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

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

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.



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

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 
   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
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.