Saturday, December 9, 2017

Hear What the Spirit is Saying

Jerusalem Window in St. John's Episcopal Church's Carter Chapel.

We are finishing out the First Week in Advent, and I can say this has been a week like no other Advent that I can remember in recent years. Past Advents have felt introspective and--how to say this--a little more private in their impact. But given our current state of affairs in the world with this particular administration and Congress in Washington, D.C.,  this season with its emphasis on patient waiting, self-reflection and examination, repentance, turning around and preparing for the return of Jesus Christ into the midst of our human condition, the words in the daily office spoken by the prophet Amos are echoing loudly. 

A phrase repeated in one of the Amos readings this week has stuck with me for a couple of days. Amos is listing out calamity upon calamity that have befallen the people of God. Prophets do that sort of thing and in the past, I might have heard these words and shrugged them off as what we always hear from the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures to make their point. But as I listened to the lector going through one natural disaster after another as God's "punishment" for Israel's transgressions, there was the repeated mantra:

"Yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." 

Tears began to well up in my eyes as I stared at the Jerusalem window in the chapel. So many truly terrible things are happening now because we have a president who is a liar, thief, and abusive man. Our Congress is run by even smaller tyrants operating out of a place of greed and shamelessness. And the height of all that is wrong from my perspective could be seen staring into that window depicting the landscape of the Holy City, and knowing that it was destined to be a scene of bloodshed and terror once more after our feckless leader announced that the United States now recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel only. Our president, and Vice President, are catering to the extremists of Christianity who believe that the events foretold in the Book of Revelation can only happen if all the Jews return to Jerusalem, while also pandering to the crazed Zionists who oppose the presence of Palestine. This, of course, has led the Palestinians to rebel, and will egg on extemists in Islam who want to kill all the Jews and have hated the United States for our attempts over the decades to broker a peace that includes Israel, not to mention the corporate dealings we've had that have polluted water ways or backed oppressive regimes around the world. Attacks will happen, people will die...Muslims, Jews, and likely Christians, too..."yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." 

I contemplated the new sexual ethic we are living in where, after centuries of ignoring the voices of women when they say they have been harassed, abused, or raped, we now say "We believe you." As a woman, I am happy that there seems to be a recognition of the wrongs that have been done to us. Seems to be a recognition. What seems more like the reality of this new found belief is that we only seem to care if it is politically expedient to care. U.S. Senator Al Franken, who had been a very effective leader for the Democrats and was showing signs that he might be a potential presidential candidate, has been drummed out by his own party because of allegations that he sexually harassed women. Long-time Detroit U.S. Representative John Conyers, also a Democrat, was similarly forced out of office for having paid off claims of sexual harassment. Many praise these moves as "the right thing to do." Because we seem to care about women now. In fact, we care so much, that the Republican National Committee is funneling money to support the campaign of a man running for the U.S. Senate in Alabama who has been banned from the Gadsden Mall in that state because he was a child sexual predator. We have a justice serving on the U.S. Supreme Court who we learned from Anita Hill during his confirmation hearing is a porn-addicted sexual harasser. And then there is the president who bragged about grabbing women by their private parts, admitted that those comments were wrong, but we were told by his wife that it was all "boy talk." Twenty women...with names...have come forward to say that the man who is now president acted inappropriately with them. "Yet you did not return to me, says the Lord." 

I prayed for all those in Southern California surrounded by a ring of wildfires, for the people in Puerto Rico who are stuck on island that still has less than 50-percent of the population with electricity after a hurricane, for all of us here on the mainland who are bracing for what type of future we'll have if the tax bill that was so hastily pushed through gets to the president's desk for his signature. Among the many purported problems with the legislation, losses due to natural disasters such as a wildfire will not be counted as a tax deduction. Graduate students will see their tuition waivers taxed as "income." And already the talk of how to pay for all of this comes back around to more cuts to Medicare,  Medicaid, and Social Security. Those programs, by the way, are often all a family has to work with when their parents become too frail or become otherwise so dependent that they must be moved into an assisted living facility or a nursing home. Without those, families would be out thousands of dollars a month. "Yet you did not return to me, says the Lord."

Indeed, this First Week of Advent is bringing home to me more and more the chaos and the desperation of the world we now live in here in the United States. The warnings of the prophets of old are sounding more current than they ever have before. So the question is: will we repent and return to the Lord? What does that mean?

For me, it means what it has always meant: we take care of the planet. We tend to those that are dependent on us, be they animals, children, elderly, people with special needs for assistance. We treat everyone with dignity and respect in the same way that we wish to be treated. We honor one another. "Returning to the Lord" is about restoring relationships and recognizing that we are not the center of the universe.

When will we return to that?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

"Lord, Let Our Eyes Be Opened"

As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, ‘Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!’ The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, ‘Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!’ Jesus stood still and called them, saying, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, let our eyes be opened.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him. --Matt 20:29-34

Typically, I do the morning office readings, but today I was thrown off my game. I woke up and made the terrible mistake of looking to see what had happened in the world overnight. And I saw where, when given the chance to choose life and be a sheep instead of a goat, the Republicans of the United States Senate approved a destructive tax bill that is not going to help anyone who isn't the owner of a private jet or a hedge fund operator living on the U.S. Virgin Islands. The plan will eliminate many standard deductions, end access to health insurance for 13 million people, and put us another trillion dollars into debt. In order to do this, the Senate kept giving away more pieces of the American Dream to buy off Republican votes and they ended up with a bill that was 500 pages that nobody had time to read, much less understand the handwritten amendments in the margins of the pages. This was not a great day for the Senate, and it was a terrible day for the country.

So, I guess it was helpful that I decided to end the day with the office and give myself some time to sit in reflection on this passage of Matthew in light of today's events and the dawning of a new calendar year in the church tomorrow.

Here we have two men, blind men at that, sitting on a road side as this itinerant and revolutionary rabbi is passing by with a large crowd in tow. Obviously, these two must have been hearing something about Jesus and his ministry of healing because they start yelling out to him. The crowd, the ones who were already part of the following of Jesus who could see just fine and could hear quite clearly, were annoyed at these two for creating a spectacle. Or perhaps the crowd was afraid that these two were bothering their beloved leader. And, at any rate, they wanted the blind guys to sit down and shut up. But they won't be bullied into silence and in fact got louder. Jesus stops and asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" We don't know the tone of his voice in asking that question: was he exasperated? Was he perturbed? Was he calm? Jesus does this many times throughout his ministry. Somebody is in need, and instead of just instantly fixing whatever it is they want addressed, Jesus makes them an active player by inquiring of them what is it that they are seeking? "Lord, let our eyes be opened." 

This answer, I think applies beyond the story of these two men. They are seeking to have their physical eyes opened so that they are no longer blind. And while Jesus meets them in that place and does restore their physical sight, they also began to follow him. To me, this says that not only did Jesus give them the ability to use their eyes to see the world, he opened their hearts and their minds to "the peace of God which passes all understanding" that causes them to follow him. They see beyond just the tips of their noses. They now see the bigger picture of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus Christ and with God.

I think that plaintive cry, "Lord, let our eyes be opened," is a perfect set up for this upcoming season of Advent in which we are a church living in a land of destruction and fear. I think there is much that we all could be turning to Jesus and asking, "Open my eyes so that I may see you more clearly":

+see the poor and the homeless not as an "other" but as a "mother" or "brother";
+see the hopeless as a person who has not felt the warmth of acceptance or felt anyone has listened;
+see the depressed as one feels as though they are always looking up from a pit of hell and instead of sitting at the edge looking down, sit with them and meet them as you offer that they are never alone;
+see the pained and scared about our political climate and offer them the hope that you will never abandoned the mission of bending the arc of history toward justice.

Open our eyes, Lord, and in so doing, break open our hearts and our minds to be your people...the peacemakers, the justice seekers, the lovers of liberation, and the compassionate listeners, so that we can usher in an Advent of new beginnings, and greater resolve to find the common bonds with our neighbors and build up our strength and never be deterred from that mission to love and serve the spirit of what is good, right, and Holy. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Matthew 25: Leaders, You're Doing It Wrong

Today's Gospel passage from Matthew is probably one of the most famous of Jesus' sayings. It is the answer to all the evangelicals with their "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'  And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." --Matt 25:31-46

At this point, there are certain members of Congress, most notably my United States Senator Marco Rubio, who are also familiar with this part of Matthew's gospel; that is, if his staff has been passing along my post cards to him. And if not, some staffer in his office has problem never read as much scripture in their entire life. Since Senator Rubio has decided that he wants to appeal to the 'base' of the Republican Party by quoting the Bible in 140-character tweets, I have encouraged him to consider this message from well as countless other pieces of Scripture...when he votes for legislation that harms millions of people. Because if politicians and their 'base' are going to claim the mantle of Christ to do their dastardly deeds, they need to be aware how what they propose is not even remotely in the ballpark of what Jesus was all about.

Is taking away Americans' access to affordable health insurance coverage...allowing them to see specialists and have necessary life-saving surgeries as well as get routine physical keeping with the Matthew 25 narrative?

Is passing a tax plan that will result in the poor paying a higher percentage of their income to the federal government, graduate students being taxed for their work study which lowers their out-of-pocket tuition expenses, people on medical devices who are unable to work being forced to pay taxes on the equipment that keeps them alive...all so that the very richest among us can enjoy a lower tax rate and buy another yacht or Aspen villa...looking out for those who are strangers, sick, hungry or in prison?

Is undoing regulations that protect our food, water, and preventing banks and financial institutions from using predatory lending practices the actions of sheep or goats?

I'm sure there are members of Congress who are headed into their houses of worship this morning to be with their families one last time before heading back to Washington. Some of them attend churches that using the lectionary and thus they will hear these words read by a priest or Deacon or pastor or even a lay reader in some places. Will they hear these words and actually "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them"? Perhaps a few post cards from constituents might help.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Hurricane Irma

We are in the final stages of prepping for what many are calling Irmageddon. I have to agree. This is a whopper of a storm like none other that has been seen before. We have bottles for water. We have non-perishable food stuff. Here we go.

Dear God, you know the power of water and you have calmed the seas of chaos, be with all of us who are in the path of hurricanes, especially Irma and Jose. Give us strength to endure. Give us the patience to proceed. And above all, fill us with your love and hope so that we may resist the temptation to fall into despair. Be close to us, O God, and guide us through this tempest. In your Holy Name we pray. Amen. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Standing on Sacred Ground and Marching Forward: a sermon at UCT

Texts from the Common English Version of the Bible
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

“Moses saw that the bush was on fire, but it was not burning up.” I’m sure many of us would find it hard to imagine a bush that is on fire but isn’t being destroyed. So is it any wonder that Moses…who had thought he was simply moving his father-in-law’s flock to another area to graze…would be drawn to such a curious sight? We can also imagine how unnerving it must have been for Moses to hear, from this fiery bush, God calling him by name. And perhaps we can sense the power of this moment when God, in the manifestation of this flaming bush, tells Moses not to come any closer. “Take off your sandals—the ground where you are standing is holy.” Moses is in the presence of a power beyond all powers and is about to receive the charge to confront an earthly power and take a stand on behalf of his oppressed Israelites in Egypt.
Let’s remember that Moses was simply tending sheep and goats. According to the mythology, he was a Hebrew baby boy who was rescued by the Egyptian king’s daughter. He was also supposedly a stutterer, and he had run away after killing an Egyptian who he saw abusing his fellow Israelites. In other words, Moses was not some perfect and polished figure. Now, he’s being tapped to go beyond himself to do extraordinary and mighty works of justice.
In the reading we had from today’s Gospel, Jesus talks of the trials he is about to face as he heads toward Jerusalem. He rebukes Peter for trying to put up a fight over Jesus’ destiny. And he reminds Peter, and all the others with him: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.” Forget yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Those are words that can really leave a lump in the throat.
Three images: a burning bush, sacred ground, the cross.
In his book, “The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed,” the Rev. Eric Law uses the burning bush image from Exodus as his jumping off point to talk about how faith communities can build multicultural relations within their churches. He notes that a bush that’s on fire ought to be disintegrating into ashes. That’s what happens when fire meets leaves and branches, right? The fact that this bush can be on fire and NOT be destroyed is Law’s metaphor for God amid heated tensions, or flaming rage and anger. Think about it: God is showing up in the form of this burning bush because God has heard the cry of the Israelites. They are oppressed. They are under the thumb of the Egyptians. Their passions are all aflame and God is in that heat but God is not destroyed. Instead, this fire has consecrated the ground on which Moses is standing.
This burning has become, as Law describes it, a holy fire and an example of how people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds can have passions and experiences that can be blazing, but through commitment to a listening process, faith communities can become places where multiculturalism thrives. If, however, a community doesn’t engage in the honest and sometimes difficult work of a true listening process, the danger is that it will stoke those same burning embers of the past into an unholy fire that will not only burn the bush but will take the whole house down with it as well. Since the Rev. Law works as a consultant on multiculturalism, he has seen examples of when a faith community gets it right…and has also witnessed those who get it wrong. Often, the ones that fail are the ones that weren’t really invested in listening to anyone but themselves and whatever was their predominant racial and ethnic outlook.
We can take that example beyond faith communities…and even beyond the continued difficulties that we face in our country on race and ethnicity. We seem to be isolating ourselves from each other based on whatever differences we have or that we perceive to have. We seek out media sources that confirm our worldview. We stop talking to each other. We unfriend each other on Facebook. We retreat to our corners and refuse to engage with anyone we don’t like. This probably feels safer.
But it really isn’t. Because whether we like it or not, that same burning bush is steadily glowing and alight and is consecrating the ground upon which we stand even today. Especially for those who feel strongly that stewardship of the earth is important, we are constantly reminded that the same God who told Moses to stand on sacred ground and hear the command to go speak truth to power on behalf of the people is always reminding us that we must do the same. And this fire in the bush is also the fire in the belly that will give us the power to speak and to know that we, too, are on sacred ground when we stand for justice for the earth and all that inherit this planet.
So what about the cross? Well, it is all fine and dandy to feel that flaming righteousness as we stand for justice, peace, equality and fairness for all people. That makes for great bumper stickers and talking points. But it also is liable to meet with resistance, push back, or worse violence. It’s a whole lot safer to “like” a rally or march event on Facebook than to actually attend it. We can say “Black Lives Matter” but will we actually talk to people in positions of authority about why we believe it’s important to listen to the pleas of black people about why they don’t think they matter, and then join with our brothers and sisters in changing the culture to make them true equals? Again saying it is one thing, but when Jesus tells Peter and the disciples that they must “forget about yourself” and “take up your cross and follow me,” he is being just as fiery as that burning bush and is telling them…and us so many centuries later…that if we, who stand on this sacred ground, want to be true to his mission of love and justice, we must put our trust in God and go sometimes to those places we do not want to go. We must engage in those issues and with those people whom we would just assume avoid. It is not enough simply to stand on the sacred ground and hear the call to action. We must be ready to keep going forward and actually act on behalf of justice for others and not just ourselves. May we be ready.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville's Web

In the past week, two discussions with two friends of two different religious traditions brought up the topic of "exposing things hidden." Each of them were dealing with very different things, but I quietly noted that this theme had emerged in our conversations and I carried that into the weekend. 

And then...Charlottesville.

I had heard there was going to be something happening with white nationalists rallying because of a vote by city officials in Charlottesville to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. I had also heard that there would be clergy and laypeople assembling to respond in a peaceful counter-demonstration to this hate-fueled rally. I was anxious for them, and prayed that this would play out as it has in the past four decades in America: one group rallies with  about 50 of their super-white friends while many more  gather to sing and pray in defiance of white nationalism. The groups are separated, they disperse, and that's that.

But not this time in Charlottesville.

I grew concerned as I followed a Twitter feed of the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a St. Louis pastor who has been so outspoken against white supremacy since the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson. Initially, there was the prayer vigil gathering in a Charlottesville church. The sanctuary was filled with people of all races. They were there to center in prayer, be reminded of their mission and commission from Christ to stand in peace with Love to protect those who are the targets of white supremacy. 

Then the images began appearing on Facebook...videos of young white men dressed in khakis and polo and Oxford shirts marching with tiki torches and chanting slogans of "Blood and Soil" and "You will not replace us!" (which was later reported to be "Jews will not replace us!") The cadence of the chant was reminiscent of a scene from the Nazi propoganda film, "Triumph of the Will" in which a crowd assembled in Nuremberg cheered on Adolph Hitler:

"Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!  Ein Deutschland!"  

My body temperature dropped as I watched this on the screen of my iPad. This was no 50 people; there were probably a couple hundred of them...all white, all male, and about the same ages as my nieces and nephew. Then there were the tweets from Rev. Blackmon:

This is Charlottesville...home to my dad's alma mater and law school.

Rev. Blackmon would later post a Facebook video, her voice tense with terror as she and others drove through the street back to their hotel. She hadn't seen Klansmen since she was five years old. And here they were...only they weren't wearing their robes and hoods. They were proudly walking through the streets of Charlottesville with their torches and bats. And they were young men dressed in respectable street clothes. 

The tension grew on Saturday. There were clashes between the two groups. And as the counter-demonstrators marched in a street, a car driven by James Fields of Ohio, plowed into some parked cars  that ran into the peaceful assembly of people, killing one woman and injuring 19 others. Two others, helicopter operators with the state police, would also die as a result of this protest by the Nazis. The president, a man who has hired White Nationalists as his advisors, issued a statement in which he "condemned in the strongest way possible" the violence "on all sides." Forgive me for saying this but...bullshit. While some on the counter-demonstration front apparently maced American Nazi leader Richard Spencer as he marched, nobody on their side was killed by a far-left winger slamming a car into them. These are not apples to apples here.

I thought back to my friends and the bringing to light those things which were hidden in darkness. We have always known that there was a racist element in our society. Many of us know that our country was built on the injustice of slavery, the taking of land from the indigenous population, and that there are systems in place to make sure that one group--white Americans--will not suffer the hardships of exclusion of access. But if the many senseless killings of black and brown people without justice being served didn't wake up white America to this fact...if the election of a president who sides with totalitarian regimes and has outspoken white supremacists as his closest aides didn't wake up white America...perhaps this horrific event in Charlottesville might make more of white America see that we have a serious problem...a real enemy...and that enemy is us. 

In the Gosepl of Luke, we hear Jesus say these words:

 ‘No one after lighting a lamp hides it under a jar, or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a lampstand, so that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.’(Luke 8:16-17)

I think Charlottesville has exposed and shed light on the evil that is all too-pervasive in America and has been for far too long. We have a cancer of white supremacy and it is being brought out of the shadows and into the light and parades through streets with tiki torches in khakis and Oxford shirts. It tweets generic and lackluster condemnations of itself while blustering and bullying with threats of nuclear war. Especially for those of us who are white and who claim the mantle of Christ, while we personally may not participate in the facism of America, we are not allowed to turn away, plug our ears, and otherwise do nothing to dismantle it. Silence is not an option. Now that we have seen the ugly head of Neo Nazism parading in a southern city, there is no turning away but a call to confront this and bring our own lights to this cause.

Dear white people: it's time to dismantle the white supremacy that has festered below the surface in our society once and for all.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Woe to You, Senators, Who Prooftext by Tweet

Senator Marco Rubio started it.

"It" in this case is my deluge of postcards where I quote passages of Scripture.

Our junior U.S. Senator began daily tweets on his personal Twitter account to let everyone know that he reads the Bible, or at least some portions of the Bible. Presumably, he feels the need to share this with the Twitterverse so that everyone can see how he, as a United States Senator, is being guided by God in all that he does. He is such a good Christian.

Interesting. Funny that he has hung so closely to the Book of Proverbs and considers this evidence of his deep and abiding Christian faith. I would have thought someone wanting to call upon the Lord through social media might seek guidance from "our only mediator and advocate" Jesus Christ. And while Proverbs does contain some wonderfully wise words, I thought the Senator needed to get a little closer to the words of Jesus. So, I started sending him postcards each with a different passage from the Bible. I don't think it's right to limit Scriptural instructions to just 140 characters.

Considering Sen. Rubio's recent actions, his most egregious to date being the many votes he cast in favor of taking away access to health insurance for some of the very poor, elderly, and differently-abled people in America, I figured he needed a little more Jesus and a little less Proverbial wisdom.

Most of the passages I chose were from the Gospel according to Matthew. Matthew 25, naturally, came to mind with the closing verses being Jesus' discourse on "what you do to the least of these you do to me," only I decided the Senator needed to read the parts about those who did NOT take care of the poor, the hungry, the orphan, the widow, and the people in prison. I also reminded him of Matthew 7:15-23 in which we learn to beware of false prophets and those people who say "Lord, Lord" but Jesus never knew them because they failed to bear the type of spiritual fruit that says, "I'm a follower of Christ."  I mixed it up with a parable from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16, in which we hear the tale of the rich man who ignored Lazarus the beggar at the gate...only to die and find Lazarus was in heaven with Father Abraham while the rich man suffered in the fires of Hades.

I realize the Senator prefers his Old Testament readings, so Psalm 146 seemed appropriate in reminding him of how we are to not put our trust in rulers of the earth because they are going to die and blow away...just like him and his party's ordained and unhinged leader. Each postcard reminded him that the current administration is morally bankrupt and he should stop defending them.

This morning, however, I learned that Sen. Sens. Graham, McConnell, and McCain as well as the president...have all received large sums of money from a Ukrainian billionaire with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. So, it may be that Rubio is like one who cannot hear; hence will not listen. Perhaps he needs to read another verse from Proverbs:

The wicked accept a concealed bribe

   to pervert the ways of justice.--Proverbs 17:23