Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Like Ancient Israel, We

Like ancient Israel
We
Have claimed to be God's chosen people.
A city set on a hill,
Whose sins cannot be hidden.
We have wrapped bandages over gaping wounds
Then been surprised that the infected puss
Leaks through the thin gauze
Carrying tiki torches,
depriving children of healthcare.
We have thought
Our claim to be a Christian Nation
Would drown out the cries
Of those Jesus would have healed,
Would have fed,
Would have touched,
Would have restored to community.
Those whom we
Have let go hungry,
Refused to go near,
And left hiding in the shadows.
Do we think that we will fare
Any better than the ancient Israel
Whom God sent into exile?
Do we even pause to think
of the wrath to come?
Or do we just go shopping.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mary, Marley, Scrooge, and Zacchaeus

Before you decide that I've simply flipped my lid due to excess fatigue brought on by Advent preparation and participation in the recent Wolf Pack Theatre Company's A Christmas Carol, hang with me for a moment.

My Advent thoughts have been affected by the nightly listening to the words of Marley...but also to a recent poem by Maren Tirabassi that you can find here:

https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/advent-december-18-2017/

as well as Walter Bruggemann's recent book Money and Possessions, some of the ideas from which he discusses here:

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=walter+brueggemann+what%27s+in+your+wallet&&view=detail&mid=FC79F104085886C24643FC79F104085886C24643&FORM=VRDGAR

Brueggeman makes the point that what he calls "extraction economies" (where wealth flows from the poorest to the richest through taxes or labor at low wages) succeed because people forget who they are.  He specifically refers to Zacchaeus, who had "forgotten he was a Jew," and was able to sign on with the Roman Empire.

In William Dean Leary's adaption of A Christmas Carol Jacob Marley says, "I did not learn the lessons that were shown; feeling they were an imposition on me, all I stood for and all I believed.  I felt myself above reproach, above the suffering of my fellow man and their petty grievances; ignored that which was right in front of me.  Choices Ebenezer, my choices have damned me to walk the earth with the load I now carry."

Which brings me to my point about Mary.  So much depends on who, and what, we say "Yes" to.  In Luke 1:26-38 we find the story of Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel.  Gabriel presents her with a situation that she does not understand, that is beyond her picture of the way the world is.  Yet she says, "Yes."

Marley can on grasp one view of the world.  It is to get what he can, while he can, and the rest of the world be damned.  It is not a difficult leap to see his view reflected in much of the world around us. It is easy to stop with where we see it reflected in recent legislation or in the current administration's attitude toward immigrants; spinning a false narrative rooted in the message of Norman Vincent Peale's theology, which gave rise over the years to both the "prosperity gospel" and the current "evangelical politics" neither of which are Gospel at all.

But there are also the choices of treating people as commodities in our sexual relationships; our social relationships; and our family relationships.  These too are built on an "extraction mentality" that says that other people's only value is what they can give me, what I can extract from them.  We can even carry this attitude into our relationship with God, when we come to believe that God's purpose is to make us feel good; to furnish us with warm, inner feelings....rather than seeing our purpose as to reflect Mary's "Yes" in our lives and help birth the Kingdom of God in acts of neighborliness and mercy here and now.  This is not to deny that such actions will provide us with warm inner feelings; for it is in them that we encounter the Living Christ.

Mary said "Yes" and gave birth to the Messiah.  We are called to say "Yes" and to give birth to the Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

But we, like Marley, like Zacchaeus, have not done that.  Even when "humankind should have been our business," we have signed on with Empire, bought into the extraction economy.  We need a conversion experience like Scrooge's.  Because "link upon link, yard upon yard" the chains we forge grow long and heavy....both individually and as a nation.  Hanging from our chains are the sexual partners who were treated as relational throwaways, the sacred lands that were bulldozed for the resources that they held, the bodies of the poor who died from lack of medical care, and the children we used to reflect our "success."  

It is an Advent discipline to ask ourselves about the chains we are forging.  It is an Advent discipline to repent, to remember who we are, to make amends.  Only then can, in the words of Tiny Tim, "God Bless Us Everyone."

Friday, December 15, 2017

A Fierce, Transforming Joy

The two passages this week might be termed "poems of joy."  Both of them speak of things that are yet to come...but they claim those promises as a source for deep joy and trust.  They also claim them as world altering statements.  They are NOT "pie-in-the-sky," but are comments made at ground zero and are deeply political.

The first of these, Isaiah 61:1-4, borrows phrasing from Leviticus 25:10 when those Israelite farmers who lost their land and were forced into indentured servitude can leave that servitude and return to their land.  This is the "proclaiming of a year of the Lord's favor."  This is followed by comfort for those who mourn, liberation for captives, the lifting of drooping spirits, and the rebuilding of desolate places.  Isaiah takes these promises, which were to individuals in Leviticus, and applies them to the whole nation...particularly to those who were in exile, separated from land, home, and Temple.

The second passage, Luke 1:46-55, is often referred to as the Magnificat.  It is another song of Hope in the middle of a desolate time.  It recounts what God has already done and uses this past behavior on God's part as grounds for belief in what God will do in the future.  In the middle of Roman occupation Mary sings her subversive song about God's promise to Israel (and as Christians, we claim that the promise is to us as well).

I asked one of the Bible studies this week to imagine who they would have sing this song.  My two favorite choices were Billie Holiday and a blues singer whose recording career stretched from the 1920's to the 1950's.  Who would you imagine singing this subversive song of joy and hope?

Then we talked about places where this kind of song could be sung.  I imagined a village in Nigeria where Boco Haram has raided repeatedly.  A young girl comes into adolescence knowing that the next raid she might well be taken to be a forced bride, and her brother turned into a child soldier.  She receives a visit from and angel, promising that she will be part of the story of God's liberating God's people.

Or a sweatshop....anywhere in the world where forced labor produces the goods that flow into this, and other wealthy countries.  The words that were sung in verses 52-54 might sound like this:

He has sent the sweatshop owners
away in handcuffs
And turned ownership of the factory
over to those who once worked there as slaves.
They take breaks for meals now
when they are hungry
And the fines levied against the previous owners
pay for their food.

These are songs of a fierce joy that claims a transformed world....even before that transformation arrives.  And they call the listener to begin living in that transformation NOW...not to wait for it to get here, but to live as though it is already present.  This is the great thing about Mary's "yes" to the angel Gabriel.  She moves to live in the coming new day, even before it arrives.

I found myself asking (both the members of the Bible studies and myself) a number of questions:
  • Where in my life am I indentured and in need of release and the chance to return to the roots of my faith?
  • How, and where am I captive, longing for freedom?
  • What would it mean in my life for the poor to be fed and the powerful to be sent away hungry?  Which am I?
  • How might I ask these same questions about those around me?
  • How might I ask them about the nation I live in?
  • What would it mean, in each of these situations, to begin living in joyful anticipation of that coming transformation?  To live right now as though that day has arrived?
Advent calls us into this fierce, transforming joy.  To live in preparation and anticipation of God's arrival in the birth of Christ and of the Kingdom in His life, death, and resurrection.  These are not, as I said above, pie-in-the-sky promises.  They are for here, now.  They are radical, ground zero promises to transform the world where you and I live.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Amen.  Let it be so.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

John The Baptist Preaches To A Priviledged People


In the opening verses of Mark and Luke Luke  3:10-14 we are given a picture of John the Baptist and his preaching.



I found myself doing some imagining, much as one might do if they were practicing the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, and trying to picture myself in the crowd listening to John. I found two things that were a bit disturbing: The first is that I saw myself as one of those entitled ones who believed that their identity as descendants of Abraham might give them special privilege in the Kingdom. I was reminded that our identity as God's children, God's people, is a gift it is not something that we are entitled to; and that like John said, "God can raise up children of Abraham out of stones" if God chooses. The meaning of that struck me as being that God took Abraham from nothing, from being a “stone”, and made him into the father of the Jewish Nation. God is always about making something out of nothing, and we forget that at our own peril.



The second thing that struck me was John's reply to those people who, as Walter Brueggemann says, "had forgotten that they were Jews," in signing on with the Empire by becoming soldiers and tax collectors for Rome. John doesn't call them to give up their jobs. But he Does call them to use their positions of power for justice. Listening to his instructions that they not take more than what they should and that they should not engage in various forms of exploitation was an enlightening moment for me.



I am a person of privilege. I cannot change that. I am a middle-aged, middle class, white male. I cannot deny that my life has been privileged. But neither can I use that to claim that I am entitled to anything: either some special relationship with God, or to use my privilege socially to enhance my position at the expense of others. I am called, and I believe most of the people who read this, are called, to engage in acts of justice and mercy as part of our gratitude for the gift that we have been given in the relationship that we do have with God through Christ, and for whatever power or privilege we might have.



Often we get focused on our individual relationship with Jesus, which is terribly important. But it is a mistake to focus there to the exclusion of our responsibility to work for theKkingdom by being just and using what power we have, and whatever way we have it, to care for those who are vulnerable and marginalized.



I am also finding in my own life, that sometimes I focus on my engagement in Justice ministry and do not cultivate my spiritual life, my personal relationship with the Jesus that I follow in the way that I need to. This is not an either-or proposition. In fact to do either at the exclusion of the other is to invite spiritual disaster.



This Advent, as I listen to John the Baptist, I am challenged and blessed as I am called to prepare the way for Christ’s Kingdom and clear a straight path in my life through the underbrush of entitlement and priviledge.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Jesus In The NICU

Her mother gave her a name
that in Hebrew means little dove.
A name of hope from deep in the heart
of Scripture and her mother.
I am huge outside her incubator.
Reaching in, my hand covers her body.
1 pound 9 oz at birth,
Her skin translucent as tiny fingers and toes wiggle and squirm.
I cannot hold her yet,
only touch,
and offer her the sound of my voice.
But Jesus
Who became tiny to enter our world,
Becomes, in love, smaller still;
lays beside her and wraps her in his arms,
singing songs of life and joy,
And tells her she is loved.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Denying Our Exile

Denying our exile is easy.
No one has drug off our best and our brightest,
Though many of them are drugged
Right where they are
Oxy in the suburbs, meth in the country, and crack on the streets.
We have no occupying forces
Marching through our streets,
Though the tiki torches light the night
And armed citizen militias
Are quick reminders
Of Jim Crow and Klansmen.
But I don't live in Darktown, never have,
So it doesn't feel
Like occupation to me.
My water is bottled.
My lights are always on.
No oil spills or lead taint the taste
Of my morning coffee, carefully filtered
And the things that occupy our nation
The greed for stuff
And power
And sex
The distain for bodies
Different from our own
In color or gender identification
These occupying forces
Do not march through our streets
But slither through
Our national psyche corporate soul
Like a silent, greasy fog.
And what if a trans hooker
Or unarmed black man
Dies
Or a runaway, tossed from home
Turns tricks at the bus station for a burger and fries.
Or a homeless vet sleeps in the stairwell
To the church's side entrance
As long as he's gone
Before the preschool parents arrive
Admitting to myself how much
My lack of active sin
Is neither piety nor passion
But numbness and boredom
And an aching fatigue
With the way things are
Oh Lord can these bones live again?
We do not mourn our loneliness
We just keep moving
Lest we fall to our knees
Realizing that we have been marched far away
From our true home
Nor can we imagine
a ransom from our captivity

Friday, November 10, 2017

Their Blood Cries Out

After Adam and Eve left the garden
and their children lived outside
the first cry that God heard
long before telling Moses "I have heard the cry of my people in Egypt"
was the cry of the blood of Abel
screaming out from the dust turned to mud by it's sticky red stream.
And Cain wanted to know
"was it my day to watch him?"
Trying to front off with prehistoric snark
the crime he had committed.

The blood still cries out
from Charleston to Sutherland Springs
from small black churches in Alabama
to the streets of Las Vegas
The years and the blood spread out like a pool
And God asks us
"where are my children, your brothers and sisters?
"their blood cries out!  What have you done?"
And we reply, "it's far to early to talk about doing anything,
but we did send thoughts and prayers."

A field soaked in blood
cannot produce a crop.
Nor will God accept the offering
of a nation devoid of justice.
Til our prayers grow hands and feet and votes,
and our thoughts turn to ways to curb the violence,
we should not be surprised to hear the judgement given Cain
handed down to us as well
and our nation become a fugitive and a wanderer
among all the nations of the world.

How Hard Is My Heart

My doctor said to me
You've reached a certain age
Where I want to know what we're up against
moving forward.
And so he sent me off for a simple test
That measures the amount of plaque
That has built up in the vessels
leading to my heart.
Time and diet and history
Apparently have been good to me;
my risk is only minimal
For contracting a disease of the heart.
And yet I wonder
Early in the morning
In the wake of another shooting
While Puerto Rico sits in darkness
And Flint's water still isn't safe to drink,
Whether the plaque build up
In the compassion leading to my nation's heart
Doesn't make a stroke imminent
if surgery doesn't happen immediately.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Promise

What do you do when you don't like the poem you've written, or the blog you've just penned, but they're already posted?  Do you take them down?  Offer an apology for such terrible writing?  My feelings about the poem and the blog post that were my last two postings fit those categories.  And, when my wife, who is my most honest critic, said......"I really didn't think much of them," I knew.

But I decided to leave them because they are, and were, an honest expression of the struggles I've been having with the violence and the tragedies of the past few weeks; violence and tragedies that don't seem to motivate those with the political power to make changes to do much more than offer the hot air of "thoughts and prayers," while religious leaders talk about arming their congregations.

This morning though, I got some help.  Wednesday is the day that I spend time with each of the classes in our church's preschool.  We sing, play with puppets, and tell Bible stories.  While I was looking for material to use this morning, I stumbled (okay, maybe this is God's sense of humor showing) across this page in Marie-Helene Delval's book Images of God.  It became the focus of our time together


Like many of us, I can get caught up in the "How long O Lord?" and forget that there IS still a promise.  That God's word to Abraham, to the prophets, and to Mary....the promise of Jesus, is that, finally, there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth.  Sometimes holding onto that promise is "believing upstream."  But hold on is what we're called to do.  And not just to hold on, but to be, ourselves, a part of the promise.  As the Body of Christ, to be, in some small way, part of the answer to the world's pain and a piece of the Kingdom.

But it isn't always easy.  Our lives are short when compared to the shelf life of Evil.  The days go by slowly.  And so the kids and I talked about a bird....a bird that wasn't particularly beautiful, waiting for the promise of it's becoming to be fulfilled.


It found Hope in the promise of knowing what it's Daddy looked like.  Maybe I need to remember what Jesus said, "if you've seen me, you've seen the father."  We know what our "Daddy" our Abba looks like....and it isn't violent tragedy, and it isn't the triumph of hatred and Evil.

Like I said earlier....I think God has a really funky sense of humor.  But I'll take it.  Because I need to reminded that this isn't my story....it's God's story that I'm invited to be part of.  God will write the last lines and scripture tells me that those lines include things like "every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire." (Isaiah 9:5) and "See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." (Revelation 21:3-4)

It means little when I trust that promise while everything is going well.  It's when everything seems to speak against it that maybe it's time to reach out and grasp the promise and hold it tight.

So if yesterday's blog means anything, it's that, like many of you, I struggle with the pain and the tragedy.  I bend myself into a pretzel looking for answers to the deaths of the innocent.  And maybe in knowing that about ourselves we find grace in the God who reaches out to say, "In all of this, remember the Promise."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Writhings

"You can't love her and me, you cannot have us both"
is a statement we'd all understand,
even if it broke our hearts.
"You can't love God and mammon"
is a little harder,
but if we make it just about money
we can manage to twist it around enough
that we can find a way to sorta work with it.
But don't let mammon be about power
don't let it be about control.
Never mind, we think, we only hear this one on Stewardship Sunday.
"You cannot love guns/violence/my belief that might makes right and Jesus"
What kind of pansy, pinko crap is that?!?
But what if it comes down to that?
Can I love something so opposed to who He was, and is, and is to be?
"Will there be assault rifles in heaven sweet Jesus?"
Can I keep one in the pew, just in case.
Oh Jesus forgive us
we've strayed so far from what You taught
and Who You were
that we think we're supposed to be the protected few
instead of the ones who lose their lives for Your sake

Guns, Idolatry, and Sutherland Springs

On December 15, 2012, almost 5 years ago, Garry Wills published an editorial in the New York Review entitled "Our Moloch."  This was after Sandy Hook.  You can find his comments here
http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2012/12/15/our-moloch/
Wills makes the point that America's love of guns has become our "Moloch," the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.  Five years later, in the wake of the shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, it is an image worth raising again.  What are the gods we worship?  What are the demands they are making on us?  Are we sacrificing our children, our vulnerable, our own being, at their alter?

What do I mean by this, and how do I keep this post from turning into a rant about the evils of guns and the need for gun control?  I'm not sure, to be honest...the shootings, both in Las Vegas and in Sutherland Springs have left me a bit numb.  Where do we begin?  How do we untangle the complicated questions involved?  Again, I'm not sure.  But I DO know that we have to start.  We cannot continue in the way we are going.  And so, in an effort to try to speak to this, I want to raise a single issue...one that is coming up over and over in the last couple of days:  the link between mass shooters and domestic violence.  The statistics vary somewhat, but approximately 56% of mass shooters (including the perpetrator of Sutherland Springs) have a history of domestic abuse.  That number goes higher if one factors in what is called the "boyfriend loophole" which means that a non-married ex who goes after an ex-girlfriend and her family or worksite will often not factor into the stats or, sometimes even be considered a domestic violence incident.

So imagine the impact that could be made on shootings in this country by a national law permanently restricting gun possession by convicted domestic abusers and putting a hold on possession by those individuals with domestic violence restraining orders (thus taking out the differences in state laws and slips made in military reporting to states about convictions in military courts such as happened with the recent perpetrator in Sutherland Springs).  No arguing about gun types (save that for later if you want) or any of the other things that the NRA wants to rant against.
Think of it as the equivalent of losing your drivers license for your 3rd DUI (the domestic abuse conviction) and having a "blow and go" on your car for your first (the possession hold associated with the restraining order).  

But you might say, "domestic abuse is a complicated issue as well, almost an overwhelming one."  My response would be, "It is.  But this action focuses on a specific problem, a specific behavior associated with that issue...the potential for gun violence.  If, however, you're concerned with attacking the issue of domestic violence, then good for you.  Also contribute to a shelter.  Help your local YWCA start a group for battered women.  Advocate for treatment groups for partners who batter.  There are a multitude of ways to become involved in 'bite sized' fashion in tackling this issue.  But this on, taking guns out of the hands of domestic abusers will make an immediate, positive difference."

So what has this got to do with Moloch?  How does this relate to our faith?

In Leviticus 20 God speaks of those who "give their offspring to Moloch, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name."  The worship of this Canaanite god was particularly forbidden because, in addition to grains and animals, sacrifices of children were made to it as a regular part of the worship of this Baal (fertility god).  Apparently, however, the Israelites had a hard time letting go of  this god. Solomon, we're told in 1st Kings 11:7, built an alter to Moloch...compounding the sins he'd already committed by using slave labor to build the Temple and becoming an arms dealer to the rest of his known world.  Amos in 5:25-27 explains that this worship is the reason for the exile and God's rejection of "feasts and fast days."  Finally, in the NT, Stephen stokes the wrath of those who will eventually stone him to death by reminding them that even on the march to the Promised Land there were those who were carrying alters to other gods, included Moloch.  And there is the rub....

The rub is that we "hedge our bets."  That we want to have an "ace up our sleeve" that isn't our trust in God's promises about the Kingdom and what it will mean.  So we worship other gods.  Our own national favorites seem to be Race, Power, Sex, and Money....singularly or in various combinations; with a myth of "redemptive violence" tossed in for good measure.  This allow even some pastors to talk about how helpful it is to "arm parishioners to protect congregations"....or the more civilly worded, "a good man with a gun can stop a bad man with a gun."  As though Jesus had said, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you arm one another as I have armed you."

But the false gods we worship want more and more from us.  Like a drug addiction, they keep demanding bigger pieces of our soul and giving back less in return.  Until what we are finally giving is our children.  Our refusal to address our worship of violence and our love affair with guns takes out a school, then a church, and then even those things quit moving us to anguished tears.  When that happens, God won't need to send us in to exile in some far off land....we'll already be in exile, right here in America


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The World Is Watching

Sometimes there are folks that you wish you'd encountered earlier; but when you finally encounter them, the grab you in a very powerful way.  For me, one of those people is Howard Thurman.  Much of what he says in Jesus And The Disinherited continues to ring so true in our day as to be shocking.  He speaks of the oppressive tools of Fear, Deception, and Hate.  Over against these he offers an "Interpretation of Jesus" and a chapter on Love.  These are our weapons against the oppression of the disinherited and marginalized.  And they bring us into intimate contact with Jesus the Christ.

Three quotes from his book stand out to me:

"The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, the disposed.  What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life."

"For years it has been a part of my own quest so to understand the religion of Jesus that interest in his way of life could be developed and sustained by intelligent men and women who were at the same time deeply victimized by the Christian Church's betrayal of his faith."

Then, this quote, which though addressed specifically to the situation of Black Americans can be appropriately and correctly applied to not only Blacks in America, but POC and other marginalized people in this country:

"The striking similarity between the social position of Jesus in Palestine and that of the vast majority of American Negroes is obvious to anyone who tarries long over the facts."

Thurman makes clear that most people live with their backs against the wall.  Poor, marginalized, victimized by even the Church that bears Jesus' name.  But the truth is that Jesus, as a Palestinian Jew, had more in common with these disinherited ones that with those who are "doing just fine, thank you."  What does the Christian faith have to say to them?  How do we express and live out a faith that is faithFUL to the calling this marginalized Jew who was also the Christ?

Thurman tells two stories of his grandmother.  One in his book and one in an interview with Landrum Bolling before his death (you can find the interview here

 https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Howard+Thurman&view=detail&mid=FB3C56EC8F6B8934E2C1FB3C56EC8F6B8934E2C1&FORM=VIRE

The first occurs when Thurman asks his grandmother why she never wanted him to read to her from the writings of Paul.  She replied

"Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul.  At least three or four times a year he used a text: 'Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters...as unto Christ.' Then he would go on to show how it was God's will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us.  I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible."

The second is a story that Thurman remembers her telling over and over again, especially when times were tough.  It was of her encounter, at some point during her slavery, with a Black preacher who said to those listening to him, "You're not slaves, you're not n*****s, you're a child of God."

It has always been so that there are those who wish to hijack the Gospel to support their positions of power.  And there have always been those preachers who grow rich and powerful by helping them do that in one form or another.  But this is not the way of Jesus.  The way of Jesus often leads, as it did for the disciples in this week's scripture passage in Acts 5:27-42, to arrest, incarceration, and public shaming.  It does so because faithful witness remembers that Jesus stood, and the Risen Christ stands, not with providing proof texts for those in power, but a way of liberation for those who are oppressed.  And it does so because it continues to echo Jesus, the Black preacher who moved Thurman's grandmother, and every faithful follower of Jesus before and since who look at struggling humankind and said, You're not your social condition, you're not the insults they call you, YOU ARE A CHILD OF GOD."

It is a choice every individual, every generation, every congregation must make.  And the world watches to see where we will come down.

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Faith Becomes A Killing Word

There is a scene in the movie Dune, when the main character says, "my name had become a killing word."  Something like that seems to have happened in the scripture we're looking at this week.

There's this strange story in Acts 5:1-11 about how a man named Ananias and Sapphira held back some of the profit they had made from the sale of a piece of property.  When confronted with this, Ananias first, and his wife about three hours later, both fell down dead.

This is an incredibly difficult passage for many of us.  Our assumption on first read is that this was something that God did to punish them for lying.  Peter, when he confronts Ananias, tells him, "you did not lie to us, but to God!"  But Luke doesn't say that God killed Ananias.  And I believe that is important.  Scripture has no qualms in other places saying that God slew someone.  All we're told here is that "when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died."  Then, when Peter confronts Sapphira, he says, "Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out."  Immediately she fell down and died as well.

I think that Luke, and the early Christians knew something was horribly wrong here.  Why?  First of all, because nothing like this happens ever again in the book of Acts.  If this was how God is going to operate in the New Age of the Church, how come we don't have people who lie to God dropping dead right and left?  Second, this event has absolutely NO parallel in the life of Jesus.  Unless you want to go to one of those stranger gospels outside of the Canon in which the child Jesus kills playmates he becomes upset with, there is no time when Jesus slays people.  In fact, He is constantly forgiving, intervening, and telling people to "go and sin no more."

Then what has happened here?  And what does it matter to us?

What I believe happened is that Peter misused his power.  Did it happen on purpose? I don't know.  What we do know is that with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the disciples had received a tremendous amount of power ("You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you...").  Part of that power appears to have been the ability to discern that Ananias and Sapphira had held back part of the proceeds.  But Peter also says, "before the property was sold, it was yours. After it was sold, the proceeds were yours."  What if Peter, knowingly or unknowingly, found that the power of his anger at this lie, strengthened by this "power" that he had received, was enough to kill?  And what is the collateral result?  Fear.  "And great fear seized all who heard of it" v.5  "And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things" v. 11.  The additional result is that even though there were signs and wonders being done, "None of the rest dared to join them" v. 13 as they met on Solomon's Portico, even though v. 14 says that "Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord..."  Folks might be "added to the Lord," but they avoided the community that met together.

Now what I'm suggesting isn't the only possibility.  Folks might have been scared by the resistance that the disciples were beginning to get from the Temple authorities.  It may have been both.  But this interpretation bears some looking at in our day.

An African American grandmother comes to a Sunday School class I'm teaching.  In tears she asks, "Is this what Christians believe?"  She has listened to the wife of a television evangelist, a wife who has her own TV show, and heard this woman say, in response to Black protests, "They (Blacks) should be grateful to be here."  If this is truly what Christians believe, she tells us, she doesn't know if she can hold on to the faith that has meant so much to her.  Disturbed by this, I ask some other African American members of the congregation if they encounter this a lot and am told that they are frequently in conversation with friends who have given up on the Christian church because its story has essentially been hijacked by the conservative right wing evangelical movement.

Have we so misused the power of the church that people are afraid to be part of Christ's body because it means giving up who they are? Do we need to explore this as part of the reason why so many chose to be "spiritual but not religious?"   Do we realize, as Fred Craddock used to say, that "what we say in a whisper often comes through like a shout?"

The Church claims to speak for, and is understood by many to speak for, the Living God.  Perhaps we should be very, very careful when we use words of judgement and exclusion.  Like our Lord said, "judge not that you are not judged; for whatever judgement you use will be used to judge you."

Are we losing the power of our history as a force for liberation and healing and building for the Kingdom when we allow our faith to become a "killing word?"



Sunday, October 15, 2017

I Believe My Country Is Addicted

I believe my country is addicted
to a drug as old as humankind.
Like the child of an alcoholic or a heroin addict
I can trace nearly every problem my country has
back to this addiction.

A dark line like dried blood
leads from gun violence
especially the deaths of young black men
back to this addiction.

Poverty and broken families
crowded prisons
turned from places that at least claimed to be
Departments of Rehabilitation
into
For Profit Enterprises
where empty beds and empty cells
are a "violation of the contract with the management entity"
that cages men and women of color
on behalf of the state.

I believe that my country is addicted
and that our addiction is killing us
will kill us
will leave our cold corpse
covered with the vomit of our own rage
in one of history's back alleys.

I believe that my country is addicted to racism.
We will not get sober by going to any kind of meeting that is anonymous
We will have to stand up
Owning our addiction before the world
ourselves
and the victims of our addiction.

We've been snorting a long line of White Privilege Powder
for a very long time
And we're going to be a long time coming back.

Let's create a new 12 Step Group
Racists Coming Clean
the same steps will work
But will we risk them?

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory
Made a list of all persons we have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
Made such amends....

Do we have the balls to work the steps?

Our nation will die of this progressive disease
if you and I do not intervene
If we do not tell our country to sit it's ass down and listen
Listen to the stories of those most harmed by our addiction

We don't have time to go snort one last line
the next one may well kill us.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Don't Look Back

"Will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?"

What a question!  Jesus has been crucified.  He has been raised from the dead.  He has spent time with the disciples; calming their fears, assuaging their doubts, reconnecting :with them after they've scurried like rats off a sinking ship.  And now they are asking a "throwback theology" question about the nature of the Messiah:  "are you going to give Israel it's kingdom back?"

Ever since the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jerusalem elites to Babylon, folks had been looking for the Messiah, the Christ, who would set everything right.  Some thought that when Cyrus the Persian sent the exiles home that this would be the beginning of that restoration.  But things hadn't quite turned out the way they thought.  They were still under oppressive control, most recently that of Rome.

But they had the promises of prophets like Isaiah, who in Isaiah 43 speaks of restoration and protection, of rivers in the desert.  And Isaiah says, in essence, "don't focus on what I've done in the past....I'm going to do something new that is going to make even the Exodus (the defining moment in Israel's identity) look like yesterday's news."  What else could that be than the restoring of the kingdom to Israel?

Jesus' answer must have rocked them to the core.  God was going to do something new, alright, but it wasn't going to look like anything they imagined.

First of all (and we talked about this a few weeks ago), Jesus' answer about "restoring the kingdom" amounts to a flat, "that's none of your business."  This in itself must have felt a bit abrupt.  But THEN Jesus says in Acts 1:8 something so powerful that we've (meaning you and me) been avoiding it for centuries:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirt has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Let me stop here and say something in defense of the disciples.  They aren't that different that you or me.  All of us keep looking back over our shoulder for some "golden age" that we think was back there.  It rarely is.  It is a fantasy.  In fact, the Davidic kingship that was praised so highly was a wealth of dysfunctional family life.  An act of incestuous rape that David refused to deal with tore the kingdom apart.  When the dust had settled, sons were dead and Solomon was in line for the throne.  Solomon....who built the Temple but also worshipped other gods and enslaved and taxed his own people for the building.  Solomon who was a ancient arms dealer.

No wonder that Isaiah quotes God as saying, "Look, I'm going to do something new."  The first bit of that "newness" is that power is going to come, the Spirit of God is going to come, not on a single person like happened in the past with Moses, and the prophets, and David.  The Holy Spirit is going to come on a community.   There isn't going to be a "fearless leader" that everyone troops after.  There is going to be a community of witnesses.  This group that Jesus said to, "I don't call you servants anymore, I call you friends."

Second, "you will be my witnesses."  Witnesses to the resurrection....yes.  But also witnesses to this new way of being that Jesus has been teaching and living out.  This way of living that was responsible for His death.

Third, they will be witnesses "in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."  This isn't going to be a "kingdom restored to Israel."  It is going to be the Kingdom.  The Kingdom of God.  It isn't going to be limited to some narrow nationalism.  It isn't going to be limited to some racial or religious litmus test. It's going to go everywhere!

It's going to make the Exodus look like small potatoes because Jesus is going to lead all of creation out from it's bondage to Sin and Death.  And here is where it gets scary.....

The disciples are told that they are going to be witnesses.....just like Moses was a "witness" to the Glory of God.  They were going to face down Sin and Death like Moses confronting Pharaoh.  There is a new world, they were to announce.  Things are to be lived out differently.  And they were to do it in places they hadn't even heard of yet.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of how they struggled with what that meant.  And the first question, the biggest question of that story what "who is in, and who is out?"  And the answer was terrifying.  It was so terrifying that by the time Constantine converted, the Church was already backtracking and putting up barriers that the Apostles had spend great energy tearing down.  If you want proof, you can see it even in the case of the Canon, where Paul says, "there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile."  But by the time you get to the writings of those who wrote in Paul's name (not an unusual practice), there is a back pedaling that would do a politician proud: women are told to shut up in worship (a sure sign that there were women leading successfully in early churches) and slaves were being told that they served God by being obedient to their masters (a dog whistle if I've ever heard one).

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I will not belabor the point of our current political climate.  The demeaning of the marginalized whom we are commanded to care for.  The selling of racism and violence for political and economic gain.

What I will do is take us back to the scripture that was part of last week's service.  John 15 has Jesus describing Himself as the True Vine. God, He says, is the vinekeeper who prunes the branches (that's us).  And then Jesus says, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." I'm going to suggest that Jesus is telling us that the final determination for what is, and isn't, pruned away from our lives is love.  Not that milksoppy "love" that sounds more like aroma therapy that Jesus.  But Love.  The kind of love that lays down it's life.  The kind of love that covers a loved one with it's own body in the gun fire of Los Vegas.  The kind of Love that looks at Dylann Roof and offers forgiveness.  The kind of love that will march and act and go to jail and die, if need be, til this country is delivered from it's bondage to violence, racism, Sin and Death.

If you need another image, think of those folks going west in covered wagons.  Bogging down in the muddy trails, they dumped everything but the bare necessities.  Even good things, like pianos and cookware, were left by the side of the trail.  Are we willing to dump everything that is not Love?

It's a wonder that any of the disciples hung around for Pentecost.  And yet, they had seen what the Kingdom could look like.  They had watched Jesus live it.  They had seen Death put it's tail between it's legs and run like hell (literally).  So they stayed.  And the Spirit blew.

This has been a tragic week.  In national ways, Los Vegas was the scene of a horrific shooting, medical care for women is being attacked, Puerto Rico still struggles for basic necessities.  Closer to home I buried a young man, not yet 21, killed in a motorcycle accident.  I listened to a police officer describe being the first responder at a murder/suicide.  Sin and Death still battle for control; and Jesus still sends us out to places we never thought we'd go.

Will we keep looking back over our shoulder for some "golden age" or will we be obedient witnesses to what the Kingdom can look like here and now?  Will we allow ourselves to be pruned til all that is left is love?

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A Broken And Contrite Heart Might Turn To Love

The second verse of Daniel L. Schutte's hymn Here I Am, Lord says,

"I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people's pain.
"I have wept for love of them, they turn away.
"I will break their hearts of stone, Give them hearts for love alone.
"I will speak my word to them.  Whom shall I send."

If there was ever a time when I pray that God might break the hearts of stone of this nation, it is now. I find myself praying that God will break Trump's heart that he will really see the people of Puerto Rico.  Praying that God will break Congress' heart so that they will really understand gun violence. Praying that with seeing and understanding will come action that reflects God's call to us in Jesus to care for the vulnerable, the weak, the marginalized.

When I was 13, a little over 50 years ago, Charles Whitman shot and killed 16 people (a 17th died some years later from complications related to the shooting).  This was the beginning of a half century long history of mass murders using legal firearms.  This week in Las Vegas the number was 59.  50 years of my life has been spent listening to news of mass murder and to excuses why we can't regulate gun ownership.

I keep hearing the same arguments about gun control: "Do you really think that gun control will keep guns out of the hands of criminals?"  Yes, and no.  But so many of the automatic and assault style weapons used in these repeated tragedies weren't gained illegally.  They were bought through legal means.  So if we quit selling them, perhaps the mass murders that occurred could have been prevented or reduced.  The truth is that we make it possible for people to legally own weapons that have only one purpose-the rapid killing of human beings. WHY?

Another argument is, "He just snapped.  It's not a gun issue, it's a mental health issue."  If that is true; and I believe that it is, in part....Then put money into mental health. Don't keep cutting funding for programs that reach out and care for people who might potentially "snap" and commit mass murder.  And for God's sake, don't make it easy for them to gain access to weapons created for combat if they DO snap.

Finally, if you really, really believe that this is a "well regulated militia" issue, bring back the draft.  Insist that everyone....and I mean EVERYONE, no exceptions.....do two years of national service.  Either in a Peace Corps/Vista program or in Active Duty Military/National Guard.  Then let everyone who is part of this store their combat weapon in an Armory where they can have access to it in the event said "militia" is needed.

The absurdity of the "militia" argument when you separate it from attachment to military service which is within the national chain of command becomes graphically apparent when you look at the white supremacists "militias" that have been present in settings like Charlottesville  What would be the response if at the next massive demonstration, a Hispanic Safety Militia and a Black Protection Militia all showed up armed with open carry assault style weapons for the purpose of "making sure that everyone was protected."  Suddenly everyone would be very concerned.  And yet, that is the model that is being touted.

THERE IS ANOTHER WAY.  But it is painful and hard.

Our nation needs to have it's heart broken.  But we've somehow been sold a bill of goods that says that Love, the kind of Love that Jesus calls us too, is weakness.  That, by the way is total bullshit (I would use the Greek word for it, but my Greek isn't that good).  We're talking about the kind of Love that Jesus describes as "laying down one's life for a friend,"  the kind of Love that, in Las Vegas caused a fiancĂ© to throw himself over his girlfriend to protect her from the gunfire (he died, she lived), the kind of Love that, again in Las Vegas, caused people to stay and hold the hand of a dying stranger.  This is not weakness.

This is the kind of Love that Jesus sent His disciples, and us, out into the world to bear witness to.  The "fruit" Jesus talks about us bearing is not "souls convinced to say the Sinner's Prayer" because we've convinced them of the Four Spiritual Laws.  The fruit we are supposed to be bearing is measure in hungry fed, naked clothed, homeless sheltered, orphans protected, and enemies reconciled. Our nation needs to have it's heart broken.  

Psalm 51:17 says, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Maybe even now it is not too late.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Grafted, Pruned, and Fed

Sometimes when I'm doing sermon preparation, my research takes me off in strange directions.  This week is one of those times.  During last night's Bible study we were looking at John 15:1-17 where Jesus talks about "I am the vine and you are the branches" and identifies God as the "vinedresser."  It was really interesting because we had a couple of folks in the Bible study who had actually helped to care for grapes when they visited grandparents as children.

I learned that getting a grapevine to where it produces grapes is a lengthy process that includes, among other things, often pruning it back so that the nurture coming to the vine from the ground can get to a limited number of branches (or canes) resulting in larger grapes.

We talked about how our interpretation of this parable changes depending on whether we see the words "you are the branches" as a plural comment to the disciples and from there to the church at large....or to us as individuals.  Both, I think, are reasonable interpretations that have a lot to tell us.

Later that evening my mind went to Paul's words when he talked in Romans about the Gentiles being "grafted" onto the olive tree that was Israel.  I know that grafting is often used in grape vineyards, so I started thinking about that in terms of the "I am the vine, you are the branches" discussion.  So I looked up grafting and grape vines.

I found this really interesting discussion of what is called "cleft grafting."  This is when you cut a cleft in the vine and insert a  couple of  scions (twig to the rest of us) into that cut.  The result looks like this:

Image result for grafting grapevines in the bible

It was the language in the article though that really got my head spinning (you can find the article here if you are interested https://winemakermag.com/290-field-grafting-grape-vines)

" Grafting involves wounding your vines, and working with open wounds on both the trunk and scion."  And " In grafting, the injured tissue of one vine heals to the injured tissue of another. However, just putting two cut vines together does not guarantee a graft. The healing only takes place if the cambium layers of both the trunk and the scion are in permanent contact with each other. The cambium layer is the layer of green living tissue that lies between the bark and the wood. Therefore, the incision you make on your trunk, and the shape you cut your scion must be tailored to allow as much of the cambium tissue on both pieces to contact each other."

My head began to spin.  Think about it....What if the only way I can be grafted to Jesus is to take the "open wounds" of my life and lay them in the "open wounds" of Jesus?  

God, made vulnerable in God's incarnation in Jesus' life and death on the cross.  These together are the "wound" that opens a place for us to be in that grafted relationship as "scion" grafted into Jesus.  But for that to be successful, I have to bring my own open wound.  I can't just stick a twig down in that cut in the vine.  I need to become vulnerable. "The shape you cut your scion must be tailored to allow as much of the cambium tissue on both pieces to contact each other" so that "the injured tissue of one vine heals to the injured tissue of another."  This brings new meaning for me to the passage in Isaiah 53:5 that says, "But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed."

To put this in plain words, I will never be what I am meant to be, I will never become part of the "vine" that is Jesus, until I put my woundedness into His.  This is a deeply intimate, personal, often painful process.  My greed, my rage, my pain, my childhood wounds...and all the ways I have tried to heal them on my own-my attempts to sooth my pain by myself (we often call that addiction)....all of these have to be exposed and laid in the open wounds of Jesus.

But there is more.  This is true of us as churches, and communities, and nations.  We will not heal the divisions in this country until we take the open wound of our racism and expose it to the wounds of the Christ who was lynched by the Roman Empire.

Only then, when we personally and corporately have done the painful, risky work of grafting, can the work of growth and pruning begin.  The end result of "bearing fruit" begins with that letting our wounds heal to the wounds of Jesus.  But on this Worldwide Communion Sunday we are promised that "I am the bread of life" and "those who come to me I will in nowise cast out." (John 6)  In grafting a grape vine there is no guarantee that the graft will take.  But Jesus promises that when we place our wounds into His, the graft will always be successful.  Which means that the only way to be "branches that don't bear fruit and are thrown into the fire" is to refuse to expose our woundedness.

On this Worldwide Communion Sunday, when all over the world Christians are sharing the Euchrist,  I pray that we....as individuals, as a nation, as a world can hear the promise of the New Covenant sealed with Christ blood, the result of the wound that opens for our healing, and risk the brutal honesty that will allow us to place our wounds next to His and heal into the wounds of Christ.  

Monday, September 25, 2017

Reflections On Worldwide Communion Sunday

Once again a poem by my friend Maren Tirabassi has triggered some writing of my own.  She wrote a wonderful poem about Worldwide Communion Sunday (coming up on October 1)  that you can find here:
https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/

Her poem got my mind to spinning; and the result was these:

POEM FOR A WORLDWIDE COMMUNION SUNDAY

"I tell you," Jesus said,
"They'll come from everywhere
"to sit down at the table in the Kingdom."
The only way, it seems,
to not get fed,
Is to refuse to sit down.
"You can't put me next to her!"
"I won't sit at the same table as him!"
May be the cry of the self damning
as they push away from the table.

Perhaps hunger will bring them back.
I hope so.
But I know how stubborn I am,
And how quickly I'll claim that
"I'm on a diet,"
Rather than pass the bread to an enemy.

O Gracious God
Who sets the Table in this life
and the Next
Make us so hungry for You
That we edge our way
out of the shadows of our own sin
To gather around the Only Table there is


IF IT'S REALLY WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY

Black mother weeping for a slain son
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Torch carrying neo nazi drowning in hate
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Rescue worker sifting through the rubble
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Battered wife, abused child
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Dark web computer pedophile
The Body of Christ, broken for you.

First responder, police on the line
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Transgendered teen and angry father
The Body of Christ, broken for you

Whoever you are, whatever you've done
Or not done
Crowing in victory, or bloody in defeat
The Body of Christ, broken for you

How can you do that?
How dare you do that?
Offering these estranged ones
Food from the same Table
Who do you think you are?

I can do it
Because I'm told to.
It's not my Bread, it's not my Wine.
The Table doesn't belong to me.
I'm just a waiter here.

Passing out the Bread
While the giver of the feast
Raises His cup in toast to say,
"This Cup is the new Covenant.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dressed In Hope

Sometimes a lot of things come together in my head and produce a kind of "thick theological reflection."  This week has been one of those times.  I'd like to try to tease the bits of this tapestry apart a bit and share them with you before stepping back and showing the whole weaving.

Some week's ago I picked the scriptures for this week's worship.  They are the story in Genesis 3 of Adam and Eve leaving the Garden; with a particular emphasis  on Genesis 3:21: "And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife Garments of skins, and clothed them."  And Galatians 3:27-28, "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." My thoughts about these passages have been heavily influenced by Lauren Winner's Wearing God, and I am grateful to her for her writing.  Where I wind up is, of course, my own responsibility.

Recently, I agreed to do a workshop in October on suicide for the Annual Meeting of the DC Baptist Convention.  In preparation for that I began reviewing clinical writing and talking to friends of mine at the Hyattsville Community Crisis Services who deal with this issue daily through the Hotline and other contacts. Thank you Jamie Brill, Bill Leary, and Tim Jansen for all taking the time to talk (over really good meals by the way) about this.

Frighteningly there is approximately 1 suicide attempt every 38 seconds and 121 successful suicides every day.  High on the list for these attempts and deaths are veterans who have significant issues such as homelessness or less than honorable discharges; LGBT youth; those with untreated depression; and persons who have had childhood trauma. 9 out of 10 are linked to mental illness with a very high correlation to bi-polar disorders.  What these all seem to have in common is a sense of being overwhelmed and a feeling of hopelessness.  

Adam and Eve must have felt that way.  There they are, they've been living in this blissful place, and suddenly they realize that they are "naked."  That word, by the way, is used to refer to a city without fortifications.  It is vulnerable.  They were suddenly aware of their vulnerability in a way they were not equipped to handle.  Things could hurt you!  Bees could sting, animals that you frolicked with yesterday have teeth and claws, the river you splashed in could drown you, and plants could be poison.

Anyone who has ever known or worked with victims of childhood trauma will see reflections of this.


God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good.
Even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Then why can't they eat?
Because it's not time
It's too soon
You're not ready
One day
God would have spread a picnic under that tree
And sliced the fruit for them God's Own Self

But instead...

Who told you that you were naked? That you were vulnerable, that you could not trust the providence and loving protection of God?

The moment they ate
Their eyes flew open
Suddenly, they KNEW
Their tongues burned with the taste
of Good and Evil
The slashing agony of torture
the bitter tang of racism
the dark emptiness of hunger
the ripped openness of physical and sexual abuse
The stinging salt of lonely tears
The KNEW the fear, the terror
of experience and understanding
gained too soon.
And in their anxious, terrified state
The grabbed what they could
To hide their vulnerability.

To keep them from the Tree of Life
Might have been an act of compassion, lest they spend eternity in this terrified state.

Knowing that they must leave, God stayed up all night, hunched over God's sewing machine, making them clothes of skins to protect them in the world that they had to go out into.  The agony and pathos of this moment is palpable; as is the tenderness of the moment when God gave them these gifts, wrapping these frightened, overwhelmed, hopeless feeling, childlike creatures in the product of God's labor of love.


To a later world struggling with it's feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, Paul will say, "You have put on Christ like a warm coat" (my paraphrase).  "See in this care and this love a reason to find Hope."

Interestingly enough, the next line does away with divisions that are/were often marked by clothing: male and female; slave and free; Jew and Gentile.  They do not exist for Christians any more because, clothed in Christ Jesus, we are all wearing the "school uniform" of the Way, the Kingdom, of Jesus' family.

Roll back up to look at the things that raise suicidal risk.  What if we took that list and now said, "We have put on Christ Jesus.  Dressed in that love we not longer see a division between sane and mentally ill, between straight and LGBT, between traumatized and "normal", for we are all wrapped together in the warm blanket of God's love for us in Christ Jesus."

The third step in this picture is, of course, that you and I are called to be the Body of Christ.  We are that warm blanket.  Clothed in Christ, we are called to "cloth the naked" in whatever form that takes.

I don't remember whether I read it, or one of my friends said it to me this past week, but I was struck by the comment that "a caring person is the first line of referral."  The first line of defense against suicide is our personal empathy for those who hurt, who feel overwhelmed, who feel that all hope is gone.  We are called to embody that hope.

Another friend marked the end of Suicide Prevention week by thanking the friend who found them when they had cut their wrist and gotten them help.  47 years ago this person helped my friend.  This friend helped me when my life was doing a crash and burn.  It is as though we are passing around the blanket of God's love so that in it's warmth we may all find Hope and Trust to move forward.

If you read this, and are thinking of hurting yourself, please don't.  We need you.  There is Hope.  There is help.  And by continuing to live, you, like my friend, may one day save the life of another.

Shalom

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Insanity, Sin, And The Repeal Of DACA

I am generally reluctant to say, "Thus Says The Lord."  I am more likely to say, "this is how I read scripture, what do you think?" and to add, if we disagree, "We're Baptists, we can do that."  But today, I don't think I can do that.

Today, the Trump Administration did away with DACA in a way that demonstrated an extreme level of cowardice and cruelty.  But beyond that, and this IS The Word of the Lord, in a manner that is sinful. Sinful and in "If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them" (James 4:17) sinful.

I would like to point to just a couple of passages and then tell a Bible story.  I want to tell that story because it is a warning; and it's a warning we need to hear, because if we let this decision go by without the Church taking a stand alongside these "Dreamers," these oppressed ones, we become complacent in the sin.

Let me begin with Deuteronomy 24 where we find a set of laws governing the treatment of the "widow, the orphan, and the alien."  Among them this (vs. 14-15) You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns  You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt. (emphasis mine)

One of the easily overlooked comments that Attorney General Sessions made today was that Dreamers were allowed to participate in Social Security.  That means that these folks, many of whom have been working for years, have been contributing to Social Security.  What will happen to their money?  Will they be eligible to draw SS in whatever country they are living when they reach the eligible age?  Will that money be returned to them in a lump sum upon deportation?  Watch this closely over the next weeks and months.  Raise this question every chance you get.  Because to fail to make provision for those funds is to steal the wages of the worker.

In my opinion (and I break now for a "me" comment...if Paul could do that, so can I), Lawsuits should begin NOW to seek to ensure either the guaranteed payment of those funds upon eligibility or their immediate return to the Dreamers who have put into Social Security.  Tie up the Courts with this and get Orders blocking the deportation of any Dreamer who has put anything into Social Security until the issue is resolved as a Class Action.  
And do not fall for the "we're only going after "outlaws" line.  Because this Administration and ICE have demonstrated that, in their mind, being an "illegal/undocumented" alien fits their definition of a crime and equals "outlaw."  Think Jim Crow and the definitions of "loitering" and "vagrancy" that filled Southern chain gangs with Black, rentable, virtual slave labor and you'll see what I mean.  If you read this and have any capacity to help those suits begin, PLEASE go to work.  If you don't have, share the idea with someone who does.

Now back to the Scriptures.

Few of us need to be reminded that Jesus said, with absolutely no ambiguity at all, that "If you do it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me." (Matthew 25:40)  The consequence of failing to care for these oppressed, marginalized folks was horrific.  But it has a basis in other Scriptures.  And so now to the Bible story with a brief digression to Ezekiel that lays the groundwork for the story I want to tell.  In Ezekiel 17 the Lord says that He will plant a tender shoot on the mountain height of Israel

"in order that it may produce boughs and
         bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
  that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
  I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
  and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish this." (Ezekiel 17:23b-24)

God's people are told that they will, even after exile, become this great nation which is to become home and shelter for all kinds of people.  Because God does what God wishes...and this is what God wishes.

Holding that thought, look at Daniel 4.  I will let you read it for yourself.  But the story goes that Nebuchadnezzar had a dream.  It was a dream that terrified him.  This dream was about a great tree that was home to all these birds and animals and then it was cut down.  Daniel interpreted the dream saying, "that tree is you."  He went on to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he would go insane and eat grass like the cattle, "until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will."

Nebuchadnezzar's arrogance has condemned him.  He will be judged by God for his oppressive behaviors that he believes he is entitled to enact.  Daniel does something incredibly courageous and says to Nebuchadnezzar, "Therefore, O king, may my counsel be acceptable to you: atone for your sins with righteousness and your iniquities with mercy to the oppressed, so that your prosperity may be prolonged."

Nebuchadnezzar, of course, does not do any of this.  And within a year he goes insane.  He stays insane until he acknowledges that God is the source of all power and goodness.

This story is not a "one and done."  We are in this story.  We are seeing this story reenacted before us right now.  The insanity has begun.  Yet, there is still time to repent.  Trump could fix his Executive Order repealing DACA. He could direct that a way be found to fix the Program.  Congress can make decisions about this repeal that can protect those Dreamers who will be harmed by this decision.

We, as Christians, in partnership and fellowship of other people of faith can help to force this issue.  We can write blogs.  We can write Congress.  We can march.  We can suggest and support Court actions.  We can pray.  We can be islands of Shalom in the ocean of insanity.

 Make no mistake.  The insanity is just beginning.  It is bad, but it will get worse.  Unless "sins are atoned for with righteousness" and "iniquities with mercy to the oppressed," we will see the insanity increase.

I'm not talking about God punishing with hurricanes, etc. (we've heard that before).  I am talking about the realities that God's commandments and Jesus' teachings about Justice and Mercy are either followed, or there are consequences that come in the wake of that sinfulness.  One need only look at the history of oppressive regimes to see this.  And when we add, as people of faith, our belief that when the oppressed cry out, God hears and comes, we can see where our tasks lie.  We need to do our work for Justice and labor for Mercy.  We need to be on the lookout for what God is doing, and is going to do, and join ourselves to it.

As Galatians tells us, "Don't be deceived, God won't be mocked."  Believing that you can live in injustice, denying mercy to the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the alien is the way to madness.

The Word of the Lord

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Response To The "Nashville Statement"

Sometimes it is necessary to write or speak, not because you're going to say anything particularly wise or important, or even new, but because to fail to speak would be immoral.  This writing is such a moment.

I have been impressed lately in terms of responding to a number of social situations, by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that "In the end , we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."  This is a time when we are bombarded by so many situations that cry out for Christians to respond, that it is easily to be overwhelmed and say, "it's okay, there are enough people speaking out, I don't need to say anything."

This past week the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a document titled the The Nashville Statement. This document focused on sexuality as a (perhaps the) primary sign of Christian faith.  It was signed by over 150 evangelical leaders.  It represents a heresy that has gained a lot of play and done incredible damage to both the Christian faith and to LGBTQ persons who love Jesus and seek to follow Him.

Some of the best responses to this document can be found here:

https://thinkprogress.org/are-evangelicals-inventing-a-new-form-of-christianity-all-about-sex-46ff64454c8f/amp/

and here:


But, as a  person of faith and a Christian Pastor, I need to add my voice to those who are expressing their difficulty with this statement.  

I stated above that the statement represents a heresy.  "Heresy" is defined as a "belief or opinion contrary to orthodox belief" or to "revealed truth."  As noted in the first article above, the conservative evangelicals who signed on to this document appear to be redefining what the Christian faith's primary behaviors and beliefs are.  They appear to be no longer "I was hungry and you gave me food, naked and you clothed me..." but to define the requirements of Christianity by speaking about a subject that, frankly, Jesus never mentioned.  So though they claim they are representing "traditional" belief, they are not.

A second problem that I find with the document is that I can find no support for the idea that Jesus would say to anyone that they were unwelcome to follow Him.  I just can't find it.  Jesus was gathering the wounded and the hurt to Him, not pushing them away.  As one who has a very Christo-centric faith, the first place I look for guidance is the life of Jesus.  I do not see this exclusion reflected there.

All of these problems are addressed much better than I can address them by others who have spoken and written this past week.  But that is not an excuse for silence in the face of those who are claiming to speak exclusion on behalf of Jesus and the Christian Church at large.

So, let me simply be clear.  Though I pray for their hearts to be opened to love and welcome their Christian brothers and sisters who are gay, lesbian, and trans....I am very clear that those who signed on to the Nashville Statement do not speak for me, they do not speak for many in the Christian Church, and I sure as hell do not believe that they speak for Jesus.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Sermon I Don't Want To Preach, The Blog I Don't Want To Write

I have been on vacation for a little over a week now.  I have almost a week to go.  It's raining and so I'm thinking about Sunday's sermon....and the world.....and Jonah....and Daniel....and why taking Jesus seriously is so damned hard.

I call this the "sermon I don't want to preach" and the "blog I don't want to write," not because I don't believe it; but because once you say it, all wiggle room is gone. No excuses are left.  And I like having room to maneuver.  Even with God, I try to have a little wiggle room (I can hear God doing a Dr. Phil imitation now, "How's that working for ya?")

Sunday's sermon is the final one on Baptismal Identity.  It is about the responsibility of speaking truth to power.  That's part of our identity.  Part of our responsibility.   Standing tall and naming racism and all kinds of bigotry and cruelty for what they are.  And pointing out the consequences of the failure to listen.  Which brings me to Daniel.  Daniel who must have had at least a twinge of fear when Nebuchadnezzar called him in to interpret the dream in Daniel 4.  Why? Because Daniel had to tell Nebuchadnezzar that he was going to go insane.  He would soon be eating grass like a cow and his appearance would make Howard Hughes look like a beauty queen.  But it is the loss of his humanity that is the greatest horror.  It is that loss that many theologians have described as the primary quality of Hell.

Why was this going to happen to Nebuchadnezzar?  Because he had decided that it was all about him.  He had done it all, and he did not need to answer to anyone.  If that reminds you of anyone, or any group of people in our current world, that similarity is not accidental.  Empires always think that they are independent, that they are beyond even the demands of Torah.  Our world is fast going insane, and many of our leaders with it.

But it is easy to lose track of the fact that in the midst of all this our task is also to "speak the Truth in Love" (Ephesians 4:15) and to "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you." (Ephesians 4:31-32, italics mine)

Why?  Because, Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12, "Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

I would much prefer it be about flesh and blood.  I want to let my rage at the Joe Arpaios of the world run rampant....along with the Donald Trumps who pardon them. Who excuse their racism and cruelty and the corruption of all my country stands for by calling them "patriots" and in so doing giving that word a vile and nauseating meaning; one similar to calling the keepers of the ovens in Nazi Germany "patriots."  I know my heart.  And my heart sees these evils and thinks that maybe putting on a black and a mask and meeting the Nazis in the street with the same violence that they bring could be a good thing, a purifying thing, a comforting thing.  Because I, like many, was raised on this myth of redemptive violence and have never quiet shaken it.  It is the "thorn in my flesh" (one among many if I am honest).

In John 18:36, Jesus tells Pilate, "My Kingdom is not from here.  If it were, my followers would fight."  This Kingdom, the one I pledged myself to at my Baptism, the one in whose citizenship I find my Baptismal Identity, doesn't work by violence.  And there is a reason.  The reason is that the purpose of this Kingdom is the rescue and redemption of us ALL.  Even Donald Trump.  Even Joe Arpaio.  Even torch welding Nazis.

Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry is fond of quoting the hymn There Is A Balm In Gilead: "If you cannot preach like Peter, and you cannot pray like Paul, you can tell about the Savior, and say He died for all."  FOR ALL.  I'm sorry, but that sucks some days.  Because the "sin sick souls" that need to be healed aren't always people I like. I need to be reminded that the sin sick soul I am most acquainted with is my own.  And if that balm could come for me, it can be present for them as well.

Truth be told I am much more like Jonah than Jesus.  I WANT Nineveh to perish.  I understand why Jonah bought a one way ticket for Tarshish (the totally opposite direction).  Jesus wants to add these people to the Beloved Community.  I want them to rot in hell.  Thanks be to God, what I want doesn't matter in this case. 

The Koran, when it tells the story of Jonah, says that the digestive juices of the whale burned Jonah's skin.  When I let myself be swallowed by my own rage, I will be injured.  Being barfed up on the beach isn't just God putting Jonah where God wanted him; it is an act of mercy taking place before Jonah is destroyed in the belly of the beast.

Some weeks ago I quoted in a sermon the words to Once To Every Man And Nation by James R. Lowell.  I quote them again here because I believe that the choice we make isn't just to speak truth to power, but to do so in Love.  To combat Evil even while we try to bring those trapped in it's grasp to the Table where Christ's Body is broken for us all:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, 'twixt that darkness and that light

So here is the sermon I don't want to preach and the blog I don't want to write in a nutshell:

The Beloved Community which is our true home.  The Body of Christ which is our Baptismal Identity, begins for us at the point of our own forgiveness.  The place where we discovered that there is a balm for our own sin sick soul.  We do not get to say who else that Body and Blood were given for.  But we are called to speak the truth.  And that truth is that our world is going insane.  The Principalities of Evil will not win the war, but they are certainly winning some battles.  We have to stand and speak the Truth.  Sometimes we will need to put our own bodies between Evil and the vulnerable.  But all the time we need to be speaking that Truth in Love...calling those who have given themselves over to the rage and the hatred and the greed of this age...calling them to repentance and redemption.  Because Jesus loves them too.  There is no guarantee that they will listen.  There is no guarantee that they will not try to hurt us, or that they will not succeed in that.  What we lay claim to is our faith in the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ.  A world redeemed and restored.  In the meantime, living this faith, placing our bodies and His Bread and Body in the gulf between will always be a call to "take up your cross and follow Me."  But this is the task of the Church.  And we claim the words of Jesus that, finally, "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."