Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Praying with Hamilton: "That Would Be Enough"

Prayer by Rev. Debra McKnight

Gracious and Generous God,

Enough, being it… feeling it seems so far away.
I’m never Satisfied.

I want more. I want more time. I want more stuff.
I want more pay, a better title and a vacation house;
one on a beach and one more in the mountains... to be satisfied.

I want to be smarter, brilliant, more resilient and honorary everything.
I want the highest GPA and A’s when the course is pass/fail.
I want the best recommendations and more awards… to be satisfied.

I want to tell the story and do it my way.
I want to be faster, stronger, smarter and win all the debates with the finest arguments.
I want the best house and the cutest family,
the right dress size and better selfies
to be good enough, to be satisfied.

I can’t even think in terms of enough. We didn’t learn that in school.
We run, and we run, and we run the race to be on top.
We keep working to keep up, a few more hours to be enough.

And then You, Loving God whisper, “You have no control.”
You weave your way through the narrative, nudging, urging, consoling.
You speak through the prophets and poets,
“You have no control. What are you going to do with your one precious life?”

You relax my shoulders heavy under the weight of wanting more.
You relax my grasp, weary with holding on.
You relax my mind and seed my heart with thoughts of something more.

You sing out, “Let go. You have no control, but you can have life and have it abundantly.
You draw us into a new narrative, with ancient rhythm and modern rhyme.
The story of striving for justice and equality,
replacing worry with wonder, stress with serenity,
debt with delight and greed with gratitude and generosity.
You co-create a new story, re-writing our schedules, re-balancing our budgets
focusing our time and gifts into a legacy of love and compassion,
that all may have life and have life abundantly.

And we, your beings so prone to fear and worry
say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

Scripture for Reflection

John 10:10

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight

Enough. Abundance. Generosity. These are great words but hard themes for us to work out in the day to day. In Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda draws us in to this tension as the historic cast of characters raises the question of legacy. Eliza seems to anchor us with that would be enough, naming her desire to be a part of the narrative, and one not based in money but in connection and partnership. This is reflected back in a song springing from her sister’s lips about never being satisfied. And the thing that is compelling about this musical is not simply the opening of our eyes the the lives of historic figures, it is the felt experience of our every day that we see and hear. We dwell in these tensions. That’s perhaps why Miranda gets the rockstar treatment and history teachers are able to walk unassuming through the world. We love this story because we can feel it, we can hear George Washington singing, “History has its eyes on you”… and it’s not just to Hamilton. We can feel the tension in Hamilton’s quest to honor Washington's name… even to the point of violence, trying to control the narrative and hold General Lee accountable for slander with a duel. This theme to make a name and protect a name will come full circle when Hamilton’s own son does the same and dies in a duel, protecting his father’s legacy and name. Perhaps this question of legacy and the question of what we do with our life comes to a head when the musical concludes with Washington singing, “You have no control. Who lives. Who dies. Who tells your story.” This is where Eliza anchors us, perhaps in the way she anchored Hamilton to the questions of what is really important. She names her longing to be a part of the narrative, and in her heartbreak she takes herself out of the narrative, burning what is most important to her husband, his words, and by the end, she is the caretaker of the legacy. She is the author of the story and she does by discerning what is important. What really gives life. She does this by listening to all the men that fought with her husband. She does this by fundraising for a moment to honor Washington. She does this by creating safe space for children, just like her late husband, vulnerable children find a place of care in her orphanage. She creates a legacy built in love and service and generosity. And then the musical bids us to do the same.

That is the power of great art and beautiful stories. That is what draws us together in community, and I suspect it is what has drawn people together for as long as we could come together and make choices about what it means to be alive. That is why Jesus talked about abundance and living differently so much, I suspect. Because the question of legacy and the truth about who you are is typically most clearly told by two documents… your calendar and your budget. This is why Jesus spends a good deal of teaching time around time and money. “Stop what you are doing and follow,” he asks, transforming fishermen and tax collectors into disciples. Give it all up. Give up your time and your money. He preaches on individual budgets and community budgets… that keep poor people poor. He asks questions, he teaches and even flips over tables, and that kind of talk about money can get you crucified. Budgets and calendars explain and express values. What we value. Who we value. Perhaps even our sense that we can be enough if we have enough stuff, keep busy enough, or have enough control.

In fact, the one time Jesus says, “Today Salvation has come to this house,” is in Luke 19. And Salvation is not about Zacchaeus reciting a prayer and proclaiming Jesus as his personal Lord and Savor then getting back in his Jag (or the ancient Mediterranean equivalent) to go home. Zacchaeus is transformed and everything about his life changes, really changes. He was a tax collector, in collaboration with the Roman Government, and the only benefit to betraying your people in service is Rome is the chance to exploit them and grow rich. But then he encounters Jesus and he writes a new story. He crafts a new legacy. He gives half of everything he owns away and he repatriates, returns what he wrongly took with interest. He doesn’t need it anymore. He does not need the stuff to tell his story. He crafts a new one that replaces greed with generosity, struggle with serenity, and the false sense of control with community.   

Our tradition talks about money, too. John Wesley wrote and preached and expected people align their life and their story with God’s story. He said, “Earn all you can. Save all you can. And Give all you can.” When he said earn all you can, he had this deep intention about earning in a way that was life-giving. This work could not exploit your well-being or anyone else’s. Earning must be done with care for what is life-giving. He invited thought about spending with intention and mindfulness toward the others in the economy. We have the same questions of shopping in a way that minimizes our carbon foot print, thinking about the makers and the care of the retail staff, was this product made in a way that was fair. He challenged laws and practices that kept the poor in poverty and called everyone to generosity. Everyone gave in the Methodist Society because it liberated people from the narratives that say you are what you own or what you can buy. 

I don’t know where you find yourself in these stories. Maybe you are wanting to climb the economic ladder non-stop with Hamilton. Maybe you are ready to give everything away with Zacchaeus, or maybe you are thinking this whole earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can business is something you will consider someday… like in spring. I know where I am. I find this hard. I always have. If you looked at my bank account… or more accurately, my credit card bills about eight or nine years ago you would have said, “Oh, Debra McKnight loves shoes. She loves shoes more than anything. She loves shopping and has quite the shoe collection,” because that’s what my budget said, and it is where my free time was invested. Today I think I have gotten better, I wanted the story to say something different than I love shoes. And this liberated me to share, and the more I gave the more I gave, and the truth is I always had enough. But I still struggle… now it is more with the dollar bin at Target. All of those great little things that I could fill my home and Lila’s room with. Almost all of which is probably not fairly produced and is 100% something we don’t need. Mindfulness and intention are hard work when it comes to our wallets and our calendars. 

A few weeks ago I was in a clergy meeting with a Pastor named Mike Slaughter. His congregation looked at the story of Christmas. They looked at this day and found that the average church member spent $1,600 on Christmas, literally in the name of Jesus, a peasant baby that grew up to ask people to give all their stuff away, people spent $1,600 on stuff. And they looked a little deeper and a lot of the Christmas spending was on a credit card that took an average of four months to pay off… by then the toys might even be broken. And worse yet, some folks were taking out payday loans, predatory loans that pray on vulnerable people. And when you take out a payday loan in December for 500 dollars, you have to pay it all off in January. And the truth is, folks who don’t have 500 dollars in December don’t have 500 dollars in January or February or March or maybe June or August. And the ugly truth of this loan is that you can’t pay on the the loan until you pay it all, so every month folks are trapped into taking out another 500 dollar loan to pay off the old one and spending 50 dollars. All of this in the name of Jesus, literally a story of Christmas about debt looming over people and spending on stuff. And so they set to rewriting the story. They asked people to plan what they were spending on Christmas and cut it in half. This meant they had conversations with friends and family about giving and what it meant. It meant they were intentional about the gifts they chose for children and grandchildren and everyone else. And it meant that they planned ahead and refused to go in debt in the name of Jesus. And then they kept going. They gave the other half away. The half they were going to spend last year they drew together in a special offering, and because they gave, they created springs of life-giving water in Africa. They have astounding ministries for GED seekers, for folks in recovery from addiction, and they are the fuel behind the United Methodist Committee on Relief supporting local communities with life-giving water. This church re-wrote their narrative around Christmas. The incarnation of God’s Love was not about stuff but about sharing. It was not about wanting more, it was about giving more. And it was not about the stress of going into debt to keep up with somebody else's understanding of Christmas.

What is your story? What is the narrative you are creating with God? What do you see in your calendar and you budget?  The gift is we don’t have to struggle alone. We can write and re-write together. We can tell a story that is bigger than shoes or cars or titles or money or power. We can write a story about time spent loving and a life spent in gratitude and abundance. We are created in the image of God, beautifully and wonderfully made. We are enough, not one thing we can buy can make us better. Working 80 or 90 hours at the cost of our well-being or our family will not make us more worthy. We are enough. We are called to build a legacy of love. 

May it be so, Amen.

© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Praying with Hamilton: "The Schuyler Sisters"

Prayer by Rev. Debra McKnight

Gracious God, Reveling God,

I look around and it is hard to be grateful.
Tweets Trump-it distain and disregard.
Foolish men, size up buttons of mass destruction
and we fail to teach, live or lead from a place of peace.
I guess revelation takes time.

I see our values in our budgets;
bullets over books, prisons profit over schools,
healthcare, even for children, is up for debate and
real access is just beyond the reach of every body, mind and soul.
I guess revelation takes time, how long do we have to wait?

I see Dreamers longing to make a way out of no way,
past the walls, built with the brick and mortar of slurs and slander,
half-truths and short-sighted policies.
Shut downs and shootings, brutality and brokenness.

But you are there with us;
calling us to your way of abundance, healing and grace;
opening our eyes to how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Your dream where the swords become plowshares
and we put our weapons and egos and words that wound away.
Your dream where the lion and the lamb lay down.
Your dream that sets the oppressed at liberty, offers healing, hope and recovery.

Your revelation that requires our utmost
and opens our eyes to how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Look around, you whisper, at the sweeping, endless pursuit of change
your revelation that calls us to show up for equality and inclusion.
there in rainbow flag waving and kitty cat hat making,
there in the teacher’s long hours and a nurses healing care,
you reveal Yourself in our learning and listening,
there in new policy and new practice
there in forgiveness and transformation and change.
Look around at new leaders, emerging voices and
songs of truth cutting through lies and storms of “fake news,”
Look at community gardens up rooting food deserts.
Habitat making homes for the least and the last.
Refugees making a way through the trauma and bureaucracy.

Look around at all sacred souls being the change.
Open our eyes to your dream, revelation is the future we can not see.
The future when words like racism and sexism are history
taught as things long past, never to repeat.
The future where sick beds don’t come with a fee
and equality means all, no exceptions or exclusions.
The future when each child goes to bed safe, beloved and well-fed.

The future that is almost but not quite.
The future that faith calls us to see and requires us to dive in and make happen,
we are the hands and feet, revelation feeding a revolution of loving a new way.

Look around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Thank God. Amen.

Scripture for Reflection

Exodus 1: 18-20

So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.

Sermon by Rev. Debra McKnight

“Remember the ladies.” In 1776 Abigail Adams famously writes this to her husband John. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical places this sentiment on the lips of Angelica Schuyler, “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal and when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel.” The musical, Hamilton, places before us the tension and complications of revolutionary ideas, again and again the imperfectly lived hope of equality and freedom plays in the verses of songs, just as it does in the everyday politics of our lives. Equality excluded women, freedom permitted the bonds of slavery. Inclusion has been complicated and in someways… we have been fighting revolution after revolution after revolution to live into that founding creed. And when you are fighting revolution after revolution, it can be hard to look around and think about how lucky you are.

In the church inclusion relates to honoring the sacred of each soul and belief that all beings are created in the images of God. And the church has played its part in excluding, hindering and limiting the revolution of inclusion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was fed up with the church and demanding that women be included in the sequel. She knew that women did most of the work at church. Perhaps you have witnessed this. I grew up watching the women of my home church make ministry happen with every cookie, cake and casserole. It seemed likely to me that the UMW (United Methodist Women), who boasted surprisingly creative casseroles and could trick any child into eating carrots with the cunning use of Orange Jell-O, held stock in Jell-O because there was never a shortage of creative ingredients or molds that could make that wiggly salad stand out on the potluck table. But it didn’t take much to see that women were making ministry happen, and it wasn’t always through casseroles bound by cheese or mayo. They were the rock of the church, organizing its ministry, raising the money for its walls, nudging the pastors, teaching Sunday school, setting up for Sunday school, cleaning up after Sunday school, checking in on people that were sick, communicating events, planning events, nurturing the community, and on one day a year one woman would preach for UMW Sunday.

That’s why more than 100 years before my first potluck, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was angry with the church. She knew women did the work of the church, singing out from the choir, teaching the children, feeding the hungry and baking the bread to be broken, everything but preaching of course. In The Women’s Bible, Stanton remarks, “So perverted is the religious element in [women’s] nature, that with faith and works she is the chief supporter of the church and clergy; the very powers that make her emancipation impossible.” She was fed up with a society that raised the Bible up to keep women down, preventing them from full citizenship and the rights of owning property, of making choices about her future and her body, of limiting her education and occupational choices, and of course, batting her hands away from the ballot box. Many of her contemporaries took one look at the Bible and saw the words of gruff barbarians as irrelevant to life in the 1800s, but not Stanton. Not only were were there too many Bibles published a year to disregard Christianity’s influence, but she saw something more, something deeper, something worth fighting for, and she dug-in, she studied with rigor. She dug into explore new possibilities for women and the church, to name its sins and love it enough to call for change. The Bible held the stories of change and of justice, it even held the stories of strong women who worked for change in difficult systems of oppression. Women like Shiphrah and Puah. Stanton could see herself in these women, they were midwives who taught the King of Egypt a very important lesson: Don’t mess with the ladies!

Now I’m not sure the King of Egypt ever learned that lesson, but they did resist his plan. While the previous administration had welcomed these foreign nationals, these Hebrew people, now it seemed they were a growing threat to Egypt… or at least that was the popular narrative. Something like, these foreigners are taking the best jobs or the best land or not speaking our language… you can imagine. As the fear grows the Pharaoh escalates his response. First, forced labor, then slavery with more difficult conditions and finally genocide. While he might have found some men to carry out his other plans, this time he thought it would be the ladies. He orders all midwives to kill Hebrew baby boys at delivery.

But the Egyptian midwives resisted. The Bible says, the midwives feared God, they feared God more than they feared the King of Egypt. Now fear is an interesting translation because it could also be translated to awe. The women were in awe of God and open to the Divine. See these women were the leaders of their community. They stood with a woman when she was naked, terrified and vulnerable; they stood with each woman and coached her into using her energy and body to its best advantage.  They saw rich women and poor women endure the same complications of birth; they were present as Hebrew women and Egyptian women first looked into the eyes of their precious little ones. They lived in that thin space, where boundaries of class and ethnicity dissipate, sacred space where we are simply human. And they would not defile it, they choose the awe of God’s life-giving presence over the Pharaoh’s fear commanding them to deal death.

They are artful in their resistance but the Pharaoh notices, see bouncing baby boys keep popping up everywhere and he calls them to account for their insubordination. The Bible does not say one word about fearing Pharaoh. They, I think, use Pharaoh’s own fear and his lack of knowledge about women’s health against him. Claiming that the Hebrew women are different from Egyptian women, they are vigorous and deliver before the midwife can arrive… as if that is true. Maybe there were jokes told in ancient Egyptian locker rooms about how those Hebrew people reproduced like rabbits… that would make this lie a key tool of resistance for the these two Egyptian women who dreamed of a better day. They didn’t topple the system all at once, unseating the King in a bloody coup or a velvet revolution, but they did plant the seeds of emancipation that would free the Hebrew people in a generation. They live in the complicated messy world and do what they can, when they can.

Ethel Dudley, a Methodist Lay Woman, went to General Conference in 1956 with a lot more than a casserole dish. As a member of what would latter come to be named the UMW, Ethel took the floor of general conference in 1956 to speak for the women’s full inclusion and ordination in the church.  Ethel’s opposition, Dr. Oscar Olsen, offered a litany of objections that had been circulating in the more than 70 years of debate over women’s ordination that preceded the 1956 annual conference and he concluded his remarks with fear, fear that your church might have a woman preacher, or worse yet your district might have a woman as Superintendent, and finally going nuclear, he reminded the room that they could report to a woman Bishop. But on that day the walls of fear Olsen was banking on crumbled, and delegates voted for the full inclusion of women. Leaving the conference in anger, Dr. Olsen looked at Ethel Dudley saying, “Young Lady, you will live to regret this day.” She responded, “Dr. Olsen, you know neither of us will live to see it.”

She knew that even as she might celebrate this victory for inclusion, it was only one step. It wouldn’t be until the late ‘60s and ‘70s that women would enter seminary with noticeable numbers. They tell stories of seminary that are completely different from mine, stories of rude classmates, professors that didn’t think they should be there, and Deans feeling them up or patting them on the behind... and where do you go with your sexual harassment complaint when it’s the Dean? They held on to one another and powered through to graduate. They went to churches that didn’t want them. These churches behaved badly, one clergy woman even had to deal with a family taking back the piano they donated out before the first Sunday that she preached. These women had to earn every shred of respect and authority, and they did. They made their way, they worked hard… and in one case, the chair of the SPRC donated a new piano. They offered grace when they received none and managed sexism in every aspect of church life, and one day a women became a District Superintendent and then more followed and then eventually women, at least a few, were elected as Bishops.

In 1984, Rev. Judith Craig was elected as Bishop and after her consecration, as people were filing out of worship and giving her words of encouragement, shaking hands and giving hugs, a small woman, gray with wisdom and tears in her eyes, looked at Judith and said, “I Lived.” It was Ethel Dudley. She lived to see it. Look around!

It can be hard to stay in the struggle. This fall, when Lila starts kindergarten, I will be mindful that the laws that made weapons accessible and mental heath inaccessible to create Sandy Hook have not changed. Not even a little. And this rain of terror continues at concerts and malls, movie theaters and schools. It is hard to look back and realize I have been working on immigration reform and marching and praying and calling and organizing for 15 years, and families are still being separated, and we have not found a better way. It is hard to watch friends and family, say “Me Too” and acknowledge that we have so far to go.

That’s why we come to church. That’s why Stanton found the midwives in the Bible. That’s why we lean into singing “The Schuyler Sisters” and ordinary folks like Ethel Dudley when we need it most. Because we are called to work for the world as it will be. That’s revelation. God filling us with dreams of grace and love, pointing us to dive headlong into a better way. Look around and imagine what we might live to see, if we try. A day when racism and sexism are old news, stories told in history. A day when no one says, “Me Too.” A day when hospital beds don’t come with a fee, when we spend more on educating the last and the least, and our nation has a Secretary of Peace. We are the hands and feet of the revolution; we are the heart’s pulsing the revelation’s energy.

Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Alive in this complicated mess filled with possibility.
Alive to march and love and dream.
Alive to be the change.
Take courage my friends we are not alone. Thanks be to God, Amen.

© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Praying with Hamilton: "Non-Stop"

Prayer by Rev. Debra McKnight

Loving God, Energy Source and Seed of Direction,

There’s a million things I haven’t done.
        Good work that rests ahead and
        lists and lists of boxes un-checked.

Help me choose,
        What’s at the top, what’s next?
        What do I do with my time?

Help me be Non-stop,
Driven in the best possible way,
        non-stop for God’s dream that all may have life and have it abundantly,
                non-stop with bold moves, unwilling to play small and keep folks

Non-Stop in the best possible way,
        like those on the offensive with the abolitionist, engineering a powerful,
        invisible train
                or marching, stride for stride with the suffragist, saying no to the
                status quo.
        Non-stop for compassion,
                disregarding boundaries and barriers to justice and love, inclusion
                and truth.

Non-stop for family and friends and friends we make family,
        driven with grace for the small ones and love the wise ones in our life,
                awake to each moment as a gift to build bonds and ties that bind.

Non-stop for a dream that is bigger then me,
        non-stop for others rather than my ego
                non-stop with passion not driven to exhaustion.

There’s a million things I haven’t done. Help me choose what matters most next?
        Help me dive deep into my gifts and the world’s greatest needs.
                Guide me to the sweet spot, neither bland nor hectic,
                To a life’s work that values each moment,
                         honors each minute and won’t let time slip carelessly away.

There’s a million things I haven’t done. Help me choose.


© Rev. Debra McKnight, Urban Abbey

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

True Love (Guest Sermon by Dr. Carole Patrick)

We just celebrated Christmas, and today we celebrate the Epiphany. To me, Christmas is a symbol of love – the entire concept of Christianity is based on relationship, and loving and caring for each other. At Christmas, I love the smiles on people's faces, holiday music, the brightly colored lights, and the over the top decorations. In the middle of winter, when it’s colder and darker than any other time of the year, everyone takes a little break – and in small ways and big ways we celebrate and reflect.

Last week, as we approached the end of the year, we looked back and asked ourselves if we accomplished the previous year’s resolutions and we know the answer is "No, not really."  But rather than getting overly anxious about it, we raised up evergreen trees dressed in outrageous hope in our homes – small beacons of optimism that signal a pause in our lives to celebrate.

What do we celebrate? LOVE. Our Scripture this morning says God loves us and we should also love each other. It says if we love each other, God’s love is complete.

Back in the 1980’s, James Diddy’s wrote about what he called the Frozen Joseph Complex. It was based upon this idea that we look at a nativity scene at Christmas and we give a lot of credit to Jesus for being born, and to Mary for being so brave, and to the angels singing so lovely, and the wise men for traveling so far, and the shepherds for dropping everything and showing up so well – and mostly we see Joseph as this frozen dude standing in the background. We don’t give him much credit and we don’t give him much thought.

Pastor Debra pointed out in our Christmas Eve service that Joseph really had a choice to quietly send Mary away or to humiliate her in public – but the choice he made was to believe Mary and her vision and believe he ALSO was part of the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. He helped his family escape danger. Interesting? That quiet frozen guy accomplished a lot!

I was thinking about Frozen Joseph because I’m also thinking we as humans have this tendency in a church community to see ourselves conveniently frozen. It’s comfortable to show up, stand in the background and take pleasure in watching all the others in the nativity scene have speaking parts – but I think we’re called to more.

And it’s OK if you don’t want a big speaking part in church at Urban Abbey – because the role to which you’re truly called every time you’re here is to love – and that love is uniquely about you.

One of my all-time favorite books is a compilation of short stories called True Love. The author, Robert Fulghum, set up a card table with a sign that said, “Tell me a love story, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.” And although the book contains the romantic stories you’d expect, it’s also full of many other kinds of love stories that celebrate the power of the impact we can have on each other’s lives.

Here’s one of my favorites:

When I was a junior in college I took an English course in the writings of DH Lawrence. I know this sounds really stupid, but I thought this was about Lawrence of Arabia – you know, the eccentric British desert warrior guy. I had seen the movie and I wanted to be him. Let’s just say I wasn’t completely alert in college.

I went down to the local book store to get the books for my class, and I was surprised by all the books with the word “love” in the title.  This was a side of Lawrence of Arabia I didn’t know about. The bookstore clerk explained my mistake.  WHOA - bad news. But I had already registered for the course and now I had the books and I really needed an English class to graduate – so I was stuck.  I went home to read.

Like many college students, I bought used books hoping someone else would have already underlined the important stuff.  The books I bought were thoroughly underlined, and when I read some of the paragraphs about love, I was blown away.  To heck with Lawrence of Arabia; this DH Lawrence was my kind of guy! 

All the books I bought had the same female name in the front.  I figured this girl must have taken the course then sold the books. I looked her name up in the telephone book and she was there.  So I figured I’d just call her up and see what happened. I was hoping for anything from a date to copies of the papers she’d written because college guys play all the angles.

I called her up, introduced myself, and told her what I wanted.  WHOA again. She was not a girl but a retired college professor of English literature. She laughed and said she would be glad to have a date with me and she would explain about Lawrence and tell me how to pass the course.

Well, we liked each other right away. She lived alone and her eyes were failing. She said if I would drive her to the grocery store once a week, she would tutor me in Lawrence. During that semester, she taught me volumes about love. I’m a better man because of her. A long time later I told her if she had been 20 instead of 70 I would have asked her to marry me. She said she would have accepted. She’s died now, but I still have her books and her wisdom and her definition of love. I also got an “A” in the course . . . 

When I think of the love we are intended to be for each other, I think of two things: (1) God’s love for us, and (2) Our obligation to share that love through our own unique lens.

God’s love for us: a seminal Scripture about God’s love is John 3:16. Most of us are familiar with it – For God so loved the world… But my favorite part of this Scripture is what I call the “whoever policy” – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that WHOEVER believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

Think about it – who isn’t a WHOEVER? Everyone’s a WHOEVER, right?

God could have placed conditions on his love and used “whatever” . . . whatever man, whatever Jew, whatever beautiful, good, honest, ethical person believes in me . . .

But God said WHOEVER
1. Whoever you are
2. No matter what condition you’re in, my friend
3. Wherever you are in life
4. Don’t worry if you’ve not met your own or others expectations
5. Don’t worry if you’ve messed up
6. Don’t worry if you’ve disappointed
7. Don’t worry if you don’t feel worthy
8. God’s love is yours – “WHOEVER believes”
9. Receive it and move to the next step, because step 2 is . . .

Our obligation is to share that love through our own unique lens: and the key is if God didn’t put conditions on the WHOEVER policy, you don’t get to either! The intention of church is not that we all to fall into step, believing the same thing and correcting each other if we fall outside some man-made boundaries. That would be laborious and boring and REALLY wrong.

Our job – our role - is to create a spiritual community and an environment where each person is free to build and share his and her own relationship with God. Because we are responsible for our OWN relationship with God.

You could say, “Carole, we do this pretty well at UA, don’t we? We create a good environment. Why are you reminding us?” Because as we celebrate the fact that Urban Abbey has grown a lot, we’ve also become even more diverse and, as a church community, we have greater needs than ever before. As we continue to grow, we can’t be a Frozen Joseph in the background.

Please – I encourage you to risk being just a tiny bit vulnerable to reach out just a little bit more to those around you. That responsibility belongs to all of us.

As a Graduate School psychology professor, I taught my students that we all carry baggage. That’s not really a negative connotation. Think of it as a suitcase we all carry attached to our back-sides – and our personal suitcase contains all of our experiences that impact who we are. That’s what makes you so dang cool! Some of us carry a fanny pack; some of us pull a giant trunk on wheels behind us!

When you’re a therapist, the best thing you can do is help people recognize those things they carry with them in life. At Urban Abbey, I guarantee you that as we’re carrying our own suitcases, there’s nothing better we could do for each other than be a fellow traveler. Not your job to carry another’s load, but encourage and walk alongside. And please, don’t let anyone walk out of here without feeling welcome!

1 John 3 says let us not love with words, but actions. Actions that show everyone is welcome, everyone is included, everyone is encouraged to struggle and ask questions and walk their personal spiritual path. This is who we are.

I asked Kyle to sing a song during the offering this morning called “Come to the Table.” Would you listen especially close as he sings this song? It’s about recognizing that we bring so many pieces of ourselves to this place we call church. The song calls us a “motley crew of misfits” – and the truth is, I can think of no greater honor than walking alongside you as we each figure out our own paths.

This is a place where you come to the table just as you are. No apologies. Fully human. And as we walk into this New Year, may we be a source of love and acceptance for all who enter these doors. May we throw an extra leaf in the table, pull out a few more coffee cups, and welcome all to sit and love life alongside us . . .