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

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 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
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
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 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.