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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McCutcheon and the GOP Budget

Paul Ryan’s budget passed the House of Representatives today with 12 Republicans joining all the Democrats in voting against it.  It will go nowhere in the Senate and has no chance of being signed by the president.

It’s a piece of fiction.  Repeal ACA and offer no alternative.  Cut domestic spending by putting the burden on the poorest people in America as if that will stimulate the economy.  Make Medicare a premium system so people over 65 can purchase private health insurance, despite studies after studies pointing out that Medicare delivers health care more efficiently than any private insurance.  Make SNAP benefits a block grant so conservative leaning states can cut it.  Cut tax rates for the wealthy even though his Republican colleague, David Camp, found it can’t be done without losing revenue.  AND make sure to include a huge burst of economic growth, even though years of government austerity have shown there is no burst of economic growth when government spending is so low.

That Paul Ryan is considered an intellectual heavyweight in the GOP is astonishing as a freshman economics major will find this budget riddled with flaws.  If he is the GOP’s intellectual heavyweight, this is a real problem because it makes clear the lightweight thinking that’s passing for public policy in our politics these days.

I can’t resist giving the Democrats some points to use against any Republican who voted for this budget:

  • Show a child on SNAP with an empty plate.  Show a business lunch that is on expense account.  The voice over will say that the GOP budget will allow the business lunch as a deduction, but will not feed the child for a fraction of the price of that lunch.
  • Take pictures of our pot hole roads (my street in Pittsfield is particularly bad) with someone who just broke her car’s suspension driving while noting that though there was no money to fix the pot hole, there was enough money to subsidize a corporate jet.
  • Interview a homeless family couch surfing while waiting for their Section 8 subsidy.  Here the wait is three years.  Show how a family can get write offs for the mortgage deduction on their 12,000 square foot house.
  • Remind people that many poor families had to shiver through the winter given the reduction in heating assistance, but don’t forget to tell them that our taxes subsidized the oil companies.

This budget makes me angry.  Cutting benefits to the poorest people in this nation is heartless.  Allowing tax credits, especially those which benefit the wealthiest in our nation, to remain is callous.  Keep the benefits for the poor and change the tax credits by cutting or eliminating them would have the same effect on the actual budget.  Furthermore, by supporting the poor over the rich, there will be a greater multiplier effect on the economy (Mr. Ryan, in case you were not aware we have a consumer-based economy.  It’s well-known by about every freshman economics major that when a poor person receives a dollar the person will most likely spend it, whereas a wealthy person would save it.)

As a side issue, the GOP refuses to raise the minimum wage.  So, they cut benefits.  They refuse to raise the minimum wage.  They keep this nation on an austerity budget so we can’t stimulate the economy through job creation for infrastructure projects. (Mr. Ryan, the civil engineers rate our infrastructure a D+.  Moving our infrastructure rating to something better than third world status will generate lots of jobs.)  Taking these into account with the budget they passed, it’s borderline evil.

I wish I could be sanguine about the Democrats shredding this budget, but I don’t.  They’re too scared to run hard against wealth because that’s what’s funding their campaigns.

Which is why the Supreme Court ruling McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission really bummed me out.  Yet more money to make those in power less able to advocate for those who are poor and on the margins.  It only serves to widen the income and wealth gap in this nation.

If we want to see proof of how misguided that ruling was, today’s vote tells it all.

 

 

 

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Unbinding

We have two worship services on Sunday, 8:15 AM and 10:15 AM.  Typically, they are virtually the same except in the first service we drop the middle hymn and we have no children’s time.  So it’s a little shorter.  We also have fewer people, so we worship in our chapel rather than the sanctuary.

Today we attempted an At Table worship service for our first service.  The service mimics the worship services during the time of house churches in the first century.  Then, people worshiped in homes centered around communal meals.  As there were no bibles at the time, scripture was told as stories.  There were no hymnals.  Music might have been whatever.  We had no bulletins, either.

We set our room up with several bridge tables.  Although we had set up for 32 people, we probably had just over 40.  Some people had to sit at corners of some of the tables.  We served a continental breakfast as our meal.

We ate and talked.  We began by introducing ourselves and then sharing our joys and concerns and ended that time with a community prayer.  I told the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and then we talked about it in our small groups.  We sang a song and then had communion.  It seemed sort of odd in retrospect as we were already doing communion over continental breakfast.

Most of the comments I received were positive.  Many people who were unsure when they entered worship left pleasantly surprised that enjoyed it.  A few people felt that some real connections were made and that we really need those connections right now in the church.  Some said it felt worshipful.

I led the 10:15 worship, which was a traditional service in the sanctuary.

Late in the day I drove over to Northampton to participate in a street worship called Cathedral in the Night.  It’s an initiative started by the Episcopal Church to bring church out of the building and into the street.  This one meets on the steps of First Churches.

All kinds of people came.  One person who drove over from Pittsfield with us noted that many of the people who came were people who were “on the other side of the wall.”  There were probably about 40 people.  Most had no paper in their hands.  A few people carried laminated sheets with some responses on it.  There was a sound system and a table for an alter.

The congregation was fluid.  People wandered into the service.  Almost everyone stood.  Worship leadership was shared by a priest who sort of led things, but readily ceded the microphone to people for different portions of the service.  She offered the scripture lesson on the raising of Lazarus and then gave a short homily, which she finished with an open-ended question.  People took the mic to tell us their answers.  One gentleman, who looked like a clean street person, played guitar and sang.

We shared communion.  We passed the peace.  We sang a little more and then ate some dinner, which was served at the end of the service.  We ate it out of foam trays.  Most of us were standing.

Three different styles of church.  All of them were worshipful in their own way.  But the first service of the day and the last service of the day were unlike typical services.  Both of them had a bit of an edge in that there was no formal liturgical structure, the Northampton service being the edgiest.  The sense of community was strongest in the first and last service today because we were physically close together.  In a way both the first and the last service today didn’t need a communion ritual as we already had communion just being with people who talked with each other (which doesn’t happen often in formal worship).  Certainly sharing reflections on the scripture helped make some deep connections with each other.

The At Table service and the Cathedral in the Night felt far more communal than the standard worship.  I liked having the opportunity to hear other people’s thinking on scripture and meeting people who I would typically not associate with.  The Cathedral in the Night felt more like real community because we had a far more diverse group of people on the sidewalk today than we had in our sanctuary this morning.

And maybe that’s the point.  We need to hear other people’s stories.  What did each person need as to their unbinding?  We wouldn’t find out in regular worship.  We need to have diversity in our congregations, which, though we claim otherwise, are generally closed off communities where a bearded clean, homeless looking man won’t be able to play guitar and have worship leadership responsibilities.

Church is real community.  Ecclesia was the public assembly of people Ancient Athens.  The theology of church is ecclesiology.  I think we need to recover that sense of the public assembly from thousands of years ago in order to make church feel relevant again.  We need to make church a little messy and edgy while letting the Holy Spirit touch people in order to engage with each other.  Our churches need to unbind.

 

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War’s Costs Not Counted

OK, I’ve been absent from this blog for awhile.  The last couple of months have been intense as I started two new jobs.  In January I began serving as a part-time chaplain in a shelter for veterans.  In February I began serving the First Congregational Church of Dalton as its part-time interim pastor.

Starting two new jobs was intense, but I think things have settled down and I can get my bearings again.

As part of my work with the veterans, I preside over funerals and memorial services.  At the end of January one of the women vets died.  We scheduled her memorial service for the end of February.  Between the time she died and the service I met with several of the women who knew her.

During my visit with the women, I got two stories.  One story was about the woman who died.  The other story was each of their lives.  No one’s life story was happy, though some of their lives were punctuated with happy moments.

I’m still haunted by one young woman.  She had children, but they lived in the Midwest.  She talked with them from time to time.  But she hadn’t seen them in awhile.  I didn’t get into why over a thousand miles separates her from her children, but I do know that substance abuse was a factor.

Also around that time I attended a lecture by Dr. Jonathan Shay on trauma that accompanies soldiers when they come home.  Specifically, Dr. Shay talked about moral injury, which comes about after the soldier comes home.  We think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but it is the primary injury, like a bullet piercing an arm.  Moral injury is its persistence, like the hemorrhaging of the wound itself.  Moral injury comes about from the betrayal of what’s right by someone who holds authority, especially in a high stakes situation.

When we think of the cost of war, we think of the all the costs we spend to send our men and women into battle.  They’ll include the combat pay, the weapons, the munitions, the supporting material (like food and medical supplies).  If we’re astute we’ll include the transportation to get them to the front and the stuff that the soldiers need to stay in touch with people at home as well as transportation home.  We might even factor in the personnel on-the-ready at bases around the world

We miss the costs of war once they get home.  We don’t factor in the vets who are homeless or who are substance abusers.  We overlook vets who can’t live with their spouses.  And if they have children, then they’re growing up in single-parent households.  But we don’t count these costs in the balance sheet for our national defense.  Their costs become part of the social safety net that we can’t seem to fund adequately at all and some political leaders want to destroy entirely.

War’s costs are enormous.  And yet, we can’t count it because we refuse to acknowledge its external costs.

Maybe if we get a true accounting of war, we might as a nation realize the cost of war is really unaffordable.  Maybe it will force us to re-imagine our foreign policy  Maybe it might fund our social safety net adequately.

Then, maybe I’m dreaming.

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It’s Tempting

First Sunday in Lent
March 9, 2014
Dalton, MA

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 (Trans. Robert Alter)
Matthew 4:1-11

The Temptation story from Genesis is so familiar that we should take a moment to purge it completely from our minds and dispel the imagery that traditionally accompanies it in order to hear it anew. We probably have images of the woman enticing the man to eat the fruit, most likely an apple, almost like a seduction. And certainly, the images of woman from this story often depict her as highly sexual and that the sexuality is not erotic or sensuous but dangerous. This story traditionally establishes woman as subordinate to man. Some commentaries of this story border on misogynistic.

Let’s back up and take this slowly and include the missing verses. First, God put man in the garden to till it. God told man, “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.” Then, God created animals to help man and when they proved insufficient, God put man into a deep sleep, removed a rib, and fashioned it to become the woman. The story shifts to the woman, who converses with the serpent about the tree and the fruit. Note that nowhere in this text is the fruit defined. Though the serpent completely misstated God’s instruction, the woman corrected it and then expanded the instruction to include a prohibition upon touching the fruit. The serpent told her that God’s real reason not to eat the fruit was to keep her from becoming like gods by gaining the ability to know good and evil. She ate the fruit and then handed it to man for him to eat it as well. They ate and knew they were naked.

Keep in mind that God initially gave the instructions to man as woman was not yet created. When we read this story closely it seems that man stood next to her when she spoke with the serpent. Man said nothing. He did not challenge the serpent, “God did not say that we should not eat of any tree in the garden.” He didn’t try to correct woman, “God said nothing about touching the fruit.” He offered no objection by saying, “We should not eat this fruit.” Indeed, man seems passive, especially in view of woman’s engagement in almost all aspects of the story.

Woman took the initiative to obtain this knowledge. Whether man and woman planned together to assume this responsibility or man accepted this responsibility as she was his helpmate, the end result is the same. Woman and man assumed awesome responsibility.
And having this responsibility appeals to us. We can be generous. We can be instruments for good. We’re empowered because we don’t have to rely upon someone to bestow benevolences upon us. We’re liberated because we’re not left at the mercy of someone else.
But having this responsibility has ethical implications because it places us in a position to bestow benevolences. We become the one who grants mercy, which means we can also withhold mercy. We can manipulate those in need to comply with our own standards of behaviors. And because we also know evil, our motives may not always be pure. Though we might be as gods, we will not be like God. We’re not capable, try as we might, to be as unreservedly loving as God or as unstintingly generous as God or as unfailingly forgiving as God.

The story of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days foreshadows his ministry and his message. Jesus showed tremendous internal strength when he did not succumb to the devil’s temptations. By rejecting the devil’s offer to have power and dominion over the entire world, he offered a preview of the upside down world of the gospel. After the wilderness we learn through his ministry that true power comes not by being lord of all, but by being servant to all.

Jesus said that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Later, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:4-8)

By the example Jesus set in the wilderness, we’re reminded that power is a sacred trust and must be used responsibly. We should never use power indiscriminately. Having power is not a license to use that power to meet our needs without considering how our needs impact the whole creation. We have power in order to serve our family, our neighbors, our friends, and our community. We even have power to alter our environment. However we use our power, though, it is for God’s sake not ours.

Though woman claimed later to God that the serpent beguiled her to eat the fruit, she could have refused the serpent’s entreaties. She, however, chose not to. She chose empowerment. She chose to assume the responsibility that comes with knowing good and evil. When we interpret this story as the serpent tricking the woman it undermines and robs woman of her autonomy. When we think of woman as a temptress, it portrays her as devious, which undercuts her authority as a credible decision maker and one who is responsible and can be trusted with power. Consequently, we obscure the fact that woman can share power with men and when necessary can be decisive in their use of that power.

Here’s an example. Although last October seems so long ago, remember our government shutdown? The parties were at loggerheads. The leadership in both houses of Congress couldn’t begin to find a pathway out. The end came through the bi-partisan work of several women in the Senate. The New York Times reported that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me) put together a three-point plan she thought both parties could live with and then went to the Senate floor to dare her colleagues to devise something better. Two other Republican women joined her. Then two women Democrats. Eventually, 13 senators formed a committee and found compromise. Seven of the members of that committee were women even though they make up 20% of the Senate.

Women are fully capable of leading. That the Senate women found a pathway to compromise, I would say that those women understood power better than their male counterparts.

The implications of a feminist reading of this story or any other story in the Bible where women play a prominent role should remind us that women have moral agency when it comes to their lives. Men should refrain from appropriating to themselves decision making regarding women’s health, especially around reproduction. Women should have easier access to credit to start their own businesses. Women politicians should not be subjected to a trivial double standard, such as worries how they will manage their children, especially when their male counterparts get a pass. When we recognize women’s dignity, it might bring an end to their being infantilized and sexualized in our media, especially for young girls. We could end violence against women. We would become aware of the terrible burden of sex trafficking and feel more compelled to do something about it. It could shift the understanding of manhood for our teenage boys to teach them that their manhood is not about the number of girls they have sex with or the number of children they fathered, but taking responsibility to being a father for their children.

While it’s tempting to keep reading scripture from our traditional perspectives, we limit our growth in understanding our faith. That in turn becomes an obstacle to changing the dynamics of our community. Changes happen when we can integrate God’s loving kindness more fully into our lives together. We should resist the temptation to take the easy path of tradition, which lulls us into complacency. Rather, we should take time to wrestle with the texts. We need to clear our minds of what we’ve always known to make way for new imagery, which can open us to new and unimagined pathways leading to true peace and justice rooted in God’s steadfast love.

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Stuck in a Sausage Grinder

I ended a ministry position at the start of the new year.  I began a ministry position at the start of a new year.  I haven’t posted since the start of the new year.

I finished my tenure at First Baptist Church of Pittsfield.  I began serving as a part-time chaplain at Soldier On, a program for homeless veterans.  I also spent a lot of time revamping a life skills class I’m teaching to people who are long term unemployed and underemployed and are seeking to become certified nursing assistants.

This is not to say that I haven’t been reflecting on the news.  It’s just that I’m reflecting a little slower, which is why I’m just now addressing Governor Christie’s travails over the George Washington Bridge traffic mess.

I’m not going to add my voice to say that the governor was behind the bridge fiasco nor am I going to say that the “liberal” media has been piling it on.  Nor am I going to lambast his aides and political friends.

I read a lot of commentary about the incident.  There were some comments on the inconvenience it caused the general public.  There were a lot of comments on his aides and friends, basically biographical profiles.  Of course, there was commentary on the governor’s epic performance of contrition before the press.  But I didn’t see a lot of commentary on how this incident points out how truly warped our politics have become.

Politics have always had an underside.  We know that often times legislation comes at a price.  Sometimes it’s a compromise.  Other times it’s returning a favor for a vote.  Sometimes it’s really strong arm tactics; Lyndon Johnson was famous for that.  Political observers call the process of politics sausage making.

But since when has it become OK to indiscriminately put ordinary people into playing politics?  Most of us basically vote, maybe write a letter to the editor, and sit around talk about politics.  We may not like a political leader or a public policy.  We’ll gripe to each other, but we also slog through it to the next opportunity to vote.  We’re not supposed to be put through the sausage grinder.

Yet, that’s what’s happening.  Governments aren’t supposed to threaten to default on a nation’s credit rating.   Governments aren’t supposed to shutdown because one party wants to rescind what already was passed as law, especially when getting it rescinded has no chance of happening.   But we’ve seen this happen.  We saw it happen in the 90s when Newt Gingrich had a hissie fit for getting a seat on Air Force One in a rear cabin (he probably forgot that most people fly coach and have to pay for their trips).  Standard and Poor’s downgraded our credit rating in August 2011 when Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling.  Our government shutdown last October.

When politicians try to make a point through actions that jeopardize the public, they are subjecting the people who put them in office to the sausage grinder.  And it affects everyone without regard to party or to voting history.  When politicians do that they’ve lost sight of the people they serve.  It means we don’t matter.  What Christie’s aides and friends did was just another example of a callous disregard for the people they serve.  They turned politics from governance to blood sport.  They forgot they were public servants and saw their positions as personal entitlement.

When James and John asked Jesus if they could have positions of honor next to him, Jesus rebuked them.  Jesus said, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,   and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:43-44)  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this in his 1968 sermon The Drum Major Instinct in which he acknowledged that we have a desire to be recognized.  “We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”  He also warned that this desire to be the drum major can become destructive and can distort our personalities.  He said, “And then the final great tragedy of the distorted personality is the fact that when one fails to harness this instinct, he ends by trying to push others down in order to push himself up.  And whenever you do that, you engage in some of the most vicious activities.  You will spread evil, vicious, lying gossip on people, because you are trying to pull them down in order to push yourself up.”

He went on to say that this distortion led to our racial struggle and the struggle between nations as well.  And today, it is the struggle between our political parties and perhaps even between ourselves as we experience a fraying and coarsening of relationships between people of different political perspectives.

Have our politics descended to such a level that commentators don’t even see what happened in New Jersey as symptomatic of our collective sickness?

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2013 Christmas Eve Homily

This was my Christmas Eve homily for the second service.  I didn’t preach it for the first service, which was the Children’s Christmas pageant, although I served as vocal soloist for that one.

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2013
Pittsfield, MA

            Other than the first few years of my life, we had a real tree every Christmas.

            Getting the tree was fun. My dad would take my brother, sister, and me into town where the Lynbrook Lion’s Club sold trees to raise money.  We’d spend time looking at them and always wanted the tallest tree we could possibly get into the family room.  Somehow, we consistently chose trees that just scraped the ceiling.  My dad would lop off the excess.

            One year, I think it was 1964, we didn’t get a tree.  That was the first year of the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows.  My father’s college roommate, Stanley, got us the tree.  Uncle Stanley normally lived in Hawaii, but as he was the lead engineer for that state’s pavilion, he lived in the New York metro area for several months.

            Having Uncle Stanley in New York was fun.  First, he was Hawaiian, which was pretty exotic already.  He told us about his house in Honolulu and the mango tree he grew in his yard that produced too many mangoes.  Although he was stationed in New York, he regularly went home to spend time with his wife and sons.  Sometimes they came to New York.  Whenever he flew from Hawaii, we met him at the airport.  He always came back with a case of pineapples. I remember him telling us that one end of the pineapple is sweeter than the other.

            That year when we wanted to get a tree, my dad told us that Uncle Stanley was getting it for us.  We were pretty excited.

            I can’t remember if my siblings and I were home when the tree arrived.  But when we saw it, we were disappointed.  It was a live tree, one of those trees with the root ball wrapped in burlap.  The tree from the bottom of the root ball to the top couldn’t have been more than three feet.  My parents gave the tree some extra height by putting it on top of a small table, about the height of a coffee table.

            It was a beautiful tree.  It was well shaped and had good proportions.  It was full and dense with needles.  We didn’t hang ornaments on it as much as placed them on it.  I don’t think we put lights on it.

            Tree decorating took no time.  As for gifts under the tree?  Despite great proportions, the bottom branches were short.  We probably could have stacked all the presents around the tree to hide it.

            Still, we had a good Christmas.

            Days afterwards, my dad took the tree outside and planted it in a hole he dug.  By spring it had taken, and the tree was healthy.  Over the years it grew.  When my parents moved out of that house some thirty years later, the tree was taller than their two-story house.

            Christmas is that tree.  Though the angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth, who would have guessed that that baby boy would grow to become a teacher and a healer?  Who knew the potential in that baby lying in a manger?  Jesus would grow in stature.  Though he commanded a ragtag army, they didn’t carry weapons of war, and yet, his leadership challenged the Roman order.  Even with their mighty weaponry, they feared him so much that they executed him.  Among those who gathered in the stable that night, could anyone have known what he would become?

            Let’s not mark this night as the birth of Jesus.  Christmas is far larger than that.  Christmas is astonishing in that God came down to earth in order to share our common lot and to learn and live our suffering and pain.  God exchanged divinity for humanity.  God exchanged eternity for temporality.  God exchanged life for death.

            When we think of Christmas as the birth of Jesus, we see a little tree on a coffee table.  It’s pretty and it’s cute.  But we don’t see what Christmas can become if we let it grow in us to its full stature.

            Christmas is love and the affirmation of its transforming power.  It’s not about the right gift or the perfect Christmas dinner.  It’s not about the miracle stories of the dreams fulfilled we watch on the Hallmark channel all through December.  It’s about God’s presence in Jesus and how the world was transformed by his birth.  We celebrate Christmas because it is an annual reminder that the world does not have to be as it is.  Christmas stands for a time, not a day, when God’s reign of peace and justice rooted in love will prevail.  Christmas is a world where wealth is measured not by what we have, but what we can give away.  Christmas is a world where true transformation does not happen through weapons of destruction, but by sharing the bread and the cup.  Christmas reminds us that God’s creation, the gift given to us because we are loved, is one of abundance and that no one should know scarcity or deprivation.  Christmas comes when we remember and live with the faith that our personal welfare depends upon the well-being of all people.  And by our baptisms, we are called to live our lives in ways that will make Christmas not a day, but a way of life for all people.

            Richard Wilbur captured the essence of this night in this poem:

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave His kingdom come.

Yet He shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

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