Emergency Food for the Food Insecure

Yesterday I attended a meeting with the Western Massachusetts Food Bank and other members of the local faith community.  Our local food pantries have been struggling to keep up with the increasing number of people who come seeking food.  Overall, we have a shortfall in food supplies.

The meeting, though, was valuable because we got to understand the situation the food bank faces and they got to hear our challenges.  We also received some guidance on other programs such as one for schools whereby a school having a high percentage of students on free and reduced lunch can apply for a blanket allocation so all students can get a free meal, which reduces some of the stigma of free and reduced meals.

We have a pretty extensive food network in our area.  One church produces thousands of pounds of produce to put into our food distribution system so people using our pantries can get fresh produce.  We also have several smaller gardens that get their produce to the local pantries.

Even though we live in a fairly rural part of the state, we have an infrastructure problem getting food from farm to table.  We need a commercial kitchen which will process raw food into food so it will have more longevity.  An example would be making June strawberries into jam so they can provide revenue well past the growing season.  We also need a USDA approved abattoir.  Currently farmers must book slots months in advance and transport their livestock a couple of hundred miles for slaughter.

Though addressing the infrastructure impediment will enhance our local agriculture, it probably won’t change the dynamics around local food insecurity.  Food insecurity comes about for many reasons including low income, lack of transportation, and high housing costs.

I listened.  I couldn’t help saying finally, “What’s happening is that we’ve accepted begging as a way to address food insecurity.”

Today it seems so normal to have food pantries and public suppers to help people who are food insecure.  Many churches collect food weekly to fill food pantries.  Food drives to fill pantries have become a regular activity within our communities.  On Monday Pittsfield will have its third annual Thanksgiving turkey dinner giveaway.  (The organizers plan to distribute 1200 turkeys with all the dinner side dishes, including dessert.)

These activities we see as doing something good.  It makes us feel good because we’re helping people who don’t have food.  We’ll even congratulate ourselves when we give away or collect lots of food.  Something has changed in us that we make ourselves feel good for this work.

In reality we should feel angry.  Government policy could be more effective to raise incomes for the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.  Benefits could be more generous.  Instead by donating to food pantries, holding food drives, and serving public suppers we let government policy makers off the hook.  They don’t see this and if they do, then they have no shame.

We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.  We produce more food than any nation in the world.  That we have food insecurity in a nation awash in so much food and wealth is hard to imagine.  Even worse, however, we accept begging as a way to address food insecurity.  This is absolutely wrong.  It is not just shameful, it is our collective sin.

And we’re stuck.  Since that meeting I’ve thought that maybe we should close down our food pantries and stop serving public suppers.  Let anger build so people will take it to the streets, but the anger will probably not be directed at the political leadership.  The faith community will feel its brunt.

So, we’re stuck working hard to feed people who don’t have resources to feed themselves. That is so time-consuming that we don’t have time do the advocacy and research necessary for systemic change.

I wish I could have more confidence in our political process.

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Advent Liturgy (Year B) for Worship

This is an Advent liturgy for worship based upon the Revised Common Lectionary for Year B (2014).  It is based upon the appointed psalms, except for the Fourth Sunday.  You can chant the psalms if you desire.  I use O Come, O Come, Emmanuel during Advent, adding a verse each week, as a conclusion to this liturgy each week.  On Christmas Eve I use Joy to the World. 

You are welcome to use this liturgy without charge provided you attribute it to me using the following text:  “Used with permission by the author, Rev. Quentin Chin.”

First Sunday of Advent – November 30

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

One: Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Many: Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved
One: O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.
Many: Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved
One: But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.
Many: Restore us, O God; let your face shine that we may be saved

Light one candle

Unison Prayer
Merciful and loving God, the ways of our world trouble us. Some children in our corner of the world don’t have shelter. They beg for scraps of food. Yet, we live in the richest nation in the history of the world. We pray, O God, for a new day. We pray for that day when children will have homes where they can rest their heads. We pray for that day when all will have their daily bread. We pray for a new day in which your abundance will be shared so no one will know scarcity or deprivation. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (v. 1)

Second Sunday of Advent – December 7

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

One: Lord, you were favorable to your land; you restored the fortunes of Jacob. You forgave the iniquity of your people; you pardoned all their sin.
Many: Show us your steadfast love, O God, and grant us your salvation
One: Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.
Many: Show us your steadfast love, O God, and grant us your salvation
One: Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.
Many: Show us your steadfast love, O God, and grant us your salvation

Light two candles

Unison Prayer
God of all faithfulness, the prophet’s voice speaks loudly. He prods us. He exhorts us to take action. Help us to bring hope to those in this community who have none. Help us to be a healing balm to wounded souls wherever they may be. Let us not fear to hasten the dawn of a new day, a day where scarcity is no more and love prevails. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (v. 1 and 2)

Third Sunday of Advent – December 14

Psalm 126

One: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”
Many: The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
One: Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Many: The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Light three candles

Unison Prayer
You are exceedingly generous, O God. You have done great things for us and we rejoice. The struggles, pain, and suffering in this world will not end until the fortunes of all are restored. We are your instruments for peace and justice, O God. Strengthen us so we might use our gifts to bring fortune to those who do not have your peace and do not know your justice. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 1-3)

Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 21

Luke 1:46b-55

One: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Many: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
One: His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Many: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
One: He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Many: My spirit rejoices in God my Savior

Light four candles

Unison Prayer
You, O God, are the source of love and the purveyor of justice. You know the world in which we live is not the world you intend for us. Your world is one of peace and justice. Your world is one of abundance not scarcity. Your world is rooted in love not fear. Instill in us faith and trust to labor on your behalf so day will dawn on the world you wish for us. Amen.

Hymn: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (v. 1-4)

Christmas Eve – December 24

Psalm 98

One: O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Many: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
One: Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Many: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
One: Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
Many: Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

Light all the candles, including the Christ candle

Unison Prayer
Tonight we sing a new song, a song to welcome the Christ. It shatters the silence of the night to proclaim the glory of a new day. In Christ the world is made new. In Christ we are made new. O God, we celebrate your presence and re-dedicate ourselves to further the ministries that Jesus began long ago. By our labors may our world be less fearful and more generous. Let your love be proclaimed in our songs and our labors so we might bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hymn: Joy to the World

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Another Ad Nauseum Reflection on Election Day

The dust has settled and the GOP will take control of both houses of Congress and several governorships, including here in Massachusetts.  Yet, state ballot initiatives, such as increased minimum wage, which tilt left won.  Despite the sweeping GOP win, many of those wins were not by sizable majorities.

My assessment begins with a lousy campaign by the Democrats.  First, they let the GOP write the narrative for this election.  It was about fear and incompetent governance.  The party conveniently overlooked its own role in the government shutdowns.  The GOP seemed to address the people’s concerns by saying that government is not on their sides, even though they had control of the House of Representatives and effective control of the Supreme Court.  As a corollary, the Democrats allowed the GOP to pummel them without trying to counter-punch.  Second, the economic record over the last six years, though not exactly, robust is not a bad one to promote.  Six years ago economic fear gripped this nation.  People had little confidence of their job security.  The economy seemed in free-fall.  Today, the stock market is at an all-time high.  Unemployment is way down and the budget deficit is the smallest it’s been in decades.  Granted there are still too many college graduates looking for jobs and wages are basically stagnant, but more on that later.  They also could have made clear that the Affordable Care Act is actually working and making a difference in the lives of millions of people.  Third, Democrats didn’t understand that despite Obama’s low poll ratings, his were higher than theirs and the GOP’s.  They didn’t have to keep him at arm’s length.  Fourth, the White House has done a terrible job of making its accomplishments known to the public.

The GOP ran a campaign that could best be described as what they are against, but other than the tired nonsense about incompetent and intrusive government they offered nothing substantive in terms of policy direction.  So, if there is a positive, it forces scrutiny upon the GOP to use these two years to be for something constructive.

I don’t see that happening.  The GOP managed to paper over their severe internal differences.  The extreme elements of the party have an overall agenda that will ultimately cripple government and offering nothing to replace what will be gone.  They refuse to take any constructive step to address climate change through legislation and can’t see how the government, which they loathe, will be forced to ameliorate its effects such as wildfires, reduced crop yields, without adequate resources.

Even if the Democrats did better, I don’t think we would have gotten much better governance.  Somehow, our politics have evolved into an adversarial contest rather than a collaborative venture.  Our increased polarization makes cooperation and collaboration even more difficult.

Though I am not registered with any party, I tend to vote Democratic because the GOP leadership has gone so far to the right that my vote has become more defensive in that I can’t see letting the GOP lead this nation.  If they were less extreme, I’d consider it.

But I think both our parties are operating as though our country is still in the 1970s.  We organize our foreign policy around our military as though there is an army to defeat and a nation to conquer.  We think about economic policy without recognizing that capital has become global and doesn’t respect national boundaries and that technology’s impact has erased national borders as well. Technology has also redefined the way companies operate and have challenged entire industries (think journalism), which has had a negative impact on some workers.  Basically, our political leadership needs to see this nation as it is and its contours in the future as it is shaped by external forces.  It cannot see it nostalgically and wishfully desire it to return to the 1970s.

Here’s an example.  The Affordable Care Act was probably appropriate for a workforce composition in the 1990s when people could earn a living working a full-time job.  The bulk of the people could be covered by their employer.  Today, however, too many people work multiple part-time jobs in order to earn enough money to live.  What was once an adequate salary from one job has become inadequate and adequacy depends on getting two or more jobs and none of those jobs would provide health insurance.   Another change is people who got paid by an employer in the 1990s are now doing the same job as a freelance or consultant because companies reduced their headcount in order to reduce their benefits.  ACA doesn’t account adequately for this.

Washington is not working because leadership in both parties is out of touch with our lives.  Furthermore, they’re not sure what can be done.  And frankly, we’re not sure what can be done either.  It’s hard to offer a suggestion when everything seems so undefined.  But the adversarial nature of our politics where parties seek the upper hand at the expense of our nation’s health doesn’t foster any desire for collaboration.

I wish I could be optimistic about the next two years, but I’m not.  I think the divisions within the GOP will contribute to their inability as a party to offer a vision for the future that breaks away from the worn out and dis-reputed mantra that government is the problem.  While I think Democrats offer a more positive vision, I don’t see them risking anything to articulate bold changes in our current policies.

For what it’s worth, my recommendations for Washington are these:

  • Restore the role of government to ensure the common good.  This includes reducing income inequality through a combination of higher income taxes and increasing the minimum wage.  It will also treat tax subsidies to corporations like we do assistance to families through social services; the effect is the same on the budget.  Crassly, one is corporate welfare and the other is personal welfare.
  • Address the financial stress families face.  It will probably necessitate increasing benefits, but it will also entail restructuring programs to foster more personal responsibility and accountability.  An example might be to encourage families currently receiving benefits to work by tapering off the benefits more gradually as their incomes rise.  Address student debt because their debt makes wealth accumulation difficult.
  • Reduce our military expenditures and shift them to domestic programs.  If we subjected our military to the same cost-benefit analysis we do our social programs, I believe the military would receive low marks.  We spend more money on our military than the next ten nations in the world combined and our outcomes have been less than decisive.  Furthermore, we’ve organized our foreign policy on a perpetual war footing, which has only fostered a false sense of peace.
  • Connect our criminal justice system to social dysfunction, especially within families.  We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.  We bear the costs directly through incarceration and indirectly through its impact on family structures because it can dramatically reduce family income.  We can begin with sentencing reform, including revising our drug laws.
  • Stop trying to repeal or dismantle the Affordable Care Act.  Though imperfect, it is far better than what we had before its implementation.  Ideally, we should have a single-payer system, but that may be a bridge too far in our current climate.  (One should note that prior to Medicare the elderly was the poorest demographic cohort, but by the mid-1970s that was no longer.  It was a universal health care program and it worked.)  Make adjustments to ensure broader and cheaper coverage, especially in states that extended Medicaid or implement a government option similar to what was done in Massachusetts.
  • Invest in infrastructure.  Our roads are in sad shape.  Many of our cities have old water and sewer systems.  Our electrical grid needs a major technology upgrade. (Check out this article from the National Geographic.)  Revamp our air traffic control.  Invest in technologies which will diminish the effects of climate change.   Pay for infrastructure now while interest rates are low.  It will be a huge economic stimulus and will pay dividends for decades to come.
  • Address climate change.  The debate is over, really.  But even if some refuse to believe that it is caused by human activity, it cannot be denied that our climate is changing and that we have to address some serious issues now, such as the water supply in the Southwest or rising sea levels in Miami.
  • Immigration.  Even the business community wants it addressed.  Stop demonizing immigrants.  Acknowledge that immigrants helped to build this nation and contribute to our economy today.  Our system is broken.  Stop posturing and get it done.

Rather than try to score points against each other or against the president, our political leadership should try working for the people who elected them.

 

 

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An Advent Devotional

The following is a devotional for home use based upon the lectionary readings for this coming Advent.  If you don’t have an Advent wreath, making one is pretty simple.  You can find directions through an internet search.

The basic wreath consists of five candles.  Four are in a circle and the fifth in the center.  Traditionally candles are three purple and one rose or pink (lit on the third Sunday of Advent) and a white Christ candle in the center for Christmas Eve.  Some people do not adhere to the three purples and one rose.  Some people use red candles.  Others use all white ones.  I use all blue.   The Christ candle, though, should be white.

Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. During Advent we prepare for Christmas, God’s coming into our world in Jesus. Christmas proclaims the end of a world ruled by fear to one ruled by love. It will be a world organized not by scarcity but abundance. Our Advent preparations, then, help us to anticipate the end of one world and the beginning of another. As we read in Mark 13:31 Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Lighting candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday symbolizes the growing light, the end of darkness and the dawn of a new day. While we do this each Sunday in church as a community, doing this tradition at home will help our preparation on a personal level to usher in God’s reign of peace and justice rooted in love.

This devotion suggests a home practice based upon Bible study. Although the reflection question is based upon the focus scripture, the other scriptures can be read as well. Similarly, the prayer is suggested, but don’t hesitate to create your own. This devotion helps us to prepare.

Advent 1 – November 30
Ritual Action: Light one candle

Scripture:
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9

Question for reflection: If someone told you that you would see God face to face, what would you do to prepare?

Suggested Prayer:
We await the dawn, O God, the promise of a new day. Burdened by suffering and oppression, our world groans. We yearn for this suffering to end. We cannot abide by this oppression any longer. Help us to face our own failings and sins which contribute to the ways our world has lost sight of Jesus’ teachings. Give us strength to use our whole selves to bring about your peace and your justice. Help us to keep awake and not falter. Amen.

Advent 2 – December 7
Ritual Action: Light last week’s candle and one more

Scripture:
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11

Question for Reflection: When you meet God face to face, what words of comfort do you need to hear?

Suggested Prayer:
Loving and compassionate One, we need to hear comforting words. The world is too harsh. We need a new song, one that proclaims hope and love. Unstop our ears and attune us to stories of your justice. Open our eyes to see places where your peace prevails. May comforting words be upon our tongues when we speak with those whose lives are in turmoil so they might find comfort and hope. Amen

Advent 3 – December 14
Ritual Action: Light the preceding weeks’ candles and one more.  If you have a rose or pink candle, light this candle along with the preceding weeks’.

Scripture:
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Focus Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Question for Reflection: When the time comes that you see God, how or what around you do you want to see changed and how will you make the difference?

Suggested Prayer:
O God, anger and helplessness seem to rule the day. Dawn is almost here and there is so much left to do. Comforting words seem to fall short. Give me the voice of a prophet. Give me strength and courage to speak truth to power and to bring your healing grace to my community. Amen.

Advent 4 – December 21
Ritual Action: Light the preceding weeks’ candles and one more

Scripture:
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Focus Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Question for Reflection: When you think of your heart as God’s dwelling place, what must you do to prepare God’s room?

Suggested Prayer:
Loving and merciful God, I open my heart to make it a dwelling place for you. Let me clear it of greed, vanity, and hubris. Let me rid it of arrogance and fear. Fill my heart with love so I might offer compassion, mercy, and grace to all who I meet wherever they might be. Grant that love will support all my ministries in your name. Amen.

Christmas Eve – December 24
Ritual Action: Light all the candles and the Christ candle

Scripture:
Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrew 1:1-4, [5-12]
John 1:1-14

Focus Scripture: John 1:1-14

Question for Reflection: God has always been here. God is here. God will always be here. Are you ready and what will you tell the world?

Suggested Prayer
O God, you have given me gifts to bring your day of peace and justice to this world. Release my tongue that I might tell your story. Open my hands that I might proclaim your grace with labors. I will sing your praises, O God. I will sing of your mighty deeds. I will be your hands and feet to continue the work you began as Jesus so all will know your peace and your justice. Amen.

Note:  You can use this devotional without charge.  If you distribute this to others, please be sure you attribute it to me with the following:  “Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”

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When Yes is No

I realize I haven’t posted for months.  Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed with work.  Between serving as a chaplain in a transitional housing shelter for veterans and serving as a church pastor, time to write a post has not been on my side.  Tonight, though, I got some time as I am taking a week of study leave off from church to prepare for a weekend meeting I have at the national office of the United Church of Christ.  I also decided to skip a lecture on the common good.

Though we are voting for statewide offices in Massachusetts in a couple of weeks, the election seems pretty quiet.  As I’m an unenrolled voter I don’t get barraged with phone calls asking me to support one candidate over another.  Plus, I don’t watch any television (because I have no time) so I don’t see advertisements either.

One of the four questions on the ballot this year seeks to “prohibit the Massachusetts Gaming Commission from issuing any license for a casino or other gaming establishment with table games and slot machines, or any license for a gaming establishment with slot machines; (2) prohibit any such casino or slots gaming under any such licenses that the Commission might have issued before the proposed law took effect; and (3) prohibit wagering on the simulcasting of live greyhound races.” (from the Massachusetts Information for Voters published by the Secretary of State)  Basically, the question seeks to repeal the authorization for casinos that was passed several years ago in Massachusetts.

Voting yes is a vote against casinos.

Proponents talk about casinos as an economic stimulus in the local economy.  It will create jobs during the construction and operations.  It will keep people in Massachusetts who already travel to Connecticut to gamble from taking their money out of state.  Plus the commonwealth gains some significant revenue from the fees the casino developers will pay and the ongoing fees to keep gaming in the Commonwealth.

I say this is lazy economic development.  Casinos make money by taking money from people’s pockets.  We can call it gaming, but it’s really gambling.  Gambling’s basic premise is the winner wins because s/he causes everyone to lose.  Or expressed economically, the collective amount of money everyone brings to the poker table goes to one person, which means everyone but one person leaves the table without money.  Note that the overall wealth at the table did not increase.  This is hardly consistent with the premise that a healthy community relies upon the common good.

Good economic development tries to put money into people’s pockets.  Classically, it requires money from outside of the community entering the local economy and through the multiplier effect (meaning the external dollar gets re-spent multiple times) it generates income in the local economy thus increasing the community’s wealth.  An example is the recent announcement that the new transit cars for the Boston’s mass transit system will be built in Springfield.  The company will hire workers who will spend money in the local economy at restaurants and stores.  As those businesses improve, their employees will receive more money, who in turn will spend it locally.  Thus the re-spending of that dollar multiple times.

Alternatively, economic development tries to leverage local assets to increase overall wealth in the community.  I keep thinking about local churches leveraging some of their endowments to free up capital in their communities and thereby opening opportunities to provide credit to people typically shut out of traditional credit markets.  (But that’s another post for another day)

While casinos will bring external dollars into the local community during construction, it won’t be the case once they open.  Furthermore, by claiming that Massachusetts residents will no longer have to go to Connecticut to gamble, it undermines the rationale as an economic driver.  All casinos will do is redistribute existing money.  Like the poker table, they won’t increase wealth.

Furthermore, casino proponents conveniently overlook the economic failure of Atlantic City, the first community outside of Nevada to legalize casino gambling in the United States.  It never delivered on its promises for an economic revitalization of that city.  Today as the casino market has been saturated on the East coast, four of twelve casinos in that city closed this year.

Here’s another hitch.  The New York Times published an article on Foxwoods back in 2012.  A lot of the article was about its poor financial health.  One point really stuck out for me, though.  Referring to the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in October 2011, the author wrote the following:

“Millions of younger Americans who like to gamble are playing online poker, hosted on offshore sites. They may never become casino habitués. So at the same time that brick-and-mortar casinos are proliferating, the demographics may be working against the industry. The A.G.A. is lobbying for legalization of online poker in the United States and for strict regulation of it — a rare case of an industry’s seeking regulation. The strategy would likely put those who already own casinos in a favored position in the new online world. ” (Michael Sokolove.  Foxwoods Casino is Fighting for Its Life. March 14, 2012. )

I remember in seminary I had to write a paper on a contemporary issue through the lens of the first nine chapters of Proverbs.  I chose casino gambling and equated it to the harlot who beckons:

“I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you! I have decked my couch with coverings, colored spreads of Egyptian linen; I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love. For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took a bag of money with him; he will not come home until full moon.” (Proverbs 7:14-20)

I cited economic research which noted how casinos changed local economies such that the mix of businesses did not support the local community but the casinos and that visitors to the casinos drove past local businesses directly to the casinos.  Casino patrons didn’t support local restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues because they ate, shopped, and found entertainment exclusively in the casino.

I don’t see much value in casino gambling in Massachusetts.  It has yet to prove itself an economic engine outside of Nevada.  It is a false promise best summarized by the conclusion of Proverbs 7:

“With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. Right away he follows her, and goes like an ox to the slaughter, or bounds like a stag toward the trap until an arrow pierces its entrails. He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life. And now, my children, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. Do not let your hearts turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths. for many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims. Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.” (7:21-27)

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Antidote for Our Struggles

Rep. Mo Brooks (R- AL) made recent comments by on the Laura Ingraham show in which he said the Democratic Party has been waging a war on whites. First, the Democrats are not waging a war on whites as many of them are white. Though many in the GOP would argue against it, the GOP has not shown itself to be sympathetic to people of color. Charles Blow noted that in The New York Times.

I note that the public face of the party is not racist, but it’s a reaction to its perceived loss of white privilege. The most obvious example is the party’s vehement opposition to anything Obama.

I addressed this in my sermon this past Sunday.

8th Sunday after the Pentecost
Dalton, MA
August 3, 2014

Scripture: Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

Jacob was returning home as a prosperous man. His herds were large. The image I get from reading the description of this journey is a grand procession of people: four women, twelve children, and servants, plus and lots of animals: goats, sheep, camel, cows, and donkeys. But Jacob feared Esau, from whom he fled many years before. Before nightfall he sent his brother a substantial peace offering: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. Still he worried.

Who did Jacob wrestle through the night? Many commentators say it was God. Others say it was an angel. Still others say that this wrestling match was Jacob wrestling with his conscience – trying to figure out who he was after his long absence or struggling with the relationship he would have with his brother. Though they fought to a draw the outcome for Jacob was clear, he had a new identity, symbolized by the name change. He also was struck in the hip which caused him to limp.

He was fearful. In his youth he took advantage of his brother. Yet, when he met Esau, there was no animosity, but generosity. Esau ran to him, embraced him, kissed him. They wept. They reconciled. Esau turned aside Jacob’s offering. But “Jacob said, ‘No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God — since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.’” (Gen. 33:10-11) Esau accepted.

Generosity healed the divide between the brothers. Jacob had the means to bring about this reconciliation.

We can read different meanings into this story. As I think about the humanitarian crisis on the Mexican border where tens of thousands of unaccompanied children wait, Jacob’s wrestling match is a metaphor for us in America today. We’re struggling between compassion and a hardness of heart. But this dispute is not really about the children as much as it is about immigration itself, which itself is a stand-in for our national identity.

This nation has had its ups and downs with immigration over the decades. As a Chinese-American, immigration is very personal to me. Chinese-Americans, who are older than 50, probably had relatives or knew family friends who entered this country illegally. They skirted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which purposefully barred Chinese immigration with narrow exceptions. Addressing that, however, is a sermon for another day. Overall, this nation has been generous in its acceptance of immigrants over many decades.

The hardness of heart which we have recently seen is a response to the shifts in American culture. Though English is our national language, we see or hear Spanish snippets almost every day. Supermarket shelves stock items which only a decade ago were found in ethnic food stores. We used to be able to pronounce the names of people in our community, but now we struggle to sound out names from India and Pakistan and Thailand and Ghana and the Middle East.   Merchants are no longer exclusively white men. Our president is black.

The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann described our situation in the United States as a type of exile. He wrote, “exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, or dismissed. Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural.”[1] He went on to describe exile’s cultural dimension. “The ‘homeland’ in which all of us have grown up has been defined and dominated by white, male, Western assumptions which were, at the same time, imposed and also willingly embraced. Exile comes as those values and modes of authority are being effectively and progressively diminished. That diminishment is a source of deep displacement for many, even though for others who are not male and white, it is a moment of emancipation. The deepness of the displacement is indicated, I imagine, by the reactive assault on so-called political correctness, by ugly rumor, and by demonizing new modes of power.”[2]

Like Jacob wrestling with his past and his future, we’re struggling over who we are as a nation as our cultural markers shift and vanish. Our past is gone and we don’t know what we will become. It’s not that people who oppose letting the children into this country are not compassionate, but wouldn’t bringing in people who do not share the same culture, even if they are children, cause further displacement? I’ll also add that many people struggle economically because the economic pie is small enough already. Many will say there’s just not enough for new immigrants, too.

But we’re overlooking generosity. Jacob’s gift was generous and was a clear sign to Esau of his intentions and need for reconciliation. While we see the diminishment of traditional culture, we should not ignore our national character. Our generosity rebuilt Europe. Our generosity gave college educations to thousands of soldiers after World War II. Our generosity has been an impetus for letting immigrants settle this nation. We have been a generous people. We are a generous nation. But we seem to have forgotten that.

We don’t send people away even when we have five loaves and two fish. Feeding all those people must have seemed daunting to the disciples at the end of a long day. “You give them something to eat,” said Jesus.

Though this was a miracle, let’s not bog ourselves down by trying to explain how it happened or believing that this was a one-time event. Let’s focus on the meaning of this story and its implications for us today.

We hear echoes of communion. Jesus blessed and broke the loaves. He gave it to them and they ate. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray those words every week. The implicit message is the celestial banquet can happen here on earth. Furthermore, first century ethical practices in Palestine meant that people who ate together had to care for each other. Thus, 5000 men, plus women and children, left that meal with an obligation to care for each other whether family or friend or stranger. It reminds us that we have an obligation to ensure the common good, which extends to people who cross our borders. True community is the collective responsibility for everyone. Shalom cannot be achieved when we let unaccompanied children wait in limbo in shelters at our border.

God created this world with an abundance. We proclaim that whenever we come to the table. We should never forget that. The table reminds us that in God’s world scarcity does not exist and no one knows deprivation. The scarcity we experience now is our doing. It is our responsibility to do what we can to ensure that everyone has a place at the table. We don’t send people away from the table. We don’t send them away from our borders.

We’re going to continue to struggle if we refuse to have faith in the gospel. Years ago Walter Brueggemann spoke at Smith College in Northampton. He talked about our contemporary exile and said that we will find the remedy in the thick narrative of scripture. He would argue that we must go deeper, below the stories. Stop wondering about the miracle and instead incorporate scripture’s underlying wisdom into our lives. Responding to our exile today, Brueggemann wrote, “for persons who refuse assimilation, and eschew despair, is to respond with fresh, imaginative theological work, recovering the old theological traditions and recasting them in terms appropriate to the new situation of faith in an alien culture.”[3]

Immigration has been an important part of the American story and American culture for close to two hundred years. We are a mighty nation because immigrants, including many of our own family members, contributed their treasure, talents, and sweat. Our struggle over immigration may not give us a new identity, as much as we might reclaim our former identity as a generous nation willing to share what we have so that all will have daily bread.

[1] Brueggemann, Walter. Cadences of Home Preaching Among Exiles. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY 1997. Page 2

[2] Ibid. Page 2

[3] Ibid. Page 116

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Is There Good Soil?

This was my sermon from July 13, 2014.

5th Sunday after the Pentecost
Dalton, MA
July 13, 2014

Scripture: Genesis 25:19-34 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Until an epiphany earlier this week, I had the image of this parable as four different places where the sower casted seeds. Maybe it came to me because I have an old vegetable garden in my yard which over the past several years weeds have overrun. About 20-plus years ago I planted the entire patch and it produced well. Then I barely had to buy vegetables. But as having children and increasing work responsibilities took more and more time, I did less and less in the vegetable garden. Finally, the last couple of summers we belonged to a CSA, which meant I didn’t have to do any gardening, and the weeds finally triumphed.

In April my older daughter called me, which when your children call you on the phone today, you know if must be important. “Dad, can we plant the vegetable garden?” “Sure,” I said, “are you going to help?” So, with the help of both my daughters we reclaimed some of the vegetable patch. It’s modest compared to 20 years ago, but it’s doing well. We’ve been able to stay on top of the weeds, too.

Matthew 13 is all about the kingdom of God. What is it like? It points out its expansiveness: bringing forth grain a hundredfold or yeast that leavens the flour. It reminds us how it is distinguished and stands apart from our world: the wheat among the weeds or the pearl of great value. By planting the good soil, the kingdom of God will flourish. My epiphany was fundamentally, except for the path, all the soil was good. Why should we be limited to the clear field? If we prepare the soil by removing rocks (remember we live in New England – home to stone walls), we make the field workable. Removing thorns and weeds exposes good soil. By working the field, removing rocks and weeds, we expand the possibility for the kingdom of God to take root and flourish.

Knowing that we can’t sow on the path, when we see this parable as three different fields we think in the ways of our world, a world organized around scarcity and fear. That’s part of what was in play with Jacob and Esau. There was only one birthright, which Esau purchased from Jacob for a bowl of lentils. Later in the Jacob story, we learn that Jacob stole Isaac’s blessing from Esau as well. We want to have enough without realizing that there is enough already. When we think about the full trajectory of the Jacob story, we see that getting the birthright and Isaac’s blessing didn’t make Jacob wealthy. Before he could use them he fled to Laban, Rebekah’s brother, and eventually married both Leah and Rachel, his daughters. Jacob became wealthy because he was clever and was able to finesse Laban’s sheep and goats from him. After many, many years, Jacob returned home a very wealthy man and reconciled with Esau, who also became very wealthy. As young men they competed over a finite resource, but in that stunning reconciliation scene in Genesis 33 they had more than enough.

I think that’s what’s happening in this country today. The split between left and right, Republican and Democrat has multiple roots, but one is around our perception of our economy. We see scarcity and that frightens us. It’s a small patch of the field without rocks and thorns and we have different ways to preserve what we get from the field lest we run out. Furthermore, we can’t risk letting others share from this field because we barely have enough for ourselves. We look at the rest of the field and say, “It’s too rocky. The weeds are thick and dense. Nothing will grow.”

I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in a bind over the current human tragedy along our border with Mexico. Since October 2013, over 50,000 unaccompanied children have tried to cross it. They have come primarily from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, places where extreme, lethal gang violence, especially targeted at youth, is commonplace. Many families are sending them to the United States to re-unite with family members already in this country, many of whom are probably undocumented immigrants themselves. There is resistance to letting these children into the country. Here’s a comment in response to a recent Newsweek article:

OBAMA wants 3 BILLION dollars from the AMERICAN TAX PAYER. Try not to be clueless, but yes every American is having their pocket picked because of these ILLEGAL ALIENS who are the dregs of the society they came from! They contribute nothing to society….they are greedy takers! They will get free health care, free education, will work under the table and not pay taxes.

Of course the political rhetoric doesn’t help. Many critics fault the administration for not following the law, despite the law that’s on the books. An immigration law passed and signed in 2008 allows unaccompanied children to enter this country and be housed until they appear in an immigration court for a ruling. This law was put in place as a way to stymie human trafficking. Today’s children are not coming because of the DREAM Act, which allowed undocumented immigrant children already in this country an opportunity to stay. It doesn’t apply to the children coming now. Furthermore, this administration has been particularly tough on illegal immigration. The Pew Research Center found that the Obama administration has deported more people every year than George W. Bush’s administration.

The conflict around the children’s immigration situation is a distilled glimpse of the larger conflict around immigration right now. True, the conflict is not only around economics. Race has a large and unacknowledged role, too. But the common reasons we hear to keep our borders “secure” are economic-based. Like the Newsweek comment, there’s a sense that we don’t have enough anymore. And that may be true because the rocks and weeds are changes in the world which have upended traditional economics. Capital moves across the world without regard to international borders. Technology allows high-paying, middle class jobs, such as accounting and engineering, to be exported to places wherever there is a highly educated workforce like India and China. Products, such as clothing, once made in the United States are being made in countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. Even some fish caught in American waters are sent overseas for processing before coming to our supermarkets.

But the field is a lot bigger than the exposed patch of rock-free and weed-free ground we see now and fight over today. Sure, looking at the rest of the field, it seems pretty daunting to make it arable, especially if we continue to think only about our parochial interests. But the kingdom of God is not about each of us individually, it is about all of us together. The kingdom comes when we work together and share together. We’ll clear the field when we all work together: men and women, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, people of all races and all cultures, citizen and non-citizen, native and immigrant. When we clear the field and plant it we’ll have more to share among all of us. Indeed if we clear the field and rethink the way we distribute the field’s yield, we will probably have so much that we could give away enough to close the income and wealth disparity in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador so the gang violence can end and families won’t send their children unaccompanied to our border.

We cannot continue to think in terms of scarcity. It will lead to more fear. It will lead to death. Abundance describes God’s kingdom. That’s how we must frame our world. When we do that it will lead to love. It will affirm life.

There’s a hymn set to the tune King’s Weston. John Dalles, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote its lyrics. The first verse reads as follows:

“Come to tend God’s garden, seeds of hope to sow,
planting fields of justice, watching mercy grow!
In an arid wasteland, spread a verdant heath!
In a land of tumult, cultivate God’s peace!”

Unless we look at the entire field and grab our hoes and work hard together to clear it of weeds and grab our shovels to dig out its rocks, we will rage as two nations against each other while occupying the same land. We will not have peace. We will not know shalom.

The soil is good across the entire field. Let’s clear it together.

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Ministry: Compassion Matters Far Far Away

Sometimes compassion calls upon us to do something that just seems odd.  But we do it because it feels right to do or it feels odd not to.

I’m conducting a graveside service for a man I never met.  He died last week.  He was elderly.  Though he did not die alone, he will be buried with no one present except the funeral home staff and me.

I will conduct a short graveside service, it will still be a funeral service.  There will be prayers and two readings.  I’ll say words of committal and even form a cross with sand on the lid of his casket.

I’ve been thinking about this service all weekend.  I don’t have fear or nervousness about it.  I’ve done my fair share of funerals and memorial services for people I barely knew.  I’ve covered funerals for my colleagues when they were on vacation.  As an interim pastor, I’ve had parishioners die within a few weeks of my start.

But this is a funeral out of sheer compassion.  I have full confidence in the funeral home staff that they will inter the body with dignity and respect, but without a funeral it seems that something is missing.

No one should depart from this world without a funeral because it is a ritual to help the survivors accept the end of the deceased’s mortal life.  It helps them put the deceased’s life in the past tense, but it also prepares them for a future without the deceased.  But this one seems odd because there are no survivors who will be present at the service.  When you think about this, no one has to conduct this funeral.

Yet, it didn’t seem right to me to commit this man’s mortal remains to the earth without some religious ritual.  I volunteered.

When I called the family and asked them if they would like this, they were surprised and grateful.  They said “We will be silent during the moment signaling the start of the service.”  Clearly this mattered to them.

The Holy Spirit beckoned me.  I can’t figure out any other reason.  Then again, this comes with the call to ministry.  It’s one of those odd and peculiar parts to this calling.

This funeral will matter to people who can’t be there.  It will give them comfort.  It matters to me because I can’t bear to think that NO ONE from the community or family will be there.

 

 

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Is This Madness?

Time hasn’t allowed me to post since early this month.  Well, actually, it wasn’t time as such, just my lack of free time.

I didn’t think, though, that I’d do two posts on capital punishment in short order, but somehow the news just makes it possible.  Sad, huh?  Two news items caught my interest in the last week.

The first was a U. S. Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty was illegal for people with mental disability.  The Court basically ruled that Florida’s cut-off score of 70 was too rigid.  The Court ruled in 2002 in Atkins vs. Virginia that states could not execute people with mental disabilities, but left it to the states to define mental disabilities.

The second was an article that appeared today about the Attorney General in Missouri seeking to have the state produce the drugs for lethal injection as traditional suppliers have decided to withhold these drugs for this purpose.

As for the first, I first heard it on the radio as I was driving home.  It almost sounded surreal.  When you think about it, we’re debating how smart a person has to be to qualify for the death penalty.  I kept thinking, “This is craziness.  We’re still talking about state sanctioned killing.  This wouldn’t be an issue if we banned capital punishment.”

We can argue that barring the execution of people with mental disabilities shows compassion on the part of the state.  But aren’t we supposed to show compassion to everyone?

Practically, how does a state decide who is mentally disabled enough to warrant execution?  OK, so the state abandons a rigid standard such as 70 on an IQ test, especially given the +/- 5 margin of error.  A follow up article in the New York Times noted that other factors might have to come into play:  how the defendant functioned in society, grades in school, ability to groom and dress, follow instructions, and do certain jobs.  And though these other factors offer more latitude, who determines the standard.  Furthermore, that standard can vary from state to state so that what might be deemed mentally disabled in one state would not be in another.  It’s really an arbitrary standard.

Missouri really blew me away, though.  When we look at other industrialized nations, the signs indicate that capital punishment is inhumane.  We’re one of a handful that still permits it.  Indeed the other industrialized nations permitting capital punishment are:  China, Taiwan, Japan, and India.  When European suppliers refuse to ship the drugs, isn’t that another sign?

It seems that states are trying to figure a way around the drug issue.  Methods of punishment deemed inhumane previously such as the electric chair and firing squad are seriously being reconsidered in light of the botched execution earlier this month.  Doesn’t that tell us that humane/inhumane is not really clear in our minds?  Or maybe we really don’t care since we still want to pursue capital punishment despite the obstacles.

Missouri, however, wants to go into the drug manufacturing business for the purpose of killing people.  If I lived in Missouri, not only will my tax dollars pay for executions, they would pay for the manufacturing of the drugs.  I find it disturbingly sick that the state will take the task of making lethal drugs upon itself.

When our compassionate response to people with mental disabilities is not to execute them, why can’t we understand that everyone deserves the same compassion?

 

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Death Penalty is not OK

Let’s make this clear right now. I flat out oppose the death penalty.

This isn’t something recent. I’ve been against it for decades. Though some advocates for the death penalty will say it is a deterrent to crime, there doesn’t seem to be any less crime in states where they apply the death penalty than states where the don’t.

There are a whole host of reasons to oppose the death penalty.  Some of them include:

  • Racial and economic disparities in sentencing
  • Wrongful convictions
  • High costs related to trials for capital punishment cases

Theologically, the gospel eschews a retributive justice model.  It overlooks the possibility that there is power in Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all people.  There is also an overriding respect for life.  Furthermore, Jesus saved the life of the adulterous woman from being stoned to death. (John 8:3-11)

Capital punishment is state sanctioned killing.  When someone is tried for a crime, the charges are the people against the perpetrator.  Thus, the people indirectly impose the penalty should the perpetrator be found guilty.  The state executes the perpetrator on my behalf.  I reject that.

The botched execution in Oklahoma was horrible.  It also wasn’t the first botched execution.  I listened on and off to various commentators this week.  I read news articles.  All of them made me angry.

The death was tortuous.  It was hardly peaceful.  It seems that the normal supply of drugs was not available to the state because traditional suppliers refuse to provide their products to kill people.  Oklahoma experimented on the prisoner.

They tried to insert the catheter in a vein near the groin.  I read that it is not an easy location.  Besides, it violates the person’s privacy. While inserting it there can be done, it apparently should have a qualified medical person to do it.  A trained medical technician or doctor may not have done this.

The death sentence already is an ethical violation and a moral failure.  The surrounding issues serve to underscore this violation and failure.  The botched attempt the other day should be the wake up that this form of punishment, which by my book is already cruel and unusual, has no place in our nation.

And yet, Oklahoma was not chastened by this.  Governor Fallin will pause executions to learn from this tragedy only to resume them again.

I would think that the problems related to administering the death penalty, both its fair application and its procedural administration, would deter states from using it as punishment.  But, no.  Why do we insist on using it?

When I look at the list of states where capital punishment is legal, many of them are perceived as having a relatively religious culture compared to the rest of the nation.  It doesn’t reflect well on their faith values.  It’s certainly not a culture that affirms life.

 

 

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