Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Adoption

"It followed me home,
can I keep it?"
Was the cry of kids in my day,
cuddling stray, flea ridden
cats and dogs close.
The kitten born under the dumpster
the puppy put out
on the side of the road.
Every time I hear Jesus saying,
"Who is my brother and sister?"
Every time I read Paul proclaim
that we are not just adopted, but heirs,
I feel Jesus arms
around my ragged self,
holding me and a million other strays close,

Saying
Abba, Daddy, they followed me home,
can I keep them?

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Ransomed and Redeemed"-Bigger Than We Thought

It happens to me, sometimes, on weeks like this that I want to throw my scriptures for the week and my sermon out the window.  It particularly is true this week when I'm knee deep in a sermon series on What Happened At The Cross and trying to explain Atonement Theory without the theological nightmare that is Penal Substitutionary Atonement....only to have the proposed Trump Budget with it's cuts to things like Meals On Wheels and After School Care programs, drop a turd into the national punchbowl as it backpedals on the values that people of faith in America hold dear.

My sermon topic this week is "Ransomed and Redeemed"; and my title (for better or worse, already in the bulletin) is Who Will Buy Me Back?  My scriptures (picked weeks ago) are Romans 7:14-25 and Matthew 20:20-28.  When I went looking for a hymn that utilized the word "Redeemer" that might help me out of the funk I've fallen into, it got worse.  Every hymn in our hymnal: Redeemed How I Love To Proclaim It; I Will Sing Of My Redeemer; seems to focus on the "Jesus and Me" view of redemption that makes our salvation a purely personal event that has nothing to do with the redemption of all of creation.

Then it hit me that I had fallen prey to the very things that I preach so hard against.  In my reactionary rage at the tragic, sinful, actions coming from this Administration, I had sunk back into responding as if  Atonement, the cross, and Jesus' sacrificial death has nothing to do with the child who will not eat til tomorrow morning at school if she is not fed at her after school program; or the elderly person whose only human contact many weeks is the person delivering his meals on wheels.

The truth, however, is much more complex.  "Redemption" is much more complex.  A study of the word "redeemer" brings us to the Hebrew word "go'el" which is the word for the family member in early Israel who was tasked with defending family honor, making sure that the weak were defended, and buying back family members who had been sold, or had sold themselves, into slavery.

One of the earliest uses of the word is found in Exodus 6:6

"Say therefore to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement, and I will take you for my people and I will be your God..."

And in Isaiah, the prophet makes a response to one of the cries of the Psalmist in distress.  Listen first to the cry of the Psalm, an expression of anguish by a people who wonder if they have fallen beyond rescue:

In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried, and were saved, in you they trusted, and were not disappointed.  But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;[and say] "He committed his cause to the Lord; let Him deliver him, let Him rescue him, for he delights in Him!" (Psalms 22:4-8)

It is worth noting that this Psalm, Psalm 22 is the one Jesus quotes from the cross when He cries out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?"

But back to Isaiah, who picks up on a Psalm that would have been well known to his hearers, one used in the liturgy of Israel.  Israel is feeling crushed, shamed, in the words of the Psalm, "not a man, but a worm."  Isaiah does not deny any of this, but speaks to the "worm" to the very place of crushed shame

Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:14)

Redemption, according to scripture, is so much bigger than the lie that Evil tells; the lie that all it is about is some individualistic piety thing that goes on while "real life" and "real issues" are being addressed by the current Empire, in whatever form it is currently taking.  The redemption that takes place on the cross, when Jesus takes on the brokenness of humankind, both individually and in the collective expressions where we are crushed beneath the weight of nationalism and idolatry, is one in which God claims us as "my people," "my family," and declares that God's own self will be our go'el.

This redemption is a small as my own life where my shame and brokenness crush me to a place where I do not believe I will every rise again; and as large as the sins of a nation whose government appears to have sold out it's responsibility to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger and worships at the temples of the false gods of wealth and power and military might. And scripture points to a redemption even larger than the paltry sins of failed leadership of our time, toward a redemption that will remake heaven and earth so that we can be bought back from the Evil and Sin to which we have sold ourselves as slaves.

This does not mean that there will not be consequences.  Jesus, Himself, tried to warn His contemporaries that if they continued in the direction they were going that Jerusalem would be destroyed.  They did not listen. And finally, there was not a stone left on top of another in the destruction of the city in 70 AD.

There will be no fairytale ending to drama that is unfolding as Trump and those around him gut what matters about this country.  We have a responsibility to resist and to, in Jesus name, continue to try to care for the marginalized whether our political resistance is successful or not.  We will need to work to feed the children and the elderly; to house the homeless; to find medical help for the sick.  We may need to create new models and new expressions of Gospel care; just as Christians lived out their care for others in the middle of a Hellenized Roman culture that could not understand what they were doing.

On the cross Christ redeemed creation: from us to the cosmos.  We are called to join the dance of that redemption, to sing it's song, to raise it's banner....even, no, especially in the face of the tyrants of our day.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What Happened At The Cross: Healed And Restored

Some time back I blogged about how the Japanese art of Kintsugi (the art of using a natural glue with gold as an ingredient to take broken pottery and remake it into a work of art) struck me as a great metaphor for what happens when Jesus mends the broken pieces of our lives.

As I am moving through the Lenten Sermon Series What Happened At The Cross it seems appropriate to revisit this image.  At the cross God in Christ heals and restores us; both to what we were created to be, and to relationship with God, self, and neighbor.  We see examples of what is coming in the healing stories in which Jesus takes individuals who have been separated from family and community by their illness (lepers, the woman with the bleeding issue, dead folks) and not only heals them, but sends them back to community.

The poem below speaks to some of my thoughts about this.

Kintsugi Glory

In all our brokenness O God
we trace the cracks and lines and fissures
That separate us from Your love
as well as from ourselves and neighbor.
Our woundedness is so complex
we often cannot tell
what, or who, struck the original blow,
where or when it fell.
All we know is that we stand
at the gulf's sharp edge
and are driven to our knees
trying to reach across
the gapping wounds of our lives.
Panting, bloody, hopeless
powerless to bridge the space between.
Til Your cross
like a surgeon's stitch
pulls our torn lives together
holding them there while they heal.
Then Your love rubs aloe in the scar
which slowly, slowly fades
Until
all that is left is a thin line
of Kintsugi glory
To sing Your praise.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do I Have Time For Lent?

The world is crumbling around us
there's a crazy man in the White House.
And and not for the first time either.
The water is poisoned
the arms race is growing
again
Racism is now flagrant
mocking all the progress
we thought that we had made.

And you want me
to dab dirt on my forehead
and commit to being still
really still, you say
for at least five minutes a day?
for How long?

Ashes,
the great corrective
for "And I alone can fix it."
Reminding me that I am dust;
faltering
fault ridden
dust.

Slowing down,
perhaps the antidote to
maniac attempts
to prove how correct I am,
how necessary,
how irreplaceable.
Is it possible
that in that humbler, slower state
I might find
some small good that I can actually do
and some connection
to a Will greater than my own?

Lent cannot come too soon.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Poem For The Tuesday Night Bible Study

You ask too much! I raged,
All this stuff about
Leave your gift at the alter,
and go make peace
with your alienated brother or sister.
You even claimed
that God's forgiveness
was impacted somehow
by the quality of my own.
You told that stupid, horrible parable
about an unforgiving servant
turned over to be tortured til his debt was paid.

I lay awake in the early morning
my stomach churning in anger
at You,
and at the ones You commanded me to forgive
It was....torture.
But how, I cried, can I let go?
How can I be free?
The resentment I once clung to
now buries it's teeth deep in me.
Then
through my helpless tears
I saw
You
turned over to the torturers
writhing in pain
as You said from that hideous height
"Father forgive them,
they don't know what they're doing."

O Holy Jesus
I bring my hatreds
my unforgiving resentments
my bigoted lust for vengeful blood
And lay them at the foot of Your cross.
Help me to leave them there.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Exploring The Call To Be Sanctuary

Hyattsville, the town in which I pastor has been debating the issue of becoming a "Sanctuary City."  While I don't live in this town, but in Annapolis, about 45 minutes down the road, this affects many of the people whom I pastor; and it impacts the Police Officers whom I serve as one of the Community Police Chaplains.  Their work and lives and safety are affected to the extent that they get pulled into having to enforce immigration policies.  The immigration debate on the larger, national scale, impacts many of the children who are in our Preschool and their families.  So I have no trouble claiming that I have a dog in this fight.

In addition, a variety of churches are now taking the step of defining themselves as "Sanctuary Churches."

I don't have an answer to the question about "Sanctuary" situations....at least in terms of how congregations and cities define themselves.  I DO have a lot of questions. 

In Acts 5:29, when told to quit preaching the Gospel, Peter and the other Apostles famously responded, "We ought to obey God rather than men."  When we as Christians first, and citizens second, are asked to be part of the violation of Scripture's claims on us to care for the stranger, when we are told to quit living the Gospel, "we must obey God rather than men."

Scripture is very clear about how we are to treat "the stranger in your gates."  The demand in Scripture for Hospitality is very clear.  The absence of such expressions of Justice and Mercy are part of the reason, according to the Prophets, that Israel will go into exile.  And, if you read the story of Lot the way that I do, the failure of Sodom to provide hospitality to the two disguised angels; the absence of a safe place where these two could rest for even a night; the threat of physical violence and rape....this was what caused the judgement resulting in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Let me say this again, so I am clear:  Two angels, disguised as travelers-refugees-fail to find safety and hospitality in Sodom.  They are subjected to the threat of violence and rape.  There would be no place they could go for justice or protection.  This behavior violates everything Torah taught about hospitality for the stranger.  God's wrath destroyed the city.

Lot's wife, looking back in longing, perhaps, at the good life she had had in the city, despite it's horrible treatment of those who sought refuge there (this evil had risen like a stench to God's nostrils), turned into a pillar of salt.  I always wondered about that until I remembered that salt was used to seal a covenant.  This pillar of salt was a reminder: "you have broken the covenant to provide safety and hospitality, here is a giant reminder of your promise and it's brokenness."

I sometimes wonder if our nation's love for Trump's attitude toward immigrants, particularly those who are people of color, isn't a fond looking back in longing for the old world in which whiteness ruled and others kept their heads down and kept on moving.  This is clearly at work in the current Alt-Right and Nationalist attitudes that praise recent EOs.  I pray that we do not need some horrible monument to the brokenness of our covenant to stand as a reminder of our failure.

People come to this country, sometimes legally, sometimes not, looking for a new, safe life.  Many of them have been severely traumatized both in the countries they left (often the reason for their leaving) and on the journey here.  When we deny refugees and immigrants basic safety protections and leave them feeling as though they cannot even go to the local police if they have been abused or assaulted or had their wages stolen, for fear that they will be reported, detained, and deported-in effect, re-traumatizing them....we are committing the crimes that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

We ought to resist this. We have to resist this.  We ought to obey God rather than men. 

From a non-religious, pragmatic standpoint, our cities become less safe when immigrants feel unprotected.

"As the Washington Post recently reported, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing the 63 largest urban areas in the nation, stated in a 2006 report, that “immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively affect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities,” which would “would result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing future terroristic acts.”

The above quote comes from this article: 

http://ww2.kqed.org/lowdown/2015/07/10/explainer-what-are-sanctuary-cities/

One of my questions, however, even as I seek to "obey God rather than men," is how defining one's city or church as "Sanctuary" impacts the ones we're trying to help.  I am not waffling on the need to protect immigrants and refugees.  It seems, however, that there are two separate tasks involved here...and both are important.

We need to stand against the draconian approach to immigration that contradicts both O.T. Scripture and Jesus' teachings.  We need to stand with actions such as demonstrations, speaking out, and developing policies that keep our local city and county police from becoming an extension of Immigration Enforcement.  Like the Abolitionists during slavery, we need to speak out.

But we ALSO need to find ways to protect the immigrants and refugees who are at risk here, now.  This is a subversive activity.  Living our faith often is.  No one who was a "host" on the Underground Railroad hung a sign outside their church telling the world that they were a stopping point.

ICE appears now to be targeting church sponsored Warm Nights shelters, etc. and picking up folks as they step across the street....thereby obeying the letter, if not the spirit of their own policies.  Are we drawing a "bulls eye" on our shelters and churches, and consequently on those we seek to care for?  How do we both speak and protect?

This is not an accusation, nor do I have an answer.  I seek only to raise the questions and suggest that this is one of those times that we need to be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves."  Finding creative solutions....even ones that risk arrest, may be an important step here.  Small actions may be required....such as creating an apartment in a church where a family or individual could live for a long period of time; finding ways to slip immigrants in and out of shelter situations; helping people move safely from one place to another.  This should sound familiar.  The Church has done it before.  And it did it while other churches, specifically in the deep south, fought against such care for runaway slaves.

How we express our commitment to being Sanctuary is going to be an ongoing challenge.  But again, "we must obey God rather than men."





Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Resurrection, The Quality of Resistance, and The Sermon On The Mount

It may sound strange that I want to begin a discussion of "resistance" and the Sermon on the Mount with comments on Resurrection.  It may be even stranger when I tell you that my focus on Resurrection begins with my youthful hero, the film character Billy Jack.

Two poignant exchanges have stayed with me for over 50 years.  In the first, Billy Jack asked his female co-star about where King, and Bobby and Jack Kennedy are.  "Dead," she is forced to reply.
"Not 'dead', their brains blown out. Because YOUR people wouldn't put the same controls on their guns as they do their dogs, their bicycles, their cats, and their automobiles."

In the second, Jean tries to get him to leave before the violence escalates.  He replies, "In what remote corner of this country-no-entire goddamn planet is there a place where men really care about one another and really love each other? Now, you tell me where such a place is, and I'll never hurt another human being as long as I live."

These two exchanges raise significant issues about resistance.  The first is the question of what do you do when your Messianic figure dies?  N.T. Wright discusses this in terms of first century response, but it is the same now: you either give up the revolution and slink home, or you go find another messiah. 

The second issue is the sneaky feeling that "this  non-violent, peace stuff" doesn't really work when the chips are down.  So your best bet is to slow the S.O.B's down a little by standing in the way of their violence toward the vulnerable and take as many out as you can before they cut you down.  And your reasoning is supported by the deaths of your hero/messiah figures and the fact that evil will always have you outgunned and, usually, outmanned. 

Jesus' followers copied down the oral tradition about His teaching; a teaching so radical, so revolutionary that even today every Bible study I teach on it, someone shakes their head and says, "you know this won't work in the real world."  As though Jesus had somehow spent the 3 years of His ministry in a bubble somewhere or on top of a mountain in Tibet like a monk that people climbed up to for some word of wisdom.

And they wrote it down because something had happened so powerful that they were forced to think, "well, if this happened, maybe this teaching might be true as well.  And the "this" was the Resurrection.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  Jesus didn't say, "listen for me in the wind, see me in the flowers,"or any of that cheap bullshit; He said, "touch my hands and put your fingers in the wound in my side."  Torture and death may still exist in this world; but I follow a Jesus who has conquered both.  So I risk trying to follow Him....right now....in the here and now....in non-violent resistance that confronts evil and exposes it for what it is without turning me into a mini version of the very thing I'm trying to fight.

Walter Wink, in Jesus and Non-violence makes a strong case for the idea that "turn the other cheek; give him your tunic; and go an extra mile" were forms of resistance that shamed the oppressor and maintained the honor/humanhood of the oppressed.  These are more than simple rules; they are example guides to how we deal with oppressive forces.  Our task is to ask, "what would that look like now, in this situation?"

When one looks at the resistance of King and Ghandi and Tutu through this lens we get a whole different picture.  There is "a place" where people "care for and love each other."  It is the Kingdom that Jesus talked and taught about.  It is both here and coming.  And we can participate in it.  We can participate in it now.  By resisting hatred in all it's forms....including Trump's ban on Muslims and the suppression of voting rights and violence against LGBTQ folks and the rape of the earth for financial gain.

Now I have to confess that my life doesn't look like that resistance.  It looks more like the poem I posted earlier today about my bowl of resentments.  But I'm trying.  God help me, I'm trying.

I'm even trying the "pray for your enemies" thing.  And my prayer is this: "O God, surround them with Your Presence, and give them what they need."  Before you turn me off here, remember that it is a "terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God."  If those who are giving themselves over to Evil are surrounded by God's Presence, then a moment of choice has come.  What they need may well not be what they want.  My experience of that kind of moment was not soft and mushy.  God kicked my ass.

And that's my final point:  Non-violent resistance in imitation of Jesus' teaching always holds up a mirror; always forces a choice; always provokes a turning point.  We may die in the attempt, this is true-to say less would be to lie.  But we follow the one who has conquered death.  We are offering those who are giving themselves to Evil the opportunity for Repentance and Reconciliation.  Isn't that what Evangelical faith is supposed to be about?  These brothers and sisters who, perhaps not truly totally aware, are giving themselves to that which will make them less and less human; which will devour them....we are seeking their salvation.

So we are called to resist.  Here, now.  Without violence.  Because, as the anonymous writer said, "violence is a sword that has no handle, you have to hold the blade."  But we are called.  Jesus calls us.  This is our time.