Sunday, August 28, 2011

the imagination of grace

“The Imagination of Grace”
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham
by Milton Brasher-Cunningham
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21

Perhaps one of the reasons I like stories about Moses is he was as rootless as I am.
He was born of a Hebrew mother while she was being held in exile with her people in Egypt, adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and given an Egyptian name, and then ended up on the run because he killed an Egyptian guard trying to defend one of the Hebrew slaves. The reasons for my life of moving around are not quite so colorful, but I resonate with his struggle to find his place. We pick up his story this morning as he is herding his father-in-law’s flocks as a means of laying low – of taking care of himself – when God shows up in a bush that was burning, but was not burning up to call Moses out of his anonymity and self-absorption and back into community: “Go and bring my people out of Egypt.”

From the time I first heard this story as a child, I have been fascinated with Moses’ ability to talk back to God. After seeing the burning bush and hearing God’s call, Moses responds, “But why me?” The flames did not burn off either his self-absorption or his insecurity. He was wounded and hurt and alone and struggled to hear the pain of the Hebrew people over his own. Besides, what good had it done to stand up before? Why couldn’t God pick someone else?

Moses talked back to God, and God answered, calling Moses out of himself, to which Moses responded with a second question: “Whom shall I say sent me?” And – this was one of my favorite parts of the story as a kid – God replied, tell them my name is I AM WHO I AM. To the ears of a young boy, God sounded an awful lot like Popeye: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am . . . .” Though translating exactly how God was identifying God’s self presents some challenges in translating from Hebrew to English, one way to read it is God said, “Tell them the verb TO BE sent you.” Tell them you’ve been sent by the Present Tense. Somewhere in God’s answer, Moses moved the focus of his life from his pain and his past and found the courage to listen and respond to God’s call to solidarity in the present tense with the pain of the people in bondage. The story finished quite dramatically, as you know, with Moses leading the people out of Egypt and into freedom.

It’s easy, I suppose, to see the story as finished there, as though the pattern is God sees a problem and calls someone to come forth and fix it. But Moses led the people out of Egypt into the wilderness, into wandering around for forty years trying to figure out who they were together. Life, even in Bible stories, has never been simple.

And what of our present tense? As we are gathered here, Hurricane Irene is lashing her way up the East Coast leaving damage and despair in her wake. People in Japan are still hurting from the earthquake and tsunami from months ago. Over a year later, thousands of people in Haiti are still living outdoors. Birmingham will take years to recover from the tornadoes. New Orleans still bears the scars of Katrina. In Somalia and Kenya, people are dying in a famine that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. The genocides in Darfur and Congo continue as well. Our congressional leaders act in a way that makes middle school playground fights seem mature and they offer policies that have little regard for the poor in our country even as they do what they can to protect the rich. Our schools suffer from a lack of funding and concern. Ginger came back from Israel with pictures of the forty-foot high concrete wall the Israelis built to isolate the Palestinians, while we build walls and fences with our rhetoric about immigration in our country. Our city struggles with crime and violence. Our own faith partner is homeless and unemployed. And we could go around the room and speak of enough pain and grief and struggle to keep us all wondering what to do next.

How should we then live? In the face of all that is a part of our lives, who is God calling us to be in a world we can’t fix?

When I was a hospital chaplain in Dallas many years ago, my supervisor was talking to us about who we were to be in that universe of grief and illness we could not fix and he quoted a line from Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Our call, he said, was to be present. To stay past the point of our comfort. To trust God could use us in ways we could not see.

To live in the present tense means, first, to stay present. Karl Barth suggested the best way we could live out our faith was to live with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. The passage Bob read from Romans offers more specifics on how we might do so. Listen again, this time from the translation called The Message:

Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody. Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it." Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.
Several of the commentators I read this week pointed out that there are over thirty imperatives in this passage, which might lead us to respond much like Moses did: “Who are we to live like that?” It makes me think of the words of G. K. Chesterton, who said, “The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” I’m not sure I’m willing to go quite that far, but he’s on to something. God’s grace calls us to live beyond ourselves and into community, which calls us to a commitment to looking for new eyes and new ways of thinking. Listen to this story from Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist.
I was in Baghdad in March 2003, where I lived as a Christian and as a peacemaker during the "shock-and-awe" bombing. I spent time with families, volunteered in hospitals and learned to sing "Amazing Grace" in Arabic.
There is one image of the time in Baghdad that will never leave me. As the bombs fell from the sky and smoke filled the air, one of the doctors in the hospital held a little girl whose body was riddled with missile fragments. He threw his hands in the air and said, "This violence is for a world that has lost its imagination." Then he looked square into my eyes, with tears pouring from his, and said, "Has your country lost its imagination?"
We, are who are created in the image of God, in the image of the verb TO BE, are called to live with the imagination of those who have been captured by the wondrous raging fury that we call the grace of God, trusting that the God who burns bushes and opens hearts can use our hands and feet and minds and hearts to bring healing in our world. What the commentators called imperatives are invitations to the imaginative.

Katherine Matthews Huey writes:
I'm the first to admit that I find Paul's words hard to live by, but then that was the point about grace, wasn't it? If we opened ourselves up to the Spirit of God at work in the world, through us, loving one another, listening to one another, hoping and sharing and forgiving and not being so proud and self-righteous, welcoming one another (and their perspectives), returning gentleness and kindness for every wrong, well, . . . it would be a new kind of triumph over evil: by civility and hospitality rather than by force. Of course, it would also be a whole new way of doings things, wouldn't it? And wouldn't it be a beautiful thing to behold?
“Earth's crammed with heaven,” wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “and every common bush afire with God: but only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
the rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.” Let us pray, as we live in a world ablaze in need and pain, that we would see with the eyes of those doused in the imagination of grace, of those who know we are called to live life together in every circle of our lives from our families to our neighbors to the connections to those we don’t even know. Amen.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

thanks, fullsteam

Last weekend, the big event in our neighborhood of Old North Durham was a birthday party. Fullsteam Brewery turned one. For those of you not fortunate enough to live close enough to know why the date matters so to those of here in Durham, let me explain why its presence matters and, in lieu of a birthday card, write my own little thank you note.

I didn’t make it to Fullsteam on opening day last year, but I got there within the first week. When Sean Lilly Wilson took over the old bottling plant and turned it into a brewery, he built a bar on one side of the big front room and called it The R&D Tavern. They put in some walls around the bar area, and then brought in some picnic tables and eventually built a stage in one corner. In the front part of the room, closest to the big sliding red door with the backwards “F” logo, are a ping pong table, and some old school pinball machines. Oh – and on the side wall closest to the glass partitions that separate the brewing equipment are a couple of dart boards. More than the furnishings or lack thereof, however, it’s what that room has become that matters most: it is, in the truest sense, a public house.

Stop by on most any afternoon, and around the tables will be people drinking and talking together. Some have their children. Some have their dogs. The room feels like it’s been The Place to Hangout in Durham for twenty years, rather than one and it has felt that way since the start. If there is a group that needs to meet, or friends that need to talk, or people who just want to get together, someone will say, “Why don’t we just meet at Fullsteam?” as though that’s where we’ve always met.

In that very room I have played for open mic night, celebrated a birthday with friends, comforted some of those same friends through various griefs and crises, seen a belly dancing conclave, played my share of pinball, sampled the wares of some of Durham’s finest food trucks, heard some pretty good bands, held our monthly church Bible study, and hung out for no apparent reason on any number of afternoons and evenings. Ginger and I moved into the neighborhood about a month before Sean opened his place; walking in there makes me feel like we’ve both been here a long time.

I’ve never had a chance to ask Sean if Fullsteam is what he imagined when the building was still big and vacant and his dream was still out in front of him. I know he works hard at what he does and excellence matters. I know being in that big brick room makes me feel welcomed and connected, two of the things I most like to feel. I am grateful to live in a town with a room like that.

And the great beer makes it even better.

Thanks, Fullsteam. Thanks, Sean. Happy birthday.


Friday, August 12, 2011

one fair summer evening

The evening began with a conversation – long distance, back when that mattered, between Ginger and me. She was in Birmingham visiting her family; I was in Fort Worth. We had been dating about eight months and both knew we were on a crash course for each other. Somewhere in our words we decided to get married and I said, “OK, but I still want to surprise you with the ring.”

I had about a week and a half to plan the evening before she returned. My friend, Billy and I spent a couple of days visiting the places that were to be the stages for the romantic extravaganza. I was out to create an indelible memory. Ginger dreamed of owning a black Jeep Wrangler, so I borrowed the one David White, one of the kids in my youth group, had gotten for his birthday and drove it up into her front yard. She came out in an amazing read dress. I was wearing a red shirt and a black blazer (with the sleeves rolled up – it was 1989, after all). I put the specially crafted mix tape into the cassette player and we drove across the Turnpike to Dallas. Billy and Patty, our other co-conspirator, were ahead of us making sure the wheels of romance were well greased.

The first stop was the Hard Rock CafĂ©, which was still pretty new and incredibly popular. Billy and I had learned earlier in the week that they wouldn’t take a reservation, but the manager said if Billy and Patty would come early and hold the table he would get them out and get us in without Ginger knowing. We walked past a line of people that literally went around the block and I said to the host, “I’m Milton.” He turned and stealthily signaled and I saw them whisk Billy and Patty out through the kitchen, reset the table, and put a bottle of champagne down before we could get there. She had no idea what had happened.

One of the biggest challenges of the evening was I didn’t want to have to drive and hunt for parking all night and, dating a woman whose sense of social justice is in her marrow, I knew extravagance had some limits. I found a company that rented – wait for it – Honda Accord stretch limos and that was a happy compromise. We came out of the restaurant to our waiting chariot. I handed the driver the mix tape so the soundtrack could continue. Our next stop was the West End, Dallas’ newest hangout, where we went first to the fudge maker who had been primed to pick Ginger out of the crowd to be a special helper. When she was done, they awarded her with a big sack of chocolate-peanut butter fudge.

We walked outside for a bit to find a couple singing along the sidewalk (Billy and Patty in borrowed wigs and well disguised, except for Billy’s luggage tag, which Ginger didn’t see). We stopped to listen and Ginger said, “They’re good, but they’re not Boston.” I still get a good laugh thinking about that moment.

From there, we went into the dance club where once again I said, “I’m Milton” and the host signaled the deejay to play my requests, which began with “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul and also included some Anita Baker and Van Morrison. When the third song played, she stopped dancing and looked at me.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

I smiled and stayed silent. While we danced, Billy and Patty hid the ring in a designated spot in the car and left a box with a dozen peach roses (flowers I had sent to Ginger after we decided to get married) and two bottles of Clos du Bois Chardonnay, which we had shared at dinner at the York Harbor Inn when we had been in New England a few months earlier. One was to open that night; the other was to save for our anniversary. We came out of the club and got in the car. The driver cued the music perfectly, and as we began to move, Stephen Bishop began to sing.

time I’ve been passing time watching trains go by
all of my life lying on the sand watching sea birds fly
wishing there would be someone waiting home for me
something’s telling me it might be you
something’s telling me it might be you all of my life . . .
I reached down and offered her the little black box, followed by the roses. I leaned up to the window and told the driver just to drive around for awhile, closed the little door and opened the wine. We ended back at the Hard Rock, where we picked up the Jeep and drove back to Fort Worth and the rest of our lives together.

Life holds only so many moments that actually become what you dreamed they might be. That night was one for me. It was, as my friend Gordon has noted, a ridiculously romantic evening. Then again, I’m a pretty ridiculous romantic myself. Twenty-two years later, I’m still starry-eyed. Tonight comes after she has just returned from being gone for two weeks, much like it was that fair summer evening, now long ago.

My song hasn’t changed: Gigi, it’s still you I’ve been waiting for all of my life.


Sunday, August 07, 2011


“The presence of your absence bothers me,” begins an old Pierce Pettis song. I’ve sung the lyric both out loud and in my head for several days now as I go deeper into Ginger’s two week pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine that left me here to tend to Schnauzers and in-laws in Durham. The quotidian grace and hope I draw from waking up beside her along with the many ways she permeates my day make this a rather blessed kind of misery, even if it sounds corny. The good news for me is she comes home on Wednesday. I’m ready.


whether the rib came
from adam or eve
is of no real consequence

the story is not about
primacy or power
when you get down

to the bone – but
connectedness and
something missing

from one without
the other, I know
my joints ache

with your absence
I am missing marrow
and ready for reunion

a walk in the garden
and the way we fit
together side by side

Friday, August 05, 2011

singing my way back in

I know. I haven't posted in a while. OK, almost a month.

I decided I would sing my way back in -- that is, I would sing along. The tone for this collection was set by Eric Folkerth, who pointed me to Eric Schwartz. Listen and enjoy the soulfulness.

The next man that came to mind was Marc Broussard, who has soul of his own.

I found this Van Morrison cover by The Swell Season that seemed like a good addition.

Now that I'm on a roll, here's Ray LaMontagne:

And I can't pass over Mumford and Sons:

And I know this is getting long, but please listen to Josh Ritter:

And I bring this little concert to a close with Ray Charles.

Here's to a soulful summer afternooon.