On May 22, 2016, Trinity Sunday in our liturgical year, I was installed as the pastor and teacher at Trinity Church United Church of Christ in Northport, Michigan. You can watch an eight minute video that tells about Trinity and its heritage as well as breathes life into the service of Installation, which was a time for “covenanting” between the United Northern Association of the Michigan Conference of the UCC, Trinity Church UCC, and Phil Garrison.
The guest preacher was Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, who is the Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the United Church of Christ. She preached in our morning worship at 11:00 am and then again at the service of Installation at 4:00.
Karen is woman, strong woman, faith woman, courage woman, wondering woman, hope woman, Jamaica woman in both skin tone and language lilt. We were blessed by her presence, her friendship, and her passion for a more loving world.
I had thought of posting her two sermons here for you to read and got Karen’s permission to do so, and then went on to other things. Is that not the way of me, way too often?
Now it is July.
We have experienced violent deaths times seven.
We are grieving.
We ache in the marrow of self, community, nation, and world.
Karen’s words to us in May were faithful, challenging words for that day and time.
And . . .
they are poignant words for us in these July days of our lives.
Read, savor, love.
On Sunday morning she preached from Ezekiel, “New Hope, New Life.”
New Hope, New Life Trinity UCC (Northport, MI)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 22 May 2016 (Worship)
Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson
I live on the shores of Lake Erie, in Lakewood, OH, about 7 miles from downtown Cleveland. I, like Phil and Patricia, did what I like to call a reverse migration. After all, most people tend to move south for the warmth, not to the north in search of winter and closer climes. However, here we are having moved from Florida to the Great Lakes for new life.
This is going on my 8th year in Cleveland working with the United Church of Christ national offices. I have spent all but two of those years living on the lake. I actually moved away and lived in Euclid, OH for almost two years, but I have since returned to life on the Lake Erie shore. So, let’s just say, I like this place.
One of the major differences of life in this place where winter exists is watching the seasons and cycles of the earth and life – if you are interested in seeing them. We all have our favorite season. We can name that time of year that makes our hearts sing, that time of year when we are at our finest and best. For some, that is the crisp cold air of winter, bundled up out and out in the snow, enjoying winter sports and struggling to keep warm. Well, I would think that is a part of the joy for those who love winter. My recreational life is almost non-existent in the winter my friends. The great outdoors is not the place for me in the winter months.
I think I am partial to spring and summer. I love the summer because my Jamaican body loves the heat and does not miss the worry of winter coats. I like to sit in the sun and feel its heat and soak up it’s energy. I love going to the beach and watching the tides roll in. I love to watch the sun rise and set in all its majesty. Yes, I love the summer, not the urban summers that come with concrete radiated 110 degrees in New York City, but the warm air, fanned by a cool breeze. And yet there is often times a dryness to summer that comes with the reminder to hydrate and then there are those rays of heat that say use some sun screen and make sure that you stay safe. Everything has its challenges and its limitations.
There is a cycle to life that comes upon us wherever we are. A cycle that is framed in the words of the wisdom teacher in Ecclesiastes, and was made popular by Peter Seeger in the 1950s when he put it to music and named it “Turn! Turn! Turn!” famously sung by the Birds. Pete read his Bible too. The words of the song are verbatim from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Yes, there is a time for everything, but there are some things we would rather not witness, see, or hear about. The church is in decline in the United States. While Christianity continues to be the primary religion in our context, the number of individuals who are attending church is not correlating with the population increases over the years. Study after study is naming what pastors have been saying for years.
Pew Research reported in a 2015 report that between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4 to 70.6%. This was driven by the decline in Roman Catholics and mainline protestants. The number of individuals identifying as “unaffiliated” saw the most increase during that same time frame, while there was also an increase across all other faith traditions.
Self-identification is having an impact on the life of the church, yet all those who name themselves as Christians are not necessarily coming to church any more. The busyness of life has cut into church attendance. More are doing less that is church related. Sunday morning is now a time for rest and relaxation rather than church attendance.
We can talk about the increase in the “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” and wonder at where things have gone and think back to different times in the life of the church, a time that may even be labelled as “better times” in the church. What does it mean for us to hear that the church is in decline? Is the church in decline the matter than consumes us? Or is there a different place for us to focus our attention and our energy in these times? What would let us know that the church is vibrant and doing well?
The words of the prophet Ezekiel are a glum place to find ourselves present the morning. Ezekiel’s talk of this valley of dry bones is nothing like the “Dead People’s Stuff Pot of Gold” photo-op outside David’s place. Yes, I have been walking around your beautiful town with Patricia and Phil. Ezekiel’s vision was one of a valley full of dry bones, very dry bones at that (v.2). There are those who name the decline in the church as such a valley, a place of deep dryness that has removed sinew, breath and life from the existence of the church. The question to Ezekiel at a time when he was witness to the destruction of the place where he lived and the city that he loved was a deep one: Can these bones live?
Life as Ezekiel knew it was no more. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE, the people were dispersed and sent into exile. There was a decline that was never seen before. The devastation, destruction and decline were coupled with a longing for restoration and hope. The question: “Can these dry bones live” is a question framed in hope amidst despair, longing in the midst of despair.
The prophet is told to prophesy to these bones. The words of prophecy as steeped in new hope that point to new life. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. This says the Lord to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you and cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (v.5-6).
Death and these dry bones were a metaphor in the days of Ezekiel, as now. The dry bones are around us everywhere. The dry bones are the decline in the church some might say. Others might point to the dry bones that are the vicious ways in which we treat each other. Our communities have become hostile places where we choose to keep out those we perceive to be different than, or less than who we perceive ourselves to be. What are the dry bones of our lives, of our communities of this world? Where would we point and what would we name as the valley of dry bones that exist for us today?
This text that seems so troubling on many levels finds us one week after Pentecost. In the story of Pentecost and the birth of the early church, there is a story of new life that comes after death. The birth of the church comes after the death of Jesus, at a time when the disciples are gathered to mourn. From death comes the resurrection and new life in Christ. What will it take to bring us to a new place in the life of the church? What are the options for new hope?
I love spring. I appreciate summer, a lot, but I confess that spring is my favorite time of the year. Spring is the time when that which has been dormant comes to life. Plants thought dead emerge from the seeds in the ground. I am always excited by those first blades of grass that herald the possibilities of life to come. I can see the buds on the trees and new leaves emerge to provide the canopy to cover the remnant of fall still on the ground. Spring is about new hope and new life.
The text in Acts 2, tells the story of the Holy Spirit come to bring life to the post-resurrection disciples, filling them with the power, the motivation and the passion to go out and spread the good news of Jesus. What is the good news that we bring as Christians in the United States? What is there that we have to say in the midst of the local and global challenges that are all around us? Can these dry bones live?
I would say yes! The church in the decline is not the church on its deathbed. The population is changing in the U.S. This country is living in the midst of an increasing pluralism that requires we respond in ways that are relevant to the lives we serve and desire to serve.
What do we have to say about the problems here in the U.S.?
In 2014 the US population was 318 million. Of those:
- 46.7 million people (14.8 percent) were in poverty.
- 15.5 million (21.1 percent) children under the age of 18 were in poverty.
- 4.6 million (10 percent) seniors 65 and older were in poverty.
- The overall national poverty rate according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure is 15.3 percent, as compared with the official poverty rate of 14.8 percent.[ii]
- Additionally, unemployment was at 6.2%
That is but one set of data that points to a serious problem around us. These are not statistics, these are people’s lives. Cutting across these statistics on poverty are issues of race, gender, age, sexual orientation and other critical factors that point to continued marginalization of God’s creation. The environmental degradation and on-going disregard for the created order is the valley of dry bones that renders us irrelevant in a world that is in need of life and hope, as do we. Can these dry bones live?
I love spring. For me, the winter months in Cleveland can feel harsh. It is not so much the cold, but there are days when there is no sunshine, there are only shades of grey. When those first blades of grass and those hearty buds dare to defy the cold and the snow and push their heads out, that is a sign that spring is on the way. The signs of spring point to renewal and new possibilities. I know with certainty that there will be brighter days, even though the snow is still falling and the skies remain grey.
Pentecost pointed to the work of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. It was the spirit of God present with them that afforded these early followers of Jesus to change the world. How will we change the world in our day? What do we have to offer that will make any difference to the decline, the decline in attendance, the aging demographic in the church and the absence of youth and young adults? We can focus our attention there or we can look at what is working or find our way into providing for the spiritual needs of those who want to make a difference in the world.
Our ability to change the world in which we live is not a result of our good intentions, but of our willingness to be available to the spirit at work among us, in us and through us. Our longing to be filled by God and used by God is what will make a difference.
The words of one of my favorite hymns says:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill me with life anew
That I may love the way you love,
and do what you would do.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
until my heart is pure,
Until with you I will one will,
to do and to endure.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
stir in me one desire:
That every earthly part of me
may glow with holy fire.
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
so shall I never die,
But live with you the perfect life
of your eternity.
Are we willing to be filled anew with the presence and promise of the Holy Spirit as we continue to journey together in this age? Let us look beyond the death of Jesus to the resurrection and find our own resurrection and new life in Christ.
And then in the afternoon at 4:00 she preached from Genesis 11 & I John 4, “With One Language.”
With One Language Trinity UCC (Northport, MI)
Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson
Two weeks ago, I was on a plane heading for Mexico City. I was on my way to a meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Church in Havana, Cuba. As I sat on the plane, awaiting departure there was a couple in conversation across the aisle and one row back. They were not using plane voices or inside voices even as they discussed the various places that they had visited. While it was clear that they had just met, it was also clear that though well traveled they did not see any value to the world’s diverse population.
I listened as they spoke about countries they visited and described the people they met in stereotypical and prejudicial language. I could not believe when I heard the male voice name his beliefs about the Syrian refugee crisis. As far as he was concerned, Europe should send them back to their own country because they were making a mess of things.
I was taken aback by their bold and loud conversation, undaunted by the many who could hear what they were saying in such a public place. I realized that the diversity that lives among us in not received by all. I wondered who these people were and where this rabid nationalism that produced xenophobia, racism and prejudices along every possible demographic developed in their lives.
We live in a world that is changing. Diversity is present all around us. There is a global population of over 7 billion people and within that population there are many differences across race, gender, ethnicity, religion and the ways we engage God.
Mandarin Chinese 11.82%,
Standard German 1.09% (2014 est.)
note 1: percents are for “first language” speakers only; the six UN languages – Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, Russian, and Spanish (Castilian) – are the mother tongue or second language of about half of the world’s population, and are the official languages in more than half the states in the world; some 150 to 200 languages have more than a million speakers
note 2: all told, there are an estimated 7,100 languages spoken in the world; approximately 80% of these languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people; about 140 languages are spoken by less than 10 people; communities that are isolated from each other in mountainous regions often develop multiple languages; Papua New Guinea, for example, boasts about 839 separate languages
note 3: approximately 2,300 languages are spoken in Asia, 2,140, in Africa, 1,310 in the Pacific, 1,060 in the Americas, and 290 in Europe (2016)
folk religions 5.9%
unaffiliated 16.4% (2010 est.)
A UNITED STATES PERSPECTIVE
Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%,
native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.18%,
two or more races 1.61% (July 2007 estimate)
other Indo-European 3.8%,
Asian and Pacific island 3.3%, other 0.9% (2011 est.)
note: data represents the language spoken at home; the US has no official national language, but English has acquired official status in 31 of the 50 states; Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii
Roman Catholic 23.9%,
other Christian 1.6%,
Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%,
other or unspecified 2.5%,
none 4% (2007 est.)
321,368,864 (July 2015 est.)
Statistics from www.cia.gov
TOWER OF BABEL
The Genesis text we heard is one of the many Bible stories that did not make sense to me as a child growing up in a household that claimed high levels of Biblical literalism. While I am cured of that ailment, and in recovery from my childhood Christian beliefs, the premise of this story is perplexing at best. The story itself seeks to explain the different languages that are present in the world. Additionally, this narrative also has a few ancient commentaries about the places where these ancient writers found community. There are some morals to the story, among them is the idea that any attempts to make a name for ones self is problematic in relationship to God.
As the story goes, the people of the earth spoke one language. Communication was open. There were no barriers to understanding each other in this vision of the ancient world. These people of the earth, united in one language decided the best use of this unity was to start building a city and a tower whose top would reach heaven. This bold building project would rival any in New York City or Dubai. The intention was to retain this unity that they perceived to be threatened.
As the building went up, God came down and was quite displeased with the people’s objective to build this city and tower:
“And the Lord said: Look, they are one people, and they have one language and this is only the beginning of what the will do; nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6-7)
What would happen my friends if the whole world spoke one language? Now, before you go telling Phil not to invite me back, I am not advocating for English language education for all or any such plan. In Africa, there is a saying: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together.
Why would God bring disunity to the world by multiplying the languages and rendering people unable to communicate? Frankly, I don’t believe this was God scattering the people. I think this story and the ways in which we attribute experiences and challenges to God are problematic, then and now. This was someone’s explanation of the differences, as opposed to reading this as God’s will desire for the people of this planet.
There are a few things I would like to note in the text, however:
- a people united is a people for whom the impossible becomes possible
- a people united is a people who will stand strong
- a people united is a people for whom life will be fulfilled
There is something to be said for having a common mission and vision in our work and life together.
A WORLD DIVIDED
We live amidst the brokenness of a wounded world and a divided people. The world as described becomes a place where language is confused and we refuse to understand each other. The confusion of this world in which we live is not God’s doing but our own. The divisions in our world are major.
Nearly three-quarters of the world’s adults own under $10,000 in wealth. This 71 percent of the world holds only 3 percent of global wealth. The world’s wealthiest individuals, those owning over $100,000 in assets, total only 8.1 percent of the global population but own 84.6 percent of global wealth.
Western and European countries host the lion’s share of the world’s millionaires. Some 78 percent of the world’s millionaires reside in Europe or North America, with nearly half of these millionaires calling the United State home. The only non-Western nations with a significant share of millionaires: the industrial powerhouses Japan, China, and Taiwan.
Ultra high net worth individuals” — the wealth management industry’s term of art for deep pockets worth more than $30 million — hold an astoundingly disproportionate share of global wealth. These wealth owners own 12.8 percent of total global wealth, yet represent only a tiny fraction of the world population.
And finally: The world’s 10 richest billionaires, according to Forbes, own $505 billion in combined wealth, a sum greater than the total goods and services most nations produce on an annual basis.
You add these facts and figures to the language and religious diversity and here I would name one of the bigger problems that is present in the world. With so much of living on various levels and edges, fighting for the scraps that fall under the table from the wealthy, we are hard pressed to find our way to a unified voice that will speak up and speak out. We have no unified message. We have no unity of voice. We have no unified mission. We have no unified vision.
LIVING IN UNITY
Yet we are called to live in unity. How do we find our way to Christian Unity? “In the United States there are 217 denominations, if one does not account for the nondenominational churches. Globally, Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, these denominations themselves being composed of over 3,400,000 worship centers, churches or congregations.” http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/a106.htm
That, friends, is only the divisions between Christians. If we are going to be or do anything different, we just find our way to a new language and vision that is grounded in pluralism and steeped in love.
Christians must be willing to act together with unity that is about caring for each other and the earth. Our neighbor must be a part of what is important to us. We have to find ways to go meet the neighbors. Do you know the pastor down the street? What are some of the ways in which communities of faith can come together and work collaboratively to impact change together.
The same is true of our engagement with our brothers and sisters from other faith traditions. Who are the religious leaders in our communities? It took 911 to bring many of our religious leaders together. We reached across faith traditions and religious lines to stand in solidarity in communities in the Middle East where Muslims are standing on behalf of Christian and Jews and people of faith are protecting each other from tyranny, hostility and abuse.
The Syrian refugee crisis. War. Famine. Drought. These are calling us together to give witness to a narrative that is framed in love and rooted in hope for a world where we are working for the common God, of all God’s people, of all God created.
We need religious leaders who are willing to be locally rooted, globally focused, missionally engaged with a pluralistic outlook that embraces the diversity that is evident in the world.
All You Need is Love
1 John 4:16-21 has a simple message: LOVE! Love is a language that cuts across traditions and cultures. Most of the world’s religions have love at their core.
What does it mean for us to love?