Sunday, October 15, 2017

Bank in the Sky - Honoring 5 years of ministry at Church by the Side of the Road by the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll

Sermon preached October 15th, 2017 at Church by the Side of the Road, Berkeley

Exodus 20:18-26
18When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come o nly to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” 21Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
22The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

When Pastor Carroll invited me to preach this week on his 5th anniversary as your pastor and told me what the passage of scripture was that you have been studying, I was honored and delighted to say yes. Pastor Carroll has been an important friend and ally during my 3 ½ years as Program Director at California Interfaith Power & Light, he’s served as a member of our steering committee and has been a key connection between our work to address climate change as a moral issue and the wider church, both locally and nationally. This passage of scripture we read this morning is a reminder that the liberating God our ancestors came to know as sojourners in the wilderness, is profoundly connected as Creator of all things with the earth and sky, and cannot and will not be contained in any way by our man-made objects, the scripture says, “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make yourselves gods of god.”
We might wonder what is the relationship between silver and gold --- what is similar about them, they are both things that take a great deal of effort to find, they are extracted from the earth through mining and blasting and this activity requires violence and slavery, even to this day, the extraction of gold, silver and other substances from under the ground including oil and gas requires economic exploitation and a kind of violence to the earth. This God our ancestors worshipped did not free slaves just to have them worship idols made from the violence and sweat of gold and silver mining.
Perhaps God was like some of the climate activists that Pastor Carroll and I work with who chant slogans like “keep it in the ground.” They know that continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels is dangerous for our health and this planet’s. Every year average global temperatures are getting higher and higher which scientists know is a consequence of the buildup of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere. A large amount of those gases come from the burning of fossil fuels, from cars, trucks and airplanes. The work Pastor Carroll and I have been doing together has been to help faith communities understand the serious reality of global warming and advocate for change. It’s a good thing that many of our faith traditions’ roots are in the story of counter-cultural communities, cells of resistance to the oppression, violence and idolatry of empire. Pastor Carroll is among a growing number of faith leaders all over the world who are standing before God’s people and saying we must connect the dots, we must realize that our collective actions have consequences, that our attachment to certain ways of life, our addiction to fossil fuels, our consumerism and throwaway culture is idolatry and we are all paying far too heavy a price. Catholics, Buddhists, and Baptists, Episcopalians and Hindus, Methodists and Congregationalists, Unitarians and Trinitarians, Jews and Muslims, more and more religious leaders are speaking up and saying what we know:
That the earth has a fever --- and parts of our once vital and vibrant body are already dead. A few years ago at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art an artist powerfully illustrated the extinction of the once abundant passenger pigeon.  Elizabeth Kolbert in her sweeping book The Sixth Extinction--which scientists say we are in the midst of--writes about how humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape is suddenly and dramatically reducing the diversity of life on earth. Because we are so profoundly interconnected and reliant on our common home --- acidifying and rising seas, extreme weather events, drought, floods, wildfires and the spreading of vector-borne diseases are already having profound human implications. Author Rebecca Solnit says we should call it what it is: violence she writes: “Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings. Once we call it by name, we can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values. Because the revolt against brutality begins with a revolt against the language that hides that brutality.”

Churches like this one, synagogues, mosques, temples and sanghas, faith communities of all sorts can provide spaces for us to come to terms with this violence and idolatry, by confession and prophetic confrontation. Together we can grieve the tragedy of what we humans have done and confess our complicity in and our idolatry of a system that is causing violence every day to our fellow human beings and to our shared home. I encourage you when you pray for the victims of hurricanes and wild fires to add a prayer of confession, for our blindness to the reality of climate change and our need to repent, to change direction and commit to become better educated and to choose more wisely.
Later on, in Scripture, Moses says to the ancient Hebrews our adopted ancestors just before they cross over into the land of promise, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Moses urges them to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live” and warns them “if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land... I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
Can you imagine on this day, if Moses came among us and turned to the witness of heaven and earth to ask whether we have chosen life and death, blessing or curses?  If Moses were to see the devastating wildfires of Northern California, the powerful record breaking storms that have hit the Caribbean, Florida and Texas displacing thousands of people, what would he say? Surely, Moses would not want us to dig up more coal in Utah--one of the dirtiest of fossil fuels--carry it through already polluted communities on trains and ship it overseas where it will be burned further warming our planet and harming ourselves and our global sisters and brothers? Moses would urge us to choose life, and hopefully be encouraged to know that Pastor Carroll and other East Bay pastors have worked hard to urge the city do all it can to keep coal out of our communities and fossil fuels in the ground. Moses would hopefully witness the many ways that Pastor Carroll, Green the Church and Church by the Side of the Road are choosing life, by advocating for green workforce development, by speaking up on behalf of science, and standing up for environmental protection.
One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had at CIPL has been working with a USF student from China, Judy, who was not at all acquainted with the complexity of American religious life but she needed no introduction to the ways our work related to the dangerous air of her homeland, where she said in some cases children rarely see a blue sky or stars at night. When she graduated from USF a few years ago Judy was so grateful for her time serving with us at CIPL that she wore a sash declaring her support for our cause, a young woman born in a country with no freedom of religion and serious environmental and health problems aligning herself with our movement. Pope Francis, tweeted back in August, “The Gospel is Good News filled with contagious joy, for it contains and offers new life.”
For me the story of Judy is all about the good news, she saw that the work of IPL was good news to her people, to all people and this became contagious. Who doesn’t want and deserve clean air, clean water, and a safe and comfortable environment in which to live?  Today we are celebrating the prophetic ministry and leadership of the Rev. Dr. Ambrose Carroll, who for the years that I have known and worked with him been an essential friend and partner to the interfaith climate movement. Not only is he a gifted spokesperson and highly networked disciplined organizer, he is a man of deep faith who in whatever meeting or assembly whether with legislators in Sacramento or before a crowd at a climate rally in Oakland, speaks from a place of compassion and care -- for justice and what is right. He has been courageous, like Moses before Pharaoh, and challenged other pastors to recognize the peril that our planet is in and our moral responsibility to speak out and act if we are who we say we are. Pastor Carroll’s good news message, that all people of faith, can be bearers of hope, can be people who are a blessing and not a curse to one another and to God’s creation.
One of the things I’ve appreciated most about my work with Pastor Carroll is his putting up with my fascination with golden era gospel music, one time he said to me, when I asked him about a particular piece of music, he said yes, that’s the music my grandmother listened to, so I guess he thinks I have dated taste. I will always cherish the time we spent planning the Green Jobs Fair held at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church this spring, after Pastor Carroll mentioned that the church was connected with the Pointer Sisters nearly every time I was on my way there on BART I’d put in my earbuds and put on their hit song, “Yes we Can, Can” which for me was a kind of mantra. Here are the words:
Now's the time for all good men
To get together with one another
We got to iron out our problems
And iron out our quarrels
And try to live as brothers

And try to find peace within
Without stepping on one another
And do respect the women of the world
Remember, you all had mothers

We got to make this land a better land
Than the world in which we live
And we got to help each man be a better man
With the kindness that we give

I know we can make it
I know darn well, we can work it out
Oh, yes, we can, I know we can, can
Yes, we can, can, why can't we?
If we wanna, yes, we can, can
Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Singers have provided me with a kind of soundtrack these past few years. There have been many gospel singers, especially women who have given me a kind kick in the rear to keep working on the difficult and sometimes confusing effort of getting the faith community involved in the climate movement. Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and even Whitney Houston each came out of and stayed closely connected with the church. I think for me Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Sisters’ unique approach to gospel music in their time, of bringing the church’s music into the world, putting away the church robe and wearing dinner party clothes I especially relate to because in my work with IPL I have been seeking to bring something of the church into the world, and vice versa the world into the church. I’m no scholar of this music, but I am a fan and I find myself now more shaped by this music than the music I learned at church growing up or at church camp.
The Clara Ward song with lead vocals by Henrietta Waddy, Bank in the Sky, to me is a reminder, like our passage from Exodus, that we human beings have a responsibility to consider how our lives are either a blessing or a curse to others and ourselves.  God brought the people out of bondage to school them on the way of freedom and blessing, how they could create among themselves a community with God alone as ruler, and the people sharing and living in a way that ensured that the vulnerable were cared for, the earth and debt were kept in balance and the stranger respected. Bank in the Sky is a song that feels especially appropriate in our era of climate disruption, of rising seas, and toxic air, it’s a song that challenges our human greed and idolatry and reminds us to put our faith in the God of Heaven and Earth, here are just a few of the lyrics:
“Do you have an account? In the bank on high? In the bank in the sky? If you have an account, you can put in tears, if you have an account, your vision will clear, you can put in sorrow, and get joy tomorrow. You can deposit weeping...
You can put in prayer."
Faith leaders like Pastor Carroll, movements like Green the Church, congregations like Church by the Side of the Road have an essential role to play in this time of climate chaos, of idolatry run rampant. Together climate minded people of faith can remember our roots and our call to choose life, to seek to be a people of blessing rather than curses. We can maintain our accounts in the Bank in the Sky ---- where we can deposit great riches for our souls, "that are more precious than silver and gold.” If our bank is in the sky, then it’s not in the ground or industries that are a curse to our planet’s health. Together we can climb higher mountains, and we can get over.
-Rev. Will Scott

Sunday, October 08, 2017

pouring out for healing & liberation

Sermon preached Sunday, October 1st at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco

Matthew 21:23-32

St. Mark’s, I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit with you today. Your congregation has for years been a place I have felt is my Lutheran home away from home, perhaps because I’ve spent a lot of time here these past 11 years since moving to the Bay Area from Virginia. I’ve never been to a Sunday service here before, but I’ve been to countless meetings here with the San Francisco Interfaith Council, with the Bay Area Organizing Committee working to save St. Luke’s hospital in the Mission, a World AIDS Day Service and even for a little while once a month into the early morning, I answered phone calls for the night ministry in your Urban Life Center. I know little facts about your church: for example, that portions of the movie version of the Broadway musical Rent were filmed in this sanctuary before your renovation. But I’m not here just to sing your praises, I did want you to know that I think of you fondly and appreciate your commitment to being a church of inclusive love and active engagement in the world.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians and Matthew’s gospel together remind us that faithful living is about pouring one’s self out, the Greek word is Kenosis, especially in the face of powerful forces of opposition, oppression, and hypocrisy. Paul’s letter was written as he was awaiting sentencing for as Acts of the Apostles simply states “turning the world upside down.” The immediate crime may have been Paul’s liberating a slave girl from possession, who was making her owners rich by telling people’s fortunes.  Rather than being grateful that this girl was no longer possessed, they were angry to lose their source of wealth. In the portion of Paul’s letter we heard read today he is encouraging his followers to see his imprisonment and suffering as a consequence of his faithfulness to the way of Christ and to, in their own way with fear and trembling, continue turning the world upside down by placing Christ at the center of their lives.
For me kenosis, is about vulnerability and trusting that God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, providence and presence are more powerful than any other force in the universe and that true humbleness is real strength. The good news of God in Christ is this way of vulnerability. Jesus throughout the gospels models a life of accessibility to the high and mighty and to the weak and hurting. It seems that Jesus’ unique relationship with God is connected to his unique relationship with other human beings and the whole of Creation. Jesus’ teachings whether the Beatitudes or along the roads of First Century Roman occupied Palestine or from the cross, are about living a life of communion, connectivity and mutuality. On this day as we give special attention to animals, who in their own way embody kenosis, I am reminded of James Weldon Johnsons great interpretation of the Creation story which begins:
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

Some theologians might argue with whether we are anthropomorphizing God to suggest that the Divine Creator could be lonely. But loneliness is a real problem in our time, and our pets, our companion animals do much to ease our loneliness and communities like this one help remind us that the way of Christ is one we must seek to walk with others--not alone. Too often at least in my journey I’ve experienced churches and church people as inquisitors instead of comrades. Sometimes though religious communities can feel like the loneliest places of all, as Jesus himself discovered.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’ dialogue with the chief priests and elders in the Temple where his authority is questioned reminds us that Jesus too experienced alienation from the very places and people one might have expected to greet him and his teachings with open arms and hearts.  Matthew’s gospel reminds us that as we seek to follow the way of Christ we too will endure suffering, misunderstanding, and alienation. Jesus’ says at the end of today’s gospel lesson that those whom the pious and righteous most feared, rejected and despised are the first to experience the divine realm he calls the Kingdom of God.
Here are a few questions to consider in light of our lessons: What turning the world upside down activities might St. Mark’s be up to these days? How are you as individuals and as a congregation practicing kenosis, pouring yourselves out for the healing and liberation of others? A spiritual director of mine many years ago asked me a great question, “if you were arrested for following Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Which leads me to two last questions: How have you as a congregation and as individuals felt misunderstood or even suffered or been alienated because of the ways in which you have sought to follow Jesus? And when that happens, are you there to comfort and support one another through that lonely and difficult time?
For the past 3 years and a few months I’ve worked with California Interfaith Power & Light seeking to help congregations all over the state better understand and respond to the reality of climate change.  I’ve witnessed climate activists, organizers, policy analysts, scientists, and clergy of every faith pouring themselves out for the sake of our common home. And yet there's so much more for you, for each of us to do, to recognize the way in which this issue really does exacerbate every other concern and that despite our state and this city in particular being far ahead of many others around this nation, we can't put this too high on our priority list. The devastation of this year’s record hurricanes just being one front page reminder that right now, people are suffering the consequences of our imbalanced relationship with God's good creation and there really isn't too much attention we can pay to trying to correct that.
Truly confronting the climate crisis with eyes wide open will mean that some people will lose their sources of income, like the owners of the slave girl whom Paul liberated. Pouring oneself out in the fight to protect our common home may mean being willing to find ourselves alienated from places and people we would expect to be our comrades. We may even find ourselves called to risk arrest in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In closing I want to thank your congregation for being a place of comradeship to the climate movement in California. For pouring yourselves out in service to others, let us give thanks for all those who help us, including our pets, follow the self-giving way of Jesus, living lives of communion, connectivity, and mutuality.
-The Rev. Will Scott

last will be first, and the first will be last.

Sermon preached Sunday, September 24th
Our Savior Episcopal Church, Mill Valley

I am really grateful to be joining you this morning in your beautiful sanctuary in a town that to me has always exuded the magnificent charm of Northern California. A few weeks ago, my husband Matt and I stopped in at your local market to pack our bags for a hike around Mt. Tam for the birthday of a dear friend, and during my three years and a few months as program director of California interfaith power & light I have easily taken for granted the climate mindfulness, commitment and awareness of congregations like yours. In many ways your congregation, and many other CIPL member congregations in Marin county are like those early laborers in the vineyard: you've installed Solar, I assume based on those who represent you, that you vote by and large for climate conscious legislators. But the truth is there's so much more for you, for each of us to do, to recognize the way in which this issue really does exacerbate every other concern and that despite our state and your region in particular being far ahead of many others around this nation, we can't put this too high on our priority list. The devastation of this year’s record hurricanes just being one front page reminder. Right now, people are suffering the consequences of our imbalanced relationship with God's good creation and there really isn't too much attention we can pay to trying to correct that.

In today's readings from Exodus and the Gospel, I strongly identify with the grumblers. Since moving to the diocese of California from Virginia, mainly because back in 2006 a gay priest like myself really couldn't be out and in a relationship and serve a parish. I've grumbled that the status and size of the Episcopal Church just isn't like it was in the Old Dominion. Like other east coasters who have come out this way, I ran into some last week at clergy conference, I have grumbled at how few full-time jobs there are available in the church and the fact that the ones that do exist always feel a bit tenuous. How easily, like the Israelites and like those early laborers, I neglected gratitude. While the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is no Egypt, not then and certainly not now, and California is not the promised land not for me and certainly not for many others ---- would I really want to turn back?
The parable Jesus tells this morning is a challenging one. We don’t live in a world where we find employers willing to pay a full day’s pay for less than half a day’s work. But Jesus starts this out by saying, “For the kingdom of God is like…”. And with few other words at the very end we have perhaps found the keys to the door, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The Jewish New Testament scholar Amy Jill Levine wrote:
“It was once said, "religion is designed to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."
Jesus' parables -- short stories with moral lessons -- were likewise designed to afflict, to draw us in but leave us uncomfortable. These teachings can be read as being about divine love and salvation, sure. But, their first listeners -- first century Jews in Galilee and Judea -- heard much more challenging messages.” She says of this particular parable:
“Jesus' first listeners heard not a parable about salvation in the afterlife but about economics in present. They heard a lesson about how the employed must speak on behalf of those who lack a daily wage.
They also discovered a prompt for people with resources: Attend to those who do not have jobs, and make sure everyone has what is needed.
Jesus does not invent this idea of advocating for the unemployed and sharing resources. The same concerns occur in Jewish tradition from King David onward.”

How might this parable seen through this approach be speaking to us today? For many of us the Kingdom of God isn’t solely concerned with the sweet by and by but with how we live in the here and now, for as Jesus said elsewhere, the kingdom of God is within and among you. What would it mean for us to take to heart the words, “the last will be first and the first will be last? “
The lessons from Exodus and the Gospel perhaps are inviting us to see things from a different perspective, to live with a deeper sense of connectivity and gratitude with a God who liberates captives and with each other, each one of us equally valuable whether we got here for worship at 8 a.m. or at 10 a.m. 

Connectivity and gratitude, with a liberating God, with one another, each equally valuable in God’s eye. I know that Our Savior is a strong parish that is connected and that is grateful. But might there be ways that these ancient sacred stories are prompting you to, as Professor Levine suggests, “ attend to those who do not have jobs and make sure everyone has what is needed”? 

Perhaps my visiting today is a reminder to you of your parish’s connection to California Interfaith Power & Light, and an invitation to consider getting more deeply connected with the work we do with congregations all over the Golden State? Yesterday I visited a Catholic church in the Central Valley, a region that is feeling the consequences of our warming planet in very different ways than those of us on the coast. Just spending a few hours there in Stanislaus County reminded me of how valuable having a Central Valley organizer would be to work with our member congregations in the region. Increased support from congregations like yours in Marin County could make a difference in our efforts to reach out and engage more people of faith in districts whose political leaders are not as climate-minded as those here. 

Or perhaps these texts and this visit is a reminder of how blessed we are to be in a Diocese that is at the forefront of essential movements for social change from LGBT equality to environmentalism. While we as Episcopalians may not be large in numbers, and our Diocese may only represent a portion of the Bay Area, I can assure you that our leadership as individuals, parishes and together as a region have and continue to make a huge difference. Sometimes our size can work in our favor, especially on something like climate change, imagine if every one of our Diocesan churches were to strive for carbon neutrality or even took out more carbon from the atmosphere than we release? Imagine if each of our churches was powered by 100 percent renewable energy, was committed to zero waste and people either, walked, took transit, or commuted to services in zero emission vehicles? Imagine if we did all that and at the same time created a fund to help congregations in other parts of our state and the world do the same things? What if our beautiful Diocesan conference centers not only strove to be models of sustainability but worked to help every Episcopal conference center in the U.S. become leaders in their dioceses for zero waste, carbon neutrality and sustainability? At the end of the day hopefully we won’t mind that we all get paid the same wage which in this case might simply be a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren.
In closing I’d like to share with you the powerful words of the late great Verna Dozier, an Episcopal lay woman. She wrote:
"We have lost the capacity to dream great dreams. We reduce God to the personal, private, ’spiritual’ sphere of our lives, and ministry to personal, private, ’spiritual’ acts - a good deed here, a good deed there, a cup of cold water here, a loaf of freshly baked bread there, a prison visit here, a hospital call there, a night in a shelter here, a time with a troubled friend there. We see no need to challenge the systems that make these ‘ministries’ necessary.
The call to ministry is the call to be a citizen of the kingdom of God in a new way, the daring, free, accepting, compassionate way Jesus modeled. It means being bound by no yesterday, fearing no tomorrow, drawing no lines between friend and foe, the acceptable ones and the outcasts. Ministry is commitment to the dream of God."