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."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dangerous Cup, Terrifying Bread

Against the cry of "blood and soil,"
We raise the cry, "Body and Blood."
"The Body of Christ, broken for you."
This Body
should you take it,
is a Body of color;
unwelcome in the big house
and profiled at the border.
This is the Body broken for you.
Take, eat and be comforted.
This Blood
you would turn down for transfusion,
because it is is not Aryan. And yet
In it is the New Covenant.
Drink and show His death til He comes again.
Reach out and take this Bread
This Cup
and see beside you
Neither Gentile nor Jew
Servant or free
Woman or man
Black or white
Gay nor straight.
You cannot tear this Body from the loaf,
if you need to ask whose hand was there before you;
you cannot take this Cup,
and be unwilling
To pass it to lips different from yours.
Oh Jew, replace us,
That being in You we might be made
New creatures.
This Body, this Blood
Changes all who take It
Otherwise they eat and drink
Their own damnation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mowing Over Virginia Creeper

Heather Heyer. We called her name as a victim of racist terrorism.
White supremacy is sin. We condemned it and stripped away the greasy "Alt-Right" label that was, essentially, just "Nazism in Black tie."

But we cannot stop here. We cannot stop here. We cannot STOP here.

To stop here would be the greatest sin that we as comfortable, white moderate Christians could commit: to think that because we took a single Sunday to label Evil and honor a martyr and pray for her family...that our job is done.

My yard is beset (what a lovely word) with Virginia Creeper.  An insidious plant that grows underground as much as on top and is determined to take over my yard.  I have yet to find a real solution for this problem.  I am most successful when I pull this vine up and keep pulling...tracing it along the soil where it has grown underground in it's never ending effort to own my yard.  What DOESN'T work is the thing I am most tempted to do....that is to simply mow over the top of it.  This will make the visible sign of the vine go away for a little while, but it does nothing to rid my yard of the actual problem.

We as a culture, a society, and particularly as middle class, moderate, white Christians need to focus on getting to the roots of 21st century racism.  Risk the discomfort.  Get our hands dirty.  Dig into the issues.  Otherwise we're just mowing Virginia Creeper.

This has always been the big temptation (at least in my mind).  To declare the evil of racism when it shows up armed and wearing a swastika, but to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear when it is expressed in sentencing trends for drug offenses, lack of decent housing, where toxins are dumped and water impurities ignored, or disparity in income.  It is critical and necessary that violent racism like that expressed in Charlottesville be condemned.  But to do only that and not condemn the systemic expressions of that same racism that lie just under the surface and get expressed in "polite and acceptable" ways is as sinful on our part as the violence that occurs in the street.

I do not always agree with Eugene Cho, but his comment that "Everyone loves the idea of reconciliation...until it involves truthtelling, confessing, repenting, dismantling, forgiveness, and peacemaking" rings very true to me.  I am convinced that the task of healing, restoration, and reconciliation in America is going to call for lifetime commitments and huge personal costs.  Ask John Lewis. This battle will call for the radical altering of an entire cultural milieu.  It's interesting to me that we are ready to applaud that when it applies to South Africa's battle with apartheid, but we give no thought to the need for engaging in our own, American version of Truth and Reconciliation.

Otherwise, we're just mowing over the vine.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Apocolypse 2017

And the angel took me
and showed me
a nation torn apart by the hatred
of those who could not acknowledge their brothers and sisters.
They gathered in the streets
accompanied by a makeshift militia armed with assault rifles and hand guns
They had dressed themselves in helmets, elbow pads and sap gloves
they carried baseball bats
for they had come to wage war, not to demonstrate
And they screamed, "don't hurt me" as they attacked unarmed people

They attacked those who disagreed with them
who sought peacefully to call them to repentance
They drove iron chariots into crowds of innocents
and some of the innocents died.

And I saw slick spokespeople
speaking of hatred and violence being "on all sides"
while others excused the actions of "disaffected young white men"
There were many who were deceived

I saw the saints gathered in a line
faced off against the militia of darkness
Their faces glowed as they sang
"let our light so shine that they may see our good works
and glorify our God who is in heaven"
or was it
"This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine"?

While far away I saw
two men, faces puffed and angry
screaming words of distain at one another
while reaching for fire and fury to hurl at one another
to prove they were not afraid
not caring that such would destroy millions

And I said from beneath my pillow
O spirit, this is too much for me to bear
Can these things not be changed?  Or are they doomed to come?
Let me wake from this evil dream.

And I heard a voice
like unto the Son of Man
These things are already here
pull your head from your....pillow
and take up your cross and follow Me.
For if they are not to destroy you all
it is time
to stand up
in My Name
to be willing
to lay your life and body down
To risk everything for the Kingdom

Then the saints sang louder
reaching out their hands, inviting me to join them
And I had to decide

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Of Warnings and Hope

I'm continuing to do this series I'm calling "Parishioner's Choice" where I invite members of the congregation to pick either the topic, the scripture, or both.  I wound up being given for this week the topic of The Rapture and the scripture 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; to this I added Matthew 24:1-8 and 29-31.

Now please note that all of this was done BEFORE Tuesday, August 8 when Trump made his "fire, fury, and power" statement.

So when we got to Bible study on Tuesday evening, I asked how we read these passages in light of the day's news.  I then asked, "if you were leading a devotional for the National Security Council" tomorrow morning, what scripture would you pick?"  It was a lively discussion, to say the least.  At a couple of points I thought I'd gotten more than I bargained for.

One of the participants said that their passage would be, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths." (Proverbs 3:5-6)  I start with this particular passage because it is the nature of Empire, whether North Korea or the U.S.-whether Kim Jong In or Donald Trump-to believe that they have, and are, the ultimate word.  In fact, Empires insist on that belief from their citizens because their existence and power depends on it.  To put one's trust in God rather than Empire is to declare that there is another story about what is true, what is ultimate.

A second member of the Bible study pointed to John 3 and the claims that God's love has the intention, not of condemnation or destruction, but of salvation and rebirth.  In fact, another participant quickly grasped on to the image from Jesus' comments in Matthew that the very "wars and rumors of wars" are the "birth pangs" of something new that God is doing.

A fourth pointed to John 1 and the claim that though the Light is shining in the darkness, "the darkness can never overcome it."

Finally, an allusion was made to two passages in Revelation which refer to a "sea of glass" in front of God's throne at the end of days (4:6 and 15:2).  The picture in 15:2 describes a "sea of glass mixed with fire."  In Jewish thought the "sea" was a symbol for chaos.  It was the abode of demons.  This is why the story of Jesus walking on the sea carried such power, and why a storm at sea was so frightening even beyond the physical realities of the storm.  Here, in the Kingdom of God, the sea of chaos is tamed.  It is crystal clear and smooth like glass.  It is mixed with fire, the great purifier, because all that is chaotic or demonic has been burned away; leaving only this great clear crystal like mirror of a sea, reflecting the glory of God's throne.

When we put these thoughts together, along with the passages I had picked a couple of weeks ago, the "devotional for the National Security Council" goes something like this:

There will always be those who huff and puff and claim that they are the final answer.  They will try to sell you a bill of goods about their power....and, let's be honest, they can do some damage.  But trust in the Lord and don't just look at what it looks like is true.  Acknowledge that God is at work.  That work is Love, Love that wants to give the whole world abundant life.  What looks like turmoil and chaos now, will one day be seen as the birth pangs of what God is doing.  Even though it gets really dark, the darkness cannot put out the Light of God's Love or God's intention for creation.  One day, the very places that were the source and home of chaos will reflect God's glory.
This is not to say that there is not, and will not be, pain and war and death.  We will lament.  We will grieve.  But we will not do this like people who have no hope.  No. We will do it as people who live in the Great Hope that Christ will one day reclaim, restore, and remake creation.  One day Christ's final victory, the one begun at cross and tomb, will be realized.
Because we have that hope, we don't just sit around waiting for Jesus to come and carry us away. Because we have work to do that is rooted in that Hope.  We tell a different Story.  We tell the Story of the Light.  And though that Light shines in a deep, deep darkness some days...a darkness where madmen beat their chests and scream threats in the gloom...we tell the Story of the Light that shines in the darkness.  And the darkness can never, never, NEVER overcome it.


Friday, August 4, 2017

God Is Cosmopolitan

The verbal exchange on Wednesday between Steven Miller and Jim Acosta during a news conference has very deep roots. From a political perspective, you can find a discussion of those roots here


But it is also representative of a religious/theological battle that has been going on for centuries. One that now finds expression in arguments over the inclusion of LGBT individuals in the community of faith; the behavior of local congratulations toward immigrants; and the proper response of Christians to needs like hunger, homeless, and healthcare.

And as we at First Baptist Hyattsville, and many other congregations across the country, celebrate the gift of the Communion  meal this morning, it is well to look at these questions again.

In Numbers 27:1-7, the 5 daughters of a man named Zelophehad make their claim to Moses that they too, despite being female, have a claim to the promises of God reflected in the distribution and allocation of land. Moses takes the case to God. God sides with the daughters in a radical departure from the cultural norms of the day…and declares that this decision “shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.” (27:11)

This promise of radical inclusion is a theme threaded throughout scripture:

The promises of Isaiah regarding the coming Messiah and the Great Feast which "will be for all nations," reflect an understanding that God's love and mercy were going to come through Israel, but not be limited to Israel.

Matthew's geneology of Jesus, found in Matthew 1, lists four gentile women of dubious reputation. Jesus' own ministry reached into the Gentile community on more than one occasion. And Paul built an entire life and identity on being the "Apostle to the Gentiles." Finally, the apocolyptic vision of Revelation is one of the gathering in of people from all nations.

Throughout scripture we see this theme of the "cosmopolitan" nature of God's love and intention for humankind. This is a theme that points to identity as drawn from being Beloved Creation rather that nationalistic or ethnic origin.

To be honest, this has always represented an "alternative vision," even, sometimes in the church.  There are even instances in scripture where the Hebrew community tightens its boundaries on who is in and who is out.  The Ezra-Nehemiah narrative is chief among these.  The fact that I would maintain that the actions against those who had not been carried into exile (specifically the poor and the non-powerful) were actions of Israel's version of the 1% attempting to reclaim their control is an argument for another day.  I just want to be honest and note that there are instances of such restriction.

But it is the vision of inclusion that threads powerfully through the scriptures we claim as authoritative for our life as communities of faith.

Empires, despots, and bigotry have always tried to narrow the vision. They do this by erecting barriers of race, birth place, gender, or language (or the ability to speak a language) as requirements for membership. This is nothing new either.

But against the doublespeak and the slick bigotry of fear mongering evil in our day, it is important that we speak up, and speak out. The Kingdom of God is Cosmopolitan. It is inclusive and welcoming and open to all who want to be part of it. Whether theologically or politically, this is the great question of our day: "who is welcome here?" And God's answer is, "whoever wants to, let them come."  There is no equivocation, no waffling, no "merit test," no check on who you're married to (the Ezra-Nehemiah narrative is a huge rejection of those who have married foreign wives-whether they worshipped God or not) Just this blanket welcome.

To the extent that we want our nation and our churches to reflect God's Kingdom, we need to reflect that welcome. No matter how the bigotry and Evil of our day disguise themselves as slick talking Angels of Light (we're told Lucifer had this trick down pat), we need to speak and live the alternative vision of the Gospel. There is always room at the Table.