Sunday, November 27, 2016

Jesus Said There'd Be Days Like These

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY: Matthew 24 & 25

          All of us have experienced, at some time in our life, being in crisis. The death of a loved one, the discovery of serious illness, having the well-being of your family threatened, an act of nature that turns your world upside down, a relationship you thought you could trust in and suddenly that trust is broken, a way in which you thought the world worked that doesn’t work anymore, or, like the man and the woman in our Gospel reading who get left behind, feeling abandoned and alone.

          When we are in such a crisis, it is hard to see out of it. Sometimes we lash out at the nearest person or thing to blame, or we turn the lash on ourselves and sink into feelings of worthlessness and despair, and almost always we look for an easy answer to set the world right again.

          Blessedly, most of the time something happens that causes us to look
outside the moment we are in and see the larger picture. Leonard Cohen, who died a couple weeks ago, describes what often needs to happen, in a song he called simply “Anthem,” originally from an album called appropriately for us this morning “The Future,” whose cover features broken shackles.

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be
Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see
I can't run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
A thundercloud
And they're going to hear from me

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in

You can add up the parts
You won't have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
        Cohen has captured many things in this song, but chief among them is knowing this tendency we have when in crisis to accept only the perfect. That, he says, is the primary thing we must give up. It causes a kind of blindness, this clinging to the perfect, that does not allow us to see the light coming through the imperfection of the moment, the crack, as he says, that lets the light in.

          Our country is in a crisis currently, but it is, as I see it, one of very long duration. It has lasted at least all of my adult life. It seems acute now, revolving around a particular personality, but this personality is the product of years of cultural shift in which some have been demanding an end to their feeling left behind, which is causing a whole other group of people to fear that they are now the left behind ones. For the last fifty years and more a huge cultural shift has taken place, and is still taking place, and some people are terrified by it because the way they understood how the world worked is ending.

          There are many ways in which the election that just occurred was inevitable, especially given the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the dominance of social media, both of which thrive on a sense of crisis continuing, and where the truth is what we want to believe, not what is. And it does not look as if it will end, as different approaches to issues, and different ways of interpreting what is happening to us, and different experiences of what is happening to us, harden into barriers that may not be crossed because on the other side of the barrier is not a fellow citizen trying to get by and make some sense of things, but an enemy who wants to destroy our way of life.

          We have deepened our crisis into an apocalyptic moment, when the future of our lives, our country, our world, seems to be at stake.

          Jesus told us we would have days like these, and in the midst of the strange writing we call apocalyptic in chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel (with similar chapters in Mark and Luke), he is trying not to frighten us, but to give us ways to resist. He says, in particular
  • Don’t follow after someone who says he or she has it all figured out and can fix everything; that is, someone who talks like a messiah. In spiritual terms we would say, practice discernment. In practical terms we might say, do not go down every rabbit hole that is pointed out to you.
  • When everything seems to be coming unglued, do not get caught up in anxiety. Keep Calm and Keep Loving. The temptation will be for your love to grow cold, he says.
  • Third, in the part of chapter 24 we just heard, keep alert and be ready. This is such an important point that to emphasize it he tells two short parables at the end of chapter 24 and a long parable at the beginning of chapter 25 with the same message:  Keep awake, stay alert, always be ready.

But ready for what? What is the antidote for getting stuck in crisis, be it personal or communal?

The second parable in chapter 25 is that of the talents. Be ready to use your gifts for the purposes of God is the message.

And then the climax of these two chapters, the parable of the sheep and the goats with that great admonition, “As you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The antidote to any crisis is to reach inside for your own well of gifts, which includes strength for doing things you never imagined you could do, and then use that strength to better the life of someone else, because in doing so, Jesus says, you will find me. In Leonard Cohen’s words, find the cracks in your own life and in the lives of those around you, forget about perfection, and let the light shine through.

          It’s Advent and we talk of learning to wait for and watch for Jesus to come again. My image of Jesus coming again is that one of these days enough of us will be serving enough others of us, assuring one another’s justice, that somebody will suddenly notice that the Lord of the universe is working right alongside of us.

          Times of crisis come to each one of us, and they come to us as a people, and sometimes they seem never-ending.  It is tempting to insist that Jesus come back and get us out of this mess we have created for ourselves.  But I suspect Jesus has been there all along, in the midst of us, as we have been working to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, or weeping because we refuse to see the cracks in everything that let his light, and ours, and those we might even describe as enemies, shine through.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Biblical Values for Our Day: Care for the Stranger and the Alien

Then I will draw near to you for judgment: I will be swift to bear witness against…those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:5

Among the primary issues in the election just past have been immigration, the taking in of refugees,
and the presence of people who are Muslim in our midst.  In the days ahead it will be critical for Christian people to be clear about their values in regard to these “problems.”

In the translation of the Bible we tend to use (the NRSV), the word “alien” occurs 125 times and the word “stranger” 51 times.  Clearly the Bible has something to say about those in our midst who are considered aliens or strangers.  Two key verses, one from each Testament, sum up nearly the entire use of these words:

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34

[Jesus said,] I was a stranger and you welcomed me…I was a stranger and you did not welcome me. Matthew 25:35, 43.

There are really two values here:  One, never to forget that you were once aliens and so treat aliens as you were treated (actually, the implication is “better than” you were treated).  Two, one of the ways we find Jesus is our encounter with the stranger.  Both of these obviously relate to what is known as the “Golden Rule,” Do to others as you would have them to do you (Luke 6:31).

Two of the promises of our Baptismal Covenant apply here as well.  We promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves,” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305)

In addition, when asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling the story of a person in the religious minority. The Samaritan is being neighbor and is neighbor himself (Luke 10:29-37).  “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.

The Bible does not use the words “immigrant” or “refugee.” Why not? It is because these are modern concepts that depend upon our understanding of borders and nations.  The Bible has a lot of trouble with borders and political entities. Jesus, in particular, ignores them all together, and Paul goes about as if they did not exist. And, in fact, anything that smacks of nationalism is not a biblical value.  The ultimate movement of the Bible is to include, not exclude, right through to the Book of Revelation, whose witness we proclaim in Canticle 18 from the Prayer Book (from Revelation 4 & 5).

With your blood you have redeemed for God, from every family [or tribe], language, people, and nation, a royal priesthood to serve our God. (see Revelation 5:9-10)

One of the principles in the history of the church that grew out of these biblical values was the rule of “sanctuary,” that church buildings were a temporary safe place for everyone, and that the church had an obligation to those who sought sanctuary to get them to a more permanent safe place.  One theory about why are doors are bright red is to mark the place as sanctuary. This notion took the form of the Underground Railroad during the time of slavery.

We should be careful to note that this flagrant breaking of the law (helping slaves escape to a safe place) was done by Christians convinced that the law was unjust and therefore could not in their conscience be followed. This was done at the same time that other Christians (including some in the north) were certain beyond all doubt that slavery was a biblical institution. The divide among Christians as to how they interpret the Bible is nothing new.

I am deliberately not going to say, “What does that mean we should do? That is a question that deserves prayer and discernment. My purpose has been to make clear what the biblical values are that we hold so dear. I invite conversation from all sides of the political spectrum!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

An Opportunity to Testify: Sermon after Election 2016

Sermon preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Penn Yan, NY, November 13, 2016:  Isaiah 65:17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

          The only thing that is clear on this Sunday after Election Day is that we are a deeply divided nation.  The chairman of the Steuben County Republican party said, “The people have spoken.”  Well, some of the people have spoken, not a majority of them even, but our system of electing a President is what it is, and we have to move on.

          My interest this morning is asking, what is the task of Christian people like you and me in this deeply troubled place and time?  The readings we just heard point us in some clear directions.  I think they tell us three things.

          First of all, everyone has a part to play, everyone has to contribute.  The church to which Paul was writing in the text this morning was in a very troubled place, as increasingly were all Christians as the faith began to spread throughout the Roman Empire.

          I’m sure most of your ears perked up when you heard the well-known statement of Paul:

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

          This verse has been used to criticize social welfare programs, and it seems to state a conviction held by many that a lot of people are milking the system by being unwilling to work.  It’s important that Paul chose his words carefully, because “unwilling” is not the same word as “unable.”

          Paul is conjuring a vision of a world here, a world where all contribute not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of all. Underneath this seemingly easy to understand statement about work is the biblical vision of neighborliness.

          Walter Brueggemann says,

The church…is a body of folk who believe that in Jesus a new world has begun, a new world of generosity and forgiveness and hospitality and justice. Church folk are those who by their lives and their actions give evidence of the new world.[1]

          This new world does not break into our old world without everybody who is called by God to participate does so.

          On to the second thing these readings have to tell us about living beyond November 8:  Watch your mouth!  Our tongues can be tools of building one another up or tearing one another down.  I think we can all agree there was plenty of “tearing down” language in this election. We rely increasingly on channels of communication that lend themselves to the language of tearing down. Social media can be anything but social; it can also be a minefield of things said that would rarely be said face to face.

          Paul says to the Thessalonians, Watch what you say! Watch what you talk about, watch how you talk about it, and watch how you say it. Say anything you want, I think Paul would say, but expect to be responsible for what you say, for what you say and how you say it has consequences.

          In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus has something better for our mouths to do. This is a tough Gospel reading. Jesus warns us about the times of tribulation that will come among us, and he names just about everything except poisonous water in Flint, Michigan, which would have been there if he had known it.

          He says that there will be people who will use these times of crisis to put themselves forward as saviors. “I am he! I can fix this!” Do not run after them. It might get so bad, he says, that they will throw you in jail because you refuse to follow. In all of this potential craziness, you have one job:

This will give you an opportunity to testify.

          Again, back to Brueggemann:

Christians are people who tell the truth they know about the rule of God that challenges all of our old practices and about the implications of that new rule of God for all kinds of policy questions from health care to immigration policy and all of those tough issues.[2]

          Affecting how we use our mouths is the fact that our commitment is first and foremost to the truth into which Jesus leads us, whether that agrees with the majority position, or our favorite ideology or political party.  Those things are all like the Temple. They are temporary. They will all be thrown down.

          So watch your mouths. This is a time when telling the truth with respect and humility matters a great deal.

          The third thing these readings give us is the imperative to live in hope. Again, Brueggemann,

Live in hope. Live in the sure conviction that God’s promise for the world can be resisted and can be delayed, but it cannot be defeated.[3]

          We must be careful here. Hope and optimism are not the same thing. To be perfectly honest, I am not very optimistic about the immediate future of our country, but the hope I have for the world cannot be shaken.  The vision the prophet Isaiah gives us this morning of the new world that God wishes to create with us remains my vision.

          Notice Isaiah’s vision is not of heaven. He dreams of a new heaven, but doesn’t describe it.  What he does describe is a new earth vision, and it is not an ancient, and therefore outdated vision.  It is a vision for us. A vision of

A new way of living together, a new economy, if you will:
          They shall build houses and inhabit them;
            They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
            They shall not build and another inhabit,
            They shall not plant and another eat.

In other words, an economy of plenty, not scarcity, where generosity, not hoarding reign.

A new way of health care
            No more shall there be in it
            An infant that lives for a few days,
            Or an old person who does not live out a

An entirely new environment and way of being together for God’s creatures
            The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
            The lion shall eat straw like the ox;
            But the serpent—its food shall be dust.

The serpent is the temptation to go it on our own, every man or woman for him or her self.  That is not the reign of God.

          We have been given our way of life to practice after this Election, and it’s the same life we have always been called to live.  It is a life in which

·      We know ourselves to be accountable, not just for ourselves, but for the neighborhood. We are called to contribute to the well-being of all.

·      We take accountability for how our words and actions tear down or build up, and commit ourselves to speaking primarily the truth that Jesus has taught us and the way he has taught us, not the way of social media or 24-hour news.

·      We stubbornly live in hope with a vision that is able to lift us out of fear and despair.

          And perhaps one more thing as we approach Advent:  We stay alert, we watch, not allowing the nastiness of this campaign season become a way of life among us.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, vol. 2 (Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 237.  This entire sermon owes much to the ideas put forward in Brueggemann’s sermon containg this and subsequent quotes.
[2] Ibid., p. 240.
[3] Ibid., p. 241.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Election 2016 with a bit more thought

I am finding that it is not an easy task to sort through my multiple reactions to the election this past Tuesday and say something rational. As of today, all I can do is direct back to something I wrote on October 27th, that what we all need is a commitment to the values of humility and respect.

That's what I am praying for myself, for all citizens of our country, and for our next President.  Secretary Clinton was right to say that he will be our President and he deserves for all of us to give him a chance. What I will be looking for is just what I said, humility and respect.

I do pledge one more thing, and it is naturally on my mind these days as we Christians (and least some of us) prepare for the season of Advent.  I pledge to watch. I live in hope, but I watch for things that weaken hope in myself and in all my fellow citizens. The president-elect has a thin skin and often too easily strikes back at those who question him, and his biggest temptation is to bully. I pray so very hard that these are not signs of how he will govern. I am willing to give him a chance. But I will watch.

I also have to say one more thing, and that it is about "unity." I received many messages (facebook, mostly) about the result of the election meaning we are united as a people.  Nothing could be farther from the truth. We are decidedly not united. The president-elect road a groundswell to an upset victory, but it was a thin victory, with the majority of people not voting for him. This has happened before in our Electoral College system, and we have survived. But the election past laid bare a deeper divide than perhaps many of us thought possible, and no one can deny that Mr. Trump ran with that divide, causing it to widen and deepen.

The most urgent need of our day is conversation.  American unity, like American democracy, is a long-time experiment.  The ability to ask questions and converse, even argue, amongst ourselves is the greatest skill needed for this ongoing experiment, and we cannot substitute social media (including the one I am currently using!) or television pundits arguing with each other for the real thing, which is face to face sharing of life with those who differ from else. We should neither be afraid of that or make any attempt to suppress it.  Difference enlivens democracy. Some false unity imposed on us does not.

American democracy has never been built on the premise that the majority simply gets to impose its will on the minority. I understand that many of Mr. Trump's supporters felt like this has happened to them. I completely accept and respect that feeling, for I know of it myself. However, the answer can never be to "get ourselves in charge so we can do the trampling."

Let us commit ourselves to the hard work, expressed so well in the Christian Scriptures:  let us love one another for love is of God. It is only this hard work of love that will keep America great.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Election 2016

At this point, I only have to say

Never underestimate the power of fear, particularly in creating an insatiable need to feel superior over someone else.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

"He Tells It Like It Is"

If there is one thing I have heard the most from supporters of Donald Trump's bid for the presidency of the United States it is this declaration:  "He tells it like it is."

Let's think about that just a moment.  Is it actually possible to "tell it like it is"?  No.  This phrase is actually a contraction of sorts of a true statement, "He tells it like he understands it is," or "He tells it like I understand is."

We all want easy access to the truth, the actual objective truth. The things we believe we know as the absolute truth are usually things we can get passionate about, and there is nothing wrong with that. On the other hand, my mentor Verna Dozier, a woman of significant convictions and grasp of the truth was always ready to say, "There is nothing I could not be wrong about."  I know some would call that mushy-headed liberal-speak. Many of us, however, call that humility.

Of course I want those in government to tell me the truth. I recognize (and am sorrowed by the fact) that this is not always true. Our political system does not reward the truth, which can only even begin to come to light through deep conversation entered into with the above value, humility.

Some see this telling it like it is as a protest, a pushing back against, of "political correctness." My only take on that is very simple. What many call political correctness, many of us call respect for difference and upholding the value of dignity as the right of every human being. My own church tradition (Episcopal/Anglican) holds this up as one of its highest values. It is part of the covenant of our baptism that we "respect the dignity of every human being," and, as I like to say, there is no asterisk at the end of that sentence that leads to the bottom of the page where there are a series of exception clauses.  Every human being means every human being, period.

I do not come at these thought from some high and mighty, self-righteousness. In our currently extremely polarized society I have been as guilty of anyone at leaving these two values, humility and respect, at the door. I do recognize, however, that the only times I have really been part of a movement forward (which, I believe, is what all of s want, politically and otherwise) is when these values have been practiced.

Humility and respect. How would politics change if they were the primary values? How would your life and mine change if they were the primary values? I am convinced that the system will not change until we change the system, not by voting for any candidate, but by practicing humility and respect in our daily lives and insisting that those who govern do the same.

This is, by the way, even how God works. As the book of Isaiah opens, God, through the mouth of the prophet, is very angry about many things and threatens to abandon his people, but then he comes to a remarkable place:

Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient you shall eat the god of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 1:18-20)

In the words "willing and obedient" I hear the words "humility and respect."  The word "obedient" comes from the Latin verb "to listen." Obedience begins with listening, being in conversation, as God has said he wants. As for the last bit, the evidence that we are "refusing and rebelling" is the fact that we are devouring one another. If our society is crumbling, it is by our own hands, and the primary weapons are a lack of humility and a lack of respect, which lead to all kinds of mischief and even violence.

No one can "tell it like it is," because no one person or group of persons has the objective truth. In religious terms only God has and is the objective truth, but even he only gives us glimpses through the mist of his nature as mystery. Reminds me of a saying whose origin I do not know: "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived."

Monday, October 10, 2016

Inter-Varsity Shame on You

I saw a news blurb today whose source was Time magazine, that the college evangelical group Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship has informed its 1,300 employees that they will be fired if they are known to support "same-sex marriage" or otherwise disagree with their recent statement on sexuality and marriage.  They have denied that people will be fired, but honest that they expect those who disagree to "conclude their work."

I was an active member of Inter-Varsity in college. I made many friends there, strengthened my faith and fell in love with the Scriptures. I became a small group leader in my junior year, which started out fine, but turned sour when a member of my group came out as lesbian. The whole IV group was thrown into crisis (or was it simply "righteous" indignation), and the leadership, including myself as the woman's small group leader, met with a Church of the Nazarene pastor who took us through the biblical reasons why she must be cast out of the group and shunned. I was deeply conflicted and confused, but I acquiesced and participated in the "casting out."

It was the beginning of the fairly quick end of my flirtation with evangelicalism, which ultimately I experienced as a narcissistic, I'm OK because you're not OK morality play that has precious little to do with the God of Jesus Christ.  I'm grateful that at the same time I was becoming an Episcopalian and happily chose that path. Within three years I myself came out as a gay man, and at least one other member of my small group has since come out.

Shame on Inter-Varsity for their insistence on selling a simplistic, mean-spirited God who has much more in common with the thought police of the average dictatorship than the man who said that when he was "lifted up" would draw all people to himself (John 12:32).