Saturday, December 27, 2008

Lectionary reflection – 1 Christmas 2008

The images collide in a disturbing way. Santa Claus with a gun? The Christmas Eve killings in Covina, California, are shocking in so many ways. The numbers alone, ten dead and two wounded. A peaceful home invaded, a holiday celebration turned to mayhem. And Santa Claus, that icon of good cheer, and generosity, possessed by vengeance and dealing death.

Yet those are not the only colliding images. On the one hand, the prophet Isaiah foresees his nation’s restoration, where only extravagant poetry will begin to evoke the joy of this hoped-for deliverance. The nation and its people are envisioned as a bride and bridegroom, dressed in their finest, with garlands and jewels, the best possible for the best possible occasion. And the long-sought vindication, for which the people burned, is described as a burning torch.

Perhaps it is more shocking because we know people like these, we recognize the house they live in. The killer was a church usher who had recently lost his job. The dreams of bride and bridegroom had turned to ash, as he and his wife were near the end of a costly and bitter divorce. It is yet another domestic violence murder, in a year where this ugly reality has been much in the news.

Not only is it simply the images that are jarring, the killer becoming an anti-bridegroom, the torch of hope becoming a homemade blowtorch of destruction. But that what the prophet seeks – holy vindication burning like a torch – is uncomfortably close to what the killer seemed to be after.

Immediately after hearing these words of weddings and torches, we will proceed to voice a hymn of over-the-top praise to the Lord God, with all creation called to sing along: “Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise God in the heights. Praise the LORD, all you angels; sing praise, all you hosts of heaven” (Psalm 148:1-2).

Sometimes it is the words of scripture which are jarring. It may seem hypocritical to sing praise to the Lord when around us we see so much still in need of redemption. Israel’s holy writings give ample testimony to the gap between the Lord’s goodness and deliverance, and the wrecked reality we too often inhabit.

The amount of lament in scripture might well suggest to us that many times lament and protest is the proper offering. While we may hymn the Lord’s goodness, we should never forget the brokenness of the world which the Lord seeks to transform.

Perhaps an image from the gospel is an appropriate balancing point. The old ones, Simeon and Anna, have seen much. By virtue of their age we know they have seen their nation conquered by Rome. It takes no imagination at all to know they have seen loved ones die, the text tells us so explicitly for Anna.

Yet they are not so old and worn that they have lost sight of the great hope they have in God’s promise. We find them in the house of the Lord, just as we find some of our old ones. They keep coming not because the religious institution is perfect, but because they still hunger for the touch of God and for the promise of redemption.

When they see a sign – and sometimes all it takes is a tiny thing, like a little bitty baby – they touch that hope, praise God, and begin to speak about the redemption that God has promised, that God has delivered, and that God is still working to bring forth.

For God’s people, praise is not optional, because praise not only roots us in our community's history with God, it helps us remember and envision the world that is to come.

For more information about the prevention and response to domestic violence, see especially the Faith Trust Institute (especially good for clergy and congregations). To report or seek help with suspected domestic violence, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-SAFE, can connect you to local resoirces. The Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN - 800-656-HOPE) will automatically transfer you to the rape crisis center nearest you, anywhere in the nation. It can be used as a last resort if people cannot find a domestic violence shelter.

Photo: "A family friend of shooting victims...near the crime scene in Covina, California." AP - Jewel Samad

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas greetings

Best wishes and thanks to you for fellowship this year, and in hope for the year to come.

Christmas has a marvelous way of focusing on what is most important. Peace on earth. Good will. Gifts given from God to us, from one to another. And that tiny little baby, a sign of light and life.

May your Christmas be blessed with peace, and Immanuel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas - God in human flesh

I heard on the radio this morning about comments made by Pope Benedict that gay, lesbian, and transgender identity and sexual behavior are threats to the survival of humanity.

Reuters, Deecember 22, 2008:
Pope Benedict said Monday that saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behaviour was just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction. The Church "should also protect man from the destruction of himself. A sort of ecology of man is needed," the pontiff said in a holiday address to the Curia, the Vatican's central administration. International Herald Tribune

The Daily Telegraph:
Pope Benedict XVI has denounced gender theory, warning that it blurs the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the "self-destruction" of the human race. Daily Telegraph

This comes on the heels of the announcement that Rev. Rick Warren will be giving the invocation at the innauguration of Barack Obama to be the 44th President of the United States of America. This selection has drawn criticism because of Pastor Warren's and his congregation's opposition to gay rights, and reported prohibition of membership to gay and lesbian people.

At Christmas, when the church celebrates the birth of its Lord, it is sad indeed to so grievously miss the point of the Incarnation. The Gospel of John said it in a way that has resonated for centuries, an ecology of humanity that has long been the Church's proclamation:

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory... John 1:14

Not male flesh nor female flesh. Not Greek flesh nor Jewish flesh. Not slave flesh nor free flesh. Not black flesh, white flesh, red flesh, brown flesh. Not gay flesh nor straight flesh. To the evangelist, the one announcing good news, the important point was that God came in human flesh.

Quoting again from published reports:
The pope said humanity needed to "listen to the language of creation" to understand the intended roles of man and woman. He compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as "a destruction of God's work." He also defended the Church's right to "speak of human nature as man and woman, and ask that this order of creation be respected." International Herald Tribune

But we must clear on whose order the pope is seeking to have respected. Benedict and anyone else has a right to speak of human nature. But the right to speak is no guarantee of right speech.

We should "listen to the language of creation." Unfortunately, the pope misunderstands creation as revealed through Biblical faith. In the Bible, creation is not study of the natural world. In the Bible, creation does not precede humanity and human society, despite those wonderful tales of Genesis.

Creation in the Bible and in Biblical history is a theological word spoken in response to the human experience of chaos and oppression. The God of Genesis 1 speaks, and order springs forth from a chaotic world. The Genesis 1 creation story itself is an antidote to the violent creation myths of Israel's captors.

The good-news text most Christiams will read on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day says something very similar. Yet God's order, which brings power and transforms relationships, is foreign to the order of a world disfigured by violence. In a world enmeshed in the darkness of sin, and in confusion about what the true God is up to, God's Word is hard to recognize.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. John 1:10-13

Now, people on either side of the great gay debate will argue about God's plan for creation. But God has always been in the liberation business. And with God taking on human flesh, that means taking all human life as holy.

Any "order of creation" which leads to the subjugation and oppression of people as made by God is UN-holy, and is not God's order, but a fallen one.

It is an ancient rule of the the church that worship, praise, and prayer is the crucible of doctrine, not the other way around. There is a simple African hymn often sung at this time of year:

     He came down that we may have love,
     He came down that we may have love,
     He came down that we may have love,
     Hallelujah forevermore.

There are many verses, as the word love is replaced by others: life, joy, peace, and more. But I have never heard anyone sing that God came down that we may have order. The Christmas story, the Jesus story, the resurrection story in fact deconstructs the order humanity has made which is contrary to God's order of justice and harmony.

May God grant each of us a peaceful Christmas.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Prayer for Mumbai

Lord of heaven and Lord of earth, your heart is grieved at terror and violence. Watch over the city of Mumbai at this hour. Protect, we pray, those lives still at risk. We pray that captives be released, that those seeking to do further violence be restrained, and the lives even of the authors of violence be held safe from harm. Nurture and cherish those many lives affected by these attacks: especially those of the victims and those close to them, witnesses, and responders. And in a city with great wealth, let us remember the poor, that the shalom of the city which we seek be not simply the end of violence, but renewed health and hope for all who shelter there. In Jesus name, we pray for deliverance and for peace, trusting in thy great mercy. Amen.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving wishes

One of my peak spiritual experiences came when I volunteered with United for Peace and Justice to work at a big anti-war march. It was planned before the Iraq invasion but took place just after the armed conflict began. Through the random (or Spirit-led) workings of their fairly-anarchic organization, I got assigned to the security detail. About twenty people stationed on Broadway in the lower 20s with plastic tubs and sacks, and one guy with a bullhorn asking for donations to support the work and the next march.

Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, there was little need for actual security to guard the money, what I mostly did was thanked people. "Thank you for coming out today!" "You folks are awesome!" shouted a few hundred times, to some subset of the 250,000+ people who filed by.

I can scarcely tell you how good I felt doing that.

At the closing of what is probably his earliest letter in the Bible, St. Paul urges his friends "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

He does not say we should be thankful for everything. There is not much rejoicing to be found because of illness, job loss, or the many other things we go through which are cause for struggle. However - in every situation, if we look with the eyes of faith, we will find signs of grace. Even the realization that "things could be worse" is an opportunity for thanksgiving.

This year we have much to be thankful for, and I hope you will be able to remember and lift up some of those things in the midst of your holiday observance.

May God bless and keep you. May God see you safe through every storm. And may, at the end, you find welcome, and peace, and homecoming - reasons to give thanks.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change I can believe in

"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." -- Barack Obama, Nashua, New Hampshire, January 8, 2008

There are a great many things that can be said today, and people all over this nation and the world are saying them. IT'S BEAUTIFUL!

There's a woman I know who has spent most of her life in Jersey City in Ward F - you know, the part of town that Martin Luther King Drive runs through. Janice has raised kids and grandkids, often without much to go on. She is ecstatic. She, like me, has had a crazy smile on her face all day! She told me how, last night she didn't want to leave the TV even to go to the bathroom, and when she finally ran out and came back, Obama had gone from 100-something to 200-something and she knew she was about to witness something big.

She talked about the people crowded into Grant Park and Times Square, how they were black and white and every color. She stayed up until 3am, crying and laughing and shouting and dancing. On Election Day her daughter woke her up at 5am, saying she had to come with her to vote. They got to the school when the polls opened at 6am, and there was a line - A LINE! A line of people waiting to vote. "It was beautiful!"

Then she thanked me. She thanked me! For pushing her to register. For giving her the registration form and insisting she had to get it done. For helping her overcome a lifetime of "Well, let's see what they do this time..." This time, Janice voted, and Barack Obama will soon be our President.

It turns out that Janice also got her children and grandchildren registered, and they voted too. And you know that there are thousands upon thousands of Janices out there.

That's change I can believe in.

And there is one thing I most want to say, particularly to the unlikely collection of Obama-supporters and volunteers. Thank you. Thank YOU. THANK YOU!

Thank you to the beautiful volunteers who helped us take a step to reclaiming the promise of America. You encouraged me. Sometimes you flattered me, sometimes you frustrated me, you challenged me, and so many times you helped me. Sometimes it was enough just to know you were out there, working and hoping like me, picking up the pieces, keepin' on when I needed some down time. Again and again, you were and you ARE the hope that Barack has talked about.

Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for your good spirits. Thank you for your eagerness. Thank you for your commitment. Thank you for your poetry and your music and your art. Thank you for the miles you put on your car, the minutes you put on your phone, the money you invested in this campaign, the smiles, the tears, and finally - thank you for the shouts of joy!

You are what made this experience special. You are what makes this country special. You are what continues to give me hope that we can do even greater things.

God bless you. And again, always, THANK YOU!

P.S. Ward F voted 97%-plus for Barack Obama, helping Jersey City to 70% voter turnout and 83% for our next President. Way to go, Janice!

Monday, November 3, 2008

It's always been about hope

I've spent the past few weekends in Pennsylvania, along with other volunteers from NJ (and elsewhere). It has been a heartening and moving experience.

I've heard remarkable things. The woman in East Stroudsburg who was laid off in June. Her husband's salary is not enough to make their mortgage payments. I met older people concerned about health care and Social Security and younger people in college concerned about whether they will have jobs and how hard they'll have to work to pay off debts (personal from college loans and national from Bush's deficits). In the Poconos I talked to a "typical redneck" who's convinced we need a change so badly he's ready to try "that guy" - Obama.

There was the working class guy at the Chinese restaurant in Allentown. "I'm a Republican," he said, "but we can't take any more of this." He asked for an Obama button and went out wearing it. I met a pregnant woman whose husband is a Major in Iraq. He had just found out the Army had screwed up his entire units' absentee ballots, so their votes would not be counted. She said most of the guys were for Obama, and she's so convinced we need a change that she is volunteering for Obama this Election Day.

A woman in Tobyhanna came past her husband, kids, and dogs. Stepping out onto the porch she closed the door behind her and, "I'm so glad you came. I can't talk about this around here. A lot of folks are racist, you know." Dozens of folks living on both the right and wrong sides of the tracks say it's time for a change.

If you listen, again and again, you hear that this election has always been about hope.

Tuesday we'll hear millions of ordinary Americans speak in the voting booth. As a people, we will speak clearly and convincingly. And that will make the difference in this election, and in our nation.


Monday, October 27, 2008

Prayer for elections

Heavenly King, your reign is righteousness, justice, peace. Guide this nation as it elects leaders. Help us make wise choices, that our government and its leaders bless the land and bring comfort to the poor. Support those who seek to uphold civil rights and fair elections: all election officials, poll workers and poll watchers, and especially . Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

In our congregation we are praying particularly for one of our members and her co-workers at the Brennan Center. Many congregations have people who serve as poll workers and electoral volunteers, and this is a good opportunity to support their work in prayer.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bailout? Rescue? Necessary evil?

Or simply another way to redistribute wealth upwards?

I don’t know if this piece of “legislation” is necessary to avert doom for the nation’s and world financial markets – but I doubt it.

There is so much wrong with this bill, and with this process, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

1. The last time George Bush & Co. asked for a trillion dollar blank check, and insisted the deal had to be done or the sky would fall... well, that worked out OK, right?

2. It gives the money to precisely the same people and institutions that got us into this mess. Hank Paulson, the architect of the initial bailout proposal, is one of the very characters that first oversaw construction of the house of cards (as Chairman of Goldman Sachs), and then ensured flimsier building practices in deregulating the financial instruments most responsible for the current crisis.

3. What exactly changed between Monday and Friday to switch the votes of 57 Congresspeople? How did a risky, too-expensive, ideologically unacceptable $700 billion bailout become possible by adding an extra $150 billion of special interest spending? (One version:

4. If my math is right, direct Federal intervention in the recent economic crisis exceeds $1 trillion ($29b for Bear Stearns, $200b for Fannie and Freddie, $85b for AIG, $0 for Lehman Bros – no soup for you!, $700b for the bailout). Yet there is no consensus on whether this $1 TRILLION will actually fix the liquidity/credit "crisis," of if this is the best use of $1 trillion to aid the economy as a whole as well as financial markets.

5. What’s your frame? Is it a bailout? A rescue? A hostage negotiation (give us the money or we’ll shoot your economy)? Addiction to pork? A bribe (here’s where the extra $150b comes in)? Or simply Bush & Company’s last chance to steal a big chunk of another trillion dollars (c.f. war in Iraq)?

6. “One of the most bi-partisan efforts I have seen...” (Cong. Joe Sestak, D-PA). Isn’t it amazing what can bring about consensus?

7. Note what is missing from this hurry-up, have to pass the bill this second or Wall Street will collapse and bring down Main Street with it.

- Clear analysis about what caused the problems.
- Hints of regulation to address obvious causes.
- Actual relief for real people, including debt forgiveness and renogitiation of loan terms and prioncipal;
- Actually curing the expressed underlying problem of "toxic" mortgages

8. It's about the money, stupid. $700 billion ought to buy you something. There has been virtually no discussion as to whether buying $700b of stock in companies holding "toxic" debt whould both adress the companies' capitalization problems and give the Treasury a stake in success (or if this would be a bad idea for other reasons). Or whether the approximately $200 billion said to be at risk would be better devoted to actually fixing most of the mortgages in default and foreclosure. $200b divided by 5 million problem mortagages equals an average of $40,000 per problem mortgage to help fix them. Since not every mortgage should be fixed, the actual per mortagge relief amount could be even higher.

9. America has lost its memory. The last major bank crisis - a Bush administration, with cozy relations between legislators and the industry they deregulated at the center.

The signs point to this as a huge problem - regardless of whether it averts bigger problems.

Friday, October 3, 2008

November 4th prediction

Please page to the bottom for my "best guess" electoral map. It's not entirely accurate - I predict a split in Nebraska's electoral votes with McCain and Obama each getting one for sure and the other two undecided.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

9/11 plus seven

This year we observe the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As with all anniversaries, there is an opportunity to reflect upon what this means for us as individuals and in our communities.

In New York City, a number of things are different this year. Construction has begun in earnest on the World Trade Center site. The Pit is growing unrecognizable as such, and this is the last year that public memorial events will take place on the spot where the towers stood. Mayor Bloomburg is seeking to take over control of development, seeking completion of construction by the tenth anniversary of the attack (Bloomberg Urges New York City Take Control of Trade Center Site).

A number of 9/11-related projects are "sunsetting," a genteel term for "no more funding." Some people see this as another example of "get over it already," a thought which has never been absent from public discourse. The needs have not sunsetted, only the money. It is also true that many people have moved on and made accommodations with this history, as is natural and healthy and to be expected.

Yet there are still voices to be heard, images from which the smoke has not yet cleared.

There are archetypal images which have developed over time - stories of heroes, and narratives about the struggle between good and evil. There are images, some clear, some clouded, some forgotten, of the people affected by these events - not only those killed and their loved ones, but of the survivors, the responders, the bystanders. Everyone "of a certain age" has their 9/11 story.

And there are the global waves which spread out when the towers fell, reaching Afghanistan, Iraq, Bali, Madrid, London, Pakistan, and whose effects are still being felt but only partially known. (Let's not forget Guantanamo Bay, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Poland, Georgia, Iran. And while Vice President Cheney was "doing no harm" at the Republican Convention, I suspect we will one day learn he continues to work on the dark side, this time in Azerbaijan.)

Given the way 9/11 has been used and abused as a political device, it is prudent that Senators Obama and McCain have decided to avoid overt campaigning this September 11th. It is appropriate to take a moment to let our decision making be affected by the act of remembering.

I would like to suggest that the memory start, not with the grand narratives, or an analysis of how 9/11 fits into geopolitics. But that the appropriate starting point for memory is the truth. We need to understand and tell the story of what actually happened, and a crucial part of the truth is the real people involved. We need to see their faces. Our politics and our policies work better when they are rooted in humanity. We knew this, almost instinctively, at the beginning, when "Missing" flyers became sites of civic grief, prayer, and honor. While prayers for rescue morphed into memorials, it was to their faces we looked.

Some good places to look again are:

Voices of September 11th - Living Memorial
New York Times - Portraits of Grief
State Dept - Global Victims and Heroes
Tribute Center - Person to Person History

Please visit one of these sites and remember some of the people caught up in the midst of this event which has taken on so much significance.

Working as a chaplain in the WTC recovery brought home again and again the goodness of people, seen over and over in stories of their lives and the living testimony of peoples' response to destruction. Ordinary stories of goodness, repeated again and again, are quite extraordinary.

It took very little to destroy those buildings and murder those within them. The Christian symbol of the cross is meant to recall not only the torturous death and the cruelty of those who impose it. The cross also recalls the human life of the one nailed to it. And it points to the promise that while good may not be as dramatic as evil, goodness is stronger, more prevalent and persistent, and constantly being renewed.

May God hallow our remembrance, and lead us into the true recovery work, which abandons destruction and runs headlong to healing.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Babies, guns, and Jesus

This is my first partisan post. It is so important to get this one right...

Rush Limbaugh and I agree on something. This election is about three things. We are simply focused on three different things.

Rush Limbaugh watched the Republican Convention and declared that this election is now focused on Sarah Palin and is an attempt to renew the culture wars, about "babies, guns, Jesus. Hot damn!" Sarah Palin: Babies, Guns, Jesus - August 28, 2008. Is this really the vision you have for America?

One of these things does not belong with the others...

I suggest that this election is about another three things.

1. Can Democrats fight? ¡Si se puede! Yes we can! I love my country. I have fought for my country and my values. Barack Obama and Joe Biden must hold this ground. Americans respect, trust, love, and will follow someone who will stand up for what they believe in. This election, and our country are worth fighting for - even if we must say some hard things. John McCain is a hero who abandoned his principles and good judgment to woo the Republican base. Sarah Palin is a self-described pitbull who is long on teeth but short on policy and empathy. By contrast, Barack Obama is about the American values of hard work, big dreams, and the guts to believe that we can overcome our differences.

2. What is worth fighting for? "Without a vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18). There has been a fair amount of discussion about fact-based (and fantasy-based) voting. We believe that our positions are about the real world and about issues, not about the "horserace" and media-centric celebrity frenzies. We cannot make ourselves crazy about what people are perceiving. If we cannot win based on what we see and know as real, well, then, we're f***ed. Barack Obama is about thinking through issues, listening to people who are not lobbyists, economic policy which pays attention to workers and homeowners, healthcare which privileges people over insurance companies, and national security founded upon economic strength and war as a last option (not the first). We have to tell the truth as best we see it and trust in God and our fellow citizens to sort it out and do the right thing. Please note: this trusts the VALUES of American voters. If we can't trust that, well, the election is a crapshoot based on whatever you last heard from the TV-machine.

3. Turnout, turonout, turnout. This election - like every other - comes down to how many people get to the polls. If you're worried about the Bradley effect (where people say they're ok with a black guy and then vote white in private), or the Rove effect (where every good thing is spit upon and cast into doubt), or the Diebold effect (where those in power will lie cheat and steal to stay there), then GET YOUR ASS AND ALL YOUR FRIENDS' ASSES REGISTERED AND TO THE POLLS!

That, my brothers and sisters, spells victory. The people, united, can never be defeated. And that is a non-partisan statement. Just make sure YOU are one of the people who makes a difference.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Who do you think you are?

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

As I listened to the lessons for today, it seemed to me that identity issues are prominent. Jesus asks his disciples "who do you say that I am?" Have they been paying attention? Are they aware of what’s going on?

The apostle Paul is also concerned with a couple of identity issues: using the different gifts given to each member, and also finding or forging a new identity, as members of the body of Christ.

One reason these "identity issues" stood out for me is that I have been reading a book about the management style of the Jesuits, an organization within the Roman Catholic church. The author, trained as a Jesuit before leaving for a career as an investment banker, makes the case that the thing which has allowed the Jesuits to be a successful 450 year old company, is their focus first of all not on what they do, but on who they are.

Their core strength as an organization originates not in their mission, but in developing self-awareness. Every Jesuit goes through a long period of formation including spiritual exercises which help them understand their strengths, weaknesses, values and worldview. It redirects Jesus’ question, as if to say, before you can really understand who Jesus is, "Who do you say that you are?"

It seems to me that we have really misunderstood that question from Jesus – "who do you say that I am?" – if we see it as a test, and the right answer is "Messiah!" Had the reading continued, we would have seen that Peter’s answer was only partially right, for he then failed to accept the truth of who this Messiah was, not a conquering hero, but a poor servant who would suffer and die. I don't know about you, but I'm inclined to behave differently in relation to a conquering warrior than to a suffering servant.

You see, I think Jesus’ question is about relationship: "who do YOU say that I am?" Had anyone asked Jesus that question – "Who are you?" – in chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel, I doubt he would have been able to answer. Let’s remember that in the preceding chapters, Jesus had heard God’s voice calling him beloved. He had been driven into the wilderness and been tested by the devil to understand himself in relation to God. He had repeatedly gone off by himself to be and become a person shaped in prayer.

It seems to me that part of what Jesus did, and part of our own call in Christ, is to accept self-knowledge as part of our mission. Self-awareness, knowing ourselves, helps us relate to God.

The Jesuits use a daily prayer of self-examination, which asks things like:
· [God,] When did I sense your presence the most in my day?
· When did your presence seem farthest away from me in my day?
· How were you loving me in my day?
· How were you loving me even when your presence seemed far away?
· How did I respond to your love in my day?

AA and other Twelve Step movements also value self-awareness in the process of recovery. The “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” helps one become aware not only of their current identity, but also to form a new identity, free from addiction.

For our congregation to move forward in the process of calling a pastor, and more importantly, to develop in our mission to love, welcome, nurture, and serve all people by following the example of Jesus Christ, we have to know ourselves, our challenges as well as our gifts. Some of you have worked on our mission profile, our description of ourselves to the Synod and to prospective pastors. Knowing who we are helps others know us, and also helps us know what we need from our pastoral leader.

On Friday I was in Baltimore and happened by First English Lutheran Church, Harvey and Carol’s former congregation. It is a tall steeple church, and I had the opportunity to read the church sign, which this week displayed the message "To hear God, turn down the world’s volume."

To hear God, turn down the world’s volume.

The disciple’s journey consists of letting the good news of Jesus Christ replace and reshape what the world has taught us. Yet even the words of God are heard through the loudspeakers of the world, so that God’s good news can be distorted, so that even the words of scripture may become a barrier to hearing God’s true Word.

For instance, you may have heard this line from the second reading where the Apostle Paul counsels his hearers to not "think of yourself more highly than you ought." There’s someone I know who heard this line a lot when they were growing up, in house which quoted some of the Bible. "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought" was paired with "don’t stick out," "don’t ask questions," "keep in your place." "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought" became "don’t think much of yourself ‘cause you ain’t much."

Even though it’s implied in the text, I wish the Apostle had gone on to be more explicit, to spell out the antidote to this kind of distortion. You see, the corollary to "Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought," is "Don’t think of yourself less highly than you ought."

What he actually said is a call to examine yourself, have an accurate view of yourself. And that means is seeing you the way Jesus, the way God sees you. "Think with sober judgment," we are told, "each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned." Not through a lens of idealized fantasy or one of degradation. True discernment is knowing yourself according to the measure of faith that God has given!

We know that this more positive view is true, because look at what the Apostle goes on to say. He does not give a list of warnings or critiques, but highlights those gifts which we should practice and develop. These gifts are ours by God’s grace: prophecy, not as a measure of our wisdom, but in proportion to faith. Gifts of ministry to be developed in ministry, gifts of teaching in teaching. Those who can exhort and encourage should do so, all of us have gifts so all can practice generosity, and our leaders should lead diligently and consistently. And when we practice compassion and service, we can do so cheerfully.

This exhortation is not to be more humble, not to avoid aggrandizement, but to accurately discern and to better use our gifts – to become greater, not in our imagination, but in our discipleship.

You see, this leads us back to that other oft-quoted line that introduces this subject, much beloved by teachers, that we are not to be captive to the noise of this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds. "Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." This is not simply learning a few new things, but a reorienting of how we know ourselves, how we seen and relate to the world.

As often happens when you begin listening for God, I heard someone yesterday say something relevant to this idea: "Change is inevitable; transformation is a choice."

The world will bring us changes, both those we welcome and those that are more difficult. Children, we hope, grow up and change. Economic circumstances and health are not solely matters of our choice. We lose people who are dear to us. But we have power and authority when we choose to cooperate with God’s call to us, that call to be transformed, to do the spiritual and emotional and physical and behavioral work needed to exercise and develop God’s good gifts, to be changed by this life that has been given and entrusted to us.

Where are you in this work of transformation? Where are we as a congregation?...

"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God..."

This is not the sacrifice of ourselves upon the altar. There’s no blood demanded here – the appeal is not through God’s vengeance, or the need to satisfy a debt, or even through a sense of justice, but by the mercies of God. The sacrifice God wishes us to make is our transformation, the change from someone captive to the worst to someone blessed by the best.

Not to think of ourselves as the greatest thing the world has ever seen – but to know ourselves in relation to the greatest thing the world has ever, and will ever see – God’s infinite and unfailing love.

Think back to that line from AA’s Twelve Steps: "We conducted a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." It can be searching because God already knows us, and it can be fearless because God is not someone we need fear. God loves us beyond our imagining, and when we see ourselves in the light of God, when we see ourselves in truth, the way God sees us, it is through the eyes of love. That love is the engine of our transformation, the source of our renewal.

Who do you say that you are?

Why, that’s easy. We are God’s beloved. And that, brothers and sisters, is not only enough. That is everything.


Lowney, Chris. Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. Loyola Press, 2003.

Prayer of Examen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Recognition of martyrdom

You will have heard about the killings at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church this previous Sunday.

The following account is drawn from the Associated Press story. (You may see further information at

According to authorities, the gunman "targeted the congregation out of hatred for its liberal policies, including its acceptance of gays."

The attack Sunday morning lasted only minutes. But the anger behind it may have been building for months, if not years. "It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred for the liberal movement," Police Chief Sterling Owen said.

Amy Broyles was visiting the church to see her daughter in the play. She said [the gunman] "was a man who was hurt in the world and feeling that nothing was going his way," she said. "He turned the gun on people who were mostly likely to treat him lovingly and compassionately and be the ones to help someone in that situation."

A burly usher, 60-year-old Greg McKendry, was hailed as a hero for shielding others from gunfire as other church members rushed to wrestle the gunman to the ground.

McKendry, a church member, and a vistor were killed, while four more attack victims are hospitalized in critical condition.

It has seemed to me that, among some other denominations, Unitarians are not well-respected for strength of belief and power of witness. Yet this would seem to be a pretty clear case of martyrdom, where this congregation was targeted in part because of their beliefs and the actions they took to live out their beliefs. "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:10). Mr. McKendry also seems to have been an example of love in action along the lines mentioned by Jesus, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

Lives can so easily be broken and ended by violence. Those who seek to live according to the righteousness they have seen in God are vulnerable to those in thrall to lesser powers of fear, blame, and hatred, tools of Satan. When we are tested, may we call upon the hope given us through God's redeeming Word, the promise of peace.

Almighty and everlasting God, who kindled the flame of your love in the heart of your holy martyr Greg McKendry: Grant to us, your humble servants, a like faith and power of love, that we who rejoice in his witness may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. [Adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p.247]

Sustain, renew, and bring your healing upon the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, upon those wounded by the attack, including those wounded by what they saw and what they know. Deliver your people by the power of your love and by the surety of your promised redemption, that power again be perfected in vulnerability, with Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A victory against segregation

New Jersey Regional Coalition mobilizes diverse interfaith organization
to bring structural social change to New Jersey

(TRENTON) – With the final passage Monday June 23 of legislation to abolish Regional Contribution Agreements (RCAs), New Jersey has witnessed an historic victory for regional equity and the power of community organizing.

On Monday, over 200 people from congregations across the state filled the statehouse rotunda and jammed the hallways to press their senators and await the historic vote to repeal Regional Contribution Agreements. Monday's victory and statehouse rally was the culmination of over three years of tough and sometimes rough and tumble community organizing across the state led by the clergy and grassroots leaders of the New Jersey Regional Coalition.

As an affiliate of the Chicago based Gamaliel Foundation, the New Jersey Regional Coalition works in the tradition of grassroots and faith-based community organizing that presidential candidate Barack Obama did when he worked with Gamaliel on the south side of Chicago. Through a series of large regional public meetings with legislators, the New Jersey Regional Coalition brought together thousands of people across racial, economic, geographic, and partisan dividing lines.

Rev. R. Lenton Buffalo, Jr., Pastor of Union Baptist Church in Elizabeth said "The fact that NJRC is a regional grassroots and faith-based organization made all the difference in this effort. It was the regional impact and influence of NJRC that made this victory possible."

In 2005, responding to the anger and indignity of its members in every part of the state, and to Speaker Joe Roberts call for their repeal, NJRC began a campaign to end RCAs. “After learning about how RCAs undermine the quality of life, people were motivated to take action,” said Rev. Buffalo.

But NJRC tactics were considered controversial and hard hitting by some. William Dressel, Executive Director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities once complained to Governor Corzine that the group had "staged a series of demonstrations" against Dressel and then DCA Commissioner Susan Bass Levin." Dressel, who led the fight to preserve RCAs, accused the NJRC of "distortion and personal attacks" against RCA backers such as himself and Levin.

NJRC members reject that characterization and defend its actions and tactics. NJRC board member, Rev. Dr. Robert F. Hargrove Sr., Pastor of Christ Care Unit Missionary Baptist Church, Sicklerville said NJRC is "bringing justice to those who have been suffering injustice. I've been involved in other efforts over the years" continued Hargrove "but with the NJRC we've gotten results."

NJRC members say its real purpose is to unify people to change unjust structures. Rev. Hugh Brown, Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church, Princeton Township said "One parishioner told me that in the call to come to the statehouse she heard a ‘call to her heart.’ Teens and seniors, Republicans and Democrats, all found common cause. It is important that this is non-partisan and we hold everyone accountable to a justice agenda."

Seeing the harm RCAs have done to cities and suburbs alike, people came together to change the system. Mrs. Rebecca Mitchell a long-time resident of Trenton and member of Shiloh Baptist Church, a founding NJRC member said, "We've seen the effects of RCAs, they cause concentration of poverty and racial segregation, and deny people the opportunity to choose where they want to live and send children to school." Bishop Edgar da Cunha, representing the New Jersey Catholic Conference, a key backer of the NJRC, said, "Regional Contribution Agreements have done little to ease the shortage of affordable housing in this state or create much needed employment close to home."

"This could not have happened without people from every walk of life coming together to work persistently for change," said Paul Bellan-Boyer, chair of the NJRC Housing Task Force and Parish Deacon at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Jersey City. "Assembly Speaker Roberts deserves tremendous credit for having the vision and the courage to lead this long-needed reform through the Legislature but the NJRC brought about the political climate and made the moral argument that made this victory possible."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday prayer

In the name of God, the most merciful: Look with kindness upon our world. Give rest to the weary, food to the hungry, release to those in bondage, and power to the oppressed. Above all, help us to dwell in peace with one another. Support those who seek to bring a just order to communities and nations, especially those working to build a civil rule in Iraq. Bless your people with a renewed vision of your promise and your beauty, that we may rejoice in your gifts to us and have your name ever upon our lips. Amen.

Over the past month, our Hudson County Brotherhood/Sisterhood Group for Interfaith Dialogue and Concerns has had the privilege of meeting two delegations of Iraqi leaders brought to the U.S. by the State Department. Without revealing much detail about the identities of these guests, they have represented much of the geography of Iraq, and a variety of power: tribal, parliamentary, provincial. It has been a blessing to have several hours at a time to meet, converse, and share a meal together, for what has been at times very interesting interactions. And it is very important for us to receive information about Iraq that does not come from Americans in the green zone in Bagdhad, then filtered through corporate media organizations.

Our Iraqi brothers and sisters travel back to a nation under military occupation, with a broken constitution, and where power politics involves assassination and mass murder. I will keep them in mind as I do some community organizing at the church picnic tomorrow, knowing that this is, quite literally, a walk in the park.

Electrical wires span the streets in Baghdad, fed by private generators that provide backup for districts without power from the central grid. Photo by Marko Gorgiev, for the New York Times, August 23, 2007.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Which healing? Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

This gospel lesson is difficult for preachers. Which healing do you pay attention to?

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

Much has been made in recent years of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ cloak. The daily loss of her life-blood not only indicated health problems (an infection? fibroid tumors? uterine cancer?) and sapped her strength (anemia?), it made her unclean. It deprived her of touch, of entry to the Temple, of normal social interaction. For twelve years...

Even in her pursuit of healing she tries to be audaciously inconspicuous. The healing she finds in Jesus restores her body, her spirit, and her place in the community.

It is difficult to ignore the story the daughter raised from the dead. The brief descriptions in the gospel lesson are easily filled out by imagination and experience. Children continue to die, by accident, illness, and violence, and the chord this sounds is recognizable, resonating deep in the soul.

The death of a child strikes hard, on the family and also on the community. Perhaps it was different in an age when child death was common, but we feel there to be something wrong with the cosmic order when children die. Many marriages do not survive the death of a child, and parents who have lost children carry that loss for life.

Myra Dean tells about the aftermath of the death of her son, Rich Stark:
"And the worst part is when you realize you're going to live, because you just want to die. I thought I wouldn't live 10 minutes and I was astonished when I'd lived 10 days and mortified when I'd lived 10 months, and not even grateful yet when I had lived 10 years. I was just mostly surprised. And there was no one more astonished that I'd survived it than myself. When you lose your child, it's like somebody has just amputated a huge chunk of your heart. The difference is people can't see the amputation. I miss him terribly.” (Listen to Myra Dean; Transcript of A Mother's Bittersweet Memories.)

How wonderful to bring a child, a parent, a community back from this great tragedy. Good news, indeed!

But there is one more healing to consider. We may imagine tax collectors as greedy and rapacious. And they can be. It is known that tax collectors in first century Galilee were not well-liked. Their living was based upon how much they could extract from people without much to spare.

The gospel text, though, gives us no definite clue as to the character of this particular tax collector. (The association of him with the author of the gospel is ancient, but not conclusive.) He might be a scoundrel, he might be in the process of repentance, he might be an ordinary Joe in a position within a system of oppression.

The healing in this story may not be so dramatic or unmistakable as in the other two. There is no illness cured, no child raised from the dead. But make no mistake that Jesus at dinner with tax collectors and sinners is making a house call on his healing mission.

He calls himself - by analogy - a physician. He is in the midst of those in need of healing. For sinners, healing comes in repentance, a turning from that which is evil and harmful, and a turning towards that which is good, true, and restorative. It may well be that, in the presence of Jesus, listening to this rabbi, these sinners and tax collectors are taking a step towards health. As is always the case, healing has a social dimension. Living in sin, profiting from oppression, they live in a world where each is ranked according to their wealth and influence, their ability to profit in a society which is sick with injustice. Should they hear and follow Jesus, they will also find healing in a community which treats them with the currency of mercy and kindness.

We may be presumptuous enough to guess that - as we know happened to so many - some of them heard this new word and "came to Jesus." Tradition has said that Matthew himself did. A tax collector renouncing his part in oppression? This looks like, sounds like, feels like - this is healing.

Which healing do you pay attention to? All of them, all of them. We may lift up one today and another tomorrow, but may we never forget that God is always in the healing business. Even at dinner, even on the way to another healing...

This is one of those things we know about God. And knowing that God is always about the work of healing, we may be attentive to God's constant desire for healing, and the many acts of restoration which surround us - if we but have the grace to notice. No community touched by Jesus is without healing.

So this reading might well be an opportunity to notice the healings in our midst, whether brought about through psychotherapy, medical care, Twelve Steps, confession and absolution, the welcome of outcasts, bread for the hungry, release for the captive, having your story heard, seeing justice reign, or participating in forgiveness and reconciliation. This looks like, sounds like, feels like - this is healing, when we touch the hem of God's garment of wholeness.

Images (top to bottom, left to right):
1. Woman with a Hemorrhage - Louis Glanzman,
2. LEFT: Palestinian photojournalist Nasser Shtayyeh weeps as he carries the body of his five day old baby daughter Dunya before her funeral in Nablus April 19, 2002. Shtayyeh, who works as a photographer with the Associated Press, said that Dunya was taken ill and died [the night before] on the way to hospital after they waited three hours due to roadblocks for an ambulance to enter their home village of Salem. RIGHT: Iraqi father and daughter.
3. Illustration by Rick Meyerowitz,
4. J.R. Moore, Jr. Tax Assessor-Collector, Monroe County, Texas.
5. Father and daughter reconciliation, Doug Phillips.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Pentecost – Clothed with power

In Luke 24, just before his ascension into heaven, Jesus told his disciples “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

A friend asked the question “what is this clothing all about? Is this clothing a tight or a loose fit...and what might be the power?”

I wonder if Luke is in any way picking up this clothing metaphor from Paul and the Pauline tradition?

In 2 Corinthians 5, clothing is a metaphor for a heavenly/eternal dwelling. In Galatians 3:27, disciples are clothed with Christ in baptism (also a prominent part of Pentecost, Acts 2:41). Additionally, the believer puts on armor of light (Romans 13:12), the full armor of God (Ephesians 6), the new self (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10).

Colossians 3 collects a number of these images and concepts in one place, where those who have been raised with Christ are instructed: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col 3:9-12).

Both the Galatians and Colossians language about clothing imply that these new Christ-clothes cover up marks of difference (foreskin or circumcision, slave marks, sexual difference). The gift of tongues (or of understanding) given at Pentecost makes irrelevant the principal distinction among Jews gathered in Jerusalem.

“Clothed with power” might have something to do with the power that is made manifest when: 1) people find unity across dividing lines and 2) constitute a new identity rooted in the image of the Creator: righteous, compassionate, etc.

”Procession before First Communion” (Joe Zachs, edited)

These clothes may not fit so comfortably on our old self. But for our new self, they are work clothes, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes, and leisure-wear, perfectly tailored.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Up in the Air - Sermon for Easter 7

The following sermon was preached in James Chapel, Union Theological Seminary in New York City, at a communion service preceding commencement, May 17, 2002. While many of the references are particular to the setting, the general themes (where to look for God; the awkwardness of losses, in-between times and transitions;it remembering our own stories in light of vocation and mission) are transferrable to other settings.

One explanatory note: the chapel was decorated in part by cords hung at irregular places throughout the space. Graduates and other Union students had been invited to hang from these cords symbols from their time at Union (a backpack, theology books, a stethoscope, baby clothes, a chaplain's vest from the WTC recovery), requiring partipants in the service to take note of them and also negotiate their movements around the objects.

Up in the Air

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:6-11

Welcome. To family and friends and fellow students and strangers, welcome. You have come through a lot to get here, and we appreciate you hanging in there. I hope you know how much your support means.

Right an awkward time. For some, non-Christians in a Christian institution, being asked to sing “Come, Lord Jesus,” is a jarring interruption. For some, this is an unfamiliar place, and it’s not easy to make your way around. We’ve complicated that here in worship by hanging bits of our Union lives in awkward places, and this service, created just for this occasion, is not something anyone is familiar with.

It’s an awkward moment in the school year. For most of us, the work is done...but things aren’t quite over yet. There is something more still to happen. At least that what the graduates are hoping!

It’s the same if you follow the church year. Right now we’re sitting between Ascension, where Jesus was lifted up into the clouds out of sight, and Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven, to fill the disciples with power and energy and gifts for God’s work in the world. Up, down. Up, down.

At the end of my three year program here, especially at the end of this past year, I find myself feeling something like what those disciples must have felt on that hill. “Did you see that? What just happened?” If your life is anything like mine, there is something up in the air, something unsettled, something going on which isn’t quite clear yet.

I remember the first time I turned my eyes unto the hill that is Union Seminary. I kept running into people who had studied here, who taught here, and it seemed a beacon of hope, a place where vital theology was happening, where faith was formed, and where faith was found precisely in the process of testing what is true, what is real. I took a little class here through Auburn, that odd little seminary attached to Union. For me, it functioned as a gateway school, one class led to another and another, and eventually I found myself mainlining divinity. It was on February 15, 1993 that I used the library for the first time, and pretty soon I figured out how to look like I belonged, so I could sneak in to do reading.

Ever since then, I knew that, at 121st and Broadway, just over the crown of Harlem Heights, was a place I could look to with hope and expectation and just a bit of envy and awe, a place where people were doing Things That Mattered.

Eventually, I came to see that my desire for that light on a hill, this strange schoolhouse of God’s, was a call to turn more than my eyes here, but to ascend the mountain, to make the study of God’s business my business. I think some of you have heard that call too.

I bet you can remember some of the important steps along the way. The turning points, the places, the people, always the people, along that journey of turning to that which is holy...

It seems like just a matter of weeks, but it was almost three years ago that our Seminary Pastor Annie Ruth Powell, dressed in flowing robes, welcomed me and other entering students by telling us that we each had gifts from God. She said it like she believed it, and wouldn’t you know it – she was right!

There’s no way I can tell you very much about what’s gone on these past three years, and nobody is here to listen to that kind of travelogue. But I can tell you a bit about what it’s like to stand there on a hill, looking at hopes and dreams disappear up into the sky, wondering what’s going to happen next.

A year ago, some of us were in this chapel the morning our friend and teacher and spiritual leader Annie Ruth died. Eight months ago we were here when the World Trade Center fell, nearly three thousand souls rising up in smoke and fire. During this year we have planned and debated the future of this school, what Union will look like in the coming years. There have been births and miscarriages, illnesses and healings, deaths and surprising discoveries of new life. So many things up in the air...

This, I think, is what’s going on for those disciples. The Jesus they’d lost once, and then found risen from the dead, is now gone again. While he was with them, he always had an answer, a plan. They usually wouldn’t understand it, but it’s comforting to think that somebody knows what’s going on. And now...he’s gone, and they look after him where they saw him last.

And “suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?’”

Isn’t that an amazing thing? That is not the kind of thing you expect to hear in church! “Why are you looking up toward heaven?”

It’s all the more puzzling because these men, these angels, then say Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” So shouldn’t we have our eye firmly fixed on the last place we saw him? What goes up, must come down... Jesus went up, so surely he’s up there, and when he comes again it will be from on high. Right?

It’s a trick question, you know... My time at Union has taught me well, but not always in the ways I expected. I turned my eyes to this hill. I looked up to Union. And I was not disappointed. This school has indeed been a place that has helped direct my attention to God. And when it has done that, it has been by asking the angels’ question: “Why are you looking up toward heaven?”

Now don’t get me wrong. Heaven is wonderful. We need heaven, there’s a need for holiness and beauty and purity and radiance, all the things we hope for in any decent heaven. But the big problem with looking up to heaven is that you can’t see the person next to you.

No, when Jesus comes again, he’ll come the same way he came before. If you want to see Jesus, don’t be staring up into heaven. Look to the nearest manger. Look to the people who struggle each day for their daily bread. Look downtown to the pit that was the WTC. Come down off of this hill to the poor of this city, this nation, this world. Share something of yourself with another, and take something of another into yourself.

When Union is Union it’s not because it’s a light shining high on the hills of Harlem Heights. When Union is Union, it is a tent, a temporary dwelling. Its focus is not on renovating the buildings, or beautifying the Quad, or building the endowment, or saving the Library – even though all these may be good and necessary things. But we should know better than to direct our attention to the towers of this world. However good it is to know there’s a heaven, if we’re looking for God, we’d better look lower. And we just might find that heaven is a lot closer than we think.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Krister Stendahl

I received news last night that Krister Stendahl has died. For many years, Bishop Stendahl was one of the leading lights of the Lutheran church. First known for his influential scholarship on the Apostle Paul, his academic work influenced his ministry. His understanding of a Jewish Paul working in the multicultural Mediterranean fed Stendahl's own passion for religious openness, tolerance, and friendship. As Bishop of Stockholm and Professor at Harvard Divinity School, his leadership role helped many in the church find legitimacy and hope in that kind of vision.

Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord: And let light perpetual shine upon him.

Few leaders of the church in our day - perhaps ever - have combined his depth of scholarship, pastoral discernment, and unfailing kindness and graciousness. While taking strong and controversial positions (on the full inclusion of women and gay people into the church, on the "Jewishness" of the early Christian movement, on the religious openness to other faiths), Stendahl was irenic, open to persuasion, and would listen carefully to anyone.

I had the pleasure of hearing him and speaking with him a number of times towards the end of his active public teaching, where it seemed that no conference of Lutherans was complete without his presence. His personal kindness was mirrored by his preaching and teaching, for the non-judgmental attitude with which he approached personal interactions was reflected in his vision of a gracious ekklesia. In particular, he helped break open some of the more exclusivist readings of church tradition, arguing that the early church's proclamation of Jesus as the One is extravagent "love language," and needs to heard in that way, not as a constriction of the ways in which God works.

What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.... But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.... Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Romans 3:9,21,29-30

I invite you to leave your own reflections and comments here.

You may also wish to view and help develop Krister Stendahl's Wikipedia entry.

The picture of Bishop Stendahl is from the Harvard Divinity School website, and presumably copyright by them.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Martin King, prophet & martyr

We would like to claim Martin Luther King, Jr. as our own, and believe we stand with him. May it be so.

But King was controversial, opposed, and, at the end of his life, abandoned. As he became more radical, he sought to confront oppressive power in fundamental and far-reaching ways, challenging warmakers and poverty profiteers. His support, his approval, his reputation suffered.

Perhaps it is right that our nation, which justly wishes to celebrate Dr. King and claim him as its own, observes his birthday as a national holiday. But in the church, it is more appropriate to commemorate martyrs on the date of their death.

While we think of martyrs as those who have been killed for their faith, the word means "witness." A martyr is one who gives witness. Martin King gave witness to several things I would like to remember today.

King as disciple

King's oratory was, of course, shaped by his church tradition. But his preaching was in the service of his mission, called by God to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the oppressed, to change the hearts of people and the circumstances in which we live. King did not come to justice simply because it is right, but because it is the will of a just and loving God, who had spoken to him, and who he strove to know and follow.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision, his strength, his redemption came to him from a Source that outweighed other concerns. We do not follow in his footsteps unless we also touch that sacred spirit of holy good which animated and supported not only Dr. King, but countless others seeking to live faithfully to the call to justice.

King as organizer

King did nothing alone. His success came not because his cause was right, and not because of his own immense talent, but because his personal ability and the righteousness of his cause were joined to a movement of organized people, and organized money, which made power.

Ghandi's influence upon King (through King's teacher Howard Thurman) has been much noted in King's practice of creative, non-violent resistance. But Ghandi was also a premier community organizer and coalition-builder. King used his experience as a church leader coupled with his study of Ghandi and the assistance of American-developed organizers to work together and achieve change.

Working with others has an important benefit beyond simply building power. In community, you have the chance to "practice what you preach," and begin to realize the kind of society you envision.

Courage in the face of opposition

We do not always recall the personal cost of engaging in a struggle for justice. In the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56, as King emerged as a leader, the pressure became intense as he was jailed, threatened, accused of financial impropieties, and opposition strove to split the boycott coalition.

Clayborne Carson describes a pivotal moment:
King reached bottom on Jan. 27 when a particularly threatening late-night telephone call brought him to "the saturation point." He went to his kitchen and sat before an untouched cup of coffee, exhausted, his courage "all but gone." As he considered ways to "move out of the picture without appearing a coward," he began to pray aloud. "At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before." ["The Unexpected Emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr."]

This was not a one time conversion. Setbacks and fears persisted until the end of his life. One of my pivotal images of Dr. King comes from his last days. Leading a march in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, an ugly scene is developing. The March would end in violence, when students at the end of the procession used the signs they carried to break windows of businesses and looting ensued. At one point, a car or truck backfired, and King visibly flinched, expecting it to be a gunshot. I believe the following picture was taken shortly before that moment...

Dr. King in Memphis, March 28, 1968 (JACK THORNELL / AP)

Take note how the leaders are holding onto one another. Their linked arms knit them together in a web of accountability, support, and shared mission. They will stand or fall together.

We do well to remember, and take courage from, the human King. The very real fear of death, of injury, of failure, of humiliation, of ostracism did not magically disappear because he was doing God's will as he understood it. But his fear did not have the last word. Echoing louder in King's ear was God's word of love and hope, and God's promise of a beloved community where peace and justice reign.

Almighty God, in every age you have blessed us with witnesses to your vision for this world. In Martin King we see to this day your hope for peace and justice, and your word that, walking with you, the promised land awaits. Grant that we may step past our fears and into the work to which you are calling us, to proclaim in word and deed your liberating power. Amen.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Christ is Risen - Indeed!

Easter greetings to all.

On Good Friday we heard the old, old story - that greed, power-lust, and fear can put hope to death. That story is told far too often, just turn on the TV, read the paper, listen to your colleagues' and neighbors' complaints about all that is wrong. We cannot call that story false, for the evidence is undeniable. Our world is broken.

Yet sometime between Friday's gloom and Sunday's dawn, God spoke a new story. God's loving will to life, to righteousness, to justice is infinitely stronger, infinitely more persistent, infinitely more inevitable than evil.

Like Mary Magdalene (John 20:1-18), this holy power is so radical we might not recognize it at first. Until it calls us by name, and we remember that word first spoken at creation, that whispers in our very bones "It is good." Maybe once again we can ignore the deceiver's lies, and trust that that first word is also the final one, and that we are God's tender, blessed ones. Listen for this story, and you will begin to collect evidence that it is true, and trustworthy, and glorious. You may not find it on the news - but you will find it in the lives of real human beings who are every day being transformed by grace.

Christ is risen - risen indeed!

Friday, February 29, 2008

Lent 6 - I am a broken dish

Sixth Sunday in Lent
March 16, 2008

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11;
Matthew 26:14—27:66 (Liturgy of the Passion)

There is no story more important to Christians than the Passion. There are no more central Messianic prophecies than the “suffering servant” songs of Isaiah. And there is no better summary of Christ’s role than the Christ-hymn of Philippians.

With so much going on in these great texts, we might easily miss what God is saying as we pray this Psalm, in the midst of these proclamations of Christ.

For the Passion, the suffering servant, the Philippians hymn, all describe one who is an outcast. Insults, bullying, gossip, layoffs, illness, divorce, aging, scandal, rejection. There are so many ways to be out, not in. Everyone I know has been in this position, though it is one we would all rather flee.

Yet this Sunday, this Holy Week, in fact every Sunday and every week, God directs us again and again to attend to the one who is suffering. In the Passion, we look to Jesus as his life becomes this Psalm: “My enemies insult me. Neighbors are even worse, and I disgust my friends. People meet me on the street, and they turn and run. I am completely forgotten, like someone dead. I am merely a broken dish” (Ps 31:11-12, CEV).

Plain of Ĺ ahr-e Qumis (Hecatompylos), covered with millions of potsherds

The most ubiquitous ancient artifact in Biblical lands, found in uncounted billions, is the potsherd, broken pieces of the clay vessels that were used in every home and palace. When a dish broke, there were no super adhesives, so from the dawn of civilization, broken dishes were thrown away, the broken pieces of pottery littering ancient cities.

At several points, scripture refers to us as earthen vessels. No matter how good the clay or how talented the potter, sooner or later, pottery breaks.

In looking to Jesus, perhaps we may also attend to our own experience of suffering. “Have pity, LORD! I am hurting...” (Ps 31:9, CEV). Like broken dishes, the pieces of our lives are scattered, as are the fractured parts of our families, towns, churches, nations.

This week we will hear how Jesus is broken. His Passion is not only the violence wrought upon his body. He suffered also in the way his friends turned and ran, the way even God seemed to abandon him to his fate.

Yet in his Passion and the days which follow, listen too for the Word, which we’ll hear again and again, how God in Christ gathers up the broken pieces.

Jesus had been gathering broken people into a community of hope. Better than holy super glue, his life creates a new community, bringing outcasts together, repaired by love. And in his kingdom, in the church, in the presence of God, and with our neighbors, suffering need not be magnified by isolation.

Available with additional content at the American Bible Society's Bible Resource Center.

Illustrations added March, 2011. Photo of Hecatompylos is © Jona Lendering for Livius.Org, 2005

Lent 5 - I Felt the Lord's Power

Fifth Sunday in Lent - March 9, 2008

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Perhaps you’ve heard people refer to Lent as a “downer.” Probe a little, and I expect you will often find that this is a reaction against the notion of Lent as a fast or time of deprivation (so seldom observed), against a somber or even dreary quality in some of the music and worship, or against a focus on our sinfulness which may seem extreme.

Yet the story of Lent, as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and his Passion, is essentially forward-looking. There is a direction to the story. Even as we remember Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and death, we are hearing the story from the other side.

These stories, though, reach out to where we are. We do not always live in the land of resurrection. These places of dry bones, these decaying bodies, these sealed tombs are real to us. Sometimes our sin brings destruction upon us. Sometimes the sin of others crashes into our lives. And the result is dry bones.

A young girl displays the bones of Cambodian genocide victims.

The prophet Ezekiel is taken to a valley full of bones. These could have been the bleached remains of a battle or massacre. In Darfur there are the bones of burned villages. In our own land we still find the burial grounds of slaves and Native Americans. But we don’t have to look across the world or back in time to see bones in a sea of troubles.

A modern Ezekiel might be taken to a small town on the prairie, where the local businesses are dried up and the next generation is exiled to another land.

Downtown Cairo, Illinois.

He or she might walk down the streets in certain neighborhoods, looking at foreclosure properties, houses without people. The prophet might be transported by bus to the furthest corners of our states, where prison fortresses keep some folks’ bones out of sight and far from home.

Faced with places and problems like these, we may be too daunted to believe that even God can make a difference. “LORD God, only you can tell [if these bones can live]” (Ezekiel 37:3) could be a faithful answer – it is certainly a cautious one.

But the church tells these stories because we have felt the Lord’s power. As a people we have seen with our own eyes and known in our lives that God is a God of deliverance.

God’s work does not stop when humans have done our worst. Ask relief workers, ask the descendants of slaves and other survivors of genocide, get a reality check from those in prison ministries. “Can these bones live?” If you can’t wait for Easter, ask Lazarus.

Shanghai earthquake, May, 2008

Available with additional content at the American Bible Society's Bible Resource Center.

Illustrations added March, 2011.