Advent Lighting Liturgy 2017

I’m late posting this, probably because I’m not preaching every week in Advent this year.  This liturgy uses the Isaiah texts for Year B, except on the fourth Sunday, which I used Romans.  You can use this liturgy for home or church.  If you do, please write or note the following:  Liturgy prepared by Quentin Chin.  Used by the author’s permission.

Advent Liturgy

Dec 3:  Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence– as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.  You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.  Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.

One:       We turn to face the past and see a world with gaping wounds.  Too many victims of mass violence.  Anger simmers in our communities.  Children suffer in poverty.  Opioids flood our streets.  We are lost.  We need the Almighty to tear open the heavens and come among us.  We need the sword of righteousness.  We need love’s healing balm.  We need God to lead us towards a new day.

Many:    The world we see, O God, is of our making.  When we are motivated by fear rather than love, believing in scarcity more than abundance, we lose our way.  Come among us and guide us from this world’s turmoil to your realm of peace and justice rooted in your steadfast love.  Amen.

Dec. 10:  Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

One:       Have we been watchful?  Have we listened carefully?  In the midst of bad news, there are signs of hope and glimmers of new possibilities leading us to God’s kingdom on earth.  This year researchers tested a new drug to fight ovarian cancer.  The civil war in Columbia ended.  Americans of all ages and political persuasions set aside their differences to marvel at a solar eclipse.  A court in Chicago extended civil rights to LGBTQ people.

Many:    Steadfast and loving One, though we may have difficulty seeing signs of your love and peace in our midst, you do not fail us.  Nothing shall stand in the way of your coming.  We have nothing to fear.  May we not wither like the grass or fade like the flower, but stand fast and proclaim your power and glory in this world.  Amen.

Dec. 17:  Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.  They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.  Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.  I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

One:       By our baptisms, God calls us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.  We shall with God’s guidance and help rebuild the ancient ruins, raise up the devastation, and repair our communities.   The Holy Spirit, which is in each of us, gives us strength and courage to exceed our limitations and in so doing make plain the good news to come.

Many:    O God, lover of justice and purveyor of peace, let the struggles we see in our community and the world prod us to be your instruments of peace.  May we be inspired by love to serve as your hands and feet in order to hasten the new day when your peace and your justice will prevail.  Amen.

 Dec 24 (morning):  Romans 16:25-27

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith–to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

One:       The new day is almost here.  We can hasten that day when we serve God as Jesus demanded of us.  Peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive love will prevail.  Fear will be banished.  Scarcity and deprivation will be no more.  Hope will spring forth.  Be strengthened in Spirit.

Many:    O God, we will be your instruments of grace.  We will bring hope to the poor.  We will be stewards of your Creation.  We will be your servant leaders.  By your Spirit give us strength.  By your Spirit give us courage.  May your Spirit move us to action.  Lead us on righteous paths so that we do not stray.  Amen.

Dec. 24 (Christmas):  Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined.  You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

One:       Christ has come again.  Though peace and justice for all is not yet, we know that God has been working to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.  Such work cannot be done without the Holy Spirit moving in us and through us.  Progress has been made and progress will continue.

Many     God of peace, we are awed that you came to us on a night long ago to share our common lot, to proclaim the captives free, and make the lame leap for joy.  We give thanks for your presence in our lives.  In celebration of your presence in our world tonight, we promise to be your hands and feet to continue the ministry Jesus began so that the darkness of this world will be dispelled forever.  Amen.

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Two World Views

I preached this sermon on Sunday in North Adams, MA. It was based upon the morning’s gospel reading Matthew 22:15-22. I also made slight allusions to the morning’s psalter, Psalm 96.

Jesus’ answer to the tax question was laden with more meaning than appeared in that moment. His clever answer allowed him to evade arrest. It also encapsulated his intentions of an entire week. This exchange took place between his entry into Jerusalem the day before and his execution on a cross four days later.

Jesus came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. He also directly challenged the Roman Empire. It was a confrontation between two visions for the world. One vision was ruled by Caesar, which we know as the Empire. The other vision was ruled by God, also known as the realm of God, the kingdom of God, heaven on earth.

Jesus’ answer, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” distilled his ministry and his intention. The Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to arrest him. Jesus was too much trouble. He disrupted Roman peace. He agitated for the people, especially those who were poor or otherwise unable to share in the Empire’s wealth because the political and economic structures were organized against them.

Jesus’ death on a cross was a moment of triumph for the Empire. Crucifixion, execution on a cross, was a punishment meant to humiliate and literally break the criminal in order to demonstrate the state’s power. It was reserved for people who the state believed posed a threat. By executing Jesus, the state believed they put down the insurrection they feared. It was the apex of the Empire’s power.

As it was the apex, it also was the beginning of Empire’s end. When Jesus rose from the dead, the finality the Roman authorities believed they had on that Friday was demolished. The New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright wrote in his most recent book The Day the Revolution Began, “The death of Jesus launched the revolution; it got rid of the roadblock between the divine promises and the nations for whom they were intended. And it opened the way for the Spirit to be poured out to equip God’s people for their task.” In other words the ways of the Empire were over, albeit its death took hundreds of years, and was a call to God’s people to bring about peace and justice rooted in love.

The first century Palestinians did not see Jesus’ death as their path to eternal life. Jesus’ death signaled their liberation from a daily life where fear maintained peace and where scarcity organized its economy. Jesus’ death was a rejection of the wealthy increasing their wealth at the expense of the poor. Jesus’ death was the affirmation that love transforms the world and secures true peace not weapons of destruction. Jesus’ death meant that the justice for all people was not some dream, but could be a reality.

We cannot ignore, however, that Christianity is truly strange. The gospel, the good news, is the world overturned. The ways of this world are contrary to the ways of the kingdom of God. Think of it this way. How truly weird it is that we follow a God who was tortured, humiliated, and left to die in a most hideous execution? No other religion began in this manner.

I think we forget this. Whereas in Jesus’ day if we walked along the roads, we would see crosses on the hills. Some were empty. Some had bodies. The state invoked fear with those crosses to keep the peace. Today, we’ve tamed the cross; we wear it as jewelry.

Jesus’ answer then remains relevant today, perhaps even more than in first century Palestine. We need to see the cross for what it was, a brutal instrument of torture which became a sign of hope that another world is possible. Doing so becomes the opening to understanding that peace and justice rooted in radical inclusive love is real.

That’s what has sustained me over the past several months as I’ve thought about the world in which we live. I don’t want to convey that I’m depressed and without hope, but am I alone in thinking that something is really wrong in this nation? How is it that a gunman can spray bullets from a hotel window into a crowd without outrage from political leadership? Why is it that in the richest nation in the history of the world we tolerate more than 20% of our children living in poverty? What does it say about a nation where people hold a spaghetti supper fund raiser to pay for cancer treatments? Where else do we see political leadership pressing for tax relief for the very rich while the disparity between rich and poor grows wider every year? And it’s not just political. Is there logic to our celebrity culture where people, like the Kardashians, are famous for being famous? What drives the increased hostility towards Muslims and people of color and immigrants? Then, I think of opioid consumption. According to a United Nations study in 2015 our daily  consumption per 1,000,000 people, the United States consumes 50,000 doses, whereas the second highest nation, Canada, consumes just over 30,000 doses. Maybe we are truly sick?

If there is a time when we need the ways of God, it’s now. We need that illogical, upside world of the gospel. We need to end our fears and put our faith in love remembering that perfect love casts out fear. We need to remember that God’s creation is abundance not scarcity. We need to trust that the bread and cup will do more to transform this world than a stockpile of weapons of violence and destruction. We must strive to create the common good. We must turn our inward gaze outward to end our self-centeredness. We have to stop celebrating wealth and power and embrace servanthood as true leadership. We can’t continue to measure wealth by how much we have. The cross tell us that we measure it by how much we give away.

In this world we hear a siren’s song. It beckons us. It is sweet music sung with voices caressing every note. Its words are promises, but they are false promises. They are promises for material riches and fame as the path to glory. They are promises that enable us to deny aging. They are promises that elixirs will relieve our ailments and suffering. They are promises that celebrate external beauty as our path to upward mobility. They are promises that we can remake ourselves because we’re not good enough as we are. They are promises that we have nothing to fear as we will be protected by the power and might of the state. They are promises that shield us from our mortality. It is a loud song that with its beauty overwhelms and intoxicates our senses. However, the promises in this song can disappear in an instant.

God sings too. Though an old song, today it may sound new. Though not quite as loud, it is the epitome of simple beauty. It is a quiet song with words reminding us to live generously and always giving thanks. It is a song about love’s transforming power and reassures us to trust love, especially in times of fear. It teaches us that the rewards for today may be greater if we wait until tomorrow. It promises that we don’t suffer alone and that our suffering can be redemptive. It promises that by our aging we grow wiser. It promises that we are fine just the way we are. It promises forgiveness. It promises eternal life. God sings a song of promise. Those promises are eternal and will give us the eternal peace and justice rooted in radical inclusive love that we all seek. Those promises are real.

We must listen for God’s song. We must follow it. We must learn it so we can sing it too. We will learn it in the church. We will learn it so we can sing it in the streets. We will sing it in places where hope is in short supply. We’ll sing it where our community needs a healing balm. We’ll sing it to tear down the walls of injustice. We’ll sing it because the world needs to hear a song of shalom. Friends, here in the church we sing this song. Let us sing this song together.

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An Opening to Healing

I covered the  pulpit yesterday for a friend.  This is the sermon I preached using the texts from Isaiah 25:1-9 and Matthew 22:1-14.

I serve Soldier On, a transitional shelter program for homeless veterans, as one of its chaplains.  Serving homeless veterans has its rewards and challenges.  Moving someone from homelessness to independent living is tremendously rewarding.  That’s especially true when many of the veterans we serve became homeless due to an addiction, typically to alcohol or drugs or both, and some may even have mental illness.  But that’s also the challenge.

Consider Gary.  Gary is a composite of many veterans I serve.

Gary is in his mid-60s.  He served two tours in Vietnam evacuating bodies of soldiers killed or wounded in battle.  When he came home he got married.  He has a couple of children, who are adults now.  We can trace his alcoholism to his combat history from which he suffers PTSD and moral injury.  Alcoholism destroyed his marriage, which lasted only a few years.  His wife left with his children.

Gary also had a harrowing childhood.  He was the middle child of three.  Their alcoholic father beat them.  Their mother couldn’t protect them as she was an alcoholic, too.  They got some relief during those occasional months when Dad spent time in jail.  Sometimes Mom had to put them in an orphanage.  Their life was chaotic.  After the family moved for the fifth time, Gary stopped counting them.  The moves became too disruptive for the children’s education.  Gary never finished high school.

He hasn’t seen his brother in ten years, but he last spoke to him by phone about three years ago.  He hasn’t seen or talked to his sister in twelve years.  He lost track of his wife.  He hasn’t spoken with either of his children in at least twenty years.  When asked where they might be, he said, “I don’t know. Texas, I think.”

An alcoholic’s estrangement from family is not uncommon. It’s similar to people addicted to drugs, whether cocaine or opioids or any sort of mind-altering substance.  They don’t have to be in their 60s, either.  Some years ago I met a woman in her late 40s whose family lived in Alford.  They kicked her out due to her drug addiction.

It’s not that an addict is despised or hated by their family.  Caring for an addict is exhausting.  Your heart breaks when they are heavily drugged or drunk.  You stop trusting them because they’ve lied too often to cover up their addiction or they’ve promised to stop only to relapse again and again.  You worry financially because you keep giving them money to live after every job they lose or even worse stealing from you to support their habit.  You’re tired of running to the emergency room or having to deal with another DWI at all hours of the night.

The woman whose family kicked her out shared some of her story with me.  She said they couldn’t keep her home any more.  She was out of control and the family feared that she would suck them into her vortex.  The emotional roller coaster for them was too much.  They stopped taking her back for their own protection.  She had to leave.  And she had no desire to go back to them, either.

The addict is the odd man out in Jesus’ parable.  The family has no problem welcoming people to their table, but the addicted family member no longer fits.  Still the family doesn’t necessarily stop loving them.  However, the history of hurt and disappointment and betrayal makes their relationship tenuous, brittle, or even non-existent.

Stories like Gary’s or the woman’s are terribly sad, especially to people who have stable and reasonably intact families.  When I tell people stories like these, many are almost in disbelief.  Losing a family member in such a manner is unimaginable.

So, a question, and an embarrassing one at that.  With the opioid epidemic we have in Berkshire County as well around 20% of the county having an excessive alcohol problem,[1] why is it that a sizeable majority of our churches don’t seem to have many families, if any, who have a family member struggling with some sort of addiction?

I’ve served three congregations in Berkshire County in three different denominations.  Not once has someone stood up during joys and concerns and said, “I need help with my addiction.”  Not once has someone stood up and said, “Our daughter is struggling with addiction and we are at the end of our rope.” Oddly, though, some people have informed their friends in the congregation, such as with the choir, that their son or daughter is struggling with addiction so it is an open secret.  They’ve even shared it with me in confidence.  But we act like addiction is “out there,” not “in here.”

Is it shame? Vulnerability?  Does fear keep addiction in our congregations hidden?  Or maybe as a Christian community to admit that an addict is a member of the congregation or that a family struggles with a member who is an addict is a sign of our failure as Christians to live a Christian life?

Let’s be real.  If everyone were perfect, we’d have no need for the church.  If there is any place where an addict or the addict’s family can be loved, held, and cared for, it is the Church.  When we make clear that we will share the struggles and sadness of addiction we destroy the accompanying shroud of secrets and shame.  We can work with addiction when we’re honest, open, and willing.

This does not mean that we will end the addiction because few of us have all the skills and knowledge to do that.  Ending addiction takes professionals.  Even at Soldier On we will place people in addiction treatment programs when an individual’s case is too much for us.  Even then, sometimes an addict has to go to more than one treatment program before finally ending their addiction.

Our task as the church is to support the addict and the family.  We begin by accepting that addiction is not a sign of weakness or a failing, but a disease.  We have to understand the nature of alcoholism and drug addiction, which may entail sponsoring community programs about addiction if only to edify ourselves. We need to acknowledge that addiction is not a function of race or class.  Today a substantial percentage of opioid addicts are not poor or people of color, but are middle class and white.  They’re addicted because they need the opioid after their prescribed pain medication script ran out.  As for veterans, many became addicted because their combat experience upended their moral universe.  This is known as moral injury and is not limited to people who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.  We need to remind them that they are indeed loved and worthy of compassion and grace through our clear demonstrations which must go beyond words and platitudes.  We have to bring ourselves to listen to their stories.  Sometimes those stories are really very hard and emotionally draining, but isn’t that what we’re called to do as Christ’s disciples?  Furthermore, if people we know and love can’t share their burdens with us, then we should ask ourselves why.

Addiction is a health crisis.  It destroys lives.  It destroys families.  It places a terrible economic burden upon our community, our commonwealth, and our nation.  They can be poor health outcomes, the cost of incarceration, the damage it causes within families and neighborhoods, and increased demands for government support programs.

Though we won’t end addiction by ourselves nor can we come close to covering its costs, the church has a role.  We can support families struggling with addiction, both the addict and those burdened by the addict.  When we do that we are saying, “You don’t have to carry this burden by yourself.  We do not believe you have failed, but you have a disease from which we want to see you recover.”  We can listen to stories, especially the difficult and painful ones.  In so doing, we say, “We truly care, and with the Holy Spirit we have the strength to sit with you in your pain because we love you.”  We can begin with ourselves to teach people about addiction so that as a community we can take a proactive role to help people step away from behaviors that might lead to addiction and to provide community resources where once they are addicted, they can get the help they need.

We are the Church, the body of Christ.  Our table is long enough and wide enough to provide the rich food and well-aged wines strained clear to all people.  Some may come to the table dressed appropriately, others less so.  And some hardly at all.  But even if we send the addict away, addiction still affects us.  Isn’t it much better to keep the addict at the table where we can all share in their care, where they are fed and, most importantly, a have a chance to get well because they are loved?

[1] Berkshire Health Systems.  https://www.berkshirehealthsystems.org/documents/Health%20Needs%20Assessment/Berkshire%20County%20Health%20Needs%20Assement%20REVISED%20Nov%202015.pdf  2015 Page 27

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DACA – Anger and Sadness

The president rescinded DACA today.

I will agree with one thing.  DACA could not indefinitely stand as an executive order.  It needed passage by Congress.

However, Obama signed the executive order because Congress, specifically the House, could not pass any immigration reform.  Just to refresh our memory, the Senate passed a bi-partisan agreement on immigration reform with support from the White House.  It could not pass the House because too many Republicans opposed it.

Compassion for the children of undocumented immigrants who came with their parents and grew up in this country was the right thing to do.  How do you live with uncertainty hanging over your head every day?  Your life is on hold.  By ensuring their ability to remain in the United States, these children could live, attend school, and work in this country.

Returning “dreamers” to their country of origin is heartless as they have developed deep roots in this country.  They have absorbed American culture.  Their connection to their country of origin is tenuous at best.  Going back would leave them adrift.

Deporting the dreamers would render a huge economic hit in this country.  The Cato Institute (not one I would cite often, but heck, why not use a libertarian think tank’s data when it works) estimated deporting dreamers would cost $60 billion to the federal government and would result in a $280 billion economic reduction in economic activity over a decade.

A different angle, which is really demographically wonky.  The age distribution in the United States skews older.  In other words we are an aging nation and over the next couple of decades will have fewer people supporting older people.  An aged population will drag down the economy.  We need young people and dreamers who are part of that demographic cohort to maintain economic vitality and sociological health.

I was in the car a lot today and had a lot of time to think about this.  Though there are Republicans and Democrats who oppose rescinding DACA, there remain many, mostly Republicans, who support the president.  Though it sounds compassionate to give Congress six months before moving to formal deportation, it’s really cynical.

First, there remains plenty of opposition in the GOP caucus to DACA.  If the House considers legislation in the manner it has been doing since Dennis Hastert was Speaker of the House, there is no incentive to pass this legislation.  (The Hastert rule required that a majority of the GOP’s caucus must vote in favor of the legislation before it can go to the full House.) By not passing it (as in doing nothing), those who oppose it get what they’ve wanted all along.  The only way it passes is for the House leadership to work across the aisle with Democrats and freeze out GOP members who oppose it.

Second, the aggressive anti-immigration sentiment in this administration makes me worried about other family members.  Even if Congress passes legislation to keep the dreamers in the United States, would Immigration go after their parents or other family members?  After all, the dreamers registered with all their information.

Despite the pending lawsuit filed by some GOP state attorneys general against DACA, the president could have chosen to press Congress for legislation while renewing it.  Of course AG Sessions would have been opposed, but the president could still have ordered the Justice Department to defend it.

This was heartless.

This announcement continues to diminish the aspirations and ideals for which this country stands.  Our greatness came from an ethos that (as imperfect as it was) sought to welcome people needing a place where they could live out their dreams and seek to fulfill their potential.  We were a country that offered refuge from turmoil and violence.  We were a country where hope burned brightly.

No more.

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Charlottesville and Three Lectionary Readings

I’ve been thinking how to express the emotional turmoil in me regarding Charlottesville.  I initially thought that I could write something combining lectionary readings from August 6 (Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob wrestling with the unnamed man) and August 13 (Matthew 14:22-33, Jesus walking on water).

I would have written that Charlottesville should force us to confront racism’s poison and how it permeates so much of our life as community.  We need to do more than have conversations on race.  We need to wrestle with racism’s affect on incarceration, economic policy, gun laws, healthcare, public education, and … well you may get the idea… racism touches almost every part of our public institutions and practices.

Reflecting on the images from Charlottesville, I would have added that we cannot succumb to fear.  We cannot let our innate primal response freeze, flee, or fight seize us.  Rather, we have to hold fast to the teachings of Jesus:  gratitude, generosity, tolerance, justice, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and love. Those bind us together as a healthy community and give us resilience when we must face trials that sometimes present existential challenges.

However, based upon the reports of Tuesday’s press conference in which the president voiced his support for the alt-right, white supremacists, and white nationalists I am stunned and shocked.  Not that he surprised me.  His tepid response on Saturday signaled his position.  Rather, he had no hesitation to display his support for them.

The president wrote off every person of color.  He dismissed the faith of non-Christians and ignored the history of antisemitism.  He denied the humanity of every LGBTQ person. He relegated women to a second class status.  He openly embraced white, overwhelmingly male, conservative Christians and validated their grievances rooted in white privilege and Christendom.

By his statement, as a person of color, I have no legitimate standing in this country, despite being born here.

August 15 will be a stain upon our history.  On this day a President of the United States openly endorsed hate.  He accepted and validated the repugnant evil of Nazism.

In one sense I’m fortunate.  I’m one of tens of millions of people whose relationship with Trump is that he is our nation’s president.  I can continue to oppose his positions and denounce his leadership.  I believe those who serve the president as his appointees and serve as government officials have a different dilemma.  My question to them:  “How can you keep your personal integrity and still serve this president?”  I specifically ask the vice-president, “Do your Christian values allow you to remain in office?”  My question to the White House staff and the cabinet, “Do you believe Trump is fit to continue serving as president?”  My question especially to the GOP: “Have you had enough?  Are you going to remain at this president’s side to pursue your agenda and in the process wear the spreading stain or will you finally take strong steps to rebuke the president publicly and collectively?”

When demonstrators appear in public brandishing swastikas, Confederate flags, and assault rifles, they are not peaceful protesters.  Those symbols intentionally provoke anger and fear.  They provoke violent reactions.

One of the conference ministers from the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Kelly Gallagher, was in Charlottesville and wrote a blog post bearing witness to the event.  It was passionate, frightening, powerful, and sad.  Clearly, though, some of the demonstrators who gathered to protest taking down the Robert E. Lee statue were seeking to provoke the counter-demonstrators.  Rev. Gallagher wrote, “While there were those protesting the White Supremacists who were not committed to non-violence, the violence began when one of the hate groups intentionally plowed through the group of clergy as we stood on the steps of the park. There were many ways around us – we were a small, unarmed group and they had guns, shields and sticks. But they chose intentionally to climb the steps and push through our group. This was without provocation and without thought to another way. Other groups moved forward to protect us before that could happen again.”

The president was wrong.  He was wrong for his false equivalence.  He was wrong for endorsing white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis.

When I read the news early yesterday evening, the first thing I said was, “He’s toast.”  Though damaging, it will take a majority of the cabinet to determine that he is unfit for office or the majority of the House to impeach him and two-thirds of the Senate to convict him in order for him to be removed from office.  Despite his statement, I don’t think either of these will happen.  However, whatever he says or proposes from now on has to be viewed with suspicion and skepticism.  We can (or at least me) no longer believe he will act on behalf of all people in this nation as yesterday peeled away the thin veneer which covered his racist views which he publicly displayed for years as he led the overtly racist birther movement against President Obama.

Ironically, this Sunday’s lesson from the gospel is Matthew 15:10-28.  I can’t ignore a part of that lesson in which Jesus said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (18-20)

 

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Graduation: Expense or Investment?

Today I attended the graduation of eight men (plus one who was already released) who took a course offered by Berkshire Community College at the Berkshire County House of Corrections.  They learned about landscaping.  I was one of the instructors; I taught workforce ethics.

This was the sixth year for this program.  It’s run from late winter into the spring.  I met with the men for 90 minutes weekly.  I’ve taught in this program since its inception.

The course is funded by a grant.  It’s about $15000.  It costs over $40000 a year to house an inmate.  It’s my understanding that typically 70-75% of inmates return to jail.  However, this program reduced recidivism among its participants to about 20%.  Do the math.  The savings is enormous.  Savings are even more dramatic when we consider that the inmates who don’t return will not be an ongoing cost to the state and will begin working and paying taxes.  (I can’t tell you how good I feel when I see former students working in the community.)

I think of this program a lot because it illustrates the value it has for the state.  It leverages ten times its cost in savings.  It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.

Today as we look at the proposed budget the Trump administration sent to Congress with its drastic cuts, it’s clear to me that this budget views social programs as expenses.  Thus, as an expense, cutting is easy.

But if we understand social programs as investments, doesn’t that change our perception?  When we adequately fund education from pre-school through post-secondary, what will be the return a generation from now?  When we fund SNAP (aka food stamps) so children can have access to nutritious food, that helps to ensure they will have good physical and mental development.

Social programs are investments, which will not show returns next year or the year after.  We will see them a generation from now.  We’ll see those returns when we spend less money to house inmates or reduced long term health care costs as physical and mental health improve.  As an investment, imagining a more vigorous and robust economy with lots of creative and educated workers is not a stretch.

One of the men spoke at today’s graduation ceremony.  He was truly thankful for the opportunity to take this course.  He spoke about the mistakes he made in his life which got him incarcerated.  He went on to say that this course truly makes the Berkshire County House of Corrections a place where people can actually correct their mistakes.

 

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Stop this Madness

Trump exposed the GOP.

Jason Chaffetz, chair of the House Oversight Committee, asked for “memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings” pertaining to discussions between Trump and Comey.  It’s a start.

The GOP’s indignation over the president’s conduct has been imperceptible.  The party leadership was noticeably silent after Michael Flynn had to resign due to his Russian ties.  The party hardly made a peep when the president fired Comey.  They started to grumble when the Washington Post published its article that the president revealed intelligence to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister that had limited dissemination within our own intelligence establishment.  I guess we should be relieved that GOP party members have become “troubled.”

The New York Times reported last week that former national intelligence advisor James Clapper warned that the United States government is under assault from Russia and President Trump.

This is a serious charge.  This came before the president gave the Russian officials intelligence on ISIS.  But, no investigation.  No outrage.

The GOP was outraged in 1998 when it brought charges of impeachment against President Clinton.  Yes, oral sex with an intern was wrong.  Was it a threat to this nation’s institutions?  Did it threaten our intelligence relationships with other countries?  Did it demoralize our nation’s intelligence community?  Was it even close to what Trump has done, divulge intelligence secrets and obstruct a federal investigation over Russian interference with our election process?

The GOP could draw up articles of impeachment, but that’s my fantasy which many liberals share.  However, the GOP could censure the president.  Or even send a delegation of senior GOP leaders, none of whom currently hold office in the Senate or House, to tell the president that his conduct diminishes the presidency and this nation’s international standing.

Trump has exposed the GOP to be party that loves itself more than the nation.  The GOP is a party that loves power more than it loves governing.  (And I can’t not put this in)  Whereas God shows a preference for the poor, the GOP turns that on its head and shows a preference for the rich.

Seven years ago Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein published a book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:  How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of ExtremismThey observed then that the GOP is more loyal to party than to the nation.  They have declared a war on government.

Their hands-off attitude towards Trump makes that abundantly clear.

The longer the GOP stalls and refuses to take its head out of the sand, the easier it will be for the Democrats along with the media to attach the party and the president together.

Although I truly find the GOP positions on the economy, race, climate change, and just about any other major topic really appalling, my concern is more about the institutional damage that has already been incurred.

The other day I read something about the percentage of Americans who trusted the government.  Prior to Vietnam and Watergate about 77% of the public trusted the government.  Since then the trend has been steadily downward.  Today it is about 20%.

We really can’t afford for this trust to fall further.  It will, however, if the GOP refuses to accept its responsibility to put this nation’s welfare over party dominance.  They must stop delegitimizing Democrats and start seeing them as partners in governance.  Certainly, though, the party leadership cannot not do anything.

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100 Days – Sad

The first 100 days of the new administration was a demonstration of breathtaking incompetence.  President Trump’s lies, racism, personal attacks, ethical failings and just plain meanness made clear that this president is truly unfit for office.  The travel ban targeting Muslims from countries in the Middle East, except where Trump has business interests, was, thankfully, a failure (twice). He, then, personally attacked the judges who ruled against him.  Trump’s accusation that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower was a blatant falsehood.  Whisking foreign dignitaries to his Florida club gave him free advertising.  This is only the beginning of a long list.

The administration got the GOP-controlled Congress to roll back many of Obama’s achievements, thus setting back this nation’s progress, especially in addressing environmental concerns.  The president insulted the Australian Prime Minister Turnbull and appeared as a petulant child when he met German Chancellor Merkel.  He showed his ignorance when he lamented that reforming health care was harder than he thought and when the Chinese President Xi Jinping had to teach him about currency manipulation.

Other than the Gorsuch nomination, which due to Sen. McConnell’s bald-faced political ploy made his confirmation easy, the administration has not put through any legislation to move its campaign initiatives forward.  The administration has made no progress on infrastructure spending, tax reform, and the wall.  Its repeal of ACA was failure because the bill was terrible beyond comprehension.

I should be pleased that this administration is staggeringly incompetent.  In some way I am.  However, as I reflect upon the first 100 days, I’m sad and dismayed.

Imagine for a moment that Clinton won.  The first 100 days of a Clinton administration with this GOP-controlled Congress would have been a series of hearings by several committees in both the House and the Senate.  The Washington Post reported Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz’s pledge in October, “‘It’s a target-rich environment,’ the Republican said in an interview in Salt Lake City’s suburbs. ‘Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.’”

Though Clinton would not have worked to roll back Obama’s achievements and would not have tried to repeal ACA, its initiatives would be stymied by Congress’ desire to investigate Clinton from day one.  Nothing would be done.  Nothing would address the deep problems we have a nation.  Nothing would respond to the frustration millions of people have over their lack of economic security and their shattered hopes and dreams due to global economic forces and automation.

Sad, isn’t it?

Our government is dysfunctional and I don’t see that change anytime soon.

 

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Good Friday Homily

I know I’ve been a slacker.  I’ve had all sorts of pieces I’ve wanted to post.  Alas, free time has been elusive.

This is my homily for today’s Good Friday service.  The service’s centerpiece is a dramatic reading of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion rendered in John’s gospel.  The passion narrative is broken into scenes followed by short reflections.  I wrote the following for John 18:1-12:

The soldiers and the police came with weapons to arrest Jesus.  Didn’t they know Jesus was not a person who would carry weapons?  Why didn’t Judas tell them that Jesus was unarmed and that their weapons were not necessary?  Or did he?

By showing up with weapons, the state, the Empire, displayed its power and might.  What did they think Jesus would do?  What could one man, especially a man who taught people to eschew the traditional trappings of power for servanthood, do in the face of overwhelming odds?

But that was the Empire wasn’t it?  The Empire readily flexed its muscles to prove its might regardless of its opposition.  Rome was good at that.  Rome enforced peace through weapons, through crucifixes, through instruments of destruction and didn’t hesitate to use them.   They protected the Empire’s values.  They instilled an underlying fear among the populace.  It was that fear that kept the peace.

Jesus’ message subverted and undermined that peace. The peace Jesus preached and taught was based upon profound, radical, inclusive love.  The authorities had to stop that message because it would de-legitimize the Empire’s organizing principle where value was measured by wealth and power.  They could not let themselves be exposed because organizing society around wealth and power was a fiction.  It could not be sustained because it required a staggering and ever increasing supply of material resources to maintain it.   Let weapons of destruction preserve and protect wealth and power.  Distract the people through shows of force, such as the parade that accompanied Pilate into Jerusalem earlier in the week.  Keep people from asking questions and when the challenges get too close to the truth, quash it however possible with those instruments of destruction.

Jesus’ message of a world based not upon material resources but based upon love promised to create a world that would be sustainable.  Love is inexhaustible because love comes from God.  Love not fear will transform the world.  Fear comes from scarcity.  Love comes from abundance.

Jesus spoke truth to power.  His entry into Jerusalem earlier that week showed the power of that truth.  He gave people without wealth and power hope.  He promised them their freedom from oppression.  He promised that the way of Caesar would fall and then give rise to the way of God.  He promised that the world in which they lived in that moment would be no more.  It would be a world where all would have their daily bread.  It would be a world where the last would be first and the rich would be sent away empty.  It would be a world where justice rooted in love, not the whims of the emperor, would prevail and that all will have peace, shalom, the wholeness of life.

Rome had plenty of evidence on Jesus.  He was arrested because he threatened Caesar’s way.  The authorities had to protect the empire because their livelihoods, their existences depended upon it.  They could not let him continue.

When we look at our nation today with its vast chasm between those at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom… when we see a nation that spends more on weapons of destruction than the economic dignity of its people… when we see a nation organized around the values of wealth and power … when we see a nation that extends its military presence around the globe … aren’t we the empire today?

Is there enough evidence for the authorities to arrest you?

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Ash Wednesday Communion Liturgy

I will be presiding over the communion table for an ecumenical Ash Wednesday service.  We did this service several years ago when I was at the Baptist church.  We included clergy from the United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, United Methodist Church.  This year clergy from the Episcopal Church will join us.

The original text for the communion liturgy was from Words for Worship 2017 by Augsburg Fortress.  I took the basic outline of the liturgy, which had a nice touch by including the beginning of the third verse from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the Words of Institution and then reworked it to emphasize the Holy Spirit, which is in the opening prayer of this service.

I also wanted to make the Words of Institution more interactive with the congregation, so at the breaking of the bread and the pouring out of the wine, I’m asking the congregation to supply the words (after some gentle prompting).  Finally, as this service seeks to be inclusive, I chose a version of the Lord’s Prayer found in A New Zealand Prayer Book (Harper Collins 1999.  Originally published by The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia 1989)

The Sanctus is sung.  If you use this liturgy, choose a Sanctus as there are many settings.

Here’s the liturgy:

Invitation

Come to this table if you are alone.  Come to this table if you grieve.  Come to this table if you seek to be healed.  Come to this table if you seek peace.  Come to this table if you yearn to be free.

Friends, this is not an Episcopal table. It is not a Lutheran or a Methodist table.  It is not a table for Reformed Protestants and it is not a table for Catholics.  This is God’s table.  This is the celestial banquet rooted in God’s love.  Everyone has a place at this table.  Everyone is welcome.

Communion Prayer

God be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them to God.
Let us give thanks to God Most High.
It is right to give God thanks and praise.
Indeed it is right in all times and places to give God thanks and praise. We give thanks for the gift and bounty of creation which began when God’s breath blew over the waters.  We give thanks for the breath of life, which animates us and instills in us the power to pursue justice in this world for all people and all creation.  Though our forebears were enslaved and oppressed, God drove a strong wind to make the waters stand like walls and then led them to freedom.  We remember that after Judah’s exile in Babylon, God set in our ancestors a new spirit and changed their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.  We give thanks that God came in Jesus to live among us and to share our common lot.  Jesus’ teachings and ministry threatened the powerful authorities, which led them to execute him on a Roman cross. After three days in the tomb, Jesus slipped death’s shackles and that evening breathed upon his disciples saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  He went on to minister and teach until his final ascension to rule with God and the Holy Spirit.  Gifted by the Holy Spirit, we join the choir of angels and the great cloud of witnesses to sing the ancient hymn:

Sanctus

Words of Institution

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
You have brought us this far along the way.
As we begin our journey to the cross we know You will not abandon us.
You will guide us on the path of love and light
You will instill in us the power and courage to proclaim you peace and justice through our ministries of healing and grace.
We come to this table remembering his final meal, which he shared with his disciples.  As they shared memories of their ministry throughout Galilee with him and the days in Jerusalem leading up to that night ….

By eating this bread and drinking this fruit of the vine, we boldly proclaim:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Consecration

Send your Holy Spirit, O God, upon this bread and this fruit of the vine.  By this meal, make us one as the body of Christ, your church.  Give us strength for the journey before us.  Instill in us courage to proclaim through our ministries your peace and your justice rooted in steadfast love for all people and all Creation.  We ask this with this prayer:
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:  The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!  Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.  In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.  In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.  From trials too great to endure, spare us.  From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever.  Amen.

Sharing the Feast

Unison Prayer of Thanksgiving

Most gracious and generous God, we give you thanks for gathering this community from many faith traditions to share this sacred meal.  Thank you for nourishing us as we prepare to begin our journey to the cross.  We pray that your Spirit will strengthen us and embolden us to proclaim through our ministries that love trumps fear and that shadowed beneath your hand we will stand true to you and true to our native land.  Amen.

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