Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cry The Beloved Country-2017

I had not intended to write the particular blog that I am writing this morning.  I am preaching on Sunday about the role of lament in our lives as God's people, and, following the reasoning of Walter Brueggemann, how giving voice to pain and dislocation frees us up to creatively envision a new future.  My goal was to explore here the more personal role of lament in our lives and how we as a community of faith need to cultivate our capacity to be present to those who need to lament.

But this morning I find myself needing to raise a lament of my own on behalf of our nation. Donald Trump's decision to bar transgender persons from service in the military is, by itself, a decision made without reason.  He claims to make this decision based on "generals and military experts" but does not mention by name or document concerns.  He talks about "enormous medical costs and disruption" but again does not document or justify.  Now this should be easy to do since there are already thousands of transgender persons currently serving in the military.  And if his rational is reasonable, he should be able to share with the American people solid evidence for this unilateral decision.  But, of course, given his track record, he will not do so.

But beyond this....what I lament this morning, and lament in the Name of the One who commands us to ensure justice for "the stranger in your midst" is that our nation has entered into a pattern of behavior that focuses on the "Other" as enemy.  Donald Trump has lead the way in this, fanning the flames of ethnic, racial, and gender based bigotry.  Immigrants, Native Americans, Muslims, LGBT persons, and people of color who tend to vote in other directions....all have been targeted by the rhetoric of this administration.

Am I being "political"?  Only in the way that much of scripture, particularly Torah and the prophets are "political."  There is a role and responsibility to confront and lament when leadership, or a whole people, move away from the kind of life that God calls us to live in community with one another.  I am not lamenting politics, I am lamenting sin.

All morning I have been thinking of two pieces of writing (non-biblical) that seem very appropriate since both seem to have been written for times very similar to these.  They were written in response to the Third Reich and to the McCarthy hearings.

Does this ring a bell:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me. -Martin Neimoller

Or this:

THE HANGMAN          
By Maurice Ogden

               Into our town the hangman came,
               smelling of gold and blood and flame.
               He paced our bricks with a different air,
               and built his frame on the courthouse square.

               The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
               only as wide as the door was wide
               with a frame as tall, or a little more,
               than the capping sill of the courthouse door.

               And we wondered whenever we had the time,
               Who the criminal? What the crime?
               The hangman judged with the yellow twist
               of knotted hemp in his busy fist.

               And innocent though we were with dread,
               we passed those eyes of buckshot lead.
               Till one cried, "Hangman, who is he,
               for whom you raised the gallows-tree?"

               Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye
               and he gave a riddle instead of reply.
               "He who serves me best," said he
               "Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree."

               And he stepped down and laid his hand
               on a man who came from another land.
               And we breathed again, for anothers grief
               at the hangmans hand, was our relief.

               And the gallows frame on the courthouse lawn
               by tomorrow's sun would be struck and gone.
               So we gave him way and no one spoke
               out of respect for his hangmans cloak.

               The next day's sun looked mildly down
               on roof and street in our quiet town;
               and stark and black in the morning air
               the gallows-tree on the courthouse square.

               And the hangman stood at his usual stand
               with the yellow hemp in his busy hand.
               With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike,
               and his air so knowing and business-like.

               And we cried, "Hangman, have you not done,
               yesterday with the alien one?"
               Then we fell silent and stood amazed.
               "Oh, not for him was the gallows raised."

               He laughed a laugh as he looked at us,
               "Do you think I've gone to all this fuss,
               To hang one man? That's the thing I do.
               To stretch the rope when the rope is new."

               Above our silence a voice cried "Shame!"
               and into our midst the hangman came;
               to that mans place, "Do you hold," said he,
               "With him that was meat for the gallows-tree?"

               He laid his hand on that one's arm
               and we shrank back in quick alarm.
               We gave him way, and no one spoke,
               out of fear of the hangmans cloak.

               That night we saw with dread surprise
               the hangmans scaffold had grown in size.
               Fed by the blood beneath the chute,
               the gallows-tree had taken root.

               Now as wide, or a little more
               than the steps that led to the courthouse door.
               As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,
               half way up on the courthouse wall.

               The third he took, we had all heard tell,
               was a usurer..., an infidel.
               And "What" said the hangman, "Have you to do
               with the gallows-bound..., and he a Jew?"

               And we cried out, "Is this one he
               who has served you well and faithfully?"
               The hangman smiled, "It's a clever scheme
               to try the strength of the gallows beam."

               The fourth man's dark accusing song
               had scratched our comfort hard and long.
               "And what concern," he gave us back,
               "Have you ... for  the doomed and black?"

               The fifth, the sixth, and we cried again,
               "Hangman, hangman, is this the man?"
               "It's a trick", said he, "that we hangman know
               for easing the trap when the trap springs slow."

               And so we ceased and asked now more
               as the hangman tallied his bloody score.
               And sun by sun, and night by night
               the gallows grew to monstrous height.

               The wings of the scaffold opened wide
               until they covered the square from side to side.
               And the monster cross beam looking down,
               cast its shadow across the town.

               Then through the town the hangman came
               and called through the empy name.
               I looked at the gallows soaring tall
               and thought ... there's no one left at all

               for hanging ...  and so he called to me
               to help take down the gallows-tree.
               And I went out with right good hope
               to the hangmans tree and the hangmans rope.

               He smiled at me as I came down
               to the courthouse square...through the silent town.
               Supple and stretched in his busy hand,
               was the yellow twist of hempen strand.

               He whistled his tune as he tried the trap
               and it sprang down with a ready snap.
               Then with a smile of awful command,
               He laid his hand upon my hand.

               "You tricked me Hangman." I shouted then,
               "That your scaffold was built for other men,
               and I'm no henchman of yours." I cried.
               "You lied to me Hangman, foully lied."

               Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye,
               "Lied to you...tricked you?" He said "Not I...
               for I answered straight and told you true.
               The scaffold was raised for none but you."

               "For who has served more faithfully?
               With your coward's hope." said He,
               "And where are the others that might have stood
               side by your side, in the common good?"

               "Dead!" I answered, and amiably
               "Murdered," the Hangman corrected me.
               "First the alien ...  then the Jew.
               I did no more than you let me do."

               Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
               none before stood so alone as I.
               The Hangman then strapped me...with no voice there
               to cry "Stay!" ... for me in the empty square.

But if you need something more "biblical"  Let me invite you to the Book of Daniel where in chapter 3:5 the people are told to "fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up."

This current leadership has build a "working model" of the Almighty from the blueprint of the worst of our own national character.  We are being told that we should bow to it.  Don't.  Don't let the idolatry of this current time take this nation down the road of the "ism's" we have seen before and away from the commandments and the call of God to us as individuals and as a nation.

Lament with me.  Name the sin and the sorrow.  And in the voicing of that lament let us find the energy for creative ways to both resist the powers of Evil that "scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways" and to imagine new ways of being that "free our hearts to love and praise."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Remembering Iva

This past week my friend Iva Engler died of cancer.  It had been a long fight.  She was back home in Maine where she had wanted to be.  I had been Iva's pastor when I was Interim at Heritage Baptist in Annapolis.  She served as Chair of the Deacons and was on the Personnel Committee so we worked closely together.  She taught me how to fly fish.  It was something she loved.  She shared it with me and that also meant that as the cancer progressed she could fish with someone who could drive home if she got too tired.  That is the picture I hold of her in my heart and mind: standing in the middle of a trout stream, buoyed by the water and, for a moment, able to let everything else go.  So I wrote the poem below for her.  And for me.  Thank you Iva for being my friend.

I will remember her
Standing midstream
Casting in smooth strokes
as line and fly snaked out across the water.
Looking upstream
As beauty and fish and sunlight
Rode the racing water toward her.
There where cancer had no meaning  
and time,
if only briefly,
was not an enemy,
But the container that this day's joy came in.
I will believe
As I remember
That she breathed her last breath
As Grace and Joy and Light
Raced toward her
While she
stood midstream,
smiling to see them come.
That Eternity is the container
that this Joy comes in
And that there
Neither cancer nor death any longer have meaning
While she and Jesus cast long smooth lines
Across the water
As they laugh and fish together.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Scandalous Grace

This week's parable is another one of those that Jesus calls particular attention to by starting it off with the words: "The Kingdom of Heaven is like..."  In other Gospel's the phrase is "The Kingdom of God," but this is the phrase that Matthew, writing to a largely Jewish audience, uses.  It occurs in Matthew 20:1-16, but the dialogue that produces it begins in Matthew 19:27-30 when Peter asks Jesus what their reward is going to be for having left everything behind to follow Jesus.

Jesus' response to Peter is that when the Son of Man is in glory they will be richly rewarded and will inherit eternal life.  So far, so good.  This is a promise to warm the heart of any follower curious about what's coming to them.

But wait.  Verse 30 says, "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." [remember that the chapter divisions don't exist in the early manuscripts] so.....Jesus' answer actually promises these great rewards and then says:

"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.  For the Kingdom of Heaven is like...." and the parable follows.

It is important to remember that this parable draws upon Torah teachings about how to handle economics.  In Deuteronomy 24:10-14 we're given some guiding principles about economic dealings with those who are not as well off as we are.  First of all, you don't shame them by going into their house to take their "pledge" against their debt.  Second, you don't hold onto it if they've given you their coat and they need to sleep in it at night to stay warm.  And third, you don't hold on to their pay at the end of the day cause they need it to feed their family.  Jesus is going to take this attitude, this spirit of God's requirements in Torah, and run with it.  He will unfold this concern that God has for the poor in ways that run counter intuitive to their cultures thoughts and ours.

Listen to the parable in a bit of a modern form:

It's a cash business transaction down at the Home Depot.  The workers gather early in the morning so that they'll, hopefully, be the first ones picked.  Some are illegal, some have criminal records (so that trying to apply for work is useless, you always get kicked to the curb), some don't speak much English.  But the bosses come by, pick out workers, negotiate the payment for the day, and load folks into the truck.  This morning it's peach picking time.  Long about 5:30 a.m. the boss comes by, negotiates a decent wage with a group, and off they go.

Long about 9:00 a.m., then at noon, and again at 3 p.m., he comes back.  He says, "look, go into the orchard and I'll pay you whatever's right for your work."  Now this suited them fine.  Many were late to the lot next to Home Depot.  Some were getting up in years and it was hard to get out of bed some mornings.  Others were still nursing hangovers from the night before.  So anything that gave you something was a good things.

Then, lo and behold, the boss man comes back at 5:00 and says, "why are you standing around all day?"  The answer is, "Because no one has hired us."  Now this whole conversation is a huge face saving dialogue (at least in my mind).  Who spends the whole day waiting to be hired?  The weak, the sick, the disabled.  Those just a step up from begging.  Maybe even some who will beg tonight if they don't find work.  Being able to have this kind of conversation: "whatcha doing hanging around?" "Nobody's hired us yet," takes the focus away from whatever the shaming limitation is.  They go gladly out to work the last hour or so of the day.

The end of the day comes and the boss man fills the pay envelopes and hands them to his manager saying, "pay the ones first that were hired last."  When the first woman, on crutches, a leg missing from diabetes, opens her envelope, she nearly falls over.  In the envelope is $80.  A days wages for a full 8 hours at $10 per hour.  She looks back at the boss who just smiles and waves her on.  The next worker, toothless and old finds the same thing in his envelope.  As does the hung over 19 y/o with the purple hair and the multiple piercings who came to work at 3 p.m.

By this time, the word is making it's way back to the folks who came to work at 5:30 and they're breaking out the calculators on their cell phones.  "They got $80 for an hour!  Wow! we're gonna ... let's see...$640....wooohooo!  Gonna party tonight."  But when they open their envelopes....$80.

"Hey! What gives?!  We worked all day long...what kind of cheap trick is this!"  The word for "grumbled," that is used in the Greek here is the Greek version of the word that in Hebrew is used to talk about the Hebrews "murmuring" in the wilderness.

The boss man stands up from the folding table where he's been sitting and says, "Hey pal (the Greek word for "friend" here, hetaire, is a very UN-friendly word) what's it to ya if I spend my money the way I want to?  You got exactly what I promised you.  You don't want it?  Leave it here on the table.  Otherwise, go on about your business."

I wonder how Peter heard this parable.  He'd just been told that he would be richly rewarded for following Jesus.  But he'd also been told that there were going to be folks who signed on at the last minute who were going to get exactly the same reward that he got. 

See, the boss man was more concerned with taking care of the workers than anything else. EVERYONE was going to go home with enough to feed their family this night.  It wasn't going to be about who "deserved" anything.  It was about Grace.  And Grace isn't a business contract.  We have such a hard time...okay, I have such a hard time....understanding that.

The last shall be first.  There's room for everyone.  And, if we don't like it, then we can put our Grace back down on the table and walk away.  But God's gonna do what God wants to do.  And, it seems, from verse 28 of this same chapter, that what God wants is that "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."  The last shall be first because the First put Himself last.  There is nothing cheap about this Grace.

Whether this is a parable of Judgement or of Grace for us will depend on where we chose to stand, how we chose to respond, to the actions of the boss man.  And how we chose can be the difference between heaven and hell.  In his wonderful little book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis has one of his characters say, "I only want what's coming to me, I ain't asking for nobody's bleeding charity."  And the response comes back, "oh ask for it, ask for the Bleeding Charity."

This is what the Kingdom is like.  Jesus told us so.  The Bleeding Charity will give to whomever It wishes.  Desmond Tutu said, "There is nothing we can do to make God love us more" and "nothing we can do to make God love us less."  So when we see God pouring out God's love toward someone else, we need not worry.  This is not a zero sum game.  If we look at our own cup, we will find that it too is overflowing.

Thanks be to God for this wonderful scandalous gift of Grace.