Saturday, January 14, 2017

Vulnerable Love: Herod, Challenging Legitimacy, Speaking The Truth In Love, John Lewis, and MLK

(Whew! How's that for a blog title?)

In Matthew we are told that when Herod heard the Magi has slipped away from him, he ordered the killing of all the boy babies 2 and under in and around Bethlehem.  The presence of this baby whose star they had seen "rising in the east" challenged the legitimacy of Herod's rule, and he wasn't about to have that happen.  Herod's are like that.  They will use any and every means to maintain their power and impose there will.  Hitler is quoted as saying, "I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few."  And when none of those worked, he went on to his final solution, the attempt to exterminate an entire race.

Scripture and history are both full of examples of "Herods" and their actions aimed at maintaining power, wealth, and the legitimacy of illegitimate rule.  Hitler, again, in Mein Kampf, said, "By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell---and hell, heaven...The greater the lie, the more readily will it be believed."

It is not an accident that both of these quotes are from A Gift Of Love, the collection of sermons by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King was not "soft minded" (a phrase he used to describe those who did not see reality).  He knew the reality of the Herods.  He knew what they could, and would do.  But he believed he was called to imitate Jesus in loving the enemy. 

Loving the enemy does not mean failing to speak the true to power.  In fact, love REQUIRES that we speak the truth.  But love also requires that we do so in a way that does not resort to the violence of the enemy.  This is where the non-violent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement came from.  It is the result of MLK's commitment to Jesus, to the God of scripture who, as King proclaimed, "does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles.  He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us in our tragic prodigality."  King's commitment was to following the Christ who comes to us in vulnerable love.

Vulnerable Love is not a push over.  It speaks the truth.  Whether that Truth is "I'm worried about your drinking," spoken to an alcoholic by a spouse; "your behavior is sinful," spoken by a pasttor to a parishioner; "you should not have married your brother's wife," spoken by John the Baptist to Herod's son; or "your presidency is illegitimate," spoken by John Lewis to Donald Trump.  It does not shrink from the hard task of speaking reality.

Herod's hate those who speak the truth in love even more than they do those who seek violent revolution.  For Herod always has more power, more tanks, more guns.  Those who speak the truth in love are those who are willing to die, to go to jail or prison, to cross bridges in the face of clubs and dogs....they are the ones who shame the Herods by showing them for who and what they are.  They do this at great price, often the price of their lives.  But they do so in imitation of the Christ whose vulnerable love defeated Death itself.

The Australian criminologist John Braithwaite, talked about the role of "healthy shaming" that calls people to repentance (my word) and makes a path for reintegration (his word).  His work is foundational to the concept of "Restorative Justice." This approach to individual justice issues found expression in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The shaming of a system and it's leader(s) by vulnerable loving non-violent resistance and the continued, unrelenting speaking of the truth to power opens the door for repentance, reconciliation, and the creation of what King called the Beloved Community. 

I say all of this to come to two important conclusions:  1) John Lewis, in declaring the illegitimacy of Donald Trump's presidency not only stands in the legacy of Dr. King, but in obedience to Jesus and imitation of His response to oppressive power; and 2) this moment offers Donald Trump an opportunity to repent, to change, to act to reconcile with those he has demeaned and harmed and threatened.

I am not na├»ve.  While I pray that Mr. Trump will repent, I honestly do not hold out much hope.  Just as "it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven that a camel to go through the eye of the needle," it is harder for a Herod to repent and reconcile with those he has oppressed.  Which leads me to my third and last conclusion:

We need to prepare ourselves as followers of Jesus for the battle ahead.  We must Speak Truth To Power; Speak that Truth in Love; do not give in to violence, be willing and prepared to pay the price of following Jesus' example.  Remember the words of Dr. King that God "does not leave us alone...He seeks us in dark places and suffers with us and for us..." and Jesus' words, that "Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age."  We cannot know what the end of this struggle will look like; but we will follow in the steps of giants, and we will not go alone.

Shalom

Thursday, January 12, 2017

What If


What if Joseph
had not listened to his dream?
Maybe he'd finally found work
and the idea of uprooting his family again
was just too much.



What if the Magi
did not go home another way,
but seduced by secret meeting with the powerful,

the invitation to the “classified briefing,”
had ignored the warning signs
and reported back to Herod?



How vulnerable God
has made God's Self
in the battle to set the world right.
Perhaps the slowness
of our world’s healing
is not God's hesitancy
but ours;

what if it is a Mercy born out of vulnerable love?

How heavy the responsibility
of being given that Vulnerable Love
should weigh upon our shoulders
in the choices that we make

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Faces Of Herod

They are everywhere, you know;
Pharaoh, Herod, Nebuchadnezzar.
Image bearers of Empire
Strong men who decide that
the earth is theirs,
and the fullness thereof.

Their god is their own reflection in the mirror,
The only hunger they worry about
is the desire of their own belly,
which must be filled at all cost.
Their hunger has made them
Russian dolls in reverse.
Bigger and bigger they grow.
Behind them the spirit of the Wendigo:
the mythic cannibal creature
that grows ever larger
whose hunger is never ending.

They change their names to disguise their coming;
Pharaoh, Herod, Nebuchadnezzar.
Calling themselves
Hitler or Putin or Trump;
Napoleon, Cheney, Idi Amin, Pol Pot.
Do not be fooled.

But neither listen to the lie that they tell:
The lie that they have the final word
that we are alone in our pain and our grieving and our struggle.

For God has put on flesh and pitched God's tent among us.
God has moved into the neighborhood
the one where gunfire rings out in the night,
where domestic violence takes place behind wealthy gated communities,
where food insecurity is a way of life for people we meet every day, 
and many are left to die without proper medical help because they can't afford it
but since they don't die in the streets like in Calcutta, we move on in dignified denial.
The one where black lives are devalued
and their deaths at the hands of those sworn to protect them are  ignored by the powerful;
where good policemen die at the hands of gun violence;
and the Powers play those two things off against each other,
as though it is an either/or discussion,
so they won't have to really address either-
for to do so would upset the NRA and those who make a livelihood out of violence.

God has moved in to this neighborhood.
Jesus has rented the building that used to be a church
and invites us to join Him
in caring for the neighborhood
and pushing out Herod like a degenerate crack dealer.
No neighborhood ever got better by making the crack dealer chair of the Neighborhood Watch.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Wrestling With The Powers Of Evil

I'm spending two weeks preaching on Matthew 2.  I believe it is a study in Evil and some of our potential responses to it.

So far in the Christmas stories we've listened to, things have gone pretty well. Mary has listened, Joseph has listened, angels have sung, shepherds have come, and old men have seen their dreams realized-and with only a quick comment that "He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him," it's been a lesson on how the Light shines on in the darkness.

This is a good thing. It is a strong reminder that God is on the move in Jesus' coming; on the move and deeply involved from the very beginning. And we need to hold on to that.

So here we have the Magi.  Persian astrologers who come because they’ve seen a star.  It wasn’t unusual, even in Rome, for people to believe that a star rose when a king was born.  It wouldn’t, necessarily, even be terribly strange for these astrologers to want to see this baby king who has moved the universe by his birth.  This would fit right in with all the good news we’ve heard so far. 

So now they show up in the capitol, Jerusalem…which makes sense…asking about the baby who was born “King of the Jews.”  But this is where it gets interesting.  Herod had been appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate somewhere around 39 or 40 BC.  He had fought battles, killed folks, and engaged in political intrigue to keep that title.  The Magi were lucky to still be alive after asking this question.

But now, for the first time in this unfolding story, we are going to encounter active evil. Not just ignorance, but intentional, active, evil. Herod and his response to this news is a short course in what evil looks like.

It might be worth asking what we mean by evil. A quick look at Herod gives us some good examples of what evil looks like.  Matthew’s hearers would already know some of Herod’s history.  His villainy was legendary:  he executed one wife; put a Roman eagle in front of the Temple; and had plans to kill important people on his own death “so that there would be appropriate grieving when he died.”  The stories abound.  What is clear about Herod is that he saw himself as the most important person in the picture.  His desires, his position, his reign.  And through this personal, human expression of evil, Evil (with a capitol “E”) enters the picture.

Walter Wink, in his book Naming The Powers, talks about how this might be understood:

“Every Power tends to have a visible pole, an outer form…and an invisible pole, an inner spirit or driving force that animates, legitimates, and regulates its physical manifestation in the world…When a particular Power becomes idolatrous, placing itself above God’s purposes for the good of the whole, then that Power becomes demonic.”

The way that this happens, this “placing itself above God’s purposes,” is through individual human actions.  These then result in the actions of systems like churches, nations, political parties, or economic systems.


When evil people get anxious, the people around them get anxious. Have you ever seen this? In a family with an abusive parent, the whole house can vibrant with the anxiety. So it makes sense that when “Herod was troubled,” that the next words would be “and all Jerusalem with him.”  History is clear, that when Herod was anxious, people died.

The first thing that Herod tries is controlling research. He doesn't say, "the new King has been born, I wonder what that will look like?" He's not stupid. He knows what it will look like. He's enough of a Jew to know the OT passage we just read. But he wants to know where the baby is going to be born. He wants a way to control the situation.

The second thing Herod tries is lying manipulation.  He tells the Magi to report back to him so he can “go and worship the child” himself. 


This is important to remember. Evil rarely used brute force as it's first move. Not because it's opposed to brute force, but because these other ways: manipulation, intimidation, and deceit work better.
These wise men could have gotten co-opted into Herod's schemes. But they didn't. They listened to what God said to them in their dream, and went home another way.  They become a lesson for us in resisting and responding to evil.

What is the response to evil? Well (and we're going to see some other responses next week), one response is don't play the game, don't engage. Personally I have trouble not engaging.  But I realize that often engaging in argument with someone that I know is not interested in anything but the chance to throw insults is useless.  Not engaging does not mean not resisting.  It does mean remembering the quote from George Bernard Shaw: "I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig.  You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it."

This brings us to the second way of response: Do the small bits of obedience. They went home another way.  This “small bit of obedience” kept them from being a tool of Herod’s evil intent.  I’m becoming convinced that many of the commandments about behaviors (for example, not being “a slave to strong drink”) are warnings to shut the doorways through which we can become unwitting, or semi-aware, tools of evil.

And third: They gave their gifts. It is highly possible that theses gifts were used to finance the flight into Egypt and the return trip to settle in Nazareth later. God has used them and their gifts to provide for Jesus and his family's well-being.
Notice that our scripture says, "being warned in a dream, they..." This is a community effort. This listening, this obedience... It's a group thing.

Sometimes you listen, obey, trust, and wait. When you don't have the power to engage directly, there are other ways to engage and fight evil that are still obedient, still powerful.

Remember, Evil is afraid. It knows that God is on the move. Have faith that every act of resistance to evil is an act that builds the Kingdom. Every bag of beans fights the evil of hunger. Every act of kindness and every standing against bigotry and systemic racism fights the evil of hatred and not caring.

My first semi-adult encounter with Evil occurred when I was in the 10th grade...15 or 16.  Our church was involved in a mission that was running Vacation Bible Schools in the migrant camps in Spartanburg County.  There was an outbreak that summer of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever; an infection transmitted by tick bite that, left untreated, can cause serious damage to internal organs, such as kidneys and heart.  Earlier in the day, a two year old daughter of one of the migrant families had been taken to the hospital with a suspicious rash.  Her parents had been out in the peach orchards.  That evening, while I was at the camp for some reason, the police showed up to talk with the parents.  The parents were living in a barn that had been converted into "housing" by giving each family one of the stall areas.  I went with the officer to see the parents and then to talk with the Crew Boss who lived in a trailer that he pulled behind his truck.  Chained to the trailer was his German Shepherd.  I will never forget the Crew Boss's response when the police officer remarked that the disease was carried by ticks:  "The ticks are terrible around here," he said, "I have to wash and powder my dog down twice a day to keep them off her."

Something locked in for me that day about an individual with so little concern for anything but his dog; who personally benefited from a system that exploited other human being in such a way.

But it went deeper.  Like only a 15 or 16 year old cloaked in self righteous young awareness can do; I began making calls on my local state representatives, telling them about conditions in the migrant camps I had visited.  I got nowhere with them.  They were co-opted into a system that needed them to look the other way so that peach growers and packers could keep their costs down and their profits high.

Well, that's not quite true...thankfully.  This story has a hero.  He was a State Representative named James B. Stephen (and where ever he is right now, may God pour rich blessings on him).  Jim Stephen was a man of deep faith.  My mother was his pastor's secretary.  Jim Stephen listened to my story and went out to visit the camps.  He took along a news team with him.  And then he introduced legislation to improve conditions in the migrant camps in South Carolina.  It costs him to do this.  Some of the growers and packers mounted opposition both to his legislation and his re-election.  But he did not back down.  He used the gift of his position and power to oppose Evil.

Paul was right: "For we are not struggling against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 6:12)

I began writing this blog and the sermon for tomorrow before the shooting in Fort Lauderdale.  I am withholding judgements and waiting for the total story to get told.  But I would invite those who are reading this to think of these things in light of what has been said above:  A military veteran who returned from overseas with mental health issues; who had contact with the police over domestic violence and the violation of the resulting Restraining Order; who went to the FBI expressing the delusion that his mind was being invaded by someone or some government telling him to watch ISIS videos on the internet....this person NEVER seems to have had their firearms confiscated, does not seem to have been flagged as a threat in any meaningful way, and manages to fly from Alaska to Florida with a firearm and ammunition in their luggage.  In what ways might Evil be at work here?

2016 was a horrible year.  If 2017 is going to avoid being worse, it will be because we step up to engage in ways that matter.  There are enough battles to go around.  Pick the one that means the most to you; the place where your passion calls you.  Gun control.  Black Lives Matter.  Community Policing. Hunger. Medical care and insurance.  Systemic racism.  Evil is mounting its campaign.  Don't be overwhelmed.  Pick a patch of ground, dig in and fight.  Jesus came and defeated Evil.  We need to join the battle and make the victory clear so that God's Kingdom comes and God's will is done....on earth as it is in heaven.

Happy New Year and Shalom


Thursday, January 5, 2017

Apocalypse

Do not get
between a mother bear and her crying cub.

Do not get
between the vulnerable, loving God
and God's weeping creation.

The bawling cub wonders why momma isn't faster.

The creatures in the mother's path
know only apocolyptic terror of jaw and claw.

Fear not, crying world
Momma God is on Her way.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Political Trigger Warning....Was Jesus "Civil"?

Any readers of this blog who get uncomfortable when I wax "political" may want to pay attention to the "trigger warning" in the title.

And if you got the idea from my last blog that I was retreating from attempting to address the issues plaguing our country by retreating into a study of Jesus, let me assure you that the opposite is the case.  I am engaging in that study because I am increasingly disturbed about what I am seeing, hearing, reading.  And, as a stumbling, bumbling attempt at a follower of Jesus, I want to be as sure as I can be that I am following as closes as I can.  And let me be clear; I am sure that I will probably be wrong a lot.  My own biases will get in the way.  My fears will pull me off track.  But I think Luther was right in that we are called to "sin boldly, but believe more boldly still."

There have, lately, been calls that we be "civil" in our discussions of what is wrong in our country.  My first reaction is that I did not hear these calls for "civility" from the right wing when hate crimes were (and are) rising, when dogs and water hoses were being turned on protesters at Standing Rock, or in a multitude of situations over the last few months.  So I have to have some serious suspicions about the motivation of such calls.  Too often "let's be civil" translates to "don't upset anyone" "don't make anyone uncomfortable" "don't interfere with business as usual."  When that is the case, when that is what is meant, I utterly reject the call for civility as unproductive and, frankly, un-Christian.

I do not believe that Jesus' first concern was to be "civil."  When He picked up a stone, held it under the nose of a mob, and said, "let the guiltless one throw the first stone," Jesus was not being "civil."  When He stopped all the traffic in the Temple tossing tables aside, Jesus was not being "civil."  He did not die a "civil" death.  Nor did Jesus sit down and have a "civil" conversation with Sin and Death about freeing humankind from their clutches.  Nor is the commandment that "as you do it to the least of these, you do it to me" a particularly "civil" approach to living in the world.  The Resurrection was not "civil."  In that moment Jesus kicked down Death's door from the inside out.

I am committed to the practice of non-violence.  Not because it is easy for me; but because I believe Jesus demands it.  But one can non-violently bring things to a screeching halt.  We need to be ready to have non-violence met with violence.  We need to  be ready to hold on and hold out til demands are met.  Civil disobedience is not always "civil."  And we need to be ready to go to face arrest, to go to jail, to suffer.

We also need to be willing to dig in for the long haul in developing solutions to the problems that face us even we have to take to the streets to highlight them.  Homelessness and hunger are still HUGE issues.  We need to be ready to both march and feed.

2017 is going to be a year that challenges us all.  The powers of Empire and Evil are going to be arrayed against Justice and the Kingdom in some very specific ways.  Our call isn't to be "civil"...it is to be faithful.  And faithfulness will have a cost.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections On A Life Of Jesus

Something struck me this Christmas season.  I'm not exactly sure why it struck me now.  Maybe because I've been listening to Hamilton and am haunted by the line, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story." 

Maybe it's because I've been remembering a line from Against The Wind, a song both Bob Seger and Waylon Jennings covered:

"Well those drifters days are past me now
"I've got so much more to think about
"Deadlines and commitments
"What to leave in, what to leave out"

Or perhaps it is because I've been remembering my High School literature teacher, Frank Austell, who introduced us to The Odyssey by talking about the different ways in which translators had translated the opening line describing Ulysses; and how that laid the groundwork for how the rest of the work would be.

What is it that struck me?  It is the truth that every preacher tells his/her own Life of Jesus.  We aren't always conscious that we're doing it.  Perhaps we would deny it and claim that we're sticking to the scriptures like glue.  But each of us, in our choices of scripture, our means of reflecting on that scripture, and the emphasis we put on it in relation to other passages, tells a Life of Jesus that is particular to us...even when it is similar to that told by others.

Having been struck by this truth, I begin thinking about what my own Life of Jesus would look like if I took the material I've written over the last few years of blogging and preaching and placed it in some sort of reasonable order.  Where are the gaps that I would want to fill in?  Am I placing emphasis where it doesn't belong?  What would a clear, intentional examination reveal?  What is the picture of Jesus that I carry in my head?  Am I clear, even with myself, on what it looks like?

So my New Year's resolution is to, in my preaching, my writing, and my blog, to be clearer about that picture.  I want to take the pieces of the mosaic in my mind and lay them out for examination.  And when the picture that emerges does not balance with the teachings of scripture I want to honestly address and correct my portrait.

This will be the underlying goal in much of my writing here as we move into the New Year.  Thought it would only be fair to warn you.  Hope you'll stay along for the ride and join the conversation as you're able.

All that being said, I wish everyone who reads this blog a safe and wonderful New Year.  May God's Shalom come a little closer as we seek to explore and imitate the life of Jesus and it's claim on us in 2017.