Thursday, August 25, 2016

Link To Kudzu Sermon

I'm grateful that a couple of folks have been interested in the sermon that came out of my last two blog posts.  While we're working on our website (it's summer, what can I say) links to sermons are often posted on the Facebook page for First Baptist Hyattsville.

In any case, here is a link to last Sunday's sermon on A Kingdom Like Kudzu:

Hope you enjoy it and that it speaks to you of hope in the middle of all the chaos of our world.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Mustard Seeds, Part 2

I wrote the last blog entry as I was preparing to preach on the parable of the mustard seeds.  I shared, pretty openly, my own experience of feeling overwhelmed and disgusted with the world in which I'm called to live and minister....and with myself.....during a period of a few days that were particularly dark for me.

My wife, who has been on vacation on Cape Cod with her eldest son, called me and said, "I read your blog; I'm worried about you."  She was concerned that I might be headed into a depression.  And while, if this mood had carried on, she might have had some serious cause for concern, there was no need for it right now.

I do think that many of us,I speak especially of clergy here because I am on, but also others who are deeply committed to living out our faith in the face of racism, sexism, economic marginalization, domestic violence, get the picture.....begin to feel, frankly, like our work is useless.  It is part of the high rate of burnout and addictions among pastors (which is a whole other blog for another day).

So I want to take a moment a write about what gives me hope in the face of all this.  Mustard seeds were a great image for Jesus' audience, but maybe not so much for us.  We don't encounter this plant much.  So let me try to put it this way.

You know what gives me hope?  Kudzu.


Kudzu was introduced to the U.S. at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  It comes originally from Japan.  It has been referred to (perhaps unfairly) as the "weed that ate the south."  I remember hiking in the mountains of North Carolina in my late teens and early 20s and seeing old farm shacks back in the hills that had been totally covered, and partially eaten away, by kudzu.  You can't kill the stuff.  It's another of those plants that has an underground root system and grows at a terrifying rate.

Why does this give me hope?

Because this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  It's like mustard plants, or bittersweet, or virginia creeper, or can't kill it.  It just goes underground.  And it will, sooner or later, cover everything.  There is a hymn that talks about the earthing being "filled with the glory of God, like the waters cover the sea."  I believe that sooner or later, God will have God's way.  And God will use every act of justice and mercy; ever feeding of a hungry one; every clothing of a naked one: every visit to a sick or imprisoned one; every standing up for and being knocked down beside an oppressed and marginalized one.....God will use each of these to bring in the "time that will surely be"  when 'the earth will be filled with the glory of God like kudzu covers the south.'

So I risk sharing my bitter days; knowing that they are not the last word.  Not the last word about my life, my ministry, the world around me, or the final word about all of creation.

Next time you're out in your yard pulling up kudzu, or bittersweet, or virginia creeper....cursing, sweating, fighting that loosing battle.....remember that this is the battle that evil fights with the Kingdom.  And our God will be victorious.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mustard Seeds And Facts On The Ground

I have not posted in a while.  I have not wanted to.  Many of my thoughts have gone from the anguish and rage, the pathos, that  often leads me to the heavy, lead like overwhelmedness that is, for me, a doorway to despair.  Despair is a dangerous place for me.  It takes me into the darkest places of my psyche where nothing matters and hopelessness mixes with anxiety and obsession.  I find myself disgusted at the whole world, especially myself.  I feel my lip curling unconsciously in that sneer of disdain one gets when you smell something particularly loathsome.  That becomes the lens through which I look out at the world.

This is a difficult confession for me to make; that I can go to that place.  It is not who I think of myself as being.  But the truth is that it is possible for that to be who I am.  For that to happen, even for a short time is a is a cause of shame for me.  I understand much more clearly Paul's comment, "I am a slave sold to sin; who will rescue me from this body of death."

Not only the politics of the day, but the workings of my own spirit and the grim news on all sides combine to create the dangerous cocktail of numb hopelessness in which one cannot even cry out.  But it is is crying out that we find that God comes.  I believe that.  I preach that.  I have spoken that here.  And so, this blog is a crying out of some of what has been going on for me.

This is Alicia.  Alicia gave me permission to use this photo.  In this photo she is five.  She is trying to find the best way to eat her ice cream.  That is the big challenge of her life.  Alicia is grown now.  She is my daughter's girlfriend.  She has had the opportunity to grow into the beautiful, gifted woman that she is now, and I am honored to know her.

This is Omran.  Omran Daqneesh.  He lives in Aleppo, Syria. Omran is also about five.  The big challenge of his life is to just stay alive.  I don't know if he's ever had an ice cream.  I don't know if he will ever grow up.  I know that his picture will haunt me for a very long time.

In my mind these pictures sit side by side.  And into my plans for Sunday comes Jesus' parable in Mark 4 about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed.  Jesus placed this image of an invasive weed over against the picture painted in Ezekiel of the Kingdom being like a mighty cedar.  Both, we're told, would provide a place for the birds to find shelter.  But Jesus talks about a plant that takes over.  It's underground root structure causes it to spread everywhere.  It's not glorious.  It's not a plant associated with the powerful and grand.  It's a weed.  A useful weed, but a weed none the less.

I can get with that.  Personally I like that image.  But the facts on the ground don't match up.  If the Kingdom is coming, why so much of it underground root and so little of it branches to shelter the vulnerable?  Political rhetoric is obscene.  The indecency of the objectification of people in porn can't hold a candle to what is done in this country (and around the world) on a daily basis to the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized.

Then, today, I stumbled on an article written by Cody Sanders for Baptist News Global.  You can find it here:

What struck me was his use of the passage from Isaiah 58:
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom lbe like the noonday....[Y]ou shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. (58:9b-10,12b, NRSV)

The mustard seed is not the "Word of God" from the parable of the sower.  The mustard seed that the man sows in his garden is us.  You and me.  God alone (quite literally) knows why anyone would sow a weed in a garden....nor why God chooses to use you and me to advance the Kingdom.  But God does.  This is us.  Tiny, weedlike.  But we are what God has chosen.  If we are going to be part of the coming of the Kingdom, we need to listen to the acts of justice and mercy that are being called for.  We have to live an alternative story to the one being told day after day after day in our world.

Will Willimon used to say, "one day God will get what God wants."  The question is, whether we're going to be a part of it.  God's mustard plant Kingdom will move along underground with or without us.  Will be push up through the ugliness of this world, the turning of children into "collateral damage" and make our piece of the world  place in which the vulnerable ones can find shelter and hope?

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Prophets Do Not Lie

Do we think that God can be mocked?
Do we think God's arm is shortened?

God forbade Israel passing it's children thru the fire
as a sacrifice to Molech,
Yet our children come back from war
And we leave them to pass thru the fires
of PTSD and addiction
While waiting for the VA to find room.

The prophet Ezekiel
described the rich
as rams who pushed the small and weak
Aside at the water
and tromp thru the stream
fouling so that no others can drink,
Thus earning the judgement of God.
Yet we think the drinking water in Flint
is a blip on the radar
soon to be forgotten.

Do we think that God can be mocked?
Do we think God's arm is shortened?

Years before the Assyrians
or the Babylonians
carried the first Israelite into exile
The prophets warned
that the lack of justice for the poor
and chasing after the gods of wealth
and power
Would result in their destruction.
young black men die in the street
while those who violate their public trust
dishonor the badge they wear
go free.
The rich are deemed to big to fail
while aid programs for the poor are cut.

Do we think that God can be mocked?
Do we think God’s arm is shortened?

Don't worry we say to one another,
We are exceptional, we are the chosen,
That preacher was wrong
God will not damn America.
we will damn ourselves,
thinking God can be mocked
and God's arm has been shortened.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

This Jesus, He'll Eat With Anybody

"Why does he eat with sinners?" They asked.
Why should they care? We wonder.
Rabbis differ all the time about things.
What's the big deal?

It's a big deal
because he dared
to speak with his own authority.
He dared to say
"This is what the Kingdom of God looks like,
and it's dropped right down here slam in the middle of you all."

So when Jesus
Who is cleansing lepers
(which is bad enough mind you)
And telling the paralyzed to get up
and stroll on home....and, oh, don't forget your bedroll;
When he starts singing tenor with the wino quartet on the corner,
Handing out bottled water to the protestors,
And buying coffee for the cop on his beat;
They damn sure want to know
who he thinks he is.

And it's as clear to you as it is to me
They aren't gonna like the answer they get.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

We Will Rise

You crack your whip
"More bricks, less straw"
and think you've won.

But God has spoken from a burning bush
to a stuttering fugitive; a murderer with a price on his head.
And your oppression will be swept away
like the chariots bogged down
in the mud of the Red Sea.

A walk by the sea
where the tax on fish
makes the life of fishermen
like sharecropping on the sea
You think you've won
creating between those who pay
and those who collect
Never let them fraternize,
those who hate each other
can never rise against you.
You think you've won.
Til walking by the sea
He calls out to fishermen and tax collectors
"Follow me." And they do.

You think you've won
In the gunfire of early morning
and the killing hatred of extremists
of every stripe.
“Don’t let them fraternize, keep them
You scream at your minions of distrust and fear; cringing every time
an open word of care or prayer is spoken
across the dividing lines of race and power

Be careful
For God will speak again from a burning bush
Or walk beside the sea of blood you've spilled
And folk, once weak, will rise.
You, O hate will fall.
Love will rise.
We will rise.
Truth will rise.
Because He has risen.
O death you think you've won.
You fool.
We will rise.

Friday, July 8, 2016

With My Tears I Melt My Mattress

As of Monday I had planned, and still plan, to preach on Psalm 102:

"Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bead.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown  me aside,
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass."

On Monday and Tuesday my plans were to look at how this is a brutally honest prayer for the times in which we are frozen in our fear, our guilt, our shame.  But that by using this prayer we keep the conversation going so that, at some point, we can hear Jesus saying to us as He did the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, "Your sins are forgiven.....take up your bed and go home."

But then I saw the videos of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile....videos that look to me very much like police officers misusing the power of their office and killing black men who did not present a threat worth of their response.  I spent hours up through Thursday morning thinking of this Psalm as the prayer of a mother or father whose son has died in this fashion.  I thought about the kids in our church's Child and Family Center who never pass me without a "Hi Pastor Stephen!" and imagined the possibility of one of them one day dying due to excessive force by the police.  My heart broke.

Then Thursday night all hell broke loose in Dallas.  We don't know much about the why and all of the what....but we do know that 5 police officers were killed at the end of what had been a very peaceful protest.  It was so peaceful that protesters and police had been taking selfies together.  Then the shooting started.  And the prayer became about the families of those officers; and, indeed, about a whole nation that begins to look and sound like the old Peter, Paul and Mary song:

"Lord said fire coming judgement day
 All battle, crime and sin gon' pass away
 Hey brothers and sisters, don't you know
 We gonna reap just what we sow."

"But the world's not waitin' for the Lord's command
 We've built us a fire that's gonna sweep this land
 There's a thunder out of heaven and Gabriel's call
 And the sea's gonna boil and the sky's gonna fall."

The violence is numbing.  If a novelist opened a book with a paragraph that read, "He reached for his ID and the officer pulled his weapon and shot him four times"  or  "The man with the rifle stepped out of the shadows and shot the police officer in the back again and again" many of us would reject it as unrealistic.  But both happened this week.

This week I have heard all three approaches to this Psalm:  a parent asking me to help them find a book to assist their 10 year old in dealing with their personal trauma-"I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink";  Black parents talking about how "the talk" in their household is not about sex, but about what to do if you're stopped by the police-"my days pass away like smoke and my bones burn like a furnace"; and comments by police officers about how they never know when they leave for their watch if they will come home again-"all day long my enemies taunt me, those who deride me use my name for a curse."

It is a Psalm for all of us.  We need to cry out; to engage in a national mourning for what we've let happen here.  To pray for forgiveness for how we've fallen in love with violence as a solution.  How we've ignored the needs of traumatized children.  For how we've let people of color and of the LGBT community be devalued so that killing them is easier than killing a straight white man and arouses less outrage.

I do not have least not today....and most likely not tomorrow either.  I believe that the next week or so will be times when like Psalm 6:7, "with my tears I melt my mattress."

But this I DO believe:  If we will cry out, God will show up.  Our anguish can be turned to action that heals and restores and reconciles.  But we have to keep the conversation going; with God, with our own hearts, with one another.

When we've come this close to the edge of the Pit, melting our mattress with our tears might not be a bad thing.