Psalm 130, Mark 3:20-35 and Everybody Has a Heartache: A Blues by Joy Harjo

Sunday June 6th, 2021

Good morning and thank you again for worshiping with us today on this glorious weekend, now in June, for what is in our tradition, a day where we share communion and also the second Sunday after Pentecost.

As we come to this time in our service, as you are comfortable, I invite you to take in a few deep breaths and to simply notice your heartbeat. For those who are here, to notice the creek sounds…. And as you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When most of our brains were still foggy and the lumps in our throats so present, that all we could do was to just keep breathing, the signs started to appear. Small squares and big squares, in front yards and along sidewalks, on stickers and flags, on wooden fences and store front windows- in yarn and pain and chalk, with a light blue background and blue letters all in CAPS or with a black background and huge white letters, there it was, there it is still is, everywhere- #boulderstrong.

While I appreciate the intention as I understand it- to remind us all that we are still here, that we can be resilient, that we have remained even with pain and heartbreak, that we are survivors, even after the worst thing, it sort of annoyed me, that we, were now just another city, in a long line of them, that found ourselves in the wreckage of broken glass and broken dreams, reduced to a hashtag.

#Boulderstrong #SanJosestrong #Indianapolisstrong #Atlantastrong #Chicagostrong #Aurorastrong

The list is long.

It feels a little like a slogan slapped over our negligence. And as I have pondered it, don’t these incidences of mass violence in fact show how weak we are? How fragile we really are? How frail we are? How much failure has brought us where we are?

As a collective, we have been cowardly in front of the gun lobby? In our conversations with our neighbors and friends, with our family and co-workers, fearing discontent or disconnection, we have failed to frame this as a matter of personal and public safety, putting rights over responsibilities, to keep our children alive.

We have been debilitated, lacking creativity and courage, seeming to accept this blood stained status quo that is the United States of America. We require a license to drive a car, but not a license to drive to a local store and purchase a weapon of war.

I am guessing that #boulderweak would not be as enticing a hashtag, but if every city in this country mowed down by massacres, had to wear and show this slogan boldly until we changed our laws, might that be more honest? #Boulderweak

It was in the hours after the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon that the slogan "Boston Strong" appeared as a hashtag on Twitter and then spread quickly. It came from a T-shirt created by then Emerson College students Christopher Dobens and Nicholas Reynolds. They said their main inspiration was a combination of Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign and the 2016 recruiting slogan from the Army. #armystrong

So especially given the history and the roots of this slogan, I find myself asking again are we strong like that?

Because if we mean the kind of strength that comes from a colonialist sense of power, that involves coercion and cheating, lies and shattered lives, weapons and war, do we want to be strong like that? And here’s another question, maybe more of a theological question, do we need to be?

What I mean, is that, what if it is in our lowest points, our painful places, what some might call our weak places, in our individual and collective lives that we are actually made strong?

In 2 Corinthians Chapter 12, we read, “ I appealed to God that it would leave me, but God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power[c] is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Maybe this is pointing to what in my experience, are the times, when we are honest about how down we are, how separate we are, how weak we are, that is how we find the strength to get where we need to go?

What if true strength can only come, when we first acknowledge our fragility and failure? Maybe there is something that feels like a power that comes from what the world calls weaknesses and weak places?

What if it is when we show and share our shortcomings and heartbreaks instead of covering them with slogans that we can heal?

What if it is when we dare to admit the places where we are captive to the wrong powers that we can truly feel fully alive?

What if we first must confess where we have been seeking to be strong, for the wrong reasons and from the wrong places that we can feel happy and whole?

The story you heard from the Gospel of Mark is a literary gem where Jesus is responding to all kinds of accusations with a set of images where attempts to show what means to be strong and how something divided against itself is weak and will not be able to stand, whether it is a whole kingdom, a household, or even one standing against Satan and the powers and principalities that care little for human heartbreaks.

Jesus goes on to use another image of a strong man’s house and how it cannot be taken over, unless the owner is first tied up. He speaks of the pain caused by all that is working against God’s restoration and love in the world and he condemns all held captive by Satan. Scholar Nibs Stroupe writes that, “Satan does not mean a personality with a red tail, but it does name a demonic power that is actively engaged against the compassionate and reconciling love of God…he called out our captivity to the powers of evil signified by Satan, powers that continue to seek our allegiance.”

Think of all of our “Satan-soaked allegiances” -The power of the myth of the construct of race. The power of patriarchy. The power of militarism, materialism, mass illusions of what it means to live in freedom… The power that comes from profiting off of lobbying and loss of life.

What if it is in our lowest, our painful places, what some might call our weak spots, in our individual and collective lives, that we can truly be made strong? But what if that also means first acknowledging our fragility and our failures? Daring to admit the places where we are captive to the wrong powers that we can truly make our way to what feels like paradise here and now?

The words from the poet Joy Harjo remind us of the truth that every one of us has a heartache and a heart break and a blues. “We will all find our way, no matter fire leaping through holes in jump time, No matter earthquake, or the breaking of love spilling over the dreck of matter In the ether, stacking one burden Against the other — We all have a heartache.

And maybe we don’t need to hide them? And maybe we shouldn’t? Because what if it is when we show and share our shortcomings and heartbreaks instead of covering them with slogans that we can heal? From our history? And from our present captivities?

Maybe this is what our ancestors meant when they wrote, there is a power that is made perfect in weakness? May it be so. Amen.

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Psalm 29, Isaiah 6:1-8 and Excerpts from No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton

Sunday May 30th, 2021

Good morning and thank you again for worshiping with us today, on this Memorial Day weekend and what it is in our tradition Trinity Sunday.

As we arrive let us take a moment to pause and to breathe and to be ready to take in whatever message the Universe has for each of us today. And as you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In this time of ongoing terror, in this moment of despair, when tears are everywhere, it is reasonable to wonder what the next tragic incident will be. And I find myself increasingly impatient with people who claim that something terrible is part of God’s will.

As of Wednesday, just five months into 2021, we have experienced 232 mass shootings in the United States of America. San Jose, the town where our family has so many friends and memories and history, our former home, is now another community shattered by gun violence. A disgruntled transportation employee killed seven (8) people and then himself. 232. This is not the will of God.

Often, God’s will is used as a weapon. I recently came across some of the writings of a Southern Baptist named Jacob Gartenhaus who served as a missionary to Jews working for the Home Mission Board from 1921 to 1948. He was born in Austria and was the son of a Jewish rabbi. He later became an evangelist and the founder of the International Board of Jewish Missions. Jacob graduated from Moody Bible College and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And at the time he claimed that removing Palestinians from their land was part of the process that would lead to the Second Coming of Christ and he argued “to oppose it is to oppose God’s plan.” Even now some believe this still.

So what is the will of God? And what does it mean to say that God has a plan for us or for something that is unfolding in the world? I love the scripture that we shared with our graduate Aubrey a few weeks ago because I think at a basic level it speaks to what God’s plan is for all of creation. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

I believe that whatever God is, it is not about harming, but about giving us and gifting us with hope and faith that we can share in a future. God can be a presence, a palpable and powerful presence, one who holds plans and possibilities for what could be, without being a puppet master or a Santa with a list having decided long ago who wins… and who doesn’t?

This matters more than I had previously imagined because our concept of the Divine, of the Universe, of God’s will, shapes how we think about a lot of things, which shapes what we do. It shapes what becomes in us and around us, either limiting us or lavishly opening new pathways before us. If we believe that the pain that comes to us is part of how God uses power, this impacts how we see things and how we respond and how we endure or not. It affects how we see ourselves and how others relate to us.

I wonder if we can hold together the idea that whatever name we have for God, It is a force of goodness, an energy aiming to summon forth more love and justice, shaping what becomes, influencing us toward what will bring new life and also that we too have this kind of power, that we too can be a force of love and justice, of goodness, an energy, aiming for more justice and love, shaping what becomes.

Thomas Merton wrote beautifully of God’s will as a power given to each of us, a power that can burn like a flame, offering warmth and energy, working as a force of creativity, giving direction and movement that feels like love.

As you heard, he wrote, “God’s will is more than a concept. It is a terrible and transcendent reality, a secret power given to each of us, from moment to moment… It is like a living flame of God’s own Spirit… like a mysterious angel. God’s will is not an abstraction… It is a creative power, working everywhere, giving life and being and direction to all things… What we call the “will of God” is the movement of His love.”

This is clarifying, at least for me, because it is less about figuring it all out and more about following the lure of love. What if one of the ways that we know that God is influencing a situation, what if one of the ways we know we are in fact being lured by God’s plan, being influenced in real time, when it feels something like a movement of Love? Like more have joined in? Like warmth has been added?

What if we know we are on the right path, toward expansiveness, toward goodness when there is a power present unto itself? A warmth? An energy, a force of creativity, giving direction?

Many in our community are reflecting on how our Guns to Gardens Gun Buyback event has taken on a life of its own. A million miracles have already unfolded to get where we are. I confess there are lots of it, that make my heart race a bit personally, but whenever an obstacle has emerged, something happened to keep the vision alive. We are already being targeted with negative comments and aggressive phone calls and we are still grieving from March 22nd. And there is so much that needs to happen and we are leading the way, which means we will do it wrong and those who come after us will do it better. The call before us, the thing we have said yes to, has left me asking God, is this your will? Is this the way you will have us go? Do we have what it takes to do this?

As you heard in the story from the prophet Isaiah, he has a vision in which he encounters the Holy and in this historical context, the temple represents heaven, so really he is hanging out with God. As Michael Ford writes, “Jerusalem’s royal temple is imagined as the early representation of YHWH’S heavenly throne.” As if this is the place where the human yearning and holy hope come together.

We read of the Divine One boldly present on a throne with a robe so large that the hem filled the temple and we read of celestial beings in attendance, hovering with wings so wondrous they could cover their faces and we read that amid all of this magic, where a sacredness is felt and Holiness is proclaimed, Holy, Holy, Holy, and the first response that the one in the presence of God feels is unworthiness. Who am I?

When I read this again in this season, I thought, oh yeah, I know what that is like. When a big beautiful invitation lands in our lap, how many of us first say, “Who me?”

After war and destruction, terror and despair, with just a remnant remaining in Jerusalem, wandering and wondering, uncertain, the prophet feels unworthy, unready for what is next, so his first response is self-doubt.

He says, Woe is me! I am lost. I am unclean.

But then more happens and the seraph takes some coal from the altar with a pair of tongs and touches him and he feels less different and then it seems like God kind of asks again, okay now, “Whom shall I send?” Do you want to do this?

It makes me think of all of the times in life where surprising and spectacular things have happened not because the smartest, most experienced, most seasoned person said yes, but because the one who was unsure said yes- the ones who asked if they had what it takes said yes. The ones who were hurting so much they gave up other things to say yes. The ones who were unready, unwilling, who said okay I don’t know how, but, here I am. I don’t feel worthy, but here I am. I don’t know where this will end up, but here I am.

It’s liberating to think of discerning God’s will, of following God’s plan as just needing to follow the movement of love. Beloved of God, keep going toward where there is a warmth and an energy, a force of creativity, giving direction, that is the movement of love in your life. May you let yourself feel it, know it and grow it and be a part of it. May it be so. Amen.

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Psalm 1, John 17:6-19 and Excerpts from The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember by Fred Rogers

Sunday May 16th, 2021

Good morning and thank you again for worshiping with us today, on what is in our tradition the seventh Sunday of Easter and a big huge day for us as a church. As of today, we are ready for the imperfect and perfect experience of coming together again in person outside on our site each week, while still reaching all of you on Zoom and on our livestream. With a monitor showing the livestream, sound on the Terrace, a lovely cover to minimize the sun.. That just seems miraculous on its own! And I feel deep gratitude for each and every one of you who have helped make this possible.

As we come to this time in the service, I invite you to let yourself breathe in, breathe out, to notice your heartbeat. As you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer and centering from Psalm 19. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

“Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions.” Mr. Rogers was onto something it turns out because Albert Einstein is reported to have argued something similar when he said, “Play is the highest form of research.”

Play is not just fun. It is research.

The1962 journal called, “Childhood Education” published an article titled “Play is Education” by N. V. Scarfe where he argued that “All play is associated with intense thought activity and rapid intellectual growth.”

Play is a scientifically verified way to grow and to let our synapses make new connections. Some of you know that my husband, the Rev. Jeremy Nickel, a Unitarian Universalist minister and also founder and CEO of EvolVR has led the way in the creation of the world’s first sangha and spiritual community in virtual reality. I have been in awe of the process and how people have been hungry to find spiritual things in this new digital realm. To be clear, these are people from all over the world, with all different abilities and backgrounds, connecting in small groups and meditations and events, like dance parties and seminars, but in headsets and as avatars.

Separate from what Jeremy is doing, a big part of the virtual reality world I am now learning is games and new ones come out all of the time. The same game can be experienced on different kinds of headsets, at all different price points, but the game itself has to be modified to work in each format. And this process is called a playtest.

This is one of Jeremy’s favorite fun pastimes and for most of them, it is cool to receive an invitation to play. Because the playtest process is for those who are willing to help figure it out, before the final beautiful product is done. The playtest is the process by which a game designer tests out a new game for flaws or bugs in the design before releasing it to a bigger group and to the public market.

And there are different kinds of playtests. They can be "open" or "closed" or "beta", or something else. And they happen with all kinds of games- board games, collectible card games, video games and now virtual reality games. Play has become an essential part of not just quality control, but getting to something better, something more fun, something beyond even maybe what the game designer could have envisioned.

So if play is research, if play is inventing and is a scientifically verified way to grow and to let our synapses make new connections, then I think perhaps we are in a time where each of us are called to be playtesters. That’s what an individual involved in testing a game is referred to as. What I mean is that it seems we are in a new phase with the pandemic and we have invested a lot to have you who want to gather here, outside and we are renovating part of our building and starting the process of renovating our website and our vision statement and we are building the foundation for a new justice movement to reduce gun violence and the foundation for a new worship service and a new donation garden. What might be needed most right now is play, as if we are signing up to be playtesters for the sake of love, community, justice and joy. Play is about a lightness of spirit and fun, an openness to experimentation and failure, a willingness to play together and enjoy our way to new things.

This worship service itself is also in yet another experimental phase. Now that we are aiming to create a meaningful worship and fellowship experience for people off site and on site, we are experimenting with how to do that. For me, I found when I started to think about this and our other current endeavors, not as trying to figure out a plan that would work and more like an invitation to be a playtester, it made me smile instead of feel stressed. It made me curious instead of cautious. It made me eager to explore with all of you what fun we might have.

“Children’s play is not just kids’ stuff. Children’s play is rather the stuff of most future inventions.”

We will be hosting some chances to play after worship today and in worship this summer and I can’t wait to do that with you who are so moved. And as I reflect on the movement with our work on a gun buyback here in Boulder, and last night as Joyce and I joined the CO Poor People’s Campaign for a picnic and organizing, it is clear to me that sometimes the way to where we are going is fun anyway, joy, a lightness, a willingness to experiment and fail. This does mean taking risks and getting it wrong and trying things that don’t work. But that is how we find the flaws and remove the bugs.

How does the world look different if we are playtesters instead of strategizers? Of course there is time for both in life, but with so much uncertainty, it seems to me that playing could likely be more useful. And one thing is for sure, the first one sounds more filled with joy. And it seems to me that we could all use a little more joy right now.

I have always loved this one line from the Gospel of John. I am coming to you, and I say all of this to the world so that all may have my joy made complete. Joy made complete. Complete joy made. Complete joy. I think much of Christianity has prioritized judgment over joy, but we are meant to have joy!

How does the world look different if we are playtesters? Maybe more fun? I also think it means being more intentional about learning from our children and youth and allowing them to lead us. It means making space for the silly and the setbacks, for the disconnections and the interruptions that lead somewhere new.

As Mr. Rogers wrote, “Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else.” “I encourage you to look for the good where you are and embrace it.” Children’s play is the stuff of future inventions.”

Beloved of God, this is a season to let yourself play, to let that be a way for us to begin a new season together and maybe we will find our way to something beyond even maybe what the Great Game Designer could have envisioned. Play! May it be so. Amen.

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