Sunday, January 24, 2016

La Loche, Jesus' Sermon, And A Snowstorm

On Friday, in La Loche, Saskatchewan, a 17 year old apparently shot and killed four people and wounded another seven.  This is an Dene community in a remote area of Canada.  The town has been struggling for a while.  It had eighteen suicides, most of them young, between August 2005 and January 2010 in a population of about 2,600.  High rates of alcohol abuse and drug addiction, unemployment, and poor housing.

Don Herman, a community member, is quoted as making the heartrending remark that, "Compared to 10 years ago, it wasn't like that.  Now we barely have room at the graveyard because of suicide, tragedies like this."

I grieve what happened at La Loche.  The issues facing First Nations people in Canada are huge; and La Loche is a brutal example.  But it is also a snapshot of much of our world. This is not to diminish that situation, but to call attention to the whole. I don't need to step far out my own front door in Annapolis to find homelessness, housing issues, and a heroin epidemic. 

As we listen to the politicians talk, we get a picture of why they're running, what they believe in, and what they'll do if elected.  Some of them are frankly scary...very scary to be honest.  But we take them at their word.  We won't be surprised if they try at least some of the things they promise (or threaten).  And if we go campaign for them, we say we're supporting what they're saying.

Almost 2000 years ago, Jesus preached His first "sermon."  He chose the scripture from Isaiah 61 and read:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." 

This was, and is, Jesus' "platform" for the Kingdom of God.  This is what He came to call us to become involved in.  How is it that we got from here to making Jesus and His teaching about other stuff?  We say we're with Him on the "campaign trail" as His followers, but we ignore the "inauguration speech" of His campaign.  We look at La Loche, or whatever our own version of it is, that place of pain and despair that is close to us each day, and we focus on "the sweet bye and bye."  It's like we're planning a Super Bowl victory party and ordering our ring without being willing to go out on the field and play the game.

I don't say this because I've quit believing in salvation, or conversion, or the Second Coming.  I am saying this, in fact, be cause I do believe in these things.  Jesus is going to come back and establish the Kingdom.  And when He does, He's going to look at me and say, "Stephen, what did you do when you saw Me hungry?  When you saw Me homeless?  When you saw Me addicted?  When you saw Me a victim of hatred and fear and religious or racial profiling?  Did My life matter to you?  I thought you were on My team; where were you when I needed you?"

I have long ago quit believing that I can change the whole world.  But I continue to believe that I can impact the world around me in the same way that I'm shoveling my driveway today in the wake of Jonas.  I go out and I shovel for a while.  I take smaller shovels full than I did when I was younger.  I take breaks.  But I stay at it. I put down salt. Sometime before the sun goes down, my drive and my back deck will be clear.  My life in Jesus feels like that at its best.  I go out.  I do what I can.  I take a break to renew myself in prayer and community.  I let these things keep me warm against the cold of a world that doesn't share these values.  The world will not be saved before the sun goes down for me....I know that.  But that's okay.  I still shoveled.  And finally, it's not about me; it's about Jesus and the Kingdom He came to inaugurate.  It's not about being snatched to heaven when I die-though I hope to go there and trust that His Grace will, indeed, bring me home.  I will, one day, "fly away, O glory".....but in the meantime, maybe I need to be singing, "work for the night is coming." Our world needs Jesus; Jesus needs us; we've "barely got room at the graveyard."  Time to head back out to shovel.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sermon: MLK, Jesus' Baptism, and Ours

I'd like to share this Sunday's sermon on Martin Luther King's work as a form of baptismal fidelity.

I hope that it speaks to you and that we all find our place in being "raised to walk in newness of life" to work for the Kingdom in promoting justice, love, and mercy.


Flint Michigan and the Prophet Ezekiel

The situation in Flint, Michigan is dire.  Anyone watching the news for the last few days, or Rachel Maddow for the last few weeks, will be aware of this.  If, however, you are not aware, please follow this link to a fairly up to day description of the situation

This is a tragic story of, minimally, the failure of officials to check out the impact of their decision before hand; and, most likely, a gross lack of concern for the poor who took the brunt of the impact of the decision to change Flint's water supply as a cost saving measure.  Watching Gov. Snyder duck, dodge, and contort himself  in service of denying that there was a problem and then to try to find a "safe" way to deal with the truth would be entertaining if it were fiction.  In a situation that is true, it has an odor of moral evil about it.

And lest anyone think I am taking a political side here, President Obama's reluctance to give all the aid possible to Flint has a similar odor.  This is about children being poisoned.  About adults being poisoned.  About how those in power are callus to those who have none.

I am reminded of a passage in the prophet Ezekiel.  It occurs when Ezekiel, on God's behalf, speaks a word of judgement to those who were tasked to "shepherd" the people of Israel.  The words have an eerie ring to them in the light of the current situation:

"I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up he injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice.  As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats:  Is it not enough fo ryou o feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture?  When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?  And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?  Therefore says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.  Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scatterd them far and wide."  (Ezekiel 34:17-21)

This should be a terrifying passage of scripture to any of us who see what has happened in Flint.  This is sin.  Sin with a capital "S."  Sin on a corporate and an individual level.  An if we as Christians, as clergy, as American citizens, stand by without doing everything we can to help rectify this situation, we collude with the sin.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Temptation To Small Idols In Times Of Grief

I've been thinking a lot this last week or so about idolatry.  The commandments that "You shall have no other gods before me," and to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and your neighbor as yourself" have been a major part of my meditations.

It would be easy to go with the big idolatries of war and race and power.  It's easy because, first of all, they're true. Second, we see them acted out so blatantly during this political season.  But they're also easy because I feel like I work hard at not getting caught up in them (which probably means I need to take a closer look at myself) and they're "other people's problem."  They're something I can point a finger at.

My idolatry is more personal, smaller, but no less a sin and no less an issue for many of us.  It is the idolatry of where I turn when life gets tough; when I am kicked in the gut with the sadness of sudden loss; when a news story is so agonizing that I have to catch my breath.

Two quick examples:

I saw today that one of the favorite preachers of my youth, Dr. Bill Self, passed away in Atlanta of ALS.  I heard him preach at youth conferences and at Ridgecrest.  He was the founding pastor of Johns Creek Baptist Church.  He impacted my life with his preaching and his example.  When the Baptists split, it was folks like him who showed that it was possible to be Baptist and not fall prey to all the things that made that split so ugly and hate filled.  He was 81 when he retired in 2012, and is a model for how to stay vital in ministry your whole life.  A piece of my history and the story of Baptists went with him.  There is a certain kind of sadness that hits folks my age when that happens.

Also today I saw the story of the death by suicide of transgender woman Katherine Johnson of Little Rock.  Apparently her family, unsympathetic to her transition, posted her death under her previous name and gender.  The incredible sadness of all of this just slapped me in the face.  My contact with transgender folks has been limited.  But their stories of struggle have always moved me.  And suicide and suicide attempts are high in that community.  For me, the pain of this death is palpable.

So what does this have to do with idolatry?

Where do I go with that grief? that pain?  I think of the words to one of the hymns I grew up on:

"In seasons of distress and grief
 my soul has often found relief
 and oft escaped the tempter's snare
 by thy return, sweet hour of prayer."

Do I do that?  Or do I turn to the multitude of options available to me to deaden my grief and not face my pain?  Do I overeat?  Veg in front of the TV?  Check out in the thousand and one ways available to me and fail to pick up the gift of God's presence with me in those moments? That's what I mean by a "small idolatry."

Life is full of these moments.  Do I, and we, trust that God is present and available to us as comfort and guide?  Do we offer them up?  Turn them over?  Or do we habitually turn to our favorite idol to mute their impact and let us go a little numb?

I don't know that I have a total answer.  And I don't claim to have let go of all the ways I numb myself.  But I do believe that there is a different way available to us: the moment by moment daily relational Presence.  It is both more painful and more comforting than anything else.  It is, possibly, part of what is meant when Jesus said, "I have come that they might have life in all its fullness."

Friday, January 1, 2016

If ALL Lives Really Matter....A Tough Love Response To 2015's Insanity In 2016

It is probably obvious to anyone who reads this blog with anything near regularity that I am deeply troubled by the amount of death, senseless death, that has occurred in the past year.  From the execution of Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia to the shooting of Tamir Rice in Ohio to the failure to enact anything that looks like reasonable and intelligent gun control....2015 has been the Year Of Senseless Death in my mind.

I have also noticed that when people of faith and/or goodwill raise specific issues (like the death penalty, killing of black males by police, or gun control) that there is always a response that seeks to make it seem as though those raising the issue are somehow at fault.  While this is probably good PR spin, it is, in fact, a dishonest and (in my mind) sinful attempt to draw attention away from a reality which needs redress.  To homogenize the pain and anguish of one group or the seriousness of one issue so that it disappears into the "cultural blender" in such a way that it ceases to matter.  The response "All Lives Matter" is such a spin.  It is a truth employed in the service of a lie.  It is a cowardliness masquerading as a courageous reply.  It is bigotry hidden in the folds of a cloak of concern.  Like "ignorance and want" hidden under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens' A Christmas Carol it is the diseased response of an unwillingness to look at what is really happening.

The above is one of the clearest expressions of an attempt to challenge this that I have seen lately, and so I share it here.

But I can't stop there.  I need to acknowledge another difficulty that I'm having.  My difficulty is that I love my country.  I really do.  But lately, loving my country has come to feel like being the parent of an drug addicted adult child.  It is anguish.  This child continues to steal from me to supply its habit; to engage in horrific (and often illegal) behavior; and to claim every time it is confronted with how it is killing itself and others that "if you really loved me you would support me in what I'm doing and ignore the impact it's having on you and the world around you."  The word for that in recovery circles is "co-dependence."

Those who are familiar with dealing with an addicted loved one-particularly an adult addicted loved one-know that the only thing you can really work on is yourself.

So what if those of us committed to the Christian faith and to the life of the Community of Faith in the local church worked on ourselves in 2016?  What would it look like if ALL Lives REALLY Matter?  Here's what I think:

  1. We would reclaim the truth of the comment and insist that Muslim lives matter; refugee lives matter; transgender lives matter; the lives of heroin abusers overdosing in huge numbers matter; homeless lives matter; and, yes, black lives matter.  Live out that truth with our votes, our money, our actions.  Don't let the spin doctors keep turning the truth into a lie.
  2. We will (even, or especially, those of us for whom these behaviors are uncomfortable) march more, picket more, risk going to jail more.  We will raise more hell for the voiceless in the coming year than the hell created by a culture drowning in its own poisoned juices.
  3. Finally, in our local churches we will, as an extension of what the Gospel of Christ Jesus truly means, look both in our congregations and the neighborhoods that surround our buildings and get intimately involved with the struggles and the pain and the needs we see there.  How would the life of our congregations change if we did that?  If we said, "the lives of refugees seeking to come to our city matter;"  "the lives of the homeless and the food insecure who come to our food pantry matter;" "the lives of black men in our community matter;"  what would change about how we do mission and ministry?
 If all lives matter; then specific lives matter.  And we are called to get involved in specific and personal ways.  We can no longer support the insanity with our cultural, political, or religious co-dependence.  By working on ourselves and our own "recovery" in how we do church, how we do mission, how we engage in ministry in the community...we will be reflecting the "tough love" of Jesus who insisted that our faith should result, as His coming did, in "preaching the good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the setting at liberty the oppressed, and proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4:18-19).

Let it be so in 2016.