Responding to Paris

I originally planned a very different sermon than this one.  I preached it yesterday in response to the Paris attack.  Several people found it helpful.  The end refers to a parishioner whose funeral I did on Thursday the day before the attack in Paris.  Her Bible was stuffed with papers on which she wrote references to scripture passages, pamphlets, and other artifacts, including the bookmark I referenced at the end.  I used 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Mark 13:1-8 as the readings.

I was writing my sermon on Friday as news trickled in about the terrorist attack in Paris. Coordinated attacks throughout the city. Scores dead. Hundreds wounded. A city, a nation, and indeed a world is in shock.

There is no question that what was done was a heinous act and has been roundly condemned by political leaders as well as religious leaders across a spectrum of faiths, including Muslims.

Let’s be clear that violence perpetrated in the name of God is a perversion.

A terrorist attack by its very nature is designed to invoke fear in the general population. It seeks to force changes in a community contrary to its cherished values and to set people against each other. In their wake, the Massachusetts State Police issued a statement within hours of the attacks to reassure the public that they have taken steps towards heightened security.

Let’s also not forget that in the other day there was an attack in Beirut, Lebanon where 40 people were killed in a bomb attack and earlier this month the Russian airliner was blown out of the sky with a bomb on board. Fear is palpable. The pope said that this is evidence of a piecemeal World War III.

When we make decisions in fear, they are rash. Think about what happened in the wake of 9/11. Remember the colored lights that would tell us the likelihood of a terrorist threat that day? Or the desire to monitor the books we borrowed from the library? Or that we waged a war for which we are still paying its price.

Biblically, people might take these attacks as a sign that the end times are near, especially those on the conservative side of the theological spectrum. We could very well hear words which will condemn homosexuality and that this attack is a sign of God’s anger. But even for those who are not theologically conservative, this attack could spur people to condemn all Islam. Over the coming months we’ll probably see people seeking publicity by burning Qurans or protesting in front of mosques or uniting to keep mosques from being built. People will seek to bar Syrian refugees from our shores, even though they overwhelmingly want nothing to do with ISIS. Consider this, though, from our Christian perspective. People who shoot doctors who perform abortions and claim they do it because their understanding of Christianity compels them or the truly awful Westboro Baptist Church members who protest at soldiers’ funerals are not Christians we would recognize. We would disassociate ourselves from those who perpetuate this destructive practice as many Muslims are doing today in the wake of these attacks. As I said, it is perversion in the name of God.

Reading the papers yesterday and listening to a bit of radio, it seems that the Paris attack changed the political understanding of ISIS. Whereas it was seen as limited to the Middle East, specifically the region around Syria and Iraq, international political leadership is recalibrating its assessment. We may see more aggressive military action in that region. It is even possible that given the nature of Friday’s attacks, some sort of terrorist attack could happen here. The thought is frightening.

However, we should not let fear dictate our lives. Hannah placed her full trust in God. Though she could not conceive a child, she prayed mightily. Giving birth to a child was central to her womanhood, even more than raising a child. She promised God that should she give birth to a son, she would give her son to God. And that happened. She gave birth to Samuel and once he was weaned she left him with Eli in the temple. Each year, she and Elkanah would make a pilgrimage to the temple to offer their sacrifices. She would also bring a robe she made to give to her son, thus she saw him grow.

Granted Hannah did not fear a terrorist threat, but Hannah was oppressed by her status as a woman. Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, tormented her. Even though Elkanah loved Hannah, he didn’t understand the depth of her despair over her barrenness. Her only outlet was to turn to God. God was her only hope.

We are never alone as we always have God. Even in the midst of fear, there is God as long as we trust God. And we can easily lose sight of God in the midst of fear, and that takes us off track. We get pulled into behaviors we would normally eschew. Our responses should be consistent with Jesus’ teachings about peace and justice rooted in steadfast love.

Hannah prayed a prayer for hope. Hope in God’s grace and power to upend injustice and a reminder that the world in which we live now is not the world that God seeks for any of us. Furthermore, though this prayer resembles the Magnificat in its tenor, it should remind us that the ministry of Jesus Christ has deep roots in Judaism. Jesus would have known this prayer, not the one sung by Mary. While the prayer applied to Hannah, it also applied to Israel. Indeed, the prayer applies to all people who struggle in the Middle East today: the people who have lost hope and have become refugees, people who can’t escape and are in fear for their lives, people who are oppressed because their autocratic governments are corrupt. Even the people who have become enamored with a warped view of Islam are embraced in this prayer. For them hope is letting go of a truly sick understanding of Islam to embrace it as love, peace, and justice. The prayer applies to all people who need hope, even to us.

Fundamentally, what will right the world in the midst of this turmoil is love beginning with our care for those who are closest to us and then radiating out from that to embrace strangers, and even enemies. We must be bearers of hope in order to combat the nihilism that feeds terrorism. Furthermore, as a nation we must be willing to be truthful and honest about our allies: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emerites whose political and business leadership provide the funds for these radical Islamic groups. Seeking their survival in an unstable situation, they bankroll terrorist groups to ensure their security. Saudi Arabia funds the religious schools, madrassas, in places like Pakistan and other predominately poor Muslim countries to teach Wahabbism, a particularly conservative, fundamentalist version of Islam. Furthermore, our government knows this because it was confirmed in a 2009 US State Department document revealed in the Wikileaks scandal.

But the national political stuff may be too much for us to handle among ourselves right now. What we can do, however, is not get pulled into the vortex of fear-mongering, which we will certainly hear during the next several months. We have to acknowledge that though we wish to be safe at all times, that isn’t possible. Even God can’t make that promise. What really secures us is living with hope and infusing our lives with gratitude and generosity. Living in this manner, eschewing fear, offers us hope for a world that brings us closer to the realm of God here on earth.

Let us continue to pray for the people in Paris, the people in Beirut, the victims of the Russian plane crash. Let us pray for people whose lives are defined by violence. Let us pray for refugees regardless from where they began their journeys. Let us pray especially for those who perpetuate violence in the name of God that they might see how truly they have perverted God’s desires. Let us pray for ourselves that we will not lose sight of Jesus’ teachings in our fears. Let us pray that all will have hope and all shall know true peace and justice rooted in love.

The other day I presided over Elsie Chilson’s funeral. Duane lent me her Bible in which I found these words embroidered on a bookmark.

God hath not promised
Skies always blue
Flower-strewn pathways
All our lives through.

God hath not promised
Sun without rain
Joy without sorrow
Peace without pain

But God hath promised
Strength for the day,
Rest for the labour
Light for the way
Grace for the trials
Help from above
Unfailing sympathy
Undying love

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Advent Wreath Liturgy 2015

You can use this Advent wreath lighting liturgy provided you note the following copyright: “Permission to use this liturgy granted by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.”

This liturgy uses the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C and is designed for 2015.  Rather than designating the candles in the traditional manner: hope, peace, joy, and love (I can’t remember the order any more as I moved away from those designations several years ago), the candles mark events.

November 29

Jeremiah 33:14-16 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

One: We look east to catch a glimpse of dawn’s light, a hopeful sign that the end of injustice and oppression is coming. We remember Rosa Parks did not give up her seat on December 1, 1955. Her protest was the glimmer of new light offering hope and promising liberation to those who were oppressed. (light one candle)

Many: Open our eyes, O God, to see light piercing the darkness in our community, both here and afar. May this light be a sign for us that love’s transforming power will bring hope where there is none. May it liberate those who are burdened by oppression imposed by political dictates or economic deprivation. Let it be a sign to all who struggle against the odds because of race, gender, sexual identity, physical ability that the gospel’s promise, God’s peace and justice rooted in love, is theirs as well. Amen.


December 6

Malachi 3:1-4 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

One: A prophet long ago called to us to prepare for the coming of God. On December 10, 1964 Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize. Though his prophetic voice is still, his writings remind us that “human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of people willing to be co-workers with God.” (light two candles)

Many: God of justice and mercy, open our eyes that we might see prophets among us. Unstop our ears that we might hear their voices. Help us to remember and live brother Martin’s admonishment to strive unceasingly and courageously so all will have their daily bread and can achieve their fullest potential so we might live together in the beloved community. Amen.


December 13

Zephaniah 3:14-20 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

One: The time is approaching when all will be renewed in God’s love. On December 15, 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality was not a mental illness. By their decision, they affirmed the gospel’s foundation that love is the root from which peace and justice grow. (light three candles)

Many: Loving and compassionate God, thank you for loving us as we are. Encourage us to love each other as fully as you. May we not fear love’s power. Rather may we remember that love’s power chases out fear. Grant that we will let love transform us as we will use love to transform this world. Amen.


December 20

Luke 1:46b-55 “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

One: Our wait is almost over. Mary tells us that all shall be lifted up, even those with physical challenges. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It meant that no one should be barred or denied access because of their physical abilities. (light four candles)

Many: All people, O God, should have access to the richness and fullness of life. The prophet said that the “hills will be made low and the rough places a plain and the crooked path will be made straight.” Let us resolve to strive for that day when all can come into your presence unimpeded. May we work to lower the hills and smooth out the rough places and make the path straight so all may dwell in shalom. Amen.


December 24

Psalm 96:1-13 O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. He will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

One: From Apollo 8, the world saw the earth as a blue orb floating in space. That photo told us that we are one people living together on one planet in the vastness of space. May our voices blend in harmony with creation to sing a new song to God’s glory..(Light all the candles and the Christ candle)

Many: God of the heavens, our waiting is over and our eyes have opened unto a new day. The light of hope chases the dark. The voices of prophets prod us to action. May we continue the work of justice and peace you began when you came to live among us in Jesus. Let us not falter to pursue shalom and in so doing make hope’s light burn brightly for all the world. You are our righteousness. Amen.


Note:  The quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.  comes from Letter from Birmingham City Jail

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Dancing with the Unexpected

I’ve been mulling over whether I should post this sermon or not. I preached it on October 18. It’s based on the morning’s gospel reading Mark 10:35-45. At the end I’m going to add a coda, which I didn’t preach because I felt this one was enough and didn’t want to hand the congregation even more to consider. However, from a written perspective, I think it may work better.

Our political process the last few months has fascinated me. Donald Trump’s entry into the Republican presidential candidate pool shifted the dynamics of the entire field. Two candidates already dropped out. The Democratic presidential candidates had their debate on Tuesday, which by all accounts seemed to set an order around qualified leadership with Secretary Clinton leading Senator Sanders and Governor O’Malley. Senator Webb and Governor Chafee should say good-bye. We’ll leave the House of Representatives alone.

Political leadership seems unsettled, which, I believe, has to do with a vision for America’s future. Perhaps more so than any time in recent history we don’t have a clear sense of our national direction. Furthermore, the world is very different than it was even a generation ago. We don’t have single nation towards which we can channel our aggression as we did with the Soviet Union a few decades ago. Capital respects no national borders. News and information move so fast today that we don’t have time to digest it.

Our political leaders posture and propose. Whether Republican or Democrat, regardless of policy plans, I believe that deep down they all are variations on the same theme, American Exceptionalism or more accurately, “Reclaiming American Exceptionalism.”

Briefly, American Exceptionalism is the belief that our nation is inherently different than any other nation. We’ve lived with this throughout our entire history. We are exceptional because we were founded as a land of freedom. We are exceptional because we were born out of revolution. We are exceptional because we are “the light of the world. A city built on a hill.” (Mat. 5:14) We are exceptional because each individual matters. Everyone has an opportunity to achieve his or her greatest potential. We are a land of infinite possibilities. We are a great nation second to none.

Our understanding of American Exceptionalism, though, has shifted over the centuries. De Toqueville in the early 1800s saw us as practical, grounded people. Our capitalism’s strength and dynamism became a hallmark in the early part of the 20th Century. Post-World War II we are a global power striding across the globe unchallenged economically, politically, and militarily. This is America triumphant.

However, events today challenge this belief. We see rising economic power in China and India. Our military has not won a war decisively since World War II. We can no longer dictate our terms to the world and expect its compliance.

We hear from each of the candidates his or her vision for reclaiming the American Exceptionalism which followed World War II. Consider some of these slogans:

• Make America Great Again (Trump)
• A New American Century (Rubio)
• Rebuild the American Dream (O’Malley)
• Right to Rise (Bush)
• Fresh Ideas for America (Chafee)

Though not expressly said, each of these implies regaining our status as America triumphant.

But I have another story of America. This one I heard from a man who lived in Pittsfield all his life. I met him a few years ago. His wife was one of my hospice patients. She had advanced dementia, so I really visited with him, not her. As I sat with him and his wife, he told me about life in Pittsfield during the Depression. Like everywhere else, things were tough. People had gardens not because growing vegetables was a hobby, but it was a necessity. He told me about people taking care of each other. People shared food with those who had none. They looked after each other. A stranger might knock on a door at night looking for something to eat or maybe some shelter to get out of the rain and some provision would be made.

The Great Depression was a grim time. A lot of people struggled. Banks failed. Millions were out of work and millions worked in jobs that barely paid anything. No one would ever want to return to it and it’s hardly an example of American Exceptionalism.

But the Great Depression was the crucible which forged the greatness that became post-World War II American Exceptionalism. Although the lessons from the Depression were difficult, they taught the power of love, especially expressed through compassion and empathy. Generosity, even while struggling with scarcity, kept many families together. The American people were exposed and vulnerable. We know FDR’s memorable phrase from his first inaugural speech, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Later in the speech he said, “we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.”

Whether FDR intended it or not, he expressed what Jesus meant when he spoke to the twelve just before they entered Jerusalem for the Passover. The gross division between haves and have nots in first century Palestine exposed the latter to daily poverty and political oppression, thus making their lives vulnerable. This was a vulnerable time for Jesus and the twelve as well. Three years of ministry, though, brought attention from the authorities who felt threatened. Advocating and agitating for the have nots threatened Pax Romana’s balance. “Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I’m about to be plunged into?” Jesus asked James and John. His words foreshadowed his death. He went on to say, “Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.”

Greatness comes when we serve each other. It’s not something we seek rather it’s something that comes to us because of what we do. We’ll be great when we take care of each other. We’ll be great when we pursue the common good. We’ll be great when we live out a Eucharistic theology in which everyone has a place at the table and everyone has enough so no one will know scarcity or deprivation. We’ll be great when we stop living in fear and truly embrace the words in 1 John 4:18 “perfect love casts out fear.” We don’t claim greatness ourselves; rather, it is granted to us by no authority other than history itself.

I’m in no way advocating or claiming that the Great Depression was a good thing and that we have to suffer another one. I am saying, though, that our nation’s vulnerability which came out of the Depression led us to an ethos in which we sought to care for each other by serving one another. It was that ethos that made us a great nation following World War II. It was that ethos that led to rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan and sending GIs to college with the GI Bill.

We must recognize that our greatness as a nation rests upon not a few, not most, but all people having a sense of real hopefulness born out of the way we live in community together. We must live our lives with compassion. We must live empathetically, feeling that the stranger’s needs could very well be ours too. We must live so that we place priority on relational community over individual existence. We must live with hope because it enables us to triumph over fear. We must live the lessons of the gospel because they foster what we say every week, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

We won’t achieve greatness if we seek it out. We can’t be great if we claim it for ourselves. We will be great when we live in faith and by faith. We will be great when we serve one another in order to promote the common good. We will be great when we bind our lives and well-being to each other so all may be free.

Here’s the coda:

I wonder if the church, as the body of Christ, needs to embrace this ethos, too?  There is no question overwhelmingly our churches are compassionate.  But are they empathetic?

After I put this sermon to bed on Saturday night, I was reading Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay.  (The book deserves its own blog post.  I just finished it yesterday.)  An aspect necessary to healing from PTSD is relationship.  Shay discusses the multiple dimensions of relationships necessary to stymie the effects of PTSD.

I realized that churches need to have a relationship with the community just outside of its doors.  Though the churches may do ministry out of compassion, how many are empathetic to the people they serve?

Public suppers are a good example.  Compassion compels a church to serve dinner to people who are lonely or who can’t get a meal.  But how many people actually sit with the guests to eat with them and to share their stories?  Through those stories we gain empathy.

Being servant to all is not just service, but is relationship as well.

Before preaching this I added some text around empathy.

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Getting in the Way

I preached this sermon in Dalton this morning based upon Mark 9:38-50.

At this point the gospel story moved inexorably towards Jesus’ crucifixion. Though he saw the foreshadowing of his death, the disciples did not. When Jesus defined discipleship to them, he was clear, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34b) The disciples wanting to know who would be first among them were told, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (9:35b) And then, Jesus lifted a little child into his arms saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (9:37)

Jesus, however, was not specifically referring to children in this instance. Though he had a child in his arms, he made a metaphorical point. Paraphrased it might have been this, “Welcome the most vulnerable people in our midst. Whoever welcomes them welcomes not me, but the One who sent me.” Then, Jesus admonished the disciples not to hinder anyone who desired to follow.

When the disciples reported they saw someone casting out demons in his name, Jesus told them not to stop him. That’s an important point in this story.

How many people who want to follow Jesus get stopped? And what stops them?

Most of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night, the Sunday afternoon worshiping community on the front lawn of St. Joseph’s Church in Pittsfield, don’t attend regular church services. Some of the people I met at Common Ground, the dinner church in Northampton, won’t come to regular church, either. I also talk to people who regularly attend church, but their adult children who are in their 20s and 30s don’t attend even though they went to church as children. I don’t know how many people I meet in my chaplain ministry, whether they are hospice patients and families or veterans, who once went to church but have lapsed.

The answers for each of the groups will probably be different, but we should pause and reflect why. The answers will probably not fall neatly into particular categories. Admittedly, our answers will be speculative. Just as an aside, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America bishop for this synod, Jim Hazelwood, a year or so ago formed a panel of non-church goers to tell their annual meeting attendees why they don’t go to church.
Many people will tell me that they feel disconnected from traditional church. “Worship is boring” is one of the milder reasons. Some reasons are more pointed, “People in church are a bunch of hypocrites. They call themselves Christians, but they don’t act that way.” Other people find that traditional churches fall far short on discipleship. They’re not content to come and worship for an hour a week and then not take action in the community.

Some people have been seriously hurt by the church. While we might immediately think of clergy abuse, it is more often for something less dramatic. Pastors can say some pretty hurtful things when we are too dogmatic, which is why the current pope has become so popular. While he has made practically no changes to church doctrine, he has given the church a more compassionate voice, which has softened its harshness. One example was his response to homosexuality, “Who am I to judge?” He also softened the church around its divorced members by encouraging the church to embrace their spouses and children and that divorced members are not to be excommunicated.

I’m pretty certain that many of the people who come to Cathedral in the Night won’t come into our churches because they would feel embarrassed. Though we would say, “We don’t discriminate. We welcome everyone,” they know differently. Not all of them have dirty and torn clothes. Not all of them smell. Not all of them show clear signs of mental illness. Not all of them are unwashed. Not all of them talk like we do. Not all of them became or are addicted to drugs or alcohol or both. Not all of them have broken with their families. Not all of them have spent time in jail or prison. But almost all of them know that they are not really like us inside the church and that makes them uncomfortable. They have little in common with us. Let’s also admit, their presence will be challenging for us as well.

I remember the first time I went to Cathedral in the Night in Northampton. I went with the senior warden from St. Stephen’s Church and their associate pastor. On the way back the pastor and I asked him, “What did you think about the service?” He replied, “I’ve never worshiped with people on the other side of the wall.”

A few people I spoke with at Common Ground said that they prefer worship where they can talk and ask questions rather than traditional worship. They also like the greater sense of community they have sitting at tables and breaking bread with other people rather than sitting in seeming isolation.

Stumbling blocks. They’re ours. We wonder why people aren’t in church without realizing that many of them who are outside our door or just down the street really want to have a relationship with Jesus. They can’t because they’ve encountered stumbling blocks.
When we step back and look at ourselves critically, we can probably find other stumbling blocks. We might question why we worship on Sunday mornings, especially when the ideal church household of two parents and a couple of children typically has two wage earners working Mondays through Fridays leaving them only Saturday to do errands. Sunday mornings would be their only morning family time. Seriously, I have a colleague who once said to me, “If I weren’t a pastor, I wouldn’t come Sunday mornings either.”

Another stumbling block is not providing an open and safe space for people to ask their deep spiritual questions. I’ve heard from more than a few people as they approached death, “How can God love me when I’ve used drugs?” Or trying to help people sort out the injustice when a young child dies of a disease, especially after people tell the parents “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” or “This was all part of God’s plan.” Or even questions about church doctrine, “Can I be a Christian if I don’t believe in the virgin birth?”

Though we think about handicap accessibility for people in wheelchairs and walkers, how many of our services accommodate people with hearing as well as vision deficits?
Not long ago I questioned how anyone could be an SBNR, Spiritual but Not Religious. What I’ve come to see, especially through my other ministries, is that there are many people who are deeply spiritual, but who confront stumbling blocks when it comes to religion.

Like the man casting out demons, there are many people who want to do the Jesus work and know that we should be servants to all. There are many people who will willingly commit their lives to a cause. And yet many of these people can’t find an easy path into our fellowship.

What I’m asking is for us to take a step back and pause. As we move into a new future, we might want to begin asking ourselves questions and stop taking so much for granted. What has changed in our secular lives that we have yet to translate into our church practices? How can we hear what SBNRs have to say? Where do we go to understand why too many people on the underside of our communities can’t find a home in our churches? What are those deep spiritual questions we’re reluctant to answer ourselves? How are we getting in the way?

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Servant Leadership for Healthier Communities

This is today’s sermon based upon Mark 9:30-37.  I gave it a new title as the original had nothing to do with what I said today.  I begin this sermon with career satisfaction.  I also note that today’s New York Times had an essay on our toxic work world, which was a bit of coincidental timing.

One of my colleagues posted something the other day about clergy being the most satisfying career. I searched the internet to find its source. One published by the National Opinion Research Center also known as NORC found the five most satisfying jobs in descending order were: clergy, physical therapist, firefighter, school principal, and artist. The survey did not count financial compensation. Though I found references to a couple of other surveys, clergy remained the most satisfying occupation while other careers filled in positions two through five.

I’ve had five different careers, not jobs, careers. I can firmly attest that this one is the most satisfying. Here’s my career list in chronological order: urban and regional planner (specializing in labor market analysis), cartographer, systems analyst, IT something or rather, and clergy. I can measure satisfaction in a couple of ways. First, my overall satisfaction measured by how much I loved my work. This career is unsurpassed. Urban planning was a close second, though. Second, the length of time for this career, which is no contest. This is the longest I’ve spent in a career. IT is second, but ranks lowest among my five in overall satisfaction. On the other hand, I have to concede that if it weren’t for my dissatisfaction with IT, I would not have made the career switch to become clergy.
Satisfaction has a direct correlation to the nature of the work performed by clergy, which we call ministry.

The verb minister comes from the medieval French word menistrer meaning to serve, be of service, administer, attend, wait on. The French derives from the Latin word ministrare meaning to serve, attend, wait upon. The noun minister comes from the Old French world menistre meaning servant, valet, member of a household staff, administrator, musician, minstrel. The French word came from the Latin ministri meaning inferior, servant, priest’s assistant. Ministry, the work of the clergy, is a work of service. But it implicitly establishes a social hierarchy in that the work is the work of a servant to someone higher, particularly seen through its Latin origins.

When we ordain someone in the United Church of Christ, the ritual begins by inviting the ordinand to come forward with these words “_______________ servant of God.” And the end is most extraordinary. When I knelt down all the clergy who were my pastors up to that point laid hands upon me. Next, my remaining colleagues. Those who could not directly lay hands on me, lightly touched the shoulders of those who had their hand upon me. Then, everyone was invited to touch the shoulders of those in front of them so that everyone was connected to me either directly or through someone else. A prayer was spoken and though the touch was light, I felt a heaviness, a weight I had never felt before or since settle upon me. It was an ontological moment, meaning a change in the state of being, from ordinand to ordained.

The NORC survey noted that serving others was the distinctive characteristic which made the top five careers most satisfying. I can’t speak for the other careers, but from my perspective that’s what makes ministry so satisfying. But it’s not just that we serve others. Other people in other careers do many of the things clergy do: working with people who are sick, running institutions, and assisting people. Other people teach. Other people write. And almost everyone goes to meetings.

Satisfaction comes because we are servants of God. That ontological moment at ordination shifts our understanding of our purpose. In that moment we come to understand that our purpose is not to serve ourselves, but to serve others. We become servant leaders. Furthermore, we don’t just labor in ministry in service to others. We don’t just serve our community. We are called by God. We serve God.

What we do is ministry, even though it is work. That’s an intentional distinction. The word reflects its ancient roots. That ontological moment changed my entire sense and understanding of myself. It made clear that the weight I felt was the obligation Jesus gave to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and now rested upon me.

Bear in mind, though, Jesus did not aim his remarks at clergy. He spoke to all of us.

We are all called, not just clergy, to be servant leaders. It’s also not a rank in the pecking order of society, but it is a way we should approach life. God calls upon everyone to be servant leaders because a community cannot be healthy without this framework. Martin Luther made clear that the church is the priesthood of all believers, meaning that the work of ministry is not the exclusive domain of the clergy, but for all people. I would extend Luther’s advice to embrace all people, Christian or not. Furthermore, Luther declared that every legitimate type of work is a calling from God. We cannot have a healthy community if everyone seeks to stand above his or her neighbor or to “win” at the expense of our neighbor.

I’m not saying, though, that we all have to work harder as members of this church or that everyone has to be part of a faith community in order to do ministry. Ministry is the way we understand our lives. It is how we work. It is how we play. It is how we live. Ministry is a way of life. Ministry is an orientation towards life.

How would your life change if you embraced your life as a ministry? Some careers would be easy to see as a ministry. Teaching is one of the ancient practices of the church. Seeing that as ministry is not a huge leap. It might shift, however, from just teaching children to recognizing it as preparing students to work towards making a brighter collective future. Certainly a doctor or someone in a medical field could see that career as a ministry – the career directly correlates to bringing healing and wholeness to a person’s body.

But what about a financial planner? This is a ministry when we understand it not by just helping people maximize their assets, but by helping people reach their financial goals in order for them to have the life they seek. A car mechanic works on a machine which is absolutely essential for many people to use so they can get to work, shop for food, or seek out destinations for pleasure. An artist not only creates and presents beauty to us, but an artist also can help us touch our deepest emotions and truths so we might be better able to comprehend the world in which we live and to open our eyes and ears and hearts to the glory of God’s creation.

I can’t go into every career. But seeing a career as a ministry requires reframing its tasks and responsibilities towards uplifting the greater good. Still, ministry is not just how we frame our careers. We cannot overlook that ministry is a way of life. It’s total. When we understand that living as Jesus asks of every disciple is service to one another, it changes everything about community. We move away from trying to grab everything for ourselves to ensuring that no one is suffering from deprivation and scarcity. We become less self-centered and more generous in spirit and in practice. We can let go of fear, especially fear of the foreigner and stranger, to embrace love. We no longer see people as beneath us, but we come to support them to live in a manner so they can reach their fullest potential. We live not for ourselves, but for everyone around us. We live to create the reign of God on earth which we understand through Jesus’ teachings and ministries.

I don’t know if you read the article in yesterday’s Berkshire Eagle on CHP’s, Community Health Program’s, 40th anniversary. Its director of Family Services, Michelle Derr, came to them as a “pregnant, single, uninsured soon-to-be mom.” Based upon the article CHP, whether intentional or not lived out its program as a ministry. The agency helped her obtain health insurance. Derr describing her experience, “were compassionate, and kind, and supportive. They did not judge me…. And they were with me every step of the way.” That was ministry. Meeting people where they are. Providing compassion without judgment. Being generous in spirit. Letting love dictate how we respond to each other. Ministry is as much about the actions to serve someone as in the manner and spirit with which we serve.

Embracing servant leadership and living our lives as ministry will strengthen community. We want a community where compassion is paramount. We need a community where scarcity and deprivation are no more. We cannot have true community without embracing all people without regard to gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, culture, physical ability, mental ability – in short we can’t be a true community if it does not resemble the celestial feast God sets for us at the end of our days.

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were a tall order. They haven’t changed for us. They remain necessary for the true peace and true justice for which we all yearn and all deserve.

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Being Present for the Dying

Death is a part of a pastor’s ministry because it is part of life. OK, true, I do some hospice work, which makes death a regularity. This summer, though, was particularly trying. I had two funerals within a week in July. I had three funerals in the last eight days.

As I work very part time as a hospice chaplain I don’t have many patients, although this summer I had one, a ten-year old girl.  Even when a patient dies, we don’t always preside over the funeral.  Many patients have their own clergy.

Two funerals were related to the church.  One died as a current member and another as a former member.  Those I did within a week of each other in July.

Two funerals were for veterans at the shelter.  Both had cancer and were on hospice.  They died within a couple of days of each other.  Both men had a history of drug abuse.  They had family, but due to their addictions their family connections were strained even in love.  I did them a week apart, September 5 and 12.

The fifth funeral was for my ten-year old patient.  I did that one September 5.

I don’t recall having to preside over this many funerals in this short a period.  I also happened to support a couple of other people who died this summer, but did not have to preside over their funerals.

Although dying and death are a part of life, they are not activities people relish.  I remember years ago when I first began in ministry, one of my wife’s colleagues at the time asked me how it was going.  I said, “Today, I spent a couple of hours with an elderly couple eating fresh gingerbread and drinking coffee.”  He said, “That sounds pretty good.  I could do that.”  I then said, “But keep in mind that I also have to tend to people who are dying.”  “Oh, yeah, not for me,” he said.

I can’t speak for all my colleagues, just me.  But have you wondered what it’s like for a pastor to deal with dying and death?

Without a doubt, this is a sad task.  It really doesn’t matter how many people I’ve supported as they died, each death makes me pause in my day.  Of course, how well I knew the deceased makes a difference.  Honestly, I feel the loss more acutely when I know the person than when I don’t.  The better I know the deceased and the family, the more compassion I have.

When I can be with the person as he is dying, I seek to give him peace.  I patiently answer deep spiritual questions, such as “what is dying like?”  I sometimes need to quell the anxiety around his life.  I might help the patient review his life to give him some affirmation that his life mattered to his family, friends, and community.

Given the veterans I serve, many of them had troubled lives.  They had addictions. Many were in and out of jail.  Often their connections to family are gone or at best thin.  Many will reflect upon their lives and have a deep fear that they will not find salvation.  I work with them diligently to help them find peace by validating their life and by speaking passionately about God’s love.

I can’t ignore the family or close friends who care for the dying person.  Often I have to help them.  Sometimes they wonder if they did enough (they did).  Sometimes they are angry and I have to figure out the source of the anger.  Particularly when the disease is especially difficult, like ALS, I’m apt to say, “People are telling you God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.  And you’re thinking, ‘That’s a bunch of crap because if God’s giving me this, I don’t want anything to do with God.”  They usually nod in agreement.  (Hint: Because dying is uncomfortable anyway, don’t say stuff that makes you comfortable.  If you’re uncomfortable, imagine them.  Try saying, “I’m sorry,” which is true or “If I can be of help, let me know” and mean it.)  Sometimes family members are at a loss for what to do as death approaches.  I remind them that hearing is the last sense to go, so tell the person you love her and thank her for what she did for you.  I also remind them that it is not always possible to be at bedside when the person dies.  Some people don’t want loved ones to see them take their last breath.

This is difficult work.  It’s tiring, though rewarding.  Some sessions drain me, especially when the dying person had a very troubled life.

When the person dies, I try to meet with family members to help them process the death.  We might talk about funeral plans, but mostly we talk about the person’s life and what would give them comfort.  I ask a lot of questions to prompt them.  I don’t try to fill silences, either.  I try to use our time to put the deceased in past tense for the survivors can move on.  We talk a bit about the grieving process, especially noting that it could take a full 18 months to two years.

Then the funeral or memorial service.  I spend at least a couple of hours preparing the service.  Preparation has gotten easier for me over the years as I have a sizable collection of services from which to draw upon, especially prayers.  But I always write the homily without drawing upon past services.  The deceased was unique.  Her life was special, even if it was hardly a stellar life.  This is deeply reflective work.  I feel the weight of responsibility to put a spiritual and theological framework around the person’s life in order for those present at the service to find comfort and hope for something better for the deceased.  Though those who come to the service will have their own memories of the deceased, I try to help them find meaning about the deceased’s life so they can carry it with them as they begin their extended grief.

When I look at the congregation, I feel the heavy weight of responsibility to carry everyone’s grief for the time we’re together.  I have to do it and hold my composure because the congregation needs to feel that the preacher is strong enough to lead them, even if I’m not sure if I can make it.  When I did the funeral for the 10-year old girl, I worried that I would falter when we sang the one hymn “Hymn of Promise“towards the end of the service.

I’m spent when the service over.  I’m not able to do much afterwards.  I want to seek out a quiet space because I’m reflecting too.  But, usually right after the service I’m with other people, such as mourners or just church staff.  I usually get through the social stuff.  When I’m alone I need a couple of hours.

Sometimes, though, such as the summer I had, the deaths take their toll.  I was tired at the end of July and through August.  I took a couple of weeks off at the end of August for vacation, which was restorative, but upon returning, the 10-year old died and brought everything back.

I cope using deep prayer.  It’s been my saving grace.  I also will use humor.  I’m not alone in using humor to relieve death’s weight.  If you stumbled upon us making jokes, especially about death and dying, you’d think we were unfeeling, but in reality, we need to make jokes (in moderation, of course) to relieve the stress.

Though death is a part of pastoral ministry, it doesn’t mean that it is a clinical task of ministry.  I grieve, too.  Maybe not quite like the family or close friends, but I grieve like a lot of the community.  Each funeral takes a bit of something out of me.  Some funerals, such as for drug addicted veterans or young children, can be exceptionally difficult and draining.

After a funeral, give your pastor some space.  Don’t talk about the latest brouhaha at the church because it rarely comes close to the profundity of death.  If possible, give the pastor some extra time off, especially if the pastor had a few funerals within weeks of each other.  Ask how the pastor is feeling.  Pray for your pastor.

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Busyness is Not Always Good Business

The New York Times recently published a long article on the work practices at Amazon.  It described a work culture which could best be described as horrible.  It reported that people will receive work e-mails at midnight with a text message follow up a little while later demanding why the e-mail was not answered.  It described an internal evaluation system which allows employees to make anonymous comments to supervisors about other employees and a culture which promotes critical comments which too often are destructive rather than constructive.  It also told of a compassion deficit for people who had to care for ailing parents or for employees who suffered a personal loss, such as a miscarriage.

Other media outlets picked up this story.  The Times published Jeff Bezos’ response in which he basically said he doesn’t recognize the company described in the original article and that “anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

The paper published comments from current and former Amazon employees as well as people who have had connections with Amazon employees, including family members and at least one tech recruiter.  While some comments contradicted the article’s descriptions, most of them supported it.

Since the article,  the Times published related articles to the workplace independent of Amazon, including software to monitor employees’s work time and today’s competitive work environment.

Maybe because I’m on vacation this week and taking a real break from all my ministries or maybe because I’ve been working in the church too long, these articles have been churning in my mind.

The article on today’s work environment touched on its history.  Our corporate model began at the turn of the 20th Century in the New York law firm Cravath.  They hired a slew of highly competent law school graduates and over time through their work they would prove themselves worthy to receive a partnership. The article noted that the difference in compensation between partnership and the next tier below was dramatic, which created a highly competitive environment.  This environment worked to cull most of the new hires  over time.

People wanted to prove themselves worthy to move into the tier above them, so they worked very hard, which gets me to the software.  The article described apps which can monitor an employee’s whereabouts 24 hours a day.  General Electric uses a smartphone app which the supervisor can give an employee immediate feedback after a presentation.  Other software can monitor what an employee is working on or if the employee is working at all.

All of this has left me thinking that corporations view their employees as cogs in a vast machine.  OK, this is not exactly new.  Working for large corporations has been like working as a cog in a vast machine seemingly forever.  Heck, it’s the same for government or any large organization for that matter.

But the infusion of technology into the workplace bothers me, especially technology that can track us and rate us on all of our activities.  It re-enforces the machine culture in which too many employees are cogs, and which Charlie Chaplin captured brilliantly in Modern Times.

Without the technology infusion there was still a human element in the workplace, even in the biggest corporations.  Water cooler conversations were hardly productive from a corporate perspective, but it built a sense of shared community in the workforce.  Software, however, can identify those down times.  Certainly management can allow for some water cooler time, but how much and when?  Those conversations were spontaneous and could last for an imprecise number of minutes.

More nebulous are face to face informal meetings to talk about a problem.  But even those meetings will sometimes drift into non-work topics.  I can see a dialogue something like this:

A:  We’re onto something, but I think we need to tweak this some more.  I have another meeting in ten minutes.  Can we touch base this evening to wrap this up for our morning presentation?

B:  We should, but Tim’s got a basketball game tonight and …

A:  Hey, how’s he doing?  He’s in what grade now?

B:  He’s a junior.  That’s the thing after the game we were going to map out the next college road trip.

A:  Where does he want to go? ….

You can see where this is going.

What about silence?  Silence is more important than we realize.  In today’s world when everything seems to work and move at hyperspeed, silence doesn’t seem to have a place anymore.  People may think of silence as a doing nothing.  But like sleep, silence allows us space and time to process and reflect.

Too often people go from meeting to meeting or leave a meeting and then proceed to answer a slew of voice mails which stacked up during the meeting.  Where is there time to think about what transpired during the meeting?  And that thinking extends beyond the project at hand and even the corporation.  What impact does the meeting’s decision have upon the world itself?  Or expressed differently, what does it really matter that you can order something from Amazon and have it at your door in an hour?

There’s nothing wrong with hard work.  But is it really necessary to use technology to squeeze humanity out of the workplace?  When the organization’s success, generally measured in profits, takes precedent over human life, we’ve reduced every employee to a cog in the corporate machinery.

We’ve placed a premium on efficiency in order to increase productivity.  Efficiency’s tentacles have spread beyond the corporation and have touched many aspects of our lives.  Our time is too precious to go to the store to purchase food and prepare it, so we order it on-line to have a dinner kit shipped to our door with everything pre-cut and pre-mixed to leave us with the feeling that we’ve cooked our dinner.  We order from Amazon because we don’t have time to go to the store and look for whatever we must have.

But what’s so bad if we stop to purchase groceries on our way home from work?  We might stumble across a food item which we never ate before or we might have a brief conversation with the produce manager to learn a new way to prepare a vegetable or we might enjoy a pleasant greeting from the person at the checkout.  If we go to the store, we might run into a friend or neighbor we haven’t seen in awhile.  But living our lives efficiently means we don’t get these moments of serendipity.

Less busyness gives us space to for a mental pause.  We get a chance to reflect upon what just happened or how our day has been going.  We get a chance to think more expansively about what we discussed in the meeting and to wonder about its impact beyond the bottom line.  We also come to value what really matters, our life and the lives of the people we see: family, neighbors, friends, and strangers.

Less busyness means we don’t reduce life to some vast machine without a soul.

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Five Smooth Stones

This is the sermon I preached today, the fourth Sunday after the Pentecost.   I used the David and Goliath story, today’s lectionary reading (1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49), to comment upon Wednesday’s shooting in Charleston.

Wednesday’s shooting in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina horrified this nation. Nine people, including its pastor, were shot dead by Dylann Storm Roof. But let’s not dignify Mr. Roof without dignifying the nine who died: the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, and the Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.

By now we know the details. He sat with in Bible study with his victims for an hour before shooting them. He wore a jacket with white supremacy symbols. He didn’t shoot everyone in the room; he left a few to tell others of his horrendous deed.

Let’s call it for what it was. This was a racially motivated attack. It was a hate crime. It was a terrorist attack aimed at black members of a black church, which holds special and historic significance in the black community. Let’s also not say that the shooter was mentally-ill or a loner or a lost soul. He was a racist who intended to kill black people.

And the public wept. Spoken words expressed outrage and sorrow. Politicians said some variation on, “That’s not who we are.” South Carolina’s governor talked a lot about the need to be in prayer and made a point to say that all of its officials will be in prayer. Others saw hope in that people regardless of race came together for prayer vigils or to express collective sorrow.

But this is what people say after tragedies like this. To say otherwise would sound out of synch. But we’ve been saying this too much. It’s said so often that I feel it has become part of the public ritual that plays out across this land to take away the hurt. Yet, after our public ritual, we return to life as normal, and we ignore race and its weight that bears down upon us.

Race in America. It’s real. It’s in our faces. It was the hot discussion around Rachel Dolezal until the shooting bumped it off the front page. Race in America and its repugnant and ugly children, racism and privilege, are our scourges. Race is a problem, even for people who are not racists. Race is a problem, even for people of color, like me. Race is a problem no matter where someone sits on the political spectrum. Race touches practically every aspect of our lives no matter how we identify ourselves racially. Race is not their problem, but our problem, and if we don’t own this problem, it will consume us.

Race is our Goliath. It looms large over us. It taunts us and we can’t confront it. We’re Saul’s army. Like them we dither in the face of this giant. So, we spew platitudes and say the appropriate things and promise that we will do better, and then we go back to our lives.

In the last twelve months we’ve had shootings by police and Islamists. During the same period we saw street violence in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore. The dramatically different perceptions of those events between whites and people of color expose our racial problem. Note that I’m not saying which side was right or that they were justified or unjustified. My point is that our perspectives and the way we interpreted those events tracked closely with race and that’s our problem.

Consider how the media portrays these events. When a crowd of blacks commit violent acts, they are thugs, but their white counterparts are rowdy. When a gunman of color shoots people indiscriminately, he is a terrorists, but a white gunman is a loner or is mentally ill. When Islamists shot two people outside an art exhibition of images depicting Mohammad, it was characterized as a terrorist attack, but Wednesday’s shooting was a hate crime.

Listening to the talk about terrorism threats, we instinctively look abroad. We look at dark-skinned people with suspicion. We think that terrorism will come from Al-Qaeda or ISIS, but this past week a survey issued by the Police Executive Research Forum reported that last year police departments around the country found that domestic anti-government extremism was almost twice the threat than groups like Al-Qaeda or similar organizations. The New York Times noted that since 9/11 about 20 Islamist terrorist attacks have occurred in the United States causing 50 fatalities whereas right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year accounting for 254 fatalities.[1] And here’s where I get sick. Some quarters of our media portray right-wing extremists as heroes who stand against encroaching government overreach rather than people who are angry that the president is black. As evidence, consider the increase in the number of anti-government Patriot groups since 2008. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 149 in 2008 and is currently at 874, which is down from the high in 2012 of 1360.[2]

But let’s not think that race is not some abstract problem which has no bearing here and now in this time and place, especially in this little corner of God’s creation. Take the article this past week in the Berkshire Eagle about Pitt Park. The local NAACP chapter wants the basketball courts fixed in time for the West Side’s Gather In festival at the end of July. The city says it can’t work that fast due to the competitive bidding process, but it could make some temporary patches. It all seems reasonable, except that Pittsfield’s West Side has gotten too little attention from the city for years. It’s been the city’s step-child who isn’t quite loved enough to get even the crumbs which fall from the table. Pitt Park is the stand-in for our racial divide.

I don’t often talk about race from the pulpit as I am today. It comes out from time to time in the way I see contemporary issues, such as proposals for immigration reform which advocate deportation or building a wall, which, I’ll be blunt, I see as racist. But on a whole I don’t make it a defining part of my ministry. Yet, I am fully aware that I am often the only person of color in most of the congregations I visit. Last week at the Massachusetts Conference Annual Meeting Amy saw a vendor who made religious jewelry out of stone. As her birthday is today and she was fairly confident that I hadn’t gotten her anything, she picked out a piece. She then told him that when he saw a Chinese man to tell him this is what she wanted. He found me because I was the only Chinese man among 300 people.

It’s not that our congregations, our association, our Conference, or even our denomination is racist, but the absence of people of color is another example of race as our collective problem.

We’re not even aware that race taints almost every aspect of our lives in this nation. Recently Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute traced the way government housing policies segregated this country’s metropolitan areas.[3] When we use property taxes to fund our schools, academically struggling schools track closely to poor communities where the student body is predominately not white. Our jails and prisons house black men at a rate far exceeding their percentage of the general population. Sociologically, this has decimated family structures in the black community.

The black scholar Cornel West wrote, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in America, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society – flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues. As long as black people are viewed as a ‘them,’ the burden falls upon blacks to do all the ‘cultural’ and ‘moral’ work necessary for healthy relations. The implication is that only certain Americans can define what it means to be American – and the rest simply ‘fit in.’”[4]

David went to the wadi and chose five smooth stones. Let’s pick up the stones from the wadi through which love runs. Love made them smooth. But these stones are not just any stones. Our stones have names:

  • Compassion – this goes without saying. We have to approach race and each other with open hearts.
  • Empathy – we won’t begin to strike down Goliath unless we have empathy for each other. We cannot begin to close our divide without knowing and understanding the cultural, historical, and sociological contexts of each others’ lives.
  • Courage – We have to have courage to listen to words and perspectives that might hurt us because they overturn what we have always thought about ourselves.
  • Forgiveness – which is not just what we might have personally done or not done, but also to forgive for wounds inflicted in the past, especially the sins of omission.
  • Atonement – we cannot move forward without acknowledging and reconciling the sins inflicted in the past. Furthermore, what steps moving forward must we take to rectify the damage that was incurred?

The Goliath that is race in America will taunt us and diminish us as a people if we do not step forward to take it on. It is far more damaging than any external threat from beyond our borders. We must talk, ideally in settings where whites and people of color can sit together, but even if it is all one race, we must talk.

[1] Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer. The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat. The New York Times. June 16, 2015.



[4] Cornel West. Race Matters. Vintage Books:New York. 1994 Pages 6

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Memorial Day – A Pastor’s Reflection

I spent this morning at a local Memorial Day ceremony.  The chaplain at the local VFW chapter asked me as one of the local clergy to provide the prayer of invocation and the benediction.  Having served as clergy in small towns, a request from a local veteran’s group for this service is not unusual.  It’s an honor to do it.

If I am not called upon to participate in this local event, I usually attend the one in Pittsfield.  The ritual has a sacred aspect and one that I believe a community should pause long enough to acknowledge.  Memorial Day commemorations are for the community to remember and acknowledge the men and women from the community who went to war and never returned.

It is a solemn occasion.  It also pairs religion and patriotism, which becomes troubling if it moves to nationalism.  Slipping into nationalism is easy because the day often promotes American mythology, wars in which men and women died were fought for freedom, specifically our freedom.  Add to that Anselm’s belief that Jesus’ death on a cross and it elevates death in battle to a noble and righteous sacrifice.  Thus we are freed not only from political oppression, but freed from our sinfulness as a nation as well.

We can’t ignore that this nation was founded in war.  The Revolutionary War was the violent overthrow of English rule over the colonies and the success of that war brought about our birth and freedom as a nation.  A few decades later the War of 1812 solidified it.

The Civil War also contributed to our American mythology.  Both sides could justify the war.  Union soldiers died to preserve the nation.  Even Confederate soldiers died to sustain a cause.

As we advance through our history, though, making a blanket statement that men and women died to preserve our freedom gets more difficult.  Could we say that about Korea or Vietnam?  How did the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan preserve our freedom, even if they were fought in response to a deadly terrorist attack?  And the current drumbeats to become more involved in the conflict with ISIS stretch this blanket statement even further.

Saying reflexively that men and women died for our freedom is a statement which exposes our reluctance to confront our mythology.  Without offering a critical note to our mythology, we perpetuate our justification to project and protect our national values and interests through weapons of violence of destruction.  We don’t encourage exploring non-violent, peaceful alternatives.

I’m not sure how many clergy today will note the contradiction war has with the gospel.  While it would be inappropriate to contradict directly the speakers who readily tell us that men and women died for our freedom, I believe it is a dereliction of our responsibility not to note in our remarks that war is contrary to God’s desires.  Without critical notes, we implicitly offering our blessing to the proceedings and the mythology conveyed through the ritual.

Here are my remarks from this morning:

Prayer of Invocation

O God, we gather this morning to remember and honor your sons and daughters who left home in service to this nation. They responded to the call. They faced evil. They lost their lives. They never saw home again. While their faces may have faded from our memories, we know them by their names etched in these stones. You, however, O God, know them because they are with you for all eternity. Their faces are forever young. Nevertheless, their deaths left wounded and empty hearts among their families, friends, and community. Bind up the wounds and wipe away the tears. Fill the broken hearts with your love and compassion. Help us to be mindful that they will carry their heavy hearts to their graves. Finally, O God, we pray that the world’s political leadership will recognize war’s madness and brutality. Grant that they will take to heart the words of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Open their eyes, their minds, and their hearts to understand that war is the most abhorrent of all options to settle differences and that true peace will only come when we extend to all people your justice, rooted in you steadfast love. Amen.


As we leave this hallowed ground we will carry with us our memories of those who rest here under this sheltering sky. Do not forget that they heeded their nation’s call and gave their lives for it. Give comfort to those families who lost sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. Honor the fallen by the lives we lead: giving hope to the hopeless, comforting the afflicted, and pursuing justice for the oppressed so all people will know God’s peace. Amen.

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Can I Turn Off this Campaign Until October 2016?

I haven’t been able to write much lately.  Too much stuff has been happening with my ministries.  On the other hand, there has been a lot of stuff happening in the world too.

The events in the world are really complex.  I have this nagging feeling that something is really wrong and that the something is some grand theory I can’t quite identify.  I can  identify its parts:  globalization of capital, disruptive technology, post-modernism, climate change (and our national leadership’s blindness to it), nationalism, racism, expanding income inequality … you can probably name several more.

The world, or maybe more accurately, life in this country has changed and not necessarily for the good.  Here’s an excerpt from my sermon a couple of weeks ago:

“It seems like we’ve lost a sense of shared responsibility for community. We have community, but it has become sliced economically, racially, demographically, religiously, socially, politically, and whatever other category we can name. I don’t get the feeling that the common good prevails anymore or that we have a shared destiny.

“Then, perhaps, maybe we’ve never had true community. Maybe it was an illusion created by the media in the 1960s and 1970s where families were intact and typically white, except for the Huxtable family. Baltimore is only the latest city to suffer riots. Remember Watts in the 1960s? Boston in the 1970s? Cincinnati in 2001? Though marriage equality has exposed major fault lines between the left and the right today, two generations ago we had the Vietnam War. We’ve had our Kumbaya moments, but our norm has been a nation where whites and people of color typically see the same event through two different lenses.”

Of course, I ended talking about the church’s responsibility to create authentic community:

“…where the values preached are the values lived, where all people are truly welcomed into the community’s fellowship, and where questions about faith and belief are not only accepted, but encouraged.

“Young-old, rich-poor, liberal-conservative, orthodox-progressive, immigrant-native, straight-queer, white-people of color, employed-unemployed, when we all come together, that’s the church. Together we bring our perspectives and by sharing them we come to a common understanding. As Christians we share a living faith rooted in God’s radical, inclusive love. We hold in common a belief that God’s creation is one of abundance so that when shared appropriately no one should know scarcity or deprivation. We have faith in the bread and the cup as the real implements to lasting peace and that wealth is measured not by how much we have, but how much we give away. We value the common good and acknowledge that injustice anywhere frays and rips the fabric of our community no matter its size. We hold fast to the teachings of Jesus and try to live them out as best we can every day of our lives, knowing that we are forgiven by God’s steadfast love when we fall short. We should seek to create this type of community. Then, we can come together to learn and practice to speak and minister together across the divides between us. We will come to respect each other, even when we disagree, and remember that despite our differences we are a stronger community together than we are alone.”

I thought it preached well, but then there weren’t many in church that day and I’m not sure how many spread my message after they left.

What I preached hints at what bugs me about the now-upon-us-way-too-soon 2016 election cycle.  We’ve got serious problems as a nation and the announced candidates, except maybe for Sen. Sanders, aren’t really addressing them.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you can probably guess that none of the GOP candidates resonate with me.  They’re not serious about addressing income inequality. They have no plan to replace the Affordable Care Act if the Supreme Court invalidates the federal health exchange (reminds me of the dog that chases cars – it has no idea what to do when it catches it).  They can’t figure out immigration.  Those candidates who are in Congress have a lot of bluster about the debacle in Iraq-Syria, but can’t give the President authorization to pursue the military action (which would be a huge mistake, but that’s another post).  Climate change is a non-starter.  Their positions on marriage equality and women’s reproductive health are absolutely ancient.

Clinton, however, is just as bad.  She’s doing a lot of listening.  That’s a good thing because she’s listening to the people.  She’s going to Chipotle and visiting small businesses so she can listen.  She’s stopping in towns across Iowa to listen.  Did I mention that she is intent upon listening?  What a crock!! She’s been about as close to the nation’s political and policy center as anyone since 1992.  Her husband was President of the United States for eight years.  She’s been a United States Senator and a Secretary of State.  And she is very smart.  She should have some serious ideas by now, but she avoids answering journalists’ questions and she needs a passel of advisers to formulate her positions.

Even when she was coy about running, I never got any inkling why she wanted to be POTUS, except that she “earned” it or it was her turn.  Her listening and not talking tells me she has no vision for this nation or even a passion to make a difference.

I like Bernie Sanders.  Of all the candidates he seems to have a vision for the future, but I await the details how he plans to pay for this vision.  Besides, Bernie Sanders remains an independent, even though he is running as a Democrat.  I’ll give him this, he’s entertaining.

Let’s not overlook the media’s role.  The recent essay by James Fallows in The Atlantic is a case in point.   He observed that the recent favorite question to the candidates, “If you knew then what we know now about Iraq, would you have gone to war?” is as shallow as “Knowing what we know now, would you have bought a ticket on Malaysia Air flight 370?”  But the media is not asking hard questions on any topic. Consider this one which no one asked of any candidate with regards to the recent Amtrak crash – “Please describe your vision for an integrated, comprehensive transportation policy balancing air, highways, and rails.  And how do you see Amtrak’s funding fitting into your scheme?”  (Note the New York Times article on our nation’s funding of rail travel compared to other nations.)

Unless the candidates can say something of substance and can forge a vision to address the elusive unsettled sense of community in this country, I don’t want to hear them.

Maybe what bothers me is that our national leadership is unwilling to acknowledge that we must take some dramatic actions to address issues such as race, immigration, climate change, disruptive technology, global capital, income inequality, and post-modernism if we are to maintain this nation’s exceptionalism.  And as a people, we need to hear this truth telling.  But until that truth telling becomes a reality, please spare me the shallowness of this campaign.

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