Who’s in the Road? Who are the Robbers?

I wrote this in the wake of the events this past week. This is my sermon delivered in Dalton, MA today, July 10. I used the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

The events this past week:
• Alton Sterling was shot early Tuesday morning in Baton Rouge, LA. The viral videos show him being tackled by police and while pinned to the ground a police officer discharged his weapon.
• Philando Castile was shot on Wednesday evening by a police officer after being pulled over for a broken taillight while driving in Falcon Heights, MN. According to his girlfriend, who narrated a riveting video immediately after the shooting, he was shot while getting his wallet as requested by the officer.
• Five police officers were shot dead and seven officers were wounded along with two civilians by a sniper in Dallas, TX who opened fire on Thursday evening during a peaceful demonstration, a demonstration planned and coordinated with the Dallas police and its organizers.

Any one of these is stunningly horrible and should never have happened. Any one of these warrants a sermon. But three?

I’m not going to dwell on the Samaritan today. Rather, my questions are two-fold. Whose bloody body laid on the Jericho road? Who were the robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away? This crime was a gross violation of this man’s dignity and demonstrated a flagrant contempt of his life.

As I think about this parable and the way we typically treat it, we really don’t care about the victim. Jesus made him a plot prop to contrast the compassion between the Samaritan and the priest and the Levite. We focus on the Samaritan noting that his compassion was unexpected because it belied the prejudiced impression of Samaritans. Some commentators will make observations about the innkeeper. But the victim? We don’t even know if he recovered.

Other than knowing the perpetrators of this awful crime were robbers, we don’t know anything else. We don’t know how many they were. We don’t know their motive. We don’t know their history or their associations. We don’t know if they focused their attacks on people traveling the Jericho road or if they roamed the countryside. We don’t know if they even got something from the victim.

We can give the victim an identity, though. He is Alton Sterling. He is Philando Castile. He is Brent Thomas. He is Patrick Zamarippa. He is Lorne Ahrens. He is Michael Krol. He is Michael Smith.

These, men, civilians and officers, however were not the only victims to fall on the Jericho road. He is the victims of Orlando. The victims of San Bernadino. The victims of Charleston. The victims of Oak Creek. The victims of Newtown. The victims whom we’ve forgotten because too many people have violently died unnecessarily. They were left to die because we’ve done nothing to stop it.

A part of us, a community, was beaten and left for dead too. What is it that has beaten and bloodied us as a community? We see too many shootings and hear too many stories of senseless violence. Language that demonizes people of color or casts out immigrants or diminishes women and unjustly assigns criminal labels on people whose sexuality doesn’t conform to a traditional binary image has become commonplace. Somewhere our political culture lost sight of its responsibility to care for people who cannot care for themselves. We’ve written off people with mental illness and those who have no place to live, forgetting that the Son of Man was homeless, too.

Seven men died unnecessarily in public last week. They died violent deaths. And we helplessly wring our hands. We don’t know what to do. We’re scared because this is more than tragic. These deaths are a sign that something is really, really wrong and it goes way deeper than lax gun laws. Have we reached a point where we no longer value lives, especially those who are not like us? Has life become cheap? Are we the Levite or the priest whose lack of compassion and mercy allowed them to walk on the other side of the road?

We know the robbers. Racism. Greed. Individualism. Fear. Envy. Anger. Injustice. Self-righteousness. They have no faith in God’s abundance. The abundance of creation. The abundance of mercy. The abundance of compassion. The abundance of grace. The abundance of love. Do the robbers really believe they can control the Jericho road? Do they believe that power defined by unfettered rule over the world can prevail over the power of servanthood?

We can’t ignore the man in the road. The man in the road is not some prop to make someone else look great. The man in the road is the ideals to which we believe we live as a community of men and women, white people and people of color, young and old, native and immigrant, straight and queer, rich and poor. If we ignore the man in the road, we’ve consigned our community to death. We’ve let the robbers prevail.

But we don’t have to let them prevail. We can reclaim the Jericho road. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his speech “A Time to Break Silence,” which he delivered at New York City’s Riverside Church exactly one year before, almost to the hour, of his death, “A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”

We must stop closing our eyes to injustice. We must speak truth to power. We must renew our faith in forgiveness. We must eschew hate. We must stand with those who have been beaten down. We must bear the broken and bloodied bodies on the road to safety and offer succor and nurse them to health so they can join us to make real the promise we say every week, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

We will reclaim the Jericho road and thus make it safe for all of God’s children to pass unimpeded, unharmed, and unafraid when we embrace and live out God’s radical, inclusive love. When we actually make room at the table for everyone and live out our belief that the bread and the cup have more power to transform the world than any weapon of destruction, we won’t see bodies on the Jericho road. When we cease to live in fear – fear of immigrants, fear of people whose skin color is not like ours, fear of the stranger – we won’t see bodies on the Jericho road. When we stop objectifying, demonizing and hating each other, we won’t see bodies on the Jericho road.
We won’t see bodies on the Jericho road when we take Paul’s words to heart (Rom 12:9-18):

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

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We Need Theologians

As I reflect upon all the political commentary I’ve read on our election as well as the Brexit debacle, we are inundated with political, economic, and sociological perspectives.  Missing is the theological.

I know that preachers once occupied a prominent position in our country as social commentators.  I also know that today many people don’t hear preachers, whether liberal or conservative, often because participation in organized religion has diminished.  I also find that the media generally has no clue about religion, but in a nod towards hearing a faithful voice, will usually tap a religiously conservative commentator rather than a liberal one.  (It’s why we get Tony Perkins to comment about LGBTQ issues, which shuts out the entire progressive side of the spectrum.)

The best commentary I’ve read (because networks don’t call on Walter Brueggemann to comment) on what’s happening today was in Brueggemann’s book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, which was published in the late 1990s.  Actually, it wasn’t a commentary as much as it was a prophetic explanation.

A quick Bible lesson before we go on.  Around 586 BCE, Judah collapsed.  The Jerusalem Temple fell.  Judah’s political and economic leadership, went into exile to Babylon.  They did not return until around 539 BCE after Cyrus, the Persian king, conquered Babylon.  The Exile was a theological turning point, which we see noticeably in Isaiah 56-66.  Whereas Second Isaiah 40-55 reflected upon the time in Babylon, Third Isaiah reflected the tensions in defining the communal life after its return.

Although Brueggemann addressed the state of the American church, his analysis easily could apply to American secular community as well.  Addressing exile, Brueggemann wrote, “exiles experienced a loss of the structured, reliable world which gave them meaning and coherence, and they found themselves in a context where their most treasured and trusted symbols of faith were mocked, trivialized, and dismissed.  Exile is not primarily geographical, but it is social, moral, and cultural.”  Referring to the 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 willingly embraced.  Exile comes as those values and modes of authority are 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.” (page 2)

As I think about what has been happening in the United States, even before this election cycle, and tangentially Great Britain in the wake of Brexit, we’re seeing a desire to hold fast to a past that is mythologized and never to return.  Changes, beginning with the diminished authority and privilege of white men, have been happening for decades.  We can see it in the result of civil rights which brought about affirmative action.  Other tongues, such as Spanish, have become part of the daily fabric of American culture.  We see it in the rise of feminism and more open expressions of sexuality, specifically in the rights of LGBTQ people.  Immigrants have gained their footing in the American economy. The assumptions of the 1950s and 1960s, especially for straight, white men, faded.

Culture, though, is not the only change affecting this nation.  Capital is no longer bound by national borders.  Companies can move work around the globe in order to cut production costs.  Technology has increased productivity so fewer workers are needed to manufacture products.  Telecommunications has made it possible to deploy people and departments around the globe.  These changes have arisen faster and change faster than our institutions have been able to manage.  People have lost their jobs, feeling their jobs are not reliable, or can’t get reasonable wage increases.

These changes came slowly at first, but over time their rapidity has outstripped our capacity to adjust and re-imagine our life’s assumptions.  We become fearful and want to protect and hold fast to what we had.

Fear disposes us to close ranks and circle the wagons.  We’re too anxious to protect the idea we hold in our heads of a better time, not acknowledging the wider forces in our lives will prevent that from happening.

So, we keep out immigrants.  We want to make sure people have their guns.  We manipulate the people using fear and demonizing those who are not like us.  In fear we don’t listen or think carefully.  Our reptilian portion of our brains take over and we become defensive.

When that happens, we can’t think creatively.  We can’t live generously.  We can’t imagine a fuller and richer future because we’re too focused on preserving what we once had or thought we had.  We fall for “snake oil” promises of greatness without thinking seriously how those promises will be made real.  From a preacher’s perspective, when won’t find “home” again until we embrace the deep spiritual values we teach as part of our faith:  love, generosity, compassion, gratitude.

The “snake oil” salesman appeals to our fears.  We forget 1 John 4:18, “…perfect love casts out fear.”

The response to the changes we face is not to retreat in fear in order to hold fast to a mythological past, but to trust love’s transforming power.  It will take new theological imagination by re-imagining and reclaiming the cherished values of the past, such as real community where people really care for each other and the common good is upheld so everyone has his/her share of daily bread, even as the markers all around us are different.  We can’t receive new possibilities if we insist on clutching a past that is no more and can be no more.

We need theologians, maybe now more than ever.

 

 

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Post Sanders

While the Democratic nomination is not over, the prospects of Senator Sanders being the party’s nominee are slim.  Though I like a lot of what Sanders seeks for this nation, as a point of full disclosure, I voted for Secretary Clinton in the primary.

I almost didn’t vote because either candidate is a far better prospect than any GOP candidate.  I decided to vote a couple of hours before the polls closed because I felt an overwhelming sense of duty.  My decision to vote for Clinton was pragmatic.  She is the candidate who has the most experience having served in the Senate and as Secretary of State.  Though she doesn’t have the sweeping vision that Sanders has (and I wish she did), she fully understands that Congress is too conservative for the programs Sanders seeks to implement.  Sanders could exhaust significant political capital in his first year trying to push his program.

Sanders, however, has exposed the divide among Democrats, especially between the generations.  He excites younger voters, particularly the millennials.  Though I voted for Clinton, I also believe Clinton is running 20 years too late.  We really need a sweeping vision for this nation and Sanders’ program for a single-payer healthcare system and free college does more to address it than making changes to ACA and increasing college assistance.  His clear attack on income inequality is absolutely necessary because we’re losing the middle class.   I sense that Sanders seeks to create a strong safety net so that every person can have a solid place upon which to begin building their future.

He, however, is running too late and from the wrong direction.  A revolution is not built from the top down, but the bottom up.

Sanders should turn his attention to races across the country to nominate candidates who share his vision and to get them elected in state races this year.  They need to be in place  and established for the 2020 census so they can draw the new districts in their states after new population figures are released.  Furthermore, with the conservative flavor present in Congress now, his vision could be implemented easier at the state level today.  For example, states could fund their state university systems to make them free or close to free.  States that did not choose the Medicaid expansion could do so.  Implementation would be much easier and could become a model for expansion on a national level.

He would then do the same for candidates in 2018 for Congress.  He could work to place representatives and senators favorable to his agenda in legislative positions so that they can solidify their overall position in 2020.  Then, his vision has a better chance for implementation.  Also, having implemented the vision at the state level will make Sanders’ program more imaginable and doable nationally.

The Washington Post noted that the Democrats under Obama have had disastrous outcomes in the two midterm elections.  Though capturing the big prize, the presidency, is really a major feat, turning out votes every four years is not enough to create a more inclusive nation.

Sanders has been excellent in casting a vision.  As a pastor I’d say he is prophetic.

Now that he has opened the divisions among the Democrats and between the generations, he has a more important task ahead than running for president.  His vision for America cannot happen without his energy and passion to open down-ballot candidates to becoming legislators and leaders for a new generation.

 

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Shattered Dreams

I won’t vote for Donald Trump. I wrote about that several weeks ago.

In my more candid moments I question why people would support a man who led the blatantly racist birther movement against Obama.  I say that those who support Trump are racist by association.

However, when I am less candid and a little more thoughtful, I can’t paint all Trump supporters as racist.  Trump tapped into a deep vein of discontent, especially among older white men who have seen their dreams shattered.

Recently The New York Times published an article about the Carrier Air Conditioner Company closing its Indianapolis, IN plant in order to move its production to Mexico.  Immediately, one could argue that this move was due to free trade, but it is more complex than that.

Economists on both sides of the political spectrum will generally agree that free trade has an overall positive effect.  First, it forces companies to be more efficient.  Second, it reduces the cost of consumer items, which is why we can purchase computers for under $400 or cell phones relatively cheaply.  It gives people who don’t earn a lot of money access to a moderately middle class lifestyle.

However, free trade does not come without some economic costs too.  Closing factories throws people out of their jobs.  That’s what happened to the Carrier employees.

Still, there were other forces at work to displace them.  Globalization has obliterated national borders when it comes to finance.  Technology has made it possible to place company workers in low wage countries for a few dollars a week while overseeing the operation from afar.

Think about this.  If one graduated from college with an accounting degree 30 years ago, that person had a good job and would likely see increased income over time.  However, as the principals of accounting are the same from country to country regardless of currency, what prevents a large corporation from sending parts of its accounting operation to a low cost country such as Vietnam?  They can send the same data to Vietnam as easily as they can to corporate headquarters.

Solid jobs can evaporate quickly.  The Carrier article pointed that out.

Work is more than about making money.  Work gives people an identity.  When we state our occupations, we implicitly make a statement about our economic class.  People will also make assumptions of who we are.  Work also helps people to achieve their dreams.  They live a lifestyle commensurate with their incomes.  Ideally they can put aside some money for their future.  Those dreams don’t have to be oversized.  People would like to have money saved to send their children to college.  They set aside money for retirement.  And as we live in the United States, work also undergirds their healthcare, typically obtained through their employer.

Losing their jobs, especially when a company relocates its business or technology changes, a person’s entire life paradigm changes .  Identity is gone.  Hope for their child’s college education evaporates.  Retirement plans vanish.  Health insurance, although they can keep their insurance with COBRA, is very expensive when you’re not working.  How will one stay healthy?

Is it any wonder, then, that Trump appeals to people who want to get rid of immigrants.  I don’t say that his supporters are anti-immigrant because of race, but are anti-immigrant because they fear they will lose their jobs to lower wage workers.  Immigrants are their economic competitors.  Keeping them out keeps out their competition.

His message appeals to people who have long felt that their dreams today are very dim compared to the dreams they had when they began their work careers decades ago.  Those who recently arrived in the workforce have seen their parents’ dreams diminished or they see that there is no real way to get ahead because the deck is stacked against them due to trade deals, globalization, and technology.  Their dreams, which should be vivid and bright, are fuzzy and vague.

We can’t overlook that America has changed dramatically since the 1960s, especially for older white men.  Back then there was an implicit promise that if one studied hard, worked hard, and played by the rules, one could have a good life as defined by a home, a couple of weeks vacation annually, and confidence that your children who will be economically better off.  One  imagined that turning 60 meant looking forward to a comfortable retirement.

That’s all changed.  People seem to work harder now without noticeably getting financially ahead.  Vacations have become a luxury.  Children may be in their late 20s or early 30s and they’re still living at home.  The 401k is not enough to provide for a comfortable retirement.

Over the years implicit assumptions about authority and power were eroded by affirmative action.  Promotions were no longer a certainty once companies had to ensure that women and people of color have the same chance as white men.  Basically, older white men have arrived today at the end of their working careers without the implicit promise of white male privilege present when they were young.

The Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann described this metaphorically in his book Cadences of Home Preaching Among Exiles as similar to the experience the Jews suffered during their exile in the sixth century BCE.  Multiple losses have accumulated to the point where frustrations have exploded.  Though not everyone who has suffered these losses support Trump, he has become a lightening rod for them.

I’m not trying to rationalize away the violence and the toxic rhetoric associated with Trump’s campaign.  I am also not trying to justify Trump’s positions and incendiary language.  I condemn them.  However, what we’re seeing is molten unfused anger as the losses many people have felt over the decades have not been addressed adequately by the political or economic leadership in this country.  Rather than benefitting the common good, we see 1% of the people enriching themselves and in the process able to isolate themselves from the struggles the 99% have.   Thus, they follow a demagogue who ironically uses his wealth to claim he is unsullied.

People are lashing out because for them hope evaporated awhile ago.

 

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Proclaim the Story

I might as well make it a trilogy. Here’s my sermon from Easter morning.  I used Luke 24:1-12 as the text.

The men thought that what the women told them was an idle tale.  They did not believe them.  Their belief was not because they were women, but they didn’t expect Jesus to slip the shackles of death.

The years they traveled with Jesus and witnessed his ministry were probably a gloriously heady experience, which stuck with them.  We know, however, that just before he was transfigured he specifically said to his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22)  He even alluded to his death the day before they shared their last meal together. He warned them “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Luke 21:10-11)  After which he told them, “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27)  But would they have actually heard it or was it some passing remark?  Even if they did, not how could, but how would they have believed it?

Beginning with Jesus’ arrest, they were frightened and terrified.  Judas betrayed their friend.  The authorities arrested him and though Pilate found no justification to put him to death, he ordered Jesus’ execution.  Some of the remaining eleven might have wondered if they, too, would be arrested and crucified.

Their glory ended on the cross.  Who would lead them now that Jesus was gone?

We might say they got stuck on Friday.  They were stuck on their past glory.  They couldn’t see what was ahead.  Nor did they see the necessity to take a big step backwards to see the entire picture of Jesus’ life and ministry and the full scope of its meaning.  They knew Jesus was dead.  The idea that he was resurrected to live again was too fantastic to believe.

The women told a great story.  It was good news.  It was gospel, which in Greek means good news.  Today we celebrate the good news.  We tell this story.

I don’t think, though, that we’re telling this story very well.  It remains too fantastic to believe even though it has been told over and over again for almost two thousand years.  Granted we don’t tell this story the same way all the time, especially when scripture has four different accounts of it.  We boil it down, however, to Jesus died and rose from the dead to teach and minister another forty days before his ascension to heaven.  If we only see Easter from that perspective, then we’re doing this story a disservice.  Told this way, it renders Jesus as a superhero who fights evil in a never-ending pursuit of justice. At the risk of offending, doesn’t that sound like a comic book?

When we look at this story today, metaphorically we’re the women and much of the secular world is the men.  We know the tomb was empty, but we have much more to tell of this story than just the empty tomb.  Jesus’ warning to his disciples on the day before they broke bread for the last time was ominous.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” (Luke 21:25-26)

Do these words describe today?  Fear is palpable.  Whatever you may think of the candidates, we cannot overlook that the rhetoric around this campaign has a dark, ominous foreboding.  The promises of hope we hear are framed using fear.  Responding to Tuesday’s attack in Brussels, we heard candidates say that we will protect ourselves by having stepped up security in predominately Muslim neighborhoods as well as renewed calls to bar Muslims from entering this country and to make torture legal again.  Our hope for economic prosperity rests in building a wall and keeping immigrants out.  These messages implicitly say that people who are not Americans are out to kill us and take away our jobs.

We have leadership who believe that our moral strength and character as a nation will prosper when we discriminate against people’s sexuality and gender, whether it is their sexual orientation or their health.  We fill our jails and prisons to show we are tough on crime, but don’t realize that as we have underfunded mental health care, they have become our new mental hospitals.  We slyly wink at violence perpetrated against people of color because we crave order.

We think like that when we can’t see past Friday.  When we’re stuck in Friday; when we don’t ponder the deep meaning of Jesus on the cross.  When we don’t leave Friday, we don’t get the gospel.  Easter is believing and trusting Jesus’ promise that our hope lies in opening the community to all people.  The meals when scribes and Pharisees ate with tax collectors and sinners were lessons to make clear that everyone had an obligation to care for each other.  Easter is accepting that leadership is servanthood and that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Easter is living in gratitude so that we come to define wealth not in terms of how much we have, but how much we can give away. Easter is not to dwell in fear, but to dwell under God’s sheltering wing so we can walk through our darkest days into the bright light of hope and joy.

Jesus died on the cross because he was executed by the authorities of his day who felt their power threatened by his message of radical, inclusive steadfast love.  His teachings upended a systemic injustice which transferred income and wealth from the poor to the rich.  He openly sided with the poor and questioned the divine allegiance of the religious authorities, Caesar or God.

The men knew Jesus died, but for what purpose?  Stepping back, we can understand that Jesus died not to save us from our sins, but as an act of love as an ultimate challenge to overwhelming injustice.  His resurrection, then, mocks the cross, the instrument of terror used by the empire to foster peace.  Resurrection tells us that real peace does not come from terror or fear, but compassion and love.  True peace, God’s peace, shalom, comes not from weapons of destruction, but the broken bread and the shared cup.

We must tell the story differently because we have to distinguish it from the many superhero stories.  We must tell the story better because as fantastic as it is, people have to understand its implications in order to leave Friday behind and hear the good news.  Telling the story means speaking truth to power.  We must give voice to the people who struggle to be heard.  We have to tell this story so all the people who are stuck in Friday will see there is something better than hunkering down, circling the wagons, and defending ourselves against those who are not like us.  We must lift up those who don’t have daily bread so they are no longer discounted or ignored.  We have to stand with those whose sexual orientation and identity do not conform to the traditional binary male-female mold.

By telling the story we offer hope to people who struggle to find it every day.  Telling the story will hasten the day when all people will have the peace that comes when they live as God desires for all of us.  Telling the story helps all of us create true community.  Telling the story says that Good Friday was not the end, but a beginning, which culminated in Easter and continues to live on through us today.  Telling the story is letting a seed die for new life to blossom. Telling the story makes clear the resurrection promise that life always triumphs over death and love always chases fear.

Easter was no idle tale, but we must tell it better.  We’ll tell it better when we speak truth to power.  We’ll tell it better when we live out Jesus’ teaching through our ministries of love and grace.

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Good Friday and Annunciation.

I couldn’t pass up the convergence of Annunciation and Good Friday. This is my homily from Good Friday.

Today we have a rare convergence of two commemorations in the Christian calendar.  One moves and the other is fixed.  Good Friday changes year after year due to its connection with Easter, which is a moveable feast day.  The Feast of the Annunciation is fixed.

Even in our reform tradition we’re aware of Good Friday.  Annunciation not so much.  Annunciation commemorates the day Mary learned from the angel Gabriel, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end… therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:30b-33, 35c)

At the time of Jesus, although nowhere mentioned in the Bible, Jewish tradition believed that the conception date of great personages coincided with their death dates.  Very early in the Church’s history, a tradition grew to believe that Jesus died on March 25, which coincided with the creation and fall of Adam as well as Israel passing through the Red Sea and the binding of Isaac.  Given March 25 as the date of Jesus’ conception in Mary by the Holy Spirit, Christmas, his birth, is December 25.

I’m trying to imagine what it must have been like for Mary on that Good Friday.  The death of her firstborn son coming on the anniversary of her learning that she will bear God’s son.

It must have been overwhelming for her to assent to God’s call.  Although betrothed to Joseph she was unmarried, thus bringing scorn and shame.  At the same time she would bear God’s son.  She would raise God’s son.  How do you be a mother to God’s son?

Then, what does it mean to see your son die an excruciatingly slow and painful death on a cross? This is your son, whom God entrusted into your care.  Would you wonder if you did enough to protect him?  Would God be disappointed in you? On the other hand, you witnessed him serve others in love and to stand against the powers of the day to promote peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive, steadfast love.  That would make you proud.  Would you also wonder, though, why his ministry caused the authorities to execute him using the cross, an instrument of terror reserved for enemies of the state.  How does speaking truth to power threaten the state?

Today offers us some especially reflective possibilities for the end of Lent and the beginning of Easter’s new birth.  However, let’s not rush the end of Lent or the start of Easter.  Let’s sit in today.  Today is a liminal time, a time between a beginning represented by the Annunciation and an ending with Jesus on the cross.  Today, we ponder the many contradictions between our world and God’s realm, heaven on earth. Why does the pursuit of God’s peace and justice threaten an order resting upon scarcity instead of abundance and the primacy of the individual over the common good?  How is it that the cross, representing tools of destruction, was seen as a pathway towards peace rather than the bread and the cup?  Why do those with outsized power prefer to preserve the social order through fear rather than love?

The contradictions between the world in which we live now and the world which Jesus doggedly pursued through his ministry are blatantly exposed on Good Friday.  But coupled with the Annunciation those contradictions are magnified because today we also remember the promise that the man hanging on the cross is no less than the Son of God in whom we invest all of our hopes and dreams.  Gazing up at his scourged and twisted near-naked body wracked in pain, we wonder if the ways of this world will ever prevail. How do we save the one who saves us?  Are we like Mary, too?  Shouldn’t we ask isn’t there something I can do?  Have I done enough?  Is this death a sign of God’s disappointment in me?

Let’s also ask why Jesus didn’t come down from the cross.  After all he was God.  Doesn’t God have the power to save himself?  We can offer the explanation that Jesus on the cross was symbolic of his dual nature, divine and human.  Indeed, in the very early centuries of the church that distinction was made with the Nestorians who tried to emphasize that it was Jesus on the cross, not Christ.  That position was deemed heretical because Jesus was both divine and human.  Jesus and God were of the same essence, but not the same person.  Let’s also not go to the usual trope, “Jesus died for our sins” because that absolves us of our sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world that continues to crucify Jesus today.  It’s cheap grace.

Rather, let’s frame Jesus on the cross as love.  Love, Jesus’ love for humankind, sent him to the cross.  Peter Abelard, an 11th Century theologian, wrote, “By the faith which we hold concerning Christ love is increased in us, by virtue of the conviction that God in Christ has united his human nature to himself and, by suffering in that same nature, has demonstrated to us that perfection of love…”[1]

Today, we reconcile love: its contradictions, its messiness, its giftedness, its obligations.  Today we remember Mary’s assent to raise God’s son and the enormous obligation that it entailed.  We see that Jesus’ death on the cross and his refusal to come down from it as the greatest demonstration of love for us because of his willingness to die as the ultimate challenge to injustice.  In Jesus we come to recognize the power love has for transformation because it frightens those who stand to lose authority and privilege which prompts them to use violent means to stop it.

Today, let’s pause.  This particular convergence won’t happen again until 2157.  It’s worth not rushing through Lent in anticipation of Easter.  We’re in a liminal time.  It’s good to ponder the two worlds, ours and God’s, which meet on this day.  It’s right to feel the conflict when joy collides with sorrow as we wait together and ruminate on love.

[1] Peter Abelard.  Peter Abailard: Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (An Excerpt from the Second Book).  From A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham.  Edited by Eugene R. Fairweather.  Westminster Press:Philadelphia 1956.  Page 278

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On the Anniversary of Romero’s Assassination

This is the homily I preached for Maundy Thursday.

Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated on this day in 1980 while he was celebrating mass in a small hospital chapel in San Salvador.  He was shot through an open door from outside of the chapel.  The bullet pierced his chest.  Some say that a drop of his blood fell into the cup.  His assassin was not found.

Romero was ordained in 1942.  He served small parishes in El Salvador.  He saw himself as a spiritualistic person rather than a promoter for social causes.  Over time he rose through the church hierarchy which resulted in his designation as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977.  His appointment was not received with great enthusiasm, especially by the left-leaning clergy.

Two movements were happening simultaneously during his rise through the church hierarchy.  First, the Catholic Church started implementing Vatican II, which shifted the Vatican’s emphasis from maintaining the status quo to siding with the people.  Second, the political climate in El Salvador was shifting towards an authoritarian right-wing regime.  In a sense, Romero’s appointment was probably due to the perception that as a conservative priest he would not challenge the regime.

However, Romero’s concern for the poor was kindled when he served as bishop in the small town of Santiago de Maria, his appointment just prior to San Salvador.  There he witnessed firsthand the suffering of the landless poor.  He also witnessed the government’s attacks on socially committed priests and laypersons.  The final turn in his ministry came when his friend and colleague, Rutilio Grande, was murdered by government forces in 1977 because of his work for social change.

Romero began to issue pastoral letters condemning the killings, torture, and repression by right-wing, government forces.  His visibility increased.  Despite siding with the poor and the oppressed, he was alone. Many on the revolutionary left didn’t trust him because he eschewed political violence.  The other bishops, who were generally conservative, didn’t trust him.  They believed the unrest was due to communist influence, which they attributed to Romero’s support for the poor.

Does this story have a familiar ring?

We gather here to remember through tonight’s communion Jesus’ life and ministry.  He spoke truth to power.  His ministry on behalf of the poor and in pursuit of justice threatened the political and economic powers of his day.  The threat of death followed him, especially after his transfiguration.  Even his friends abandoned him at his very end.  And he died at the hands of the powerful – the ones who feared Jesus’ gospel.  They trembled in the face of love’s power.  They put their confidence in a weapon of terror, the cross, falsely believing it would put an end to the teachings of an itinerant rabbi from Galilee.

But at the same time doesn’t Romero’s life seem a bit like ours as well?

We talk justice, but we find the spiritual side of our faith a more comfortable fit.  Some would say, “social justice is not where I’m called” or “It’s all politics.  Religion shouldn’t be political.” There is nothing wrong with a ministerial emphasis on spiritual matters.  Visiting the sick is a vital ministry for any church.  There are few things as holy as helping someone die.  Comforting the bereaved at a funeral has poetic poignancy.  Romero was more than comfortable with this.

But the church has to do both if it is to be true to Jesus.  Romero realized this when he lived among the landless peasants.  Providing them spiritual comfort went only so far.  It was fine, but it didn’t change their lot, especially in the face of overt oppression and blatant injustice.  The peasants would not have peace.  Furthermore, Grande’s death because he was doing his faithful ministry galvanized Romero.

When we come face-to-face with injustice, do we really have a choice between spiritual faith and social justice?  The true peace of which Jesus preached and Romero pursued cannot come without a physical commitment to those who struggle for daily bread.  Romero wrote, “Many would like the poor to keep on saying that it is God’s will for them to live that way.  But it is not God’s will for some to have everything and others to have nothing.  That cannot be of God.  God’s will is that all his children be happy.”[1]  Furthermore, when our ethics as Christians ask us to care for the poor, especially in the richest nation in the history of the world, that is inherently political.

When we gather to share the Eucharistic feast, we implicitly proclaim a world of God’s peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive, steadfast love and by that implicit proclamation and our baptisms, we are God’s instruments of grace to make that real.  As we say each week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Yet, today’s America is far from heaven on earth.  Things have gone awry.  The middle class is shrinking as we see income inequality grow and grow.  We see political leadership pushing obvious income transfers from the poor up to the rich and having no shame in doing it.  We see little evidence that the government feels an obligation to foster the common good.  Social programs are cut to reduce taxes for the very wealthy.  Meanwhile, we hear muffled drumbeats pushing us into more war without funding the physical and psychic wounds of the veterans who return.  We hear candidates who take racists and xenophobic positions without apology and a large segment of the public who accept those positions as necessary to re-assert our greatness as a nation.  We have candidates who scoff at climate change, even though 2015 was the hottest year on record and Miami Beach’s existence is threatened by rising sea water.  Over the years we have closed our mental hospitals and reopened them in jails and prisons.

Just as Jesus spoke truth to power.  Just as Oscar Romero spoke truth to power.  We must speak truth to power.  We cannot remain silent.  We cannot be satisfied with just spiritual things and consider that our work is done.  We cannot think that we can pray away the spiritual malaise that is awash in this country.  We cannot hope that the church, the synagogue, or the mosque down the street will take up the cause of justice so we don’t have to.  Like Romero who came to understand that spiritualization has its limits, we have to accept that we can’t rid ourselves of our spiritual malaise without speaking truth to power.

Lest we think otherwise, this is not easy.  We might have to pay a price; perhaps not the same price that Jesus or Romero paid, but as another 20th century martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described as costly grace. “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”[2]

If we are to rid ourselves of the spiritual malaise and the clearly visible anger present across this land, we have to be the Church.  Where else can people turn today for hope?  Where else will people find the antidote to their fears if not the Church?  The Church is the body of Christ, which calls us to be Christ in our community whether here in Dalton or across the globe.

Just before he died, Romero spoke these words:

“Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ, will live like the grains of wheat that dies.  It only apparently dies.  If it were not to die, it would remain a solitary grain.  The harvest comes because of the grain that dies…We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, it is an effort that God blesses; that God wants; that God demands of us.”[3]

[1] The Words of Oscar Romero.  From “Seven Sermons of Oscar Romero for Lent” http://www.justpeace.org/romero.htm

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The Cost of Discipleship. Touchstone Book:  New York.  1995  Page 45

[3] Op. Cit.

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No Trump

While I have had no enthusiasm for this election cycle, my dismay has started to evolve into horror.  A lot of that shift has to do with Donald Trump’s candidacy.

That GOP Governors Christie and LePage have endorsed Trump as well as Sen. Sessions (R- AL), shows the resistance to his candidacy among the GOP is weakening.  We’re watching mainstream GOP officials jump on his bandwagon.  Doing this gives his candidacy legitimacy.  It’s not that he is an illegitimate candidate, but he is not a candidate by any stretch of the imagination who should have been given entry into this contest at all.  However, given the realities in our political process, there was no way to stop him from running either.

GOP officials, whether elected or party leaders, should not support Trump’s candidacy in any way.  Doing so is a Faustian bargain which not only will damage the GOP, but can cause serious harm to this nation.

As a liberal independent, I would argue that Trump’s ascension among the GOP base followed a trajectory established long ago.  Its starting point?  I could point to Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  I could argue that one of Ronald Reagan’s unsung legacy’s was effectively severing the government’s role in ensuring the common good.  Then again, maybe it was Newt Gingrich’s ascension to Speaker of the House which began to place rigid party discipline over the nation’s well-being.

In some respects I don’t see a lot of daylight between Trump and the rest of the GOP field when it comes to climate change, immigration, foreign policy, and tax policy to name a few.  I also know there are differences, such as Trump is pro-choice (although will not fund Planned Parenthood) and does not want to cut social security and Medicare. He’s also more pragmatic than most of the GOP on guns.  Despite those differences, however, he is a dangerous demagogue whose temperament and worldview are frightening and to give that demagogue power, especially the presidency, will lead to ruin.  However, this is not a reason to withhold support.

Trump has tapped into a vein of serious discontent among a broad swath of the general public.  This has been rising for years due to external forces related to globalization, technology, economics, and serious government dysfunction.  We have become a fearful nation because our political leadership and much of our media hasn’t adequately addressed this and has used it for political leverage rather than pedagogy.  I also think we’re too distracted by bread and circus (as in why people can tell us about the Khardashians, but are almost clueless on important issues affecting their lives.)

I actually don’t care if Trump is a Christian or not.  I’m not voting on whether the candidate is a Christian or how many times s/he goes to church or even if s/he prays every day.  I want someone who will proclaim and support values rooted in God’s steadfast love or as I often express in my sermons, shalom (a peace beyond the absence of violence.  A peace that encompasses the wholeness of all creation.)

While I know no candidate will fully stand on such a platform as it will radically upend all our bearings and markers as a nation, we should disavow the candidacy of someone whose positions are completely antithetical to those values.

Flat out… the GOP should not embrace a Trump candidacy.  I see this as no GOP politician should endorse him.  Should he win the GOP nomination, he should receive no support from anyone in the GOP.  As for the right-wing media, they can say all the hallelujahs it wants, but bear in mind that’s entertainment not news or informed opinion.  GOP voters should stay home and not vote, even if it means a Democrat becomes president.

A Trump candidacy is not just about expressing displeasure and frustration to the political establishment (and the establishment, both Republican and Democrat, better note this), it implicitly endorses his worldview.  This is a man who is authoritarian, xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and misogynistic.  As an extreme narcissist, his worldview is cramped, basically it is himself.

A Trump presidency has the potential to bring us to a dystopian world.  Short of that, a Trump presidency can give rise to facism.  The prospects are frightening.  He will fail on his campaign’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  The aftermath of that failure will give rise to terrible violence and suffering.

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Flint is a Litmus Test

Flint, Michigan. Let’s be really clear up front. I cannot imagine a more scandalous situation. If someone or a party contaminated an entire city’s water supply, we would consider it an act of terrorism.  If a nation carried this out, we’d probably declare war against it.

We did it all by ourselves.  Government officials perpetrated this.  I doubt any of them will go to jail, even though some should.  If they are found guilty and sued, the financial penalties wouldn’t come close to covering the financial costs, both short-term and long-term.

How do we compensate for a child’s life’s lost future due to lead poisoning?  What do you say to parents whose dreams for their child have been burst?

At some point the state with some federal money will take corrective action and will find some compensation formula.  It will be very expensive.  However, that money will come from taxpayers, and I doubt the taxes would exempt residents of Flint.  Chutzpah is having to pay out of your pocket to compensate for damages you suffered.

Should we be surprised?  I don’t think so.

This tragedy has been years in the making.  First, we have an aging infrastructure.  The American Society of Civil Engineers rates our nation’s overall infrastructure D+.  A sample of the infrastructure its report card includes:  roads, bridges, transit, airports, schools, wastewater, dams, levees, and drinking water.  Drinking water gets a D.

The drinking water report notes that the life expectancy for the system’s components is 15 to 95 years.  Many of our older cities have an old infrastructure; some pipes date to the civil war.  More than one million miles of pipe deliver water to people in this country.  Currently 4,000 to 5,000 miles of pipe get replaced annually.

Given the way we fund water’s infrastructure, the costs fall heavily upon states and local governments.  This makes funding water infrastructure challenging in municipalities with high levels of poverty, such as Flint, because property taxes are kept low, balancing municipal needs with residents’ incomes.  As such they are not high enough.  Federal money is available, but not enough.  EPA estimates that $334.8 billion will be needed over 20 years for capital investments.  However, Congress allocates an average of $1.38 billion annually or $27.6 billion over 20 years, about 8% of the need.

This gets to the second point.  We’ve been suffering under two mindless perspectives on government, primarily promulgated by the Republicans for three decades.  One, our government is too big.  Two, we shouldn’t raise taxes and furthermore, should seek to cut them.

Smaller government means less oversight of its operations.  Reduced taxes reduce available funds.  The priority to fund stuff underground is not flashy.  A politician can cut a ribbon to open a new bridge.  Somehow turning on the tap and getting clean water doesn’t have the same pizzazz.

We’ve been fortunate that almost everywhere in this country we have a reliable supply of clean, drinkable water.  We don’t give water a second thought.

Flint, though, is a wake up call.

There is plenty of blame and incompetence and callous disregard for the well-being of Flint’s residents.  Some officials should go to jail.

However, Flint is one of many cities in America with a high rate of poverty with inadequate investments in its drinking water infrastructure.  We have a political climate that downplays the important role government has in maintaining the common good.  We also have many municipalities and states run by political leaders who actively disdain government.

As we move closer to the elections this year, we might want to think about each candidate’s perspective on the role government plays in our lives and how that candidate understands all the needs and obligations government must fund.

 

 

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I Hope We’re Not Too Late

OK, I didn’t watch the president’s speech on terrorism.  Then again, I rarely watch presidential speeches, except for, maybe, the State of the Union.  I used to be diligent about them, but stopped early in the Reagan administration as I kept wanting to throw my shoe at the television screen because I was so frustrated by what he said.

Based upon my reading of Monday’s newspapers, I’m glad I didn’t spend 13 minutes listening to him not announce anything terribly new, that we should not condemn Islam as a religion, and that we should not respond in fear.  The last is what I’ve been preaching on and off for months from 1 John 4:18 “perfect love casts out fear.”

I couldn’t avoid preaching on San Bernadino.  I was really in despair on Thursday, the day after the shooting.  I didn’t know what I could say having addressed the shooting in Paris and the shooting in Colorado Springs from the pulpit.  Three of my four last sermons on shootings.  That’s terrible.  It’s really a bummer for Sunday mornings – kind of makes brunch instead of church more appealing.

Rather than post the sermon, I’ll just cut to the chase.

The issue the president could not address, but should have, is why we have people becoming radicalized who will then perpetrate a mass shooting.  It really doesn’t matter to me whether they are captivated by Islamic fundamentalism or right-wing extremism (still noting that other than 9/11 the most destructive domestic terrorist incident in the United States was Oklahoma City) or someone with mental illness.  The president didn’t ask the right question.  But, then, to ask the right question questions our values as a society.

Let’s be clear, though, that I support tighter gun laws.  I know that overwhelmingly gun owners are responsible people.  So, I’m not among those who want to ban them.  I’ll also say that most people who want tighter gun laws are reasonable and don’t want a total ban either.  But, my question is not about gun laws, either.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 entitled “A Time to Break Silence.”  He connected civil rights, the Vietnam War, and social justice together.  Towards the end of the speech he said, “…we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  He went on to say, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

My question is existential, “Have we died spiritually?”

Almost three years ago children were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.  It was horrible.  I posted my sermon about it on December 16, 2012 entitled “Rachel’s Tears.”  At one point I wrote, “If this shooting doesn’t make us stop what we are doing, then we should seriously consider how torn and shredded our community fabric has become, and perhaps that should make us weep, too.”

We did nothing.  Isn’t that a sign of our spiritual death?

I’ve been wracking my brains for the past several months for answers to what plagues us today.  On one hand things seem OK.  Consumer spending is up.  Unemployment is down. Despite all the mass shootings, we have relative peace.

Yet, we see signs that things are wrong.  We have a huge disparity between rich and poor and public policies which openly transfer wealth from poor to rich.  Corporations seem to put more emphasis on profits than its employees.  Until today racism is openly expressed by the leading GOP candidate for president and he gets no serious rebuke by party leadership. (Finally, other candidates are calling out Trump for his total ban on Muslim immigration.)  The president has had to endure too many racial slights by members of the opposition.  We can’t ignore overlook how the criminal justice system affects black communities more negatively than white communities from police shootings to incarceration rates.  Furthermore, we have the highest incarceration rate of all the major nations.   The GOP presidential candidates are openly xenophobic and are not being called out for it.

Finally, fear.  Why do people feel they need to carry guns in public?  Is it fear?  What is the source of that fear?  Is it also a sign that trust in our public institutions is gone?

I believe we are dying spiritually.  The ties that bind us together as community are frayed or have become too thin to hold us together.  We’ve lost sight of the common good – it doesn’t seem to be a factor in public decisions these days.  Corporations will do whatever it takes to make a profit as long as its legal; and just to be sure to be legal they buy influence with legislators.  (Maybe that’s why I stopped watching presidential speeches – I believe an unspoken legacy of Ronald Reagan’s was effectively severing the role and responsibility of government to ensure the common good.)

King’s words were prophetic.  We spend more than half of our discretionary budget on the military; certainly way more than programs for social uplift.  We’ve reached the point where many legislators want to cut social programs.  Somewhere we stopped thinking about people and became more enamored with computers and machines and profitable bottom lines.

We celebrate wealth, power, and prestige, but have no interest in people like you and me.  Actually, we don’t really count because we don’t have enough money for someone to take an interest in us.  We’ve become one budget number on a vast spreadsheet that can be cut or eliminated.

So, is today’s free-floating anger a symptom of dying?  We may have moved passed the denial stage and are now in anger.  In anger we lash out at anyone.

As I read the newspapers and listen to the rhetoric we’ve gone adrift.  We seem to have lost our compassion, our generosity, our gratitude, our patience, our forgiveness.  We fail to have faith in love’s transforming power.  We have become fearful and intolerant.  We demand short-term gratification.  We’ve organized ourselves around scarcity and not abundance.  In short, our spiritual values, life-affirming values, are in short supply.

In 1967 Dr. King warned that we needed to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  I hope we are not too late.

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