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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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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