We Must not Resume Torture

The New York Times (January 5, 2017) reported that Donald Trump believes that torture works.

Each day I read news which saddens me.  The direction that the Trump administration seems to lay out through his appointments and his statements will bring about a terrible turn for our future.  It’s not just my own disagreements from a policy perspective, but something far deeper.  It is completely antithetical to the gospel.  This latest statement exposes Trump’s lack of moral clarity.

His designee for Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, stated that torture does not work.  His perspective squares with many other international observers.  Furthermore, torture is immoral.  We can be thankful that President Obama banned torture.  However, our moral authority will end with the first reported torture under the Trump administration.

This article made me recall a sermon I wrote in 2008 against torture.  It was published by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  (You can read other sermons on their site.)  Given that Obama pledged not to use torture, I hadn’t thought about this sermon for awhile.  Now, however, that Trump may bring it back, I’ll print it here:

I preached this while I was in Plainfield, MA.  It was for Reformation Sunday.  I realize it was an odd topic to preach on that day, but let’s just say I was prodded to take on the topic of torture.  The texts were:  Romans 3:19-28 and John 8:31-36.  The title was “Breaking with the Past.”

Regardless who wins next month, both candidates for President have promised to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  This facility has gained notoriety with its legal limbo and as a site where the government practiced torture upon some of its prisoners.  Government documents indicate that some of these practices were later applied at other U. S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Torture has been one weapon used in the current war on terrorism.  We cannot deny the reports prepared by our own government that documented its use.  As a nation we cannot turn our heads away and make believe it did not happen.

Many people who committed these acts of torture have been prosecuted, but many believe, however, that more should have been done to pursue the charges up the chain of command to include both military and civilian officials.  The difficulty to prosecute them lies in the lack of definitive orders to implement a strategy using torture and a clear definition of what constitutes torture.  I would even add that the fog of war also contributed to the complexity of the issue.

Nevertheless, at some level in some official capacity, this nation has tortured people.  Doing so has diminished our international standing, particularly in the Middle East, especially in Muslim communities.  It has increased the difficulty of achieving peace and reconciliation in this part of the world.  Domestically, torture has opened divisions in this nation to heighten an already partisan atmosphere.

While torture has been a fixture in the current war, it is not new in our history.  The historian, Alfred McCoy, traced torture’s use in American foreign policy back to CIA research from 1950 to 1962 on mind-control.  He described the research as producing “a new approach to torture that was psychological, not physical, perhaps best described as ‘no-touch torture.’”[1]  He also noted that during the Vietnam War we had forty interrogation centers in Vietnam where more than 20,000 were killed and thousands more were tortured.

We’ve had, however, an ambivalent relationship with torture.  Immediately after World War II, this nation’s diplomats had a major role in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners.  Both documents ban torture.  Yet, during the Cold War we backed away from our commitment, only to return to it after the Cold War’s end.  We found torture acceptable once again after the attacks on September 11.

The capability to use torture taps into our worst instincts.  It is not only punitive.  It exploits the power dynamic between the captor and the captive.  Its control of the powerful over the powerless seduces both the interrogators and their superiors in different ways.  Interrogators succumb to its inherent domination over the victims.  Their superiors seek to use it as an all-powerful weapon.  As a result, it easily moves from its use on targeted individuals to any suspected enemy.

Paul would attribute these instincts to our own nature and proclivity to sin.  Bearing in mind Paul’s words, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23) theologically, we all are slaves to sin and only through the dying Christ are we freed.  Our sinful nature has fed our ambivalence with torture, but the inclination of our better selves to reject it gets undermined in a time of fear.  When we succumb to fear and grasp sinful behaviors for our comfort and salvation, we’ve let our faith lapse.  We’ve forgotten the psalmist’s words: “Because he is devoted to Me I will deliver him; I will keep him safe, for he knows My name. When he calls on Me, I will answer him; I will be with him in distress; I will rescue him and make him honored; I will let him live to a ripe old age, and show him My salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16, Tanakh)

Torture’s corrosive effects touch us all directly or indirectly.  Those who torture can suffer emotional and psychological disorders through the expansion of their egos and escalating cruelty.  Indirectly, our international standing has suffered.  We may not realize, however, that the state must weave a complex web of lies to maintain its integrity and that over time this web will weaken the bonds of trust and the rule of law that are paramount in a healthy democracy.  Furthermore, making torture an acceptable strategy of war implicitly condones it in other circumstances, such as its use upon domestic suspects held by local police departments.  The other day a retired Chicago police officer was arrested in connection to 100 cases of police brutality dating back to 1982.

We must not condone torture as our response to fear.  We have to free ourselves from its sinister attractiveness by confronting its truth, torture contravenes God’s law – it is sinful.  The moral philosopher, David Gushee, cited five theological reasons to ban torture entirely[2]:

  • It violates the dignity of human beings, especially as God endowed every person with dignity, value, and worth (Genesis 1:26-28)
  • It mistreats the vulnerable and violates the demands for justice (Exodus 21:22-23)
  • Authorizing torture trusts governments too much (Romans 3:10-18)
  • Torture dehumanizes the torturer
  • Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures

We can be relieved that Gitmo will close and that both candidates have come out on record to oppose torture.  Regardless of the administration, however, the next president should strive to end this nation’s use of torture once and for all.  As a nation we must confront the truth around the way torture has been used in prosecuting this current war as well as its use in previous times of fear.  Perhaps, confronting the truth can take shape along the lines of a truth commission to achieve accountability and to balance justice with political feasibility so that by acknowledging our flirtatious relationship with torture the silence and deceit around it will end.  Such a commission must go beyond those interrogators who used torture in our current war.  It must not so much as go up a chain of command, but trace back through a chain of decisions and circumstances to understand why torture became acceptable after we repudiated it through international bodies and conventions.  It should name those who should be held accountable for ordering torture as well as broaden accountability to identify how our institutions that should check these abuses failed, thus becoming silently complicit.  We must ask ourselves what we fear so much that we would place our trust in such a dehumanizing strategy.

Torture’s gains are elusive and ineffective.  As Christians we don’t have to look too far – Pilate had Jesus flogged.  Pilate may have had the upper hand in Jerusalem for a few days after that, but ultimately, Jesus prevailed.

We will always struggle in the tension between enduring Christian values and those expedient ones of our own devising.  Christian discipleship is not always easy, especially loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.  We’ll never be free, however, of our collective and silent complicity with torture, unless we realize that torture’s power dynamic appeals to our own sinful nature and confront it squarely as a dehumanizing practice that contradicts all that we know as people of faith.

I realize that in this peaceful place we’re far removed from torture’s practice.  I also feel pretty confident to believe that no one here has had a direct hand in practicing torture.  Even without direct involvement, though, when torture is a strategic policy its stain touches us all.  We can end its practice, but we cannot end it by remaining silent.  We should study it, speak about it, and bear witness to its perversion of all that we know as faithful Christians.  We can organize with other brothers and sisters of faith, regardless of denomination or religion, to press our government to face torture squarely because the Holy Spirit will enable all of us to speak truth to power.  Shouldn’t we do that?  Wouldn’t ending our government’s use of torture bring our world another step closer to the kingdom that God desires for all people?

[1] Alfred W. McCoy.  A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror.  Metropolitan Books: New York.  2006 Page 7

[2] David Gushee.  5 Reasons Torture is Always WrongChristianity Today.  February 2006.  Pages 35-37



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Christmas Eve Homily

This is my homily for Christmas Eve.

The New York Times published the year in pictures the other day. Scanning through them I saw several photos of the presidential election. There were pictures of cities destroyed by violence and war and the refugees who had to flee. One picture reminded me of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Another showed a picture of Bolivia’s second largest lake, which is now a dustbowl, and a picture of the Seine in Paris overflowing its banks. Both were due to climate change.

On Wednesday mornings I have breakfast with four colleagues. The other day we talked a bit about what we will preach tonight. We all agreed that this was not what we would call a stellar year. I doubt we’re the only ones who felt this way.

Meanwhile, we’ve been bombarded for weeks with commercials for the Christmas gift your spouse or your child or your parent or your grandparent or your special person in your life would love. We’ve watched Christmas specials about Scroogelike characters and their miraculous transformations, where dreams come true and the true meaning of Christmas is discovered.

Frankly, it all seems bizarre. They’re disconnected and have no bearing on each other. We come into this place tonight to celebrate the birth of Jesus and reaffirm the Christmas message of peace on earth and goodwill to all people. For awhile, we’ll forget that the state of the world is distressing (well, at least from the perspective of five pastors). We’ll say “Here we’ll find the real message of Christmas and not the commercials for the perfect gift and not these miraculous transformations which are hokey beyond belief.”

But they are related in a weird sort of mash up because they collide on Christmas. However, we have to understand Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is far more significant and profound than that. Seeing Christmas as just the birth of Jesus saps it of its transforming power for each of us and for the world.

Christmas is the moment when God came into this world to share our common lot, to struggle with us, to suffer and to die in order to free us from sin and death. In Jesus, as one of my systematic theology professors frequently said, we are loved into freedom. God came to us this night over 2000 years ago squeezed into a tiny infant. Think about that for a moment. An infant without any protection other than Mary and Joseph. An infant born not among the wealthy, but the common people. An infant who commanded no army, but came into this world to transform it through love. An infant who grew to become an itinerant rabbi who proclaimed that transforming this world did not take weapons of destruction, but the bread and the cup.

Transformation comes through love lived out in our relationships with each other and with all of creation. Love is not a just an emotion, but is actions rooted in gratitude, generosity, patience, compassion, and joy. The Grinch’s heart grew two sizes larger because he recognized that Christmas was not about presents and decorations, but having gratitude and joy. Ebenezer Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning transformed because he saw kindness and compassion in his nephew, Fred, and Bob Cratchitt’s gratitude and forgiveness.

We show our generosity by giving gifts at Christmas. Finding that perfect gift makes it special, which nurtures our relationships and is a sign of caring. Commercialism in its own way tries to convey that in its advertising, but the gift we really need and want can’t be bought in stores or on-line. While we can be generous on Christmas, true generosity is an attitude and way of life. The commercials encourage us to give material gifts as tokens and signs of our affections. The commercials are, however, imperfect messengers because they are constrained by the fact that what they promote are products of human endeavors. Christmas is one time during the year when we are commanded and reminded to live out love. The gifts we need and can give away are rooted and found in the spiritual values which were set in each of us while we were in the womb.

Transformation and gifts. They are around us despite what seemed like an awful year. It’s not as though we haven’t had other “bad” years. It‘s not as though the state of the world has declined, either. Though we see devastating destruction in Syria and lament the resulting flood of refugees, here in the Berkshires there is a generally favorable environment to receive 50 Syrian refugees for resettlement in 2017. Though we have many people in our community who will struggle without adequate food or shelter, the Eagle Santa Fund and the Watson Fund in Great Barrington are raising tens of thousands of dollars from the community’s outpoured generosity. The students at the Richmond Consolidated School had a collection of personal hygiene products and household items plus twelve food baskets to support women at the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Many of our churches, including this one, and synagogues at this time give money to the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations’ emergency fuel fund, which provides a one-time 100-gallon grant of fuel oil to families who have no heat.

Christmas’ message prompts us to continue the mission and ministry begun by Jesus. That message filled with hope inspires us every year to lead better lives by strengthening our hearts with love so that we can increase God’s peace, shalom, in our lives and in our community, locally, nationally, and globally. Christmas renews it. We need Christmas. The world needs Christmas.

Despite this year, we should not forget that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. Though we’ve had other bad years, 1968 comes immediately to my mind, God’s radical inclusive, steadfast love ultimately prevails. True peace and justice are not always on a steadily constant upward trajectory. Though they suffer setbacks, the powerful message that comes with Christmas ultimately prevails and over time the world gets another step closer to God’s realm of peace and justice.

Christmas softens hardened hearts. Christmas overrules crass commercialism. Christmas instills in us hope and reaffirms the reality that love overcomes fear and that Creation’s bounty means there should be no such thing as scarcity or deprivation. Christmas reminds us that shalom is possible when we live as God intended and as Jesus taught. Christmas reconciles heaven and earth in love.

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We Must Denounce This

This was my sermon this morning based upon Isaiah 2:1-5.  The original title was “Hold Fast to Hope,” but I don’t think so now.

The National Policy Institute sounds like a Washington public policy think tank.  Of course there are a lot of these think tanks: American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institute, Economic Policy Institute, Heritage Foundation to name a few.  I wasn’t aware of the National Policy Institute until I read the articles about its Washington, DC conference on November 19.

NPI’s website describes itself as follows: “NPI is an independent organization dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States, and around the world.”  What do you think?  Sounds reasonable?  Let’s unpack it.  You know, I have no place in this organization as I am not of European descent.  Indeed, I’m not white.  NPI is a leader in the alt-Right movement.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization which monitors hate crimes, hate groups, and hate speech, published an essay describing NPI on the SPLC website: “They eschew ethnic slurs and violence, dress in preppy ‘business casual’ outfits, and declare that the aim of their ‘think tank’ is ‘to elevate the consciousness of whites’ and protect America’s ‘national identity.’ ‘We have to look good,’ NPI chief Richard Spencer once explained to Salon, because normal white people would not join a movement that appears to be ‘crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid.’”[1]  NPI is just the latest in a long line of white Supremacist agents stretching back to Reconstruction just after the Civil War.  Its fundamental position on race is no different than the Ku Klux Klan or the Citizen’s Councils of the 1950s.  It upholds the white race; people of European heritage.  They are white supremacists.  White supremacy is racist.

The conference was planned months before the election.  They planned to grieve the election of Hilary Clinton, but with the election of Donald Trump, it became a celebration.

The New York Times reported that the event initially did not appear too menacing as speeches throughout the day concentrated on the marginalization of whites.  However, as the day wore on the tenor of the conference took on the feeling of a Nazi rally.  NPI’s leader, Richard B. Spencer “railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the ‘children of the sun,’ a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were ‘awakening to their own identity.”’[2]

Let’s note that Donald Trump during his interview the other day with staff from The New York Times distanced himself from the conference.  He said, “I don’t want to energize the group. I’m not looking to energize them. I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.”[3]  My own assessment is that for someone whose campaign unleashed pent up racist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, homophobic, and misogynist anger across the country, this was a very tepid rebuke.  He also continued to support unequivocally his chief advisor Steve Bannon, who published the alt-right mouthpiece, Breitbart.

As a person of color, I worry.  I worry about the next few years as many people have seemingly been emboldened in the wake of the election to express their hostility and anger openly to people who are not native-born whites.  The SPLC tracked 701 incidents of hateful harassment since the election. (Let’s also make clear that they track hate across all races and religions and ethnicities, not just whites.  These instances, however, were overwhelmingly white.)  I worry that should the alt-Right gain a solid foothold, it will damage America’s fabric for at least a generation.

Nationally, we have worked hard over decades to ensure that this nation lives up to the ideals expressed in our Constitution’s preamble:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”  Progress has not been easy and has come sometimes with significant costs.

The Church, especially the mainline, has been instrumental in helping this progress along.  The Church worked to end Jim Crow.  Our denomination raised the nation’s consciousness about environmental racism and has shown leadership to close the economic divide that separates whites from communities of color.  We passed a resolution in General Synod XX (1995) to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all people and deplore any attempt to blame immigrants, legal and undocumented, for our nation’s social problems. We were the first denomination to affirm marriage equality.

None of this has been easy.  Having a black president does not mean that we have arrived and that racism is behind us.  Our progress on race has been uneven, but we’ve made progress nevertheless.  However, this election cycle has exposed sentiments many of us thought were laid to rest years ago.

We cannot let the progress we have made as a nation slip backward.  We have to be attentive to voices and actions that potentially will shred the hard won tapestry that this nation is becoming.  We have to stand firm against these voices and actions and vigorously oppose them.  We have to make loud and clear that there is no place for racism, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in this nation.

Like Isaiah, we must be prophetic.  Though the words from Isaiah 2:2-4 are a beautiful vision, they come after his comment on Jerusalem: “How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her– but now murderers!  Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water.  Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.” (Isa. 1:21-23)  Judah strayed.  It lost sight of God’s precepts.  Following the glorious vision of beating swords into plowshares, a vision of shalom, the prophet said, “For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen, because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence.  The look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom, they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves.” (Isa. 3:8-9)

The conference in Washington on November 19 is a reminder that we need to do more work, especially to end hostility and hatred rooted in “otherness.”  We must ensure that the ideals of this nation are not reserved for people of one race, but are for all people of all races and of all genders from all places and of all religious backgrounds.  We must ensure that we are nation where people can love the person of their choosing regardless of gender or sexual orientation.  We must remain true to the words engraved on Liberty’s tablet: “”Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Isaiah had a vision of true peace and justice rooted in God’s steadfast love for Judah and Jerusalem. That vision is timeless.  It has not changed.  It is universal. Though we have made slow and uneven progress over the decades, that vision has gotten closer. Today, however, it is under threat as we watch and listen to the alt-Right’s coded language cloaked in the guise of respectability.  It is under threat as we see political leadership with a history of hostility towards non-whites, immigrants, LGBTQ people, ascend to positions vested with substantial and broad authority and power.  We must be vigilant and must stand firm in opposition if we want to preserve the hard-fought, hard-won gains we have made for those gains have brought us closer to shalom envisioned by Isaiah.

If there is a time for the church to be the church, it is now.  Jesus went to the cross to uphold the dignity and rights of those who were overlooked, forgotten, and oppressed.  He went to the cross to ensure justice for all.  The call to protect those without power is as loud today as it was a thousand years ago.  We stand in a long line of prophets who have upheld a vision of true peace and justice rooted in God’s steadfast love.  We must do our part to help all people hold fast to the hope upon which this nation was founded, a hope that remains a beacon for all people across the globe.  God calls us to stand as Christ did then to be Christ today so that we can uphold the gospel’s light to offer hope and healing informed with grace and compassion rooted in love.

[1] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/08/25/guess-who%E2%80%99s-coming-dinner-tila-tequila-and-alt-right

[2] Joseph Goldstein.  “Alt-Right Exults in Donald Trump’s Election with a Salute: ‘Heil Victory’” The New York Times.  November 20, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/us/alt-right-salutes-donald-trump.html

[3] Transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with staff from The New York Times.  November 22, 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/23/us/politics/trump-new-york-times-interview-transcript.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=b-lede-package-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

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Advent Candle Liturgy

This is an advent candle liturgy using the appointed psalms for Advent and Christmas Eve in Year A.  Each reading begins with a poem using a Japanese poetry form known as a tanka.

You are free to use this liturgy provided you use it with this attribution:

© Used with permission by the author, the Rev. Quentin Chin.

Nov 27 – Advent 1

The eastern sky glows
a sign this night will end soon
as the past departs
hope’s future lies before us
revealing God’s realm of peace

Psalm 122

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem– built as a city that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
For there the thrones for judgment were set up,
the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say,
“Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Unison Prayer:  You are the light, O God, to dispel the darkness.  You are the source of hope in our sea of anxiety. We sit and wait for the hope-filled promise of a new day.  It will be a day when scarcity and deprivation will vanish.  It will be a day when true peace and justice rooted in your steadfast love will be made real.  It will be the day when your will for us will be fulfilled.  Amen.

Dec 4 – Advent 2

Prepare, get ready
the Almighty is coming
for our repentance
to live righteously for all
to bring God’s justice to all

 Psalm 72:1- 7, 18-19

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

Unison Prayer:  O God, you call us to repent of our ways so we can live our lives with your commandments.  You call us repent so we can live lives of peace and joy.  May we flourish in your ways so that we can help our neighbors find that same peace and joy we have in You.  Amen.

Dec 11 – Advent 3

Scatter the proud
send the rich away empty
living the gospel
to comfort the afflicted
so all people will have peace

 Psalm 146:5-10

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

Unison Prayer:  You are the purveyor of justice and peace, O God.  Let us rest in your compassion and mercy.  Grant that we will find joy in your presence.  Renew us and prepare us.  A new day will soon break upon us.  Grant that through our ministries of grace we can bind up broken lives and be bearers of hope in this world.  Amen.

Dec 18 – Advent 4

Angels surround us
telling us that peace is near
and waiting soon ends
when warfare and despair cease
to reveal God’s realm of love.

 Psalm 80:1- 7, 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Unison Prayer:  Our waiting is almost over, O God.  Prepare us for that day when your peace and your justice will prevail.  Fill us with courage.  Give us strength.  Put words upon our tongues so we may boldly proclaim your peace.  Amen.

Dec 24 – Christmas Eve

The angels singing
Glory to God peace on earth
our wait is over
love came down to kiss us all
Jesus Christ is here

Psalm 96

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.

Unison Prayer:  O God, you are the source of love.  The angels sing a new song.  It is a song of hope and a song of peace.  It is a song of justice for all people in all times and places.  O God, in love you come down to dwell among us and to share our struggles.  You come to bring hope to those filled with despair, to comfort those filled with anxiety, to bring peace to this world.  Glory be to You, O Holy One.  Amen.

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What Do We Do Now?

I preached this sermon today in Dalton. I used Isaiah 65:17-25 and Luke 21:5-19.  You can guess it was on the election.  I changed the title because I choose the titles way before I actually write and typically hope they align (often not, which makes me wonder why I even bother with a title in the first place.)

A point of full disclosure, I voted for Secretary Clinton on Tuesday.  Despite her shortcomings from ethical lapses to being THE establishment candidate, I felt she was the person most capable of serving as President of the United States given her experience and intelligence.

Like many people who voted for Clinton, the news on Wednesday morning was difficult to comprehend.  I read a few articles in The New York Times.  I talked to a few people at Soldier On and exchanged some e-mails about the election results.  I stayed away from Facebook.  I spent most of the day letting it churn in the back of my head trying to make sense of this election.

I thought about our summer road trip to Illinois and Indiana.  Though Illinois went for Clinton, she won only in a few areas:  Chicago and its suburbs, Champaign County, Peoria and a couple of other counties I couldn’t identify.  The rest of Illinois voted for Donald Trump.

On our trip we wanted to spend a day in New Harmony, Indiana, which is about as far south as you can go in Indiana.  It is on the Wabash River, just a little north of where it meets the Ohio River.  New Harmony was a utopian community founded in 1824 by German Pietists led by George Rapp.  Today it is a quaint small town of about 800 people.  As the town is so small and its few rooms were booked, we stayed in Grayville, Illinois, a short drive away, for two nights.

As our dining experience the first night in Grayville was at best forgettable, the next evening we went to Carmi, Illinois a few miles south and the largest town in the area.  Its population is about 5000 – 6000 people.

Driving through Carmi, I saw why people would vote for Donald Trump.  This was a town that had seen better days.  It was a solid middle class community that seemed a little hollowed out with empty storefronts on the main street.  The existing businesses lacked visual vibrancy, especially on a Saturday night; like Pittsfield’s North Street back in the mid 1990s.

I thought about people who are in their late 60s and early 70s today who 30 or 40 years ago had dreams that they could retire in Carmi in comfort but now have to keep working because their good paying job left 20 years ago and their 401K tanked.  I thought about young people who grew up in Carmi who would like to raise their children there, but can’t find decent employment because industry has died and their grandparents have the jobs they would typically have.  I thought about deeply religious people who cannot reconcile their understanding of scripture with our wider acceptance of people who marry someone of the same gender.

The last eight years of economic growth passed them by.  When they look back to the 1970s, they realize that they’ve been working hard all these decades and never got ahead.  Their incomes didn’t rise despite increased worker productivity and they fell further behind as income inequality rose.  It didn’t matter which party held the White House or Congress.  They heard candidates promise that their programs would turn things around and trade agreements were good for all of us.  But after decades of empty promises, why believe it now?

The establishment, Democrat and Republican, failed them.  Meanwhile their world changed.  Not only do people of same gender get married, they see people of color and women in positions of authority.  Their president is black.  A local shopkeeper speaks with an accent and the supermarket carries food products with weird names like jicama, durian, guanabana, and carambola.  When they call their pharmacy to refill a prescription, they have an option to listen in Spanish.  The social compact, work hard and play by the rules to get ahead, doesn’t work.  This is not the America that they knew.  They are exiles in their own land.

The establishment and its byproduct, its institutions, are rotting from within because they’ve lost sight of the common good.  They’ve been operating contrary to the gospel.  They’ve told us we don’t have the resources to ensure that everyone can have their daily bread and we’ve believed them.  They’ve framed our world in terms of scarcity, not abundance.  They’ve made us fearful of strangers by stirring up false tropes of race, gender, sexual identity, ethnicity and social class.  We’ve allowed those fears to overcome our belief that perfect love casts out fear.

Losing sight of the gospels has messed up national priorities. We’re not willing to invest money and resources to help people who struggle in poverty, but we’ll spend money to incarcerate them when poverty drives them to run afoul of our laws.  We spend money without question to send men and women to fight in war, but can’t find money to care for their psychic and emotional wounds when they come home.  We have no problem subsidizing people’s housing through mortgage interest deductions on their income tax, but we can’t seem to provide housing subsidies which would reduce the waiting time for subsidized housing, which in Pittsfield is about three years.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. King’s words from his speech “A Time to Break Silence” in which he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”[1]  It was true in 1967 and is even truer today.  Listen to the drumbeat.  We are under threat.  We need to spend more money to bolster our military.  Yet, our military spending already exceeds the combined total of military spending of the next ten nations.  We’ll increase military spending, but we won’t raise our taxes, so we cut social programs. Note that of every tax dollar going to Washington, 60% covers mandatory spending: Social Security, Medicare, and debt service, 21% covers the military, and 19% covers everything else.

Jesus saw the rot within the establishment and its institutions in his day.  His ministry on behalf of the people questioned the righteousness of the establishment and challenged its authority because merely performing the rituals without the intent behind them was not obedience to God.  He said it would all be destroyed.  When our structures rot from within, there is nothing inside to keep them standing and strong.  They will come down and in the wake of their destruction we will have turmoil because we actually need our institutions to hold us together as one community.

It’s not that Donald Trump is today’s Jesus.  This election exposed the rot that has long been there, but we didn’t want to see it or do anything about it.  That it seemed not to touch us, we could overlook it.

But we can’t overlook it anymore.  We can’t ignore the shattered dreams of millions of people like the people in Carmi.  People need hope.  They need not only to believe that their lives will get better, but that their lives actually will.  The establishment must deliver that.

We need to reject the establishment’s message of scarcity and renew our belief in God’s abundance.  We must remember that God’s abundance is due to God’s generosity because God loves us.  We must live knowing that God’s abundance means that no one ever has to suffer from scarcity or deprivation.  Furthermore, we must recognize that we all suffer when people around us don’t have their daily bread.

We have to stop living in fear and embrace love’s transforming power.  We take the first step to end fear by affirming that people are fearful.  Then, we can dispel that fear by loving one another and the stranger through our ministries and in our actions.  We need to embrace forgiveness and seek reconciliation.  We must acknowledge that though people may be racially different or from a different culture or are not cisgendered, deep down we all want the same thing, to live our lives in the fullness of our humanity to the fullest of our potential and to have true peace and justice rooted in love.  We must remind people that the antidote to fear is love – remembering that perfect love casts out fear.

Our task as faithful disciples of Jesus is to ensure that our political leadership will serve all of us.  We should press them to create policies to ensure the common good.  We should advocate for policies to protect the environment.  We should condemn policies which discriminate against people because of their race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual orientation, physical ability, mental health, and gender.  Our policies should be compassionate, not punitive.  Our policies should affirm life over property. And we must oppose with all our hearts and strength those who seek to do otherwise.  Furthermore, we carry a responsibility to ensure that human dignity is not someone else’s obligation, but ours.

Over the last year the media has shown us vicious public displays of hatred, racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and xenophobia.  We have heard credible reports of increased harassment and attacks upon people of color, Muslims, and immigrants.  Immigrant children are worried about being deported.  Dystopian messages filled with fear dominated the media to create a feeling of hopelessness and despair.

We must not let those messages overwhelm us.  We have the tools because we have the love of God, the teachings of the Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot succumb because we know better.  Neither can we be silent.  We must vehemently oppose them otherwise we will lose the ties that bind us together, however imperfectly, as a community.

Our greatness comes when the common good is strong and healthy.  And then, no more shall the sound of weeping be heard or the cry of distress.  No more shall an infant live but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.  People will build their houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  People shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by God– and their descendants as well.

When we reject scarcity and embrace abundance, when we abstain from fear and have faith in love, when we place our faith in the bread and the cup rather than weapons of destruction, when we live to ensure and sustain the common good, when we live to honor God’s gift of creation, then Isaiah’s vision of Jerusalem will become reality.  We will have hope and all our dreams will be fulfilled.  We will discover that true greatness is for all people to live in God’s realm of peace and justice rooted in steadfast love.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr.  A Time to Break Silence. from I Have a Dream Writings and Speeches that Changed the World.  Edited by James Washington.  Harper: San Francisco  1992 P. 148

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Dear Congress

Our president-elect is a man most of the voters in this country did not want to be president. Most of the major world leaders did not want him to be president, either.

Despite his boasts, he is a poor businessman who has filed for multiple bankruptcies. This is a man who in one year filed an almost billion dollar loss on his taxes. He has reneged paying contractors and vendors. Furthermore, his business relationships will raise questions about the decisions he will make as president around conflicts of interest because he never made these relationships clear and transparent.

His campaign appealed to the worst aspects of ourselves as a nation: racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim.  He peddled fear.  He threatened the press.  He undermined our legal system when he raised questions about Judge Curiel’s impartiality and both attacked and extolled the work of the FBI.

Our president-elect is a thin-skinned narcissist.  He has no experience in any level of government in any capacity, except as a citizen of this country.  Our president-elect holds the most powerful position in the world despite having no experience or credentials to indicate he can execute the office of President of the United States.

And yet, he is our president-elect. If you can’t read the message by now, you should resign.  The electorate is angry.  Despite eight years of economic growth following the worse recession since the Great Depression, prosperity is spread unevenly at best.  Our nation has changed culturally over the last few decades, which has left people feeling unsure of this nation’s identity.  Globally, though we have the mightiest military in the history of the world, we have seen the dramatic limits to that power, which raises questions about our preeminence and power.  The electorate’s anger has made it blind to reality.

Donald Trump makes your job harder.  He is not a conventional politician or leader.  His campaign has shown him to be unpredictable and vindictive.  He does not respect civil rights and does not appear to have a firm grasp of the Constitution.

You are the firewall which stands between our ideals and values as a nation and a president who has shown autocratic tendencies.  Your task has expanded beyond your normal duties creating the budget, passing legislation, as well as the responsibility to advise and consent.  You have the additional task to ensure the president’s responsible use of power and authority and to hold him fiercely accountable when he exceeds it.

To the Democrats:  You have to stand up for the millions of people in this nation who are angry and who have felt forgotten.  Stop taking people of color and immigrants and people on the underside of our economy for granted because the GOP has been so callous.  Over the past few decades you have forgotten the people who work hard every day to take care of their families and have played by the rules while watching their dreams vanish.

While I don’t advocate that you bring government to a grinding halt, which was the GOP’s tactic for the last eight years, I do urge you to stand firmly for the common good.  Boldly remind the people that justice and peace rooted in love are for everyone.  Keep in mind Dr. King’s words from his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  Be a thorn in the side of the GOP to remind them unceasingly that along whatever path they choose to lead this country that everyone must be included.

To the GOP:  The Trump presidency weighs heaviest upon you.  You spent almost two-thirds of the last quarter century delegitimizing the president, first by impeaching Clinton for receiving oral sex (with the rich irony of the House leadership at the time having adulterous affairs of their own) and then refusing to work with the current president.  In so doing, you diminished the office so that we have no qualms about electing a man so obviously incapable of handling its complexities.

You had a chance through the primaries to disavow him and to end his run.  When he became your candidate you tap danced furiously to separate yourself from him while not casting him aside.  You could have worked hard to endorse Secretary Clinton as a better candidate for the good of the nation and clearly warned that your candidate is unfit and unworthy of this office, but you didn’t.

You now have a president whom you don’t like.  You have a candidate who tapped into many of the fears you promulgated despite signs to the contrary.  Your head of the party read your base correctly and fed it the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic messages you have been promoting since Nixon’s southern strategy.

You have fed the electorate’s discontent by transparently moving wealth from the underclass to the upper class, while cutting the economic supports the underclass needs to have a modicum of human dignity.  You have abdicated your responsibility to serve as civil servants by shutting down the government like a petulant child who doesn’t get his way.  You consistently relaxed regulations to allow large corporations to prosper at the expense of their employees.  You decided to keep government small so that people without access to wealth or power have no protection and no recourse when they face the negative Darwinian characteristics of capitalism.

You have a rare trifecta, control over all three branches of government.  You have a choice.  You can continue the policies which have become your pattern, increasing military spending, cutting social spending, and promoting corporate power.  You can continue to fight immigration reform.  You can continue to deny climate science and turn away from sensible environmental regulations.  You can continue to be blind to gun violence in this country by doing nothing.  All of these serve your needs and not the needs of those who are so angry that we have a president-elect that even you concede is unfit for office.

Or, you can be a party that will finally put this nation ahead of party loyalty and ideological doctrine so that all the people will be served.  You can be the party that will end the dysfunction and seek compromise in order to promote the common good.

This nation’s future is up to you.

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Losing Our Way

I preached this sermon this morning. I used the lectionary texts: 1 Timothy 1:12-17 and Luke 15:1-10.  This sermon addressed the events on this day 15 years ago.

At this hour fifteen years ago I was in Manhattan.  However, I was at the seminary about eight or nine miles uptown from the World Trade Center.  Even that far away, though, fear was very real and very present.  We knew that planes flew into each of the towers.  One of the seminarians called her husband to tell him that she was OK, only to tell us that a plane flew into the Pentagon, where he worked.

The seminary cancelled classes.  Ironically, one class (the one I was in) was a depth psychology class entitled Aggression, and the other a theology class entitled Heaven and Hell.

Though we had a television in the student lounge, I stopped watching shortly after the second plane crashed.  I didn’t carry a laptop or have any other device to track the news.  As the morning unfolded, bits of news filtered through the seminary.  News came from the student lounge.  Probably some listened to radio.  Many probably got word of mouth from telephone conversations.  It was hard to sort out what was fact and what was rumor.  We also didn’t know what to expect or what catastrophe would happen next.  Telephone service was spotty as a major switch was an ancillary casualty of the attack.  I remember hearing that Grand Central Terminal was locked and several minutes later learning that it was open.

I don’t know when, but at some point that morning getting out of the city became my overriding goal.  Two of my classmates came from Massachusetts as well.  They had the same idea.  I said, “If we can get to my car, which is at the end of the line on Metro North, I can get you to Pittsfield.  And then you can get anywhere you want to go in the state.”

Somehow we got a call through to Metro North.  Information said that they were taking people out of the city.  There was no schedule. They were not selling tickets.  “Just get on the train,” the person said, “they will make every stop on the line.”

We left the seminary to go the train station at 125th Street and Park Avenue.  We walked out of the building to Broadway, but no cab was taking passengers.  We walked the five long blocks to 125th Street for the crosstown bus.  The bus was free.

The morning was traumatic for everyone.  As we rode the bus people shared their stories. “Where were you coming from?”  “What was going on?”  “What did you hear?”  These snippets and fragments helped all of us put more pieces into place to get a fuller picture of what was going on.  We got to the station, which was the first stop after leaving Grand Central.  When the train arrived it opened its doors.  The train was already packed – standing room only.  No one complained.  At each stop as people left the train, people stepped aside to let them off.  Despite the anxiety and fear, people seemed to keep their cool.

We got to my car and back to Pittsfield.

Over the following days we heard and read stories of selfless and courageous actions many people took in the wake of the attack.  We heard stories of heroism and sacrifice.  Countless police and fire departments from around the Northeast, including from Pittsfield, sent volunteers to help with the aftermath.   I remember that for a few weeks after the attack the people of this nation had a sense of solidarity with one another.  We were one America filled with compassion and united by our common humanity.

It’s gone now.  I’m not sure when we lost it.  Today, we are a nation divided:  by race, by wealth, by sexuality, by gender, by education, by ethnicity, and by any other distinguishing characteristic.  We’re split over politics and police.  Over urban and rural.  Over foreign and native. We seem to be quick to anger and slow to forgive.  Tolerance seems in short supply.  Everyone seems aggrieved.  No one has patience.  Then again, maybe it only seems that way to me.  I do feel, however, that the sense of community and solidarity we had in the weeks following the attacks that day are missing now.  Was our solidarity a shared sense of identity, that we were all Americans, or was our shared solidarity a response to our common fear?  Did we feel we had common cause with each other and that our safety and welfare were a function of our neighbor’s?

When Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, he spoke before a mixed crowd of Pharisees and scribes and tax collectors and sinners.  Through these parables he told the tax collectors and sinners that though they might feel lost and discounted, they mattered to God as much as the Pharisees and scribes.

What we lost as community as the horror of 9/11 faded still matters to God.  Generosity, compassion, gratitude, mercy.  They are food for our souls. Tolerance, patience and trust give us strength.  Hope is our motivator and our aspiration.  Love is our antidote to fear and undergirds all our labors that foster and nurture true community.

Through his teachings, Jesus might tell us “Though 9/11 was an unfathomable horrible, never-to-be-experienced-again, event, for a time you instinctively lived generously, compassionately, and gratefully.  Your capacity to love one another, even strangers, helped you to overcome the terrible fear of that day.”

Like the shepherd who left 99 sheep to find the lost one or the woman who swept and cleaned feverishly to find the lost coin, we should exert the same effort to find what we lost.  It’s that valuable.  Living as we do now with our frayed and fragmented relationships will only wear us down bit by bit. This life saps our souls.  Try to recall those few weeks of solidarity.  Try to imagine how life would feel when daily living is filled with the spiritual values of generosity, compassion, gratitude, mercy.  How different our lives will feel if we can trust each other, even strangers, and experience real tolerance and patience.  Would we feel uplifted when we have something for which we can truly hope?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our lives were undergirded by love so we don’t have to live in fear?  We need to live in a manner that nourishes our souls.

These are values we lost.  We can get them back, but we have to work for them.  It’s not that we will chase after sheep or tirelessly sweep floors. We’ll get them back when we live righteously:  practicing kindness, offering compassion, having tolerance, learning forgiveness, and embracing mercy.  It will come when we live life intentionally infused with gratitude.

Living our lives by serving others, such as doing community service and mission work will recover these values in the lives we lead.  I’m not bold enough to proclaim that individually we can change the current state of the world, but I have full confidence that we can make a difference in this community when we work together for the common good.  We will recover the feeling of satisfaction for making a positive difference in our community and it will make our community just a little bit better than before.

We lost our way, but as Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1:13b-14)  By God’s mercy we are loved.  By God’s mercy we can recover those values and nurture the true community we experienced fifteen years ago.  Let us not let fear and those who exploit it further divide us.  Let us, rather, bridge the differences by working hard to find those lost values which make for true community and in so doing nourish our souls.

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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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