unity in Christ, which are two very different things. “The gospel … is not about docile consensus; it’s about the radical good news that God in Christ has freed us all from what society demands we be; it’s about figuring out how to live together as a community in light of that life-altering message; and it is about spreading that good news to others. No matter what political party they belong to, what their sexual [orientation] or gender identity is, their legal status, or what race or ethnicity they claim, they too are irreducibly integral to the beautiful unity of difference which can happen in Christ.”[3]

Is this not a crucial message for us today? Still, I will admit that I struggled with my sermon this week, and I doubt I’m alone. I think pastors all over the country have struggled with their sermons this week. Do we name the inauguration and our collective feelings about it? Is it worth the risk of offending some parishioners? Or should we ignore it, following the desire of some that we “stay out of politics?” But how can we claim to be relevant if we do not name the biggest reality in most of our lives this week? Oh, some pastors undoubtedly had it easy—those whose congregations were in total agreement, on either end of the spectrum. But the rest of us? It was tough to figure out what to say.

We are a church with progressive theology, which means that many of us, perhaps most of us, have progressive politics as well. But not all of us, and we don’t run the church by a “majority rules” or “winner take all” approach. So what can I say? I can’t ignore it—it looms too large on our landscape. More importantly, I can’t ignore you and your feelings. So what can I say?

I had trouble finding the words, and I am a wordsmith.

I make my living and live my calling by words.

Words have saved me.

I have written my way out of despair.

I have written my way through disbelief.

I have written my way from my worst self to my best self

and I have no easy words for today

for I am not just a writer but a pastor,

a pastor to all of you—

to those of you who were pleased and hopeful when Donald Trump

put his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible,

and to those of you were wanted to reach through the screen

and grab it out of his hands,

and to those of you who are still too heartsick to watch;

to those of you for whom the marches yesterday meant nothing

and those of you for whom the marches meant everything.

I had trouble finding words

and when I have trouble finding words I find myself

I find myself by turning and returning to rhythm and rhyme,

to alliteration and intonation.

Sometimes my heart just needs poetry.

Sometimes the world is too hard for prose.

So forgive my speech patterns, moving in and out of verse,

but I speak from my heart, with its rhythm and beat,

praying it will connect with yours, which beats like mine.

We are alike in lifeblood and lung’s breath,

hidden beneath all that divides.

But in the church it is more than blood and breath,

more than the Bible and belief by which we are bound,

for we are one in Christ.

We belong to Christ.

That belonging defines us, refines us, and intertwines us.

It also confines us

because it places limits on what we can and cannot do.

We cannot claim Christ and deny equality.

We cannot claim Christ and oppress the poor for profit.

We cannot claim Christ and remain silent against the isms—

racism, sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism.

We cannot claim Christ and give in to homophobia or islamophobia.

We cannot claim Christ and deny our nation’s sins.

We cannot claim Christ and let the kingdoms of the world define us.

 

In the Hunger Games trilogy, a young woman,

confused by trauma to her body and mind,

repeats a litany of what she knows to be true:

My name is Katniss Everdeen.

I am seventeen years old.

My home is District Twelve.

There is no District Twelve.

 

I have decided that when I’m afraid, I will do the same.

My name is Cindy Maddox.

I am fifty-two years old.

I belong to Christ.

I will not define myself by others.

I will not give in to hate.

I will not give in to fear.

I will speak my truth even if my voice shakes.

It worked for Katniss Everdeen.

Maybe it will work for me, for you.

Repeat what you know to be true and go from there.

And when you do not know,

when you cannot tell illusion from reality,

when truth wears camouflage and lies masquerade,

take another lesson from The Hunger Games.

Ask those you trust: real or not real?

I want to try that one, too, and so I ask you.

You believe in God. Real or not real?

You belong to Christ. Real or not real?

You believe in justice. Real or not real?

You believe in equality. Real or not real?

You believe in people over profit. Real or not real?

You believe in protecting the vulnerable. Real or not real?

You believe in love. Real or not real?

You believe in love. Real or not real?

You believe in love. Real or not real?

This is where we start.

Regardless of how we voted, this we have in common.

We will have the same mind: a mind of love.

This is where we start.

 

1] Waters, James. http://www.aplainaccount.org/epiphany-3a-2nd-reading

[2] Shore, Mary Hinkle. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.” workingpreacher.org.

[3] Waters.

 

Stopping Traffic

 

Cemetery

To the middle aged woman who gestured angrily and yelled as we passed…

To the thirty-something man in the power suit who honked and forced his black SUV through our line…

To the person who tried to pass us and then moved his car into our lane to block our progress…

Perhaps you don’t know. Perhaps you didn’t recognize the hearse and the flapping flags on the first few cars. Perhaps you didn’t notice that we all had our lights on and our hazards flashing. Perhaps your mama never taught you to show respect to the dead by showing kindness to the grieving.

You couldn’t know, of course, that the woman inside the hearse was only twenty years old. You couldn’t know that she leaves behind parents and siblings and a young husband and a one-year-old baby girl. You couldn’t know anything about the person in that hearse or the many people who followed. But you still could have stopped. You could have waited. You could have recognized that someone else’s pain was greater than your need to get to lunch.

Her parents saw you—you were just the first of many who will be impatient with their grief. Her younger siblings saw you—breaking the chain of cars that separated them from their sister’s body and their parents’ arms. You see, a funeral procession is not about getting to the cemetery at the same time. A funeral procession is a chain of connection, a visible sign of the invisible bond of grief. To the grieving, it is inconceivable that the world keeps going when their world stopped. They cannot understand how the rest of the world keeps spinning, not aware that it has lost something precious, when their world will never be the same. They will go through the coming weeks and months and maybe years with a hole in their gut that will be virtually invisible to everyone who passes. But for this day, this moment, they are seen. And if their grief doesn’t stop the world, at least it should stop traffic.

As a pastor, it is my job—and my honor, my blessing, and my burden—to sit with families in the midst of their pain, to hold their hands, to try to bring them comfort when the unthinkable has happened. I listen to their stories. I help them plan a service that honors their loved one. I help them choose a scripture for the service, whether they know many by heart, or know only that their loved one believed, or know only that they want something religious just in case. We create a bubble, or maybe a cocoon—a safe space where they can remember and cry and laugh and sit together in grief and anger and know that whatever they’re feeling is OK. It is heart-breaking to sit in those front pews, and it is gut-wrenching to watch those who sit in the front pews. But we are in it togetherthis thing called life, this thing called grief, this thing called love. And then we move from that space, together, for one last difficult act after so many others—one that nobody ever wants to imagine but always fears—to see our loved one’s remains laid in the earth. So we follow the car in front of us, knowing that we are still in it together, still bound by our shared grief even as we go out into this busy, impatient, insensitive world.

So for those of you who were so angry that a funeral procession made you a few minutes late, I have a few suggestions. The next time this happens, try not to think of the fact that you missed one rotation of the lights; think instead about what the people in those cars will miss. Try not to think of being late for your lunch date; think about the people who will never again get to meet their loved one for lunch. Try to consider that maybe you could inconvenience yourself for one moment to allow a hurting family to stay together, to show them that you see them and you recognize their loss.

I hope you can do this because one day, you’ll be the one driving with your lights on and your hazards flashing, needing to follow closely so you don’t lose your connection, don’t lose your way. And I hope the world will stop for you.

Not Ashamed of the Gospel

I am embarrassed by my family.

I’ve tried not to be, tried to tolerate them, tried to be accepting of their “eccentricities.” I’ve tried to remind myself that I come from them, that I used to be like them, that we share so much history. I’ve tried to tell myself that what unites us is greater than what separates us.

It is no longer true.

I was taught that we are bound by blood. Not human blood—that’s for relatives, and I’m not talking about relatives. The blood of Jesus is what makes us family. “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,” I used to sing, just as I was taught. I used to sing about the “Power, power, wonder-working power of the blood of the lamb.” I believed that “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe.” And above all, I was taught that believing in the power of the blood made us family.

But the family of God has become an embarrassment.

Too many members of this “family” will gladly cut food stamps and let children starve. Too many members of this “family” will happily support racist policies. Too many members of this “family” will joyfully tell you you’re going to hell. All while claiming to believe in “the joy of the Lord.”

Here is a great (and by “great” I mean horrific) example. A website called ChristInYou.com offers “The Twenty-third Psalm: Welfare Recipient’s Version.” Read it and weep.

Society is my shepherd: I shall not work.

It alloweth me to lie down on a feather bed;

It leadeth me beside the still factories.

It destroyeth my ambition.

It leadeth me in the paths of a goldbrick for politics’ sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of inflation and deficit spending,

I will fear no evil,

For the welfare agencies are with me.

Their generosity and their staff they comfort me.

They prepareth the requisitions that filleth my table.

By mortgaging the earnings of my grandchildren

My head is filled with mirth

That my cup runneth over without effort.

Surely, the taxpayers shall care for me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of a parasite forever.[1]

 

That’s right, nothing says “Christ in You” like calling hungry people “parasites.”

Then there’s the church that cut ties with a group providing housing for homeless families because one of the families had same-sex parents.[2] Apparently WWJD now stands for Who Would Jesus Deny?

And the incidents in response to Target’s inclusive restroom policy have been hideous. Watch Here and Here if you have the stomach for it. (Warning: don’t read the comments.)

Let’s not forget the Christian people at a school board meeting in South Carolina who were confronted with one lone woman standing up for the rights of transgender kids to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity. The Christians present chose to drown out this voice of compassion by singing none other than “Yes, Jesus loves me—the Bible tells me so.”[3]

If I sound angry, I am. And for once I’m not going to apologize for it. I am angry that the voice of Christianity is, far too often, a voice of hate. I am angry that my faith has been co-opted by bigots. I am angry that nursing home residents have to be fearful about what the visiting minister might say to them. I am angry that, according to GLAAD, 75% of religious messages in the media are from anti-LGBTQ religious leaders. I am angry that when I tell people I’m a minister, I have to immediately either swear or mention my sexual orientation so they know I’m not like them—them! Another reason to be angry: I have come to view other members of the family of God as them. I was taught not to be ashamed of the Gospel. And I’m not. But I am ashamed of those who pervert the gospel of love in the name of Christ.

So, yes, I am angry. But I am too old to believe that anger is the end. Too much of the anger in our society is self-serving. It allows people (not to mention politicians) to smear their opponents with impunity, both sides claiming their cause is righteous. I’m not interested in that very much anymore. I am interested in reclaiming Christ. I am interested in reclaiming the family of God to include all God’s children. I am interested in reclaiming my own faith and my own religious experience and my own evangelism and my own voice. I am interested in singing not “Jesus Loves Me” but “Jesus Loves You” … because I already know it and maybe you don’t.

So on June 18 I will again march with my church in the annual gay pride parade. And I will again offer apologies on behalf of the church to those who have been wounded by the church at large. And I will again be prepared to confront those who come to the parade to preach judgment. And my anger will fuel my feet but it will not scar my heart, for my heart has enough scars from prior lashings.

If you see me, my heart will be singing. I will not be able to sing “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” Instead I will sing, “We are a gentle, angry people, singing for our lives.” And I will sing, “It is well with my soul.” And I will sing, “Yes, Jesus loves you”–not to silence anyone, but to amplify the song.

 

 

[1] http://www.christinyou.com/pages/psalm23.html

[2] http://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/5/18/1527889/-WWJD-Church-cut-ties-with-homeless-non-profit-after-they-tried-to-help-a-same-sex-couple-with-kids

[3] http://www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/davidbadash/watch_parents_sing_jesus_loves_me_to_silence_lone_transgender_supporter_at_school_board_meeting

 

They said “Thank you.”

09_Ash_crossThey said “Thank you.”

Over and over again. The vast majority of people. “Thank you.”

It wasn’t their usual procession before me, and not my usual gift to them. Usually when they come before me I hold out to them the bread and cup as I say “the bread of life and cup of blessing.” Sometimes that gets me a “thank you,” mumbled as an afterthought through a mouth trying to mind its manners. Sometimes I hear a soft “Amen” as they dip the bread into the blessing with agreement.

But today is Ash Wednesday. Today my first offering to them was not life and blessing but ashes and solemn reminders. “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” I don’t always say these words on Ash Wednesday. Some years I tell people, “From God you have come and to God you will return.” Other times I have said, “Remember that you are human.” But this year I was compelled to use the more traditional words because of a blog someone wrote about needing to hear them. Her mother received a terminal diagnosis last year, just days after receiving the ashes of Lent, and she died six weeks later. The author wrote about how she is preparing to attend another Ash Wednesday service this year, waiting to hear the words of mortality. She wrote:

“I hope the minister won’t get all progressive about it, change up the old words to soften the blow, tamper with the truth and use flowers instead of ashes, or some such thing. It will ring really false to me after last year when things suddenly got real. I might get visibly pissed, and that would mess up the contemplative atmosphere. Just give me my burnt cross of ashes and let me cling to it grieving for a while.”(Read her blog here.)

So even though I don’t know her, I did as she requested, in honor of all those for whom things have suddenly gotten real. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. I said it to each person who showed up at noon on a weekday, the youngest of whom was probably fifty, all of us closer to the end than the beginning. From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.

I said it to them all. The lapsed Catholic. The man going through chemo. The man whose wife is. The woman who comes to our building for other meetings but not for worship. And most of them said, “Thank you.” Perhaps they were being polite. Perhaps the intimate touching of my finger to their foreheads, my attempt to look them in the eye, made them feel it required a response. Of course, earlier I had told them that they were dust and stardust, made of the stuff of galaxies. I reminded them of what miracles God can do with dust. But then I said those words. I reminded them that they are mortal, reminded them that they will not get out of this alive. And they said, “Thank you.”

I made the mark on my own forehead and repeated the words: From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. And then I echoed my parishioners, my teachers, as I whispered, “Thank you.”

I got so distracted pondering my response that I forgot the next hymn. But I will try again in my evening service. To speak truth. To look people I love in the eye and remind them that they will not live on this earth forever. And to say “thank you” for the reminder.

 

 

I can’t stop thinking about you

I can’t stop thinking about you. And I don’t even know your name.

We met on the playground. Your young sons were friendly and open—eager, it seemed, for companionship. My son can be a little shy, but right away he was running and laughing with his new friends. My daughter became the instant big sister to the group.

Watching them play together, I couldn’t help but notice the contrasts. Your boys, ages 3 and 5, have dark eyes and dark skin. Our daughter, age 13, has blue eyes and fair skin. Our son is in the middle, his Latino heritage showing in his brown eyes and light brown skin. None of this seemed relevant to them. They only cared about whose turn it was to be the monster and who had the better roar.

You seemed happy for conversation but not pushy. We easily could have ignored you if we had wanted to. I don’t know why I didn’t want to.

I think it was your posture that intrigued me. There was something regal about you as you sat on top of the monkey bars. Something proud. And at the same time, something beaten. Like you were a princess who lost her kingdom, or a lioness worried that she couldn’t protect her cubs.

You didn’t offer much at first—just an apology if your English wasn’t perfect because you are from a country that speaks French. You didn’t even share your name when we told you ours. Slowly I learned that you left your country because of the violence. You didn’t say so, but I know enough to realize that if you had stayed, your sons would be carrying guns before they were old enough to shave. You said you were afraid of Maine at first, afraid of you and your boys dying in the cold. You went through your meager savings in a warmer state and then headed here because you heard that we were kinder here in Maine. You had no way of knowing that the same politics driving the state you first landed in would spread here as well. And now you have nothing. Your visa has expired. You cannot work. You are living in a shelter. You have no idea when your asylum case will be heard. “We may have to leave,” you say at last, “because things have changed here.” Where will you go? You shake your head and shrug.

I look at our boys, more alike than different, and I am painfully aware of how different their circumstances. My son is currently a ward of the state, part of the foster care system. A whole tribe of people have worked for three years to get him into a safe, loving home. Our home. Your sons have nobody but you. My son pauses to drink from his smoothie, unaware of how thirsty his new friends are, how thirsty their souls are for what a smoothie cannot provide. My daughter notices there are no other cups or bottles around the playground. She gives them what is left of hers.

I try to think of how to help you. None of my ideas get past my lips because I realize how absurd they would sound to you, how truly limited your options are. So I give what I have: a listening ear, an apology for what you have experienced in our country and our state, the cash in my wallet, and a phone number to a place where you can get free clothes. I don’t know what else to do. I feel helpless. And I realize that’s what we have in common: a sense of helplessness in the face of the system. That, and a desire to protect our children from all the monsters.

As we begin to pull out of the parking lot, my daughter realizes she has an unopened bag of chips from her lunch. She jumps out and gives them to you. My son starts to cry because he wanted those chips. I explain to him that his new friends don’t have any chips, and we have more at home. I explain that they don’t have much to eat. I tell him they don’t even have a place to live. He says, “They could live with us.”

I know it’s an impractical solution. We’re still adjusting to life with four of us instead of three, and our home isn’t that big. Even as the thought occurs to me, I laugh at the absurdity. We have almost 600 square feet per person, and they have – what? A place to sleep that they can’t even call their own.

It’s an impractical solution because there are hundreds, thousands, in our community just like you. You just are real to me because I met you on the playground and our children played together and I liked you.

I came to the office this morning expecting to find a voicemail from you. The number I gave you for free clothes was at my church. You know you can reach me here. I expected you to call asking for more help. I am relieved that you didn’t because I don’t know what else to do for you. I am disappointed that you didn’t because what I gave you was so small, and I should be able to do better. I am ashamed that you didn’t because today I read “When did we see you hungry and feed you? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in?” 

I can’t stop thinking about you. And I don’t even know your name.