Saturday, November 26, 2016

From Numbed Silence To Hope

Advent begins in numbed silence.  After all the warnings from the various prophets, Israel's elite were carried off into exile.  In Ezekiel 3:15 the prophet Ezekiel says, "I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them, stunned, for seven days."

After all the warnings.  After all the arguments (even among religious leaders) about what would actually happen.  There they were, in Babylon. Stunned. Numb. Silent in their anguish.  This is where Advent starts.  Numbness gives rise to lament; both from those carried away into exile, and those left behind (see Lamentations).

This is where we have to start.  Unless we want Advent to be "countdown to Santa Claus," we need to begin with the acknowledgement of how truly broken both we and our world are.  Advent means "coming." It is a focus on the "on it's way, but not yet"-ness of our faith.  But it's not an ordinary “it’s on it’s way.”  It is a coming that takes place in the middle of some of the worst of what can happen.

When we prepare for Advent, we do well to remember that the prophets that we quote to talk about this Coming were speaking to Israel in the midst of Exile. They anticipated that Exile was coming and tried to warn; they talked about it when it arrived; and they spoke of Hope while the Exile was still going on, not just to tell them it was on its way, but to help them prepare for it. It is exactly in Exile that there is this explosion of Prophecy of hopeful possibility....even when all the data on the ground speaks against it.

But that Hopefulness cannot happen without the acknowledgement of our reality.  This is not a cheap grace; there are deep and dangerous words of warning to be spoken.  Much of our ability to prepare for this Hope and to embrace its coming is based on our capacity to engage and acknowledge the depth of our pain and brokenness.

The first of the 12 Steps reflects this when we say, "We admitted that we were powerless and our lives had become unmanageable." It is only after this admission that we can hear the Hope of , "Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity."  Our behaviors have consequences.  They make our lives powerless and unmanageable.  The Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Heschel said we needed to remember that "God is not a nice uncle."  God will be God; and God will not be mocked.  It is dangerous to approach Advent or our life with God as though God is some sort of warm fuzzy that we can carry around in our pocket.

We cannot live our lives without consequences.  We cannot have life on our terms:

We cannot smoke and smoke and smoke and not pay a price for it in our bodies.
We cannot pump toxins into the atmosphere and not pay for it in our environment.
We cannot continue to engage in personal sins until they become obsessive habits and not pay for it in the depths of our souls.
We cannot continue to treat others (Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, the poor, members of our families) without justice or mercy and not pay for it in the social fabric of our nation and our world.

We move from the initial numbness of a stark awareness of our condition into crying out.  That cry creates cracks in the wall of denial we have built around ourselves, both personally and nationally. Leonard Cohen said, "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light breaks in."  God used, and continues to use, our very brokenness; the places we are most wounded and ashamed of; as the place where God’s grace will break through and heal us….if we will acknowledge that the wounds are there.  This is how God in Christ comes to us.

There are a lot of “Second Coming Christians” out there who pay lots of attention to scripture about the Second Coming of Jesus; but who don’t seem interested in what Jesus had to say the FIRST time He came.   Could this be because we are more comfortable with a kind old uncle of a God than one who puts demands on our lives?  Or is it that somewhere deep within us it is easier to focus out in a future after death, a future in which we don’t need to take any responsibility, than to look at our lives as this intense, demanding relationship with a God who is capable of creating miracles out of our wounded, aching lives.

This is the same question that haunts us all: whether Israel in exile or us in our own personal and national brokenness; can YHWH create a new history after the old history has come to a dismal end?  Is the God of faith contained within what the world knows to be possible? Or is it within the capacity of God to create a newness that defies the categories of “possible” and reasonable acceptedness.

Scripture maintains, our faith maintains, that YHWH has the capacity to form new worlds out of the chaos at hand.  The creator’s capacity to work a newness, unemcumbered by our failures and sinfulness; and unassisted by any other power, becomes a joyous assertion that YHWH will work a newness right in the midst of Israel’s most dire circumstances of grief. 

In Advent we have the coming of Hope in the midst of numbing despair and brokenness. It is a Hope rooted in the freedom of God.  We are saved by God’s faithfulness, not by our own; by God’s goodness and mercy, not by ours. Our Hope is not based in our ability, or our goodness, or even in our repentance; it is based solely on God's initiative, who acted and acts "while we were still sinners."

Monday, November 21, 2016

Stumbling Over The Big O

I keep stumbling over the big O
As in "Our"
As in "Our Father"

There are days I hate that word
that phrase.
I much prefer "mine."
I want to scream it like the seagulls in Finding Nemo
Mine, Mine, Mine.

Then I trip
over that damned "our"
and land face down
at the feet of Our Father.
The One who demands
that I both speak the Truth
and speak the Truth in Love.
That while I shout with one group that
Black Lives Matter
I shout in love.
And that while I speak the Truth
about immigration and structural
to another
A group that angers and saddens
and frightens me
I must do so in love.
Because Our Father says so
because Our Father
because Our

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Requirements of Covenant Faith

On the morning after the election, I went in to the Pre-K room of the Preschool at my church.  I spend time with each class every Wednesday.  We sing songs, tell a Bible story, and talk about what's important to them.  Obviously, the conversations change based on the age of the kids.

On this particular morning, I asked the children what they would like to sing.  Now normally, this group asks for "Jesus Loves Me," "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," and "ABC."  This morning, for the first time since I started doing this, they said, "Jesus Loves The Little Children." 

You know the words:
"Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and Yellow, Black and White,
they are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world."

I think, young as they are, they needed the security of singing about Jesus' love for them in the face of all the rhetoric swirling above their heads.  I looked into those faces as we sang; black, white, brown, mixed...and I prayed for their safety in the coming days.

When I preached later about my concern about safety; the safety of those children, the safety of the disabled, the safety of the homeless, the immigrant, the safety of folks in the LGBTQ was difficult.  It was difficult because I work hard not to bring my politics into the pulpit.

But by "my politics" I mean who it is I voted for, or will vote for.  But what I cannot escape, if I am going to be faithful to my calling as a Pastor, is the commandments of God from the OT on about justice and mercy for the poor and the marginalized.

The “historic” part of scripture begins with Abraham and God’s promise to make him a great nation.  From the beginning, Abraham’s call was to be “a light to the nations.”  That “light” was always, in part, about treatment of neighbor and care for the marginalized.  It was also, in some way, always about food, land, and survival.  This should not be surprising in a place and time prone to famine and reliant on an agricultural society.

Abraham flees to Egypt during a famine.  Generations later, Joseph’s family comes there because of a famine as well.  Genesis does not shrink from the fact that Joseph’s behavior set the stage for the future slavery of the Hebrew people.

When God brings the Hebrews out of Egypt, God makes provision in the Torah, the Law, for the treatment of the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger among you” in both daily practice and in worship.  This phrase, “widow, orphan, and the stranger among you,” is a kind of shorthand way of talking about those who don’t have any power; those who don’t have anyone to speak for them.  Always God reminds them that they are to do this because “you were slaves in Egypt.”  In other words, “you’ve been there too and God helped you; therefore you should help others.  You were once powerless and had no one to speak for you.  God spoke for you when you were powerless; so you should treat others this way” or “I will hear their cry.”  God is saying, “make Justice your business, or I will make it mine.”

As scripture moves on in historic accounts of the life of the Hebrew people, Solomon gives  up the practice of care for neighbor and the marginalized by becoming an arms dealer; by using slaves (even Hebrew slaves) to build his house; and by striking treaties with countries in ways that promoted self reliance rather than reliance on God.  This, many believe, was the beginning of a downhill slide in Israel.

The destruction of the Temple in 587 was Israel’s 911 moment.  Both in warnings before this actually happened and in their words afterward, the Prophets offered a number of answers as to why their Covenant God would allow this to happen.  These tend to fall into two or three major categories:  issues around purity  (for example, marrying foreign women); worshipping idols like the fertility god Ba’al; and making treaties with other nations to provide for their safety rather than relying on God to take care of and protect them.

This conversation was still going on in the time of Jesus.  It was still going on because Israel had continued to be ruled by, taxed by, and oppressed by a string of foreign powers.  One can view Jesus’ life and teachings as Him taking a side in that argument as well as saying that all the things that the Prophets had said about God creating a new Kingdom were true….but it wouldn’t look like folks had imagined.

Jesus lived and taught a view that includes intimate relationship with God (see the Lord’s Prayer) as well as a radical way of living out Justice and Mercy as the ultimate form of worship (see Jesus’ description regarding how our treatment of the most marginalized, “the least of these,” was our treatment of Jesus Himself.)

The above quick "walk through" of scripture is not exhaustive.  But it does point to the idea that care for the marginalized is not something out on the fringe of faith.  It is a central theme.  It is an expression of fidelity to our part of the Covenant with God first made at Sinai and expressed in Jesus' call to us.  Without this justice and mercy we get what God says in Amos 5:21, "I hate, I despise your religious festivals and your solemn assemblies stink."  

Our personal relationship with God thru Jesus needs to be cultivated in prayer and devotion; but it needs to be expressed in acts of justice, mercy and humility. 

May we seek as the days go on to live out this commitment as God's people.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Dirge For A Veterans Day

"They're not like us at all, at all
"these Gypsies, Jews and queers.
"They snuck into our country, taking over and doing strange things.
"The world does not respect us.  Our enemies have shamed us.
"We must make Germany great again."

So they went inside and closed the doors, shut the windows tight
Against the stench from the ovens down the road.
And when the trains rolled by with the stick people inside
they covered their children's eyes
in the selfsame gesture caught of a mother in the camps
giving the only mercy she could offer to her child.

While Chamberlain waved his treaty
proclaiming "Peace in our time,"
a false prophet reconciling with an unrepentant dictator.
And a national church profaned the name of God
by blessing a despot.

Til our fathers, and fathers around the world
left homes and wives and children
some never to return
and a Confessing Church put life and blood on the line
proclaiming that this would not stand.

"They're not like us at all, at all
so very, very different.
These Muslims, gays and Mexicans.
They sneak into our country, taking jobs from real Americans.
Our enemies do not fear us, they all desire to hurt us
we must make America great again."

So we put our hands over our own eyes
so that we will not see the ghosts of the internment camps.
We plug our ears so that we will not hear the ghost voice of McCarthy
whispering in the words that promise political witch hunts again.

While a church calls for unity and reconciliation
with an unrepentant demagogue.
There will be no peace in our time.
We have no one but ourselves to blame.
We cannot even use Santayana as excuse
for we know our history
and have chosen it's mistakes in the face of the sacrifices of our fathers.

The Battle Is Not Done

This is Veteran's Day.  This is my father.

An athlete all his life, his feet froze in the snows of Europe and he spent months in a hospital in England with the very real possibility that they would have to amputate his feet.  Luckily they did not.
My father was part of an effort at defeating Hitler's Nazi regime and the very real risk that such ideas about who was acceptable, who could be killed on a whim, who could be marched off to the gas chambers.

We've just had an election.  Many of the people who supported Trump favor the same ideas that my father, and other fathers, went off to combat.  It is a scary thing.  It is also true that some who supported Trump do not favor racism, sexism, and promote hatred.  But if history teaches us anything (and as a pastor I mean history as far back as the OT prophets), it is that good people can blind themselves to what is happening.  And in that self blinding they become co-opted into the demonic behaviors of others unaware.

The poem below by Leonard Cohen makes this clear

We need to watch closely in the coming days and weeks.  We need to keep our blinders off.  We need to speak the truth in love, but we need to speak the Truth.  Watch who gets named to run what.  Listen for the old rhetoric in softer form.

If you're into such things, read your Bonhoeffer again.  Or Howard Thurman.  Or Martin Luther King.  Or the book of Jeremiah.

If you are a Veteran....I thank you.  We will be faithful to your memory by not allowing this country to become what you fought so hard, and risked so much, and paid so high a price to defeat.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Now More Than Ever

The Bible is a very political book. 

My friends on the right believe that when it comes to abortion, women's roles, and gay rights...they believe it without any examination of context or nuance.  I believe that they are wrong in that regard; but we would agree that the Bible is a political book.  And this morning, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, I am viewing this new world situation through the lens of that Book.

Last night the United States fell into idolatry.  They elected a man who worships power and money. Who denigrates the marginalized and the infirm.  Who seeks to do ill to the "widow, the orphan, and the stranger within our gate."  He was elected because he played to the fears of one segment of the population and to the hatreds that still lurked in the shadows concerning race and ethnicity and religion.  He watered the semi-dormant seeds of hatred and talked the language of exclusion and bigotry.  He lead the nation to the alter of "Great Again."  I can imagine a king in the OT standing the foot of a statue of a Ba'al (a fertility god) saying, "our crops are down, the rains have gone, our enemies do not fear us.  But we will worship Ba'al and he will make our nation great again."

This man is NOT my president.  Not because I think I have the right to say that since so many on the right claimed that Obama was not THEIR president.  He is not my president any more that Jeremiah would have said that King Jehoiakim was his king.  Jeremiah's job was to speak the Word of the Lord to Jehoiakim.  That word is a word of judgement and call to repentance.  Trump would do well to hear it.  Should he hear it and repent, truly repent, there is some possibility that we, as a nation, might escape the tragedies that lie ahead.  I will pray for his and our nation's repentance. But I do not expect Trump, nor the politicians who worship with him at the alter of power and wealth to repent.  And so, I say with Hosea, that "those who have sowed the wind will reap the whirlwind."

Which brings me to what I think those of us in the Faith Community are called to do in a time of whirlwind:

Our task as people of faith has not changed. It is still to be the Beloved Community; presenting an alternative vision to Empire (read that as the Trump Administration for this conversation), and modeling how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  The cost, however, may be higher than we expect.

We are to speak truth to power.  We are to speak the truth in love; but we are to speak the truth. 

We need to anticipate the places of need that are going to arise based on the actions we anticipate when we project the political rhetoric into the future government.  This means stepping up our abilities to care for the homeless, the hungry, and the marginalized.  We will need to be prepared.

Without hedging our bets or backing off of what we believe, we need to work to build bridges across the gulfs that now exist within our national community.  Our world is broken. But we are called to be agents of reconciliation.  We do not get the luxury of standing on the side throwing stones; we are to bridge the gulf wherever possible.

Prepare to go into exile.  When God's people fail to "do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly," God sends them into exile to force them to look at their failures.  I do not know what our exile might look like.  Many of the images I have in my imagination are terrifying.  But I do not doubt that a failure to repent will bring about an exile (and I believe it is possible to be in exile while still inhabiting the same land we used to inhabit).

Pray. Even when our prayers are lament or curse.  Pray.  Pray for our enemies, for the leaders who are leading us into idolatry, for our own tendency (at least it's mine) to become self righteous and fall into my own sins.  But pray.

Imitate Jesus.  Imitate Jesus recklessly.  Imitate Jesus recklessly til they crucify us like they did Him.  Imitate Jesus in forgiving those who crucify us.  Imitate Jesus in, having done all of this, in placing it in God's hands....not before, as an escape from the hard tasks ahead....but when we've given our the widow who tossed in her pennies in reckless love....say "into Your hands I commend my spirit."

This will be an uphill battle.  It will be a long battle.  I do not believe it will be over in my lifetime.  It will take years to heal and rebuild what came to a head last night at the polls.  But we have our marching orders: "take up your cross and follow me...and this is how they'll know you belong to Me-if you love one another like I have loved you."

Amen.  Shalom.  Let it be.