Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Story Of Two Twelve Year Olds

Tamir Rice was 12 when he died of a gunshot wound.  He was shot by an officer in training in Cleveland, Ohio.  Viewing the video is painful.  Literally seconds after the police car pulls up, Tamir is shot.  The amount of things that went wrong in this situation would fill volumes.

The fact that Ohio is a "carry" state would lead one to believe that there should be some protocol for approaching people who you know are armed.  But this officer opened fire. 

I want to try to reflect on Tamir's death, to honor it by looking at it from the perspective of what it can teach those of us ministering in communities.  I would like to begin that reflection by sharing with you two blog posts that have moved me deeply:

The first of these is Leslie Copeland Tune's "I'm With Rachel...Until"  and you can find it at

https://mondaysatthealtar.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/im-with-rachel-until/#more-160

The second in Maren Tirabassi's beautiful poem, "Mourning again, Tamir Rice" at her blog

 https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/

Both of these women clergy have impacted my thinking and feeling as I try to wrap my head around both the death of another black male-this one only 12, and the failure of prosecutors to indict the officer responsible for his death.

Last week's scripture on the "Slaughter of the Innocents" lifted up the plight of both refugees around the world who are fleeing from oppression; and that of those whose blood is cheap in the economy of Empires.  This week's scripture passage (at least the one I'm preaching on) from Luke 2:41-52 tells the story of a 12 year old Jesus traveling in safety with his family from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  I did a double take when I read this passage in the light of Tamir's death.

Jesus also lives in a time and place where his blood was cheap.  Herod has already tried to kill him; and such oppression was commonplace.  Not to mention bandits on the road who made pilgrims to Jerusalem their source of income.  Yet Jesus traveled in such safety that his parents, when they didn't find him for a day, just assumed, reasonably we imagine, that he was with family or friends.  Think about it.....they could trust that their boy was safe because he was surrounded by community.

What would that have looked like in Tamir's case?  Would it have looked like a police officer who, shielding himself with his car, checked to see what was actually going on, rather than firing on a "black male with gun" immediately upon opening the door?  Would it have looked like someone pulling Tamir aside and saying, "don't carry that thing around, it looks too real"?  What would community look like?  Probably a combination of all of these and more.

This all makes me angry.  Even angrier when set next to the story of Ethan Couch, the teen who was sentenced to ten years probation for the drunk driving deaths of four people.  A wealthy, white teen whose primary defense was "affluenza"....which, in my mind, means "I have money and no one kicked my behind enough to give me any regard for other human beings."

But it's not enough to be angry.  And it's not enough to put #blacklivesmatter signs outside our churches (though the political point needs to be made).  Those of us who are part of congregations in changing neighborhoods especially need to be part of creating the kinds of communities in which the blood of 12 year old Tamir Rice is worth as much as that of Ethan Couch.  We need to quit being little islands of the past, and get ourselves so deeply embedded in the life of the neighborhood around our churches that we are truly part of the community.  Enough that the Tamir Rices know us by name; enough that the police know that the lives in this community matter to us; enough that we start looking like Church instead of just church.

This will not solve all the problem.  It will not stop all the deaths.  But if it stops one, it will be worth it.  And when tragedy does strike, it will provide a community of faith and family in which to grieve and process and heal.

If Tamir Rice had been surrounded by the kind of community that Jesus had at his age, who would Tamir have grown up to be?  What did our world lose when he died?  Maybe we need to look at Tamir Rice and listen to John Dunne, "no man is an island entire in itself....any man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.  So send not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

If, when Tamir was shot, we didn't feel the bullet, we should have.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Post Christmas Tradition

It is sort of a tradition for me to find some place to use these words from Howard Thurman after Christmas. So I share them with you

"When the song of the angels is stilled,
 When the star in the sky is gone,
 When the kings and princes are home,
 When the sheperds are back with their flock,

     The work of Christmas begins:
    
     To find the lost,
     To heal the broken,
     To feed the hungry,
     To release the prisoner,
     To rebuild the nations,
     To bring peace among people,
     To make music in the heart."

Friday, December 25, 2015

I Have The Same Father As This Baby

I have the same Father as this Baby;
it boggles my mind, really, to take that seriously.


I have the same Father as this Baby;
does that mean He took as much joy, placed as much hope, in what my birth might mean?

I have the same Father as this Baby;
then why do I think that our Father would put that Baby in a world of Herods, poverty, and hatred, but spare me from ever having to deal with them?

I have the same Father as this Baby;
and our Father told Him that everyone around Him were His brothers and sisters, why do I keep thinking that they're somehow not mine?

I have the same Father as this Baby;
He knew temptation and frustration and betrayal, why do I keep acting like my Father is supposed to rescue me from these?

I have the same Father as this Baby;
our Father was always present to Him, why do I act like our Father is so far away from me? Like He doesn't want to talk to me, or wrap me in His love?

I have the same Father as this Baby;
and He died. So will I. That's just the way it is. One day, I will die.

I have the same Father as this Baby;
our Father raised Him up, did not let death conquer Him, kicked Death's ass thru Him. Do I really think our Father will abandon me to death, or Death, or some great nothingness?

I have the same Father as this Baby;
so why do I spend so much time acting like I don't have a Daddy?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Who Were These Shepherds

Short of John 3:16, probably one of the most famous passages of scripture is Luke 2:1-20.  I wish that was because so many people came to church, but I'm afraid it's because it's Linus' speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Linus recites some of the verses (8-14 to be exact) and then says, "That what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown."  Pair this with the massive number of us who were dressed up in bathrobes and tin foil halos to do Christmas Pageants in which some kid memorized, sometimes, all 20 of these verses, and they're pretty well burned into our brains.

That's not a bad thing.  But sometimes the meaning of something that's burned into our brains gets lost in the multiple hearings.

The truth is that there is a whole lot right about Linus saying, "That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown."  But we just might miss it if we're not careful.

Let's jump back just a bit to the first 7 verses.  It appears that there is this massive registration (that's the word the NRSV uses).  Now this is a problem in itself.  Another registration, by Quirinius, six years later will cause riots.  It isn't just the taxation, though it was bad enough to be being taxed by an occupying Empire; but registration has always been one of the ways that an oppressor keeps track of the "troublemakers" and a whole lot of others get caught up in the mess.  We still see that in this country with politicians wanting to do their own version of the same thing regarding Muslim persons who are entering, or already in, the United States.  So this moment is set against a background of tension.  It takes place in the socio-political stew of oppression.

So, one night, the angels show up.  The Glory of the Lord is blindingly present.  But not to Augustus, or Quirinius, or even the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem.  Not even in Jerusalem! No, the "City of David" (which Jerusalem is often called) that is claimed in this passage is a little podunk burg not much bigger that the backwater Nazareth that Joseph and Mary had come from.  And somewhere out in the area around this little town were a group of shepherds.  Now in Mary and Joseph's day, shepherds weren't particularly well thought of.  They worked away from home; which made them unable to defend their women, which made them considered "less than."  They worked with animals and dirt and this work meant they couldn't do the ritual washing for keeping purity laws.  And, they were probably working for someone else; watching the flocks of a wealthy sheep owner.  In the great registration you had to wonder if anyone even thought they were worth counting.  Besides, they smelled.  And THIS is where God's Glory "shown round about them."  THESE were the folks who got the good news first.

Imagine it as kind of like this:

It happened that when Obama was in the White House and Francis was Pope; Governor Hogan decided to register everybody since it would keep it from looking like he was targeting any one group.  Folks had to come to Baltimore to register.  And, one evening, fairly late, there were a bunch of dock hands working the Baltimore Harbor who stopped to take their smoke break and steal a little sip from the bottle they passed around against the cold.  Suddenly, there was this really, really bright blinding light.  Some of the guys who weren't legal started to run, they thought it was ICE.  And some of the guys who had warrants out on them thought it was a raid and tried to slip away.  But a voice even bigger than a bull horn said, "relax, don't be afraid.  Look, I'm bringing good news that'll even make you happy.  Cause today, in Brooklyn, MD there's a very special baby been born.  He's going to make all the difference.  And if you go looking for him, this is how you'll know you've found him;  his mama didn't have a blanket, so she wrapped tight in a pair of old coveralls and used an empty Citrol box for a crib.  They're in Larry's Cut-Rate Auto Supplies garage behind the Super 8 off Ritchie Highway....seems the Super 8 was full.

This really IS what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!  And Stephen, and Abby, and Johnny, and Mary Ann, and Kailey, and Billy Bob.

God came.  In the most vulnerable form imaginable.  In a time when 25% of babies born didn't live out the first year; and half were dead before they were 10.  God came.  And when God showed up, God didn't tell the Chief Rabbi, or the Governor Quirinius, or the Emperor Augustus.  God told a bunch of no-count laborers.  Good News! Great Joy for All People!  ALL PEOPLE!  ALL PEOPLE! Even the one nobody else thinks are worth counting.

Real. Vulnerable. God.
Come. For. Everyone.

That's the meaning of Christmas Charlie Brown.  That's the meaning of love.

So snuff out your smoke, put away the bottle, fire up the Dodge Dart and all pile in.  We're going to meet the Savior.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

An Hymn For Our Time

I woke up this morning thinking of the hymn O God Of Earth And Alter by G.K. Chesterton.  Though written in 1906 and with a final verse that reflects the British sense of being a colonial power, I would offer that the first two verses speak eloquently to our time and to our prayers at Advent:


O God of earth and alter
bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
Take not Thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of ongue and pen,
from all theeasy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profianation
of honor, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Amen and Amen

Monday, December 7, 2015

Of ISIS, Domestic Terrorism and John the Baptist

I would not have chosen this week's passage if I had been putting the Common Lectionary together.  It is Luke's account of the preaching of John the Baptist.  Because I would not have put it here, I have chosen to move it in my preaching schedule and utilize it later in the year.  But still, reading it, particularly in the context of the last few weeks, raises some interesting thoughts.

In Luke 3 there is what is probably a compilation of Johns preaching.  Many of us grew up focused on how John was Jesus' cousin (true); he wore funny clothes (pretty true); and he was a hell-type preacher (no doubt).  What I heard very little focus on was the content of his preaching.  And placing this passage prior to the birth of Jesus makes it more likely that we will miss some very important things about that content.
It also makes it look like John came to proclaim the birth of the Baby Jesus...and that's just not true.  John came preaching God's judgement and preparing the way for the Messiah, the one who, in God's name, would set things to rights. There is a solid link between what John preached and what Jesus preached and taught.

John the Baptist stands solidly in the prophetic tradition that pronounced God's judgement on Israel due to their failures in justice.  The Baptist's responses to all who asked him "what must we do?" were all about justice and care for the poor and marginalized.  "If you have two coats, share one with someone who has none;" "be fair in your (taxing, soldiering) do not use your position to exploit others."  These are described as the true signs of religious faithfulness.  The comment about, "God can raise up Children of Abraham from these rocks," could be read as a warning.  God's favor can be taken away.  God can create a new people if you do not live to match your end of the Covenant.  Again, this puts John the Baptist within the mainstream of the OT prophets and, moving forward, links him to Jesus' teachings about care for the poor and how, in fact, such care was the true worship of God.

Last night, in speaking about the terrorist inspired shootings in San Bernardino, President Obama called upon the Muslim community to speak out against the kind of extremist violence that resulted in these shootings.  Some years ago, then President Bush went so far as to say that anyone who commits such violence in the name of Islam commits blasphemy.  I agree with both of these comments. But neither of them go far enough. 

Why do they not go far enough?  Because it is not enough to lecture another faith group without calling one's own faith community to the same account.

The shootings at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs were an act of domestic terror.  They were committed by a radicalized Christian.  It shames me to say it, but it is true.  And while it shames me, it also calls me as a Christian and as a Pastor to say clearly:

If you commit violence in the name of Christianity against abortion clinics, Muslims, Jews, gays, transgender persons, or anyone else YOU ARE COMMITTING BLASPHEMY, YOU ARE TAKING THE LORD'S NAME IN VAIN.  You do not speak or act for me, you do not speak or act for the Church, and you certainly do not speak or act for Jesus.  Your violence is not in His name or mine.

We cannot expect other faith groups to speak out against those who desecrate their sacred scriptures and distort their communities beliefs unless we are saying the same things to our own communities just as loudly.  Consider this my opening salvo.

Shalom

 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Liturgy for Breaking The Silence Sunday

This morning my friend, Rev. Maren Tirabassi, posted a prayer for Breaking The Silence Sunday on her blog which is here

https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/

I was moved by her pray as well as the idea of a Sunday to break the silence about abuse, rape, and incest.  So I wrote the Liturgy below to go with that prayer.  It is free for anyone to use who wishes to use it.

Leader: We come to break our silence this morning. We will shatter it like a plate thrown in rage.

People: It has not been a holy silence were we could meet God; but one in which the demonic howled in the darkness, and toxic feelings drifted like fog.

Leader: It has not been a silence we asked for, but a rag stuffed down our throats, the waterboarding of our souls.

People: A silence in which we hurt ourselves, or others, just to lessen our anguish.

Leader: A silence in which we ran from those who loved us, and clung to those who caused us pain; because they spoke the only language the silence had taught us.

People: A silence we thought was God's silence because we could not imagine God loving people like us.

Leader: Our breaking the silence will not be pretty, this is not a Hallmark moment. Someone stole us from us, then pawned the pieces.

People: This morning we are kicking in the doors and windows of the pawnshop; we are taking ourselves back.

All: Join hands with us this morning, if you dare. But know this, we will break the silence, we will not be broken by it. And where we once cowered in paralyzed fear, we will rise, and rise, and rise.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Lamentation And Advent

This is the second Sunday of Advent.  Last Sunday I found myself preaching about creating Hope out of the nothing of despair because we worship a God who creates something out of nothing.  It was just days after the Colorado Springs shooting.

Since then I have listened to enough spin to make one positively ill.  I'm starting to feel like I'm stuck one on of those rides at the fair that turns one way, then goes the other, til you throw up on the poor soul who happens to be below you at that moment.  I often feel trapped in the spin because I can see some parts of each side......Here, jump on the ride with me.....

Mentally ill persons who shoot up Family Planning Clinic don't get referred to as "radical Christians" even if they are professing Christians who post all kinds of religious material on their web pages; nor are they terrorists because the only ones who are terrorists are radical Muslims who may also be mentally ill, but their terrorists because they post religious stuff about jihad on their website.  (Hang On We've Just Gotten Started).

We should register foreign people of color and a different religion because they might possibly be connected to terrorists and we don't want them sneaking in and building bombs; but we can't do a background check on white guys who buy guns who we know have mental health issues....even though we claim that those mental health issues, not their political leanings, are going to be what causes them to shoot up some place and kill folks.

As I'm writing this, my wife calls me to tell me there is an active shooter situation in San Bernardino, CA.  At the Inland Regional Center, a center that works with developmentally disabled persons.  Right now there is little info.....

I sit, watching the streaming video on my computer.  They're talking about multiple shooters now; about fatalities; about 20+ wounded.....none of it confirmed.....

When I first sat down, I was looking at this part of the Gospel passage for Sunday

By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on hight will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darknss and in the shadow of death,
   to guide our feet into the way of peace.   (Luke1:78-79)

What the hell!  How do we speak of Advent?  I am more drawn to the words of Lamentations 2:11, My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people.

 The nauseating level of violence; the politicizing-on all sides-of the deaths of innocents; the empty numbness of "here we go again."  Again to Lamentation

The thought of my affliction and my 
       homelessnes
   is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
  and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, 
   and therefoe I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord neve
   ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new evry morning;
  great is your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul,
  "therefore I will hope in him."    (Lamentations :19-24)

For me what that means is that I cling to my hope.  Even when I want to vomit in rage and grief.  I cling to my hope.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Everyone Is Welcome Here

I dream of one day pastoring a church that will hang these words in their vestibule:

Everyone is welcome here
Cause that's how Jesus wants it.


Nothing, 
not your race
Or your gender
Not your politics, left or right
Not your ability or disability
Your sins, past or present.

Nothing

Will keep you from this Table.
The only thing that will block you
would be your own refusal to come.

And if
at some point
you decide 
to go down into the waters of Baptism
We will not ask you about
your politics or your gender,
about how you sing and pray,
or where your theology lies; 
Only
"Do you love Jesus and desire to follow Him?"
"Do you claim Him as your Lord and Savior?"


We figure you and Jesus can work out the rest,
Seeing how He's the one who invited you here in the first place.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Reflection

Today is Thanksgiving.  My children and step-children have all  checked in.  We will be with them during various times through out the holidays that stretch from now til Christmas.  They are scattered all over.

Soon we will leave to join the friends who have invited us to be part of their family gathering.  We are blessed with great friends.  Many other friends have checked in today as well.  So when I say that I am thankful for these friends, I really mean it.  I consider myself blessed beyond belief.

But I would like to share some of the thoughts swirling through my head today.  I'd like to do it without hanging crepe over the doorway of anyone's day.  My belief is not that we need to give up celebrating and cover ourselves with grief and guilt.  Too often Christianity has asked us to be drawn to this useless grief "like a weasel sucks eggs" (that's a Fred Craddock quote, and I just love it).

I am aware, however, that while I celebrate, one in five children in this country are food insecure.  I know there are people who cannot afford medications they need to stay alive or medical procedures that might prolong their lives.  That the language of hatred and racial division is fanning the flames of violence that bursts out in the middle of political rallies and guns down people of color in the streets.  I know that there are service personnel in dangerous places in the world who will not sit down with family today.  I know that there are, all over the world, people working for peace and to stem the tide of hunger and disease.  I am aware that even as refugees flee for their lives from war torn homelands, there are those who would bar them entry into this country.  Apparently, the lady who lifts her lamp beside the golden door only does so for those who look like them, think like them, and share their religious beliefs.  These are the realities.

I will celebrate.  I will enjoy.  But I will also remember.  I will remember when it comes time to give what funds I have available to help others.  I will remember when I volunteer my time in efforts to fix this broken world and nation.  I will remember when I climb into the pulpit.  And I will remember when I vote.

Blessings are not a zero sum game.  There is food and space enough to go around.  Peace is possible.  Curing disease is possible.  I believe that one day Jesus will bring the Kingdom and heaven and earth will be one.  BUT I also believe that when I pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," that I am committing myself to a task in the here and now.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.  Enjoy....and work for the Kingdom.  They're not mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hope And Something Out Of Nothing

This Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent.  We, along with many Christians around the world will light the Hope candle as the first of the Advent candles.

It would be easy at this time to join the words of the carol I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day:

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
of Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.

From the hate mongering demagoguery of of certain politicians; to the violence of the radical groups who pervert the religion of Islam; to those who would ignore the needs of refugees while claiming that their faith is Christian....hate is strong, as is fear, and they make a mockery of the promises that we say we lay claim to during this season.

It would be easy to pass off the promises as so many empty tales.  The lies we've been told in the past weigh heavy on us as we wait in the darkness.  Why should we believe these promises.

The scripture for this week is from Luke 2:5-20.  It's the story of Jesus' uncle who was a priest named Zechariah.  Apparently there were a lot of priests in Israel.  They rotated through the Temple once a year fro about a week.  They drew lots for who would go into the Holy of Holies and burn incense.  It might happen only once in his life that he'd 'draw the short straw.'

We're told that Zechariah and Elizabeth are "righteous before the Lord" and that they're both part of the priestly class descended from Aaron. None of this has done them much good though because they have no children.  Elizabeth is barren.  In this culture, in those days, when having children was a sign of God's favor, this was a disgrace.

So old Zechariah plods into the Holy of Holies to light the incense.  Maybe he's excited.  Maybe not.  On his way in he can see the Roman soldiers looking down into the Temple courtyard from the wall of the stockade that Pilate maintained next door.  A childless old man in an occupied land going in to burn incense to a God who had left the Temple and not returned since the time of Ezekiel.  Hopeful this is not. 

So you can't really blame Zechariah if he has some questions.  In fact, when the angel says, "your prayers have been answered," you couldn't blame him if he said, "you're a little late aren't you?"
And he would be correct....except....it's not Zechariah's story.  And it's not mine either.  I forget that a lot.
It's God's story, the story of God setting the world to rights.  The story of God rescuing us from ourselves.  We're invited to join that story.  But it will be done on God's time, not ours.
That means that we're in for quite a ride.  We need to give up our need to be in control (which for those of you who know me is not something I'm really good at).  God will allow us to be coworkers, but not to be in charge.

That's the bad news....sorta.

The good news....totally.....is that we worship the God who brings something out of nothing.  Who reaches into the void and the chaos and created...our world...and us.  Who makes barren couples fruitful. Who makes a way where there is no way; and who reaches into the darkness of lives that we've turned into nothing with our sins and our failures and uses them to bring about the Kingdom.

We need that God now.  We wait in aching longing for that God.  We cry out for that God.  Advent calls us to be still.  To listen in the silence.  Advent speaks to us like the angel Gabriel did to Zechariah and strikes us mute so that we mich actually be able to hear the Good News:  God is here.  God is on the move.  In ways that we will miss if we're not careful, the very things we're reaching out for are here.  Listen......

That straining on tiptoe to see through the darkness, to hear above the clamor of hate speech and advertisements for things we don't need.  That thing that has us waiting in anticipation of we don't know what, but we know it is what we've been waiting for all our lives.....

It has a name.  It is called Hope.


A Christmas Conversation

Do you hear what I hear?

You'll have to speak up, the hate speech is really loud in here.

A child, a child shivers in the cold

What are you? Another of those bleeding hearts that wants to open our borders to raping terrorist criminals

Let us bring him silver and gold

Right. You socialist types are all alike. We need to be spending our money to build the economy here at home, not wasting it on these anchor babies

He will bring us goodness and light

Sure he will. He'll probably grow up to be one of those rabble rousing liberals who thinks that these folks at the back of the line should go first.  Who knows, they might even have to execute his sorry ass.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Stewardship Sermons on Christ the King Sunday

I got to spend an evening and a day this week listening to N.T. Wright at the St. Mary's Ecumenical Institute.  You can find out more about them here http://www.stmarys.edu/ecumenical-institute/  and if you live anywhere near Baltimore, MD you really should take a look at the work they're doing.  But I'm not writing about them this evening.

Nor am I writing about N.T. Wright, though the conference was wonderful and it was great to have my friend Maren respond to a Facebook post with "thou shalt not covet thy friends conference." 

I'm writing about Stewardship.  Huh?

Bear with me.  It's going to take me a second to get there, but I think it's worth it.  So I'm sitting in this wonderful conference in which Wright is lining out a lot of his thought that is going into his next book (which thrills me no end), and during I break I think to myself, "it's Christ the King Sunday and I'm preaching about Stewardship....doesn't that just tear it" (or words to that effect, if you know me you'll fill them in).  "Here is this day in which we celebrate the Kingship of Christ, the overcoming of Sin and Death, I'm listening to one of the worlds greatest New Testament theologians talking about, among other things, Christian vocation, and I've got to preach about Stewardship."  I wallow a bit in my own juices, whining to myself about how the local institutional church (as well as the larger institutional church) has traded its tasks to be the Body of Christ in the dark places of life to worry about leaky roofs and copy machines.  And I ask myself, "how can you even think about preaching about Stewardship on Christ the King Sunday?"

And the answer is YOU CAN'T.....Unless.....unless you can connect said stewardship to the larger task and vocation of the Church (church with the big "C", Body of Christ Church).  Unless we can be clear that what we're doing is supporting and sustaining the work of the risen King, every stewardship sermon becomes the religious version of the kid going door to door saying, "would you like to buy some chocolate bars so our school band can march in Macy's parade this year?"  And while I think band trips are great, for the church to sink that low is beyond crummy...it's a sin....literally to fall short of the mark of who we are called to be.  And the sad thing is that so many of us do it year after year after year just about this time as we're sending out pledge cards and fighting over whether we have a reasonable budget.

But what if we started our conversations from a slightly different place:  The church exists to stand between the world and the darkness, to offer another story about how life is meant to be, and can be, instead of the one the world tells about money, sex, and power.  To tell the story that Jesus' life portrayed and that His death and resurrection prove is the REAL story of what life is about. Buildings exist as places to live out and tell this story, programs must express it, and ministers much teach and enable it.  And if any part of the budget cannot justify itself within that framework, we will trim the budget accordingly.  What if every part of a church budget was held up to that as the standard for its continued existence?  It might not change where money was spent, but I believe it would certainly change how we approached that spending.

I think that this is part of the kind of attitude that Jesus is talking about when he tells the story in Luke 14: 25-30.  This is a very down to earth story about a man building a tower in the middle of a field so that he can oversee his field and protect it from who, or whatever, might interfere with it.  Jesus says that if you don't plan and figure out whether you can really do what you say you want to do, you'll fail and be a laughingstock.  But he says it in the middle of a larger conversation about who is going to follow Him and what it's going to cost.  What do you want to do?  What will it cost you?  Will it hold up?

So, if we started with the description above of the general call of the church and the standard by which all of its life is measured, then asked "what do we feel called to do within that larger picture?" and "how might we best express that within the financial and personal (volunteer time, etc.) and personnel we have available?"  I have a sneaky suspicion that Stewardship Season might become a radically different experience.

We serve a risen Christ who has inaugurated His Kingdom here on earth.  It is here, and it is coming.  We, as church, are the advance guard, the here and now expression, of that Kingdom.  Like the westward pioneers who had to trim their belongs down to the essentials, often abandoning beloved objects along the way, we have a goal and a destination. 

This is a whole different kind of "Zero Based Budgeting."  One that links us back to our true calling and places our financial stewardship squarely in the middle of our vocation as the People of God, the Body of Christ, in a local time and place.  It might, or might not, call us to radical new behaviors.  It would certainly call us to radically new understandings.



Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Terrorism As The World's Cancer

Let us begin by agreeing that terrorism...any kind of terrorism.....is a cancer which endangers all of humankind.  The attacks last week in Beirut and Paris are expressions of that cancer.  Can we agree?

Now let's agree that all of those elevated screening procedures, etc. are the chemotherapy and radiation treatments called for to wipe out the cancer.  Are we tracking?

Now imagine that the patient is you...or me.....we've been diagnosed with, say, lung cancer.  We're doing the rotation of chemo, radiation, chemo, radiation.  One day our doctor walks in after a treatment and says, "Stephen (we'll pretend it's me), I think we've got you in remission.  But Stephen, you keep smoking!  I see the pack in your front pocket right now!  Are you out of your mind?!"  Now let's imagine for a minute that I reply, "Look doc, I appreciate all you've done.  And hey, like you said, remission, right?  So let's just mind your own business.  I need to smoke.  It calms me down. If the cancer comes back, we'll just up the chemo and the radiation...right?"

Terrorism is a cancer.  The increased security measures are like radiation and chemo.  But the western governments just keep right on smoking.  Third and fourth world debt could be forgiven, but it isn't.  We could stop propping up dictators, but we don't.  We could learn to live with and respect other, non-white, cultures and religions, but we don't.  The list goes on.

If our world is ever going to be safe.  If our children and grandchildren will ever live in a world not always looking over its shoulder for the next terrorist group or attack.  We need to stop engaging in the behaviors that nurture terrorism as sure as chain smoking nurtures the growth of cancer.  Sure there are people who chain smoke for years and don't get cancer.....but not many.  And we already know that our world isn't one of them.

Lest you accuse me of talking politics rather than religion (though the prophets and those of faith in scripture never made that decision), let me remind you that Jesus often warned his listeners about continuing to live lives oriented to the violent resistance to violence.

This is to say that one of our jobs as Christians is to help our world find a way to "quit smoking."  I will maintain that the teachings and example of Jesus are the way for us to do that.  Love of enemies.  Care for the poor and the vulnerable.  A personal relationship with God.  I could go on.

But our world keeps smoking....and depending on the chemo and the radiation.  Sooner or later the chemo will kill us.  The cure will be worse than the disease.  My prayer is that before that happens we will learn to listen to the One who came that we might "have life and have it in all its abundance."

Shalom

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Light

Last night there was horror and terror in Paris.

Yesterday, a close friend gave birth to their first child.  This morning I played on the floor with another friend's baby then helped my church host a regional AA gathering.  I can pretty much boil down my answer to Paris and Beirut to those moments.  I believe in the love that brings forth new life.  I believe in the possibility expressed in that new life.  And I believe that even when that possibility has been broken into tiny pieces by addiction or violence, illness or hatred, that recovery is possible.  I believe a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.  I believe that diverse groups of people can come together, admit how broken they are, and begin to heal and be community for one another. And I believe our world can do this as well.

Why do I believe this?  Am I that naive?  I don't think so.  But if that belief is naive, I'll take naive any day over the crap spewing from the talking heads and the peddlers of hatred and isolation.

Why? Because I believe in the Light.  I believe that the Light shines on in the darkness; and that the darkness will never, Ever, EVER be able to overcome it.

I believe that the Light
shines on in the darkness.
I believe that the darkness
can never overcome it.
But I am neither
naive or blind;
agony, death and terror
are real.
In Paris and Beirut
as well as down the block.
and I
ache,
weep,
cringe in my own helplessness
against the deep darkness.
Even at my best
I am but a tiny
reflection
of a spark.
But my weakness does not negate the truth
the Truth that gives me Hope
to get out of bed
and let that tiny reflection shine.
The Light shines on in the darkness
and the darkness
cannot overcome it.


Shalom