Sunday, July 5, 2015

Religious Freedom and the Bible

Image result for christian flag over american flag
Over the 4th of July Holiday Some Churches
in North Carolina Flew the Christian Flag Above the American Flag

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality has renewed discussions of religious liberty, and the relationship between belief, conscience, and government in the lives of many Christian believers. David Gushee, a significant Christian Ethicist (and my former youth minister), claims that the ruling is tantamount to a "mutual conscience-shocking" event.  As we look across the divide caused by decades of culture wars, we are finding we cannot agree on the most basic issues of morality. Gushee coins the term "fruitless loop" to describe the never ceasing rounds of argumentation and recrimination that result. He predicts divisions in families, friendships, and communities. I suspect he is right. He also calls for more dialogue as the only reasonable way forward. I also agree.

To that end, I'd like to share a little of my own reflection on the discussion of moral conscience and religious liberty that has been in the news lately. I understand that some conservatives have been calling out for acts of civil disobedience against the marriage equality ruling. I'm not entirely sure what such acts would look like. The N.C. legislature recently passed a law allowing magistrates to refuse to perform marriages for same sex couples. In Indiana recently, a more expansive "religious liberty" law allows shopkeepers, service providers, and others to discriminate against same-sex couples who are seeking their services. Religious liberty apparently is being interpreted by evangelical conservatives as the right to discriminate against those with whom you disagree, or whose family choices you find problematic. This is a dangerous trend.

As the "Bible Guy," I have to admit that the Bible says very little about religious liberty. Religious liberty is a product of rationalism and the enlightenment. It was shaped and embraced by religious separatists who fled to the American continent to escape the intolerance and oppression they had experienced in Europe. Moderate Baptists have done a wonderful job of maintaining this unique and special history exemplified in the lives of George Truett, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, and John Leland. To be sure, for these men, religious liberty meant the freedom to read and interpret the Bible on an individual basis (something contemporary Christian fundamentalists are zealous to supplant). It also meant the freedom to baptize and be baptized (this was a big one for state churches in which infant baptism was practiced), the freedom to organize and govern churches, and  to speak freely about one's faith. I daresay, though, that the freedom to deny services or discriminate was quite far from these early champions' thoughts about religious liberty.

This brings us to the famous passage often trotted out in discussions of religious liberty, Romans 13:1-7. [Now, let me make a disclaimer that I am not a Paul scholar, so my reflections here are largely untutored. Nor am I engaging the rigor of an academic scholar in my reflections here. So please take these words as surface considerations from a biblical scholar who is interested more in opening a discussion. There are scholars who have spent a lifetime studying Paul and I am not one of them; nor do I imagine my views represent them here.]

So, let me share a few thoughts about the passage and how it may or may not relate to the current debate. Romans 13:1-7 tells "all people to be subject to governing authorities" (13:1). Frankly, as much as I'd like to beat my conservative colleagues over the head with this and tell them to obey the Supreme Court ruling, I shall refrain. Such raw, direct, literal application of Scripture to societal issues is the very thing I am teaching my students to avoid. So I shall avoid it myself, except to say to my fundamentalist friends that if they are going to embrace a literal reading of Scripture, they surely ought to reflect hard on what this text is telling them. There's little room for their brand (or any brand) of religious liberty within this biblical text, a text that was written in a world in which one god or another was represented by governing authorities, and in which theocracy was the practiced norm.

If my fundamentalist colleagues are suddenly going to embrace the enlightenment ideas of religious liberty, they will surely need to reexamine how they interpret Scripture.  I would point out that they are now no longer engaging in an inerrant literal reading of the Bible. My hope is that they might indeed embrace reason, experience, and tradition to think through their ethical and theological viewpoints. At least then we might have a chance of engaging in critical dialogue!

But to return to Romans 13:1-7, I also think there are myriad issues with this text. While I'd have to line up the evidence more clearly, I suspect there may be some evidence to view it as an interpolation by a later author. The vocabulary of "submission" mirrors strongly the language of the household codes in the deuteropaulines. The third person imperative in 13:1 breaks the flow of the second person imperative found in 12:21 and 13:8. There is also a digression in topic from that of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10) to  the obedience of governing authorities (13:1-7). If 13:1-7 were excised from the text,, Paul's discussion of love in 12:9-12:21 flows seamlessly to 13:8-10.  Paul also seems to strongly contradict himself.  In 13:7 he tells the Romans to pay everything to whom it is owed (including taxes, revenue, honor, and respect); yet in the very next verse, he tells the Romans that they should owe nothing to anyone except love. So, I think there's a good case to be made that verses 13:1-8 were inserted by a later hand.

Still, if we don't view the text as an interpolation, there's good reason to contextualize these statements of Paul with his other writings. It is clear from Paul's statements elsewhere that he expects the parousia, the coming of Christ, to occur during his lifetime. In fact much of his ethical teaching for congregational life in 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 7 is deeply immersed in a perspective of immanent apocalyptic eschatology. Indeed, many twentieth century scholars came to view Paul's teachings on the Christian life as an "interim ethics." Since Paul expected Christ to return at any moment, he never expected anyone beyond his immediate influence to even receive his advice, much less follow it. In this sense, Paul was like many of us who blog, without any expectation that anyone beyond our immediate circles will read our stuff.

Apart from this caveat, one ought also to view 13:1-7 in light of, for example, 1 Thess 4:1-12, where Paul instructs the Thessalonians to live simply, work with their hands, and avoid becoming economically (and otherwise) dependent upon on others. Read in this light, the instructions in 13:1-8 would seem to lead to a kind of political quietism. If one does good and pays one's taxes, according to Paul, there is no need to fear governing authorities. They have bigger fish to fry. They don't need to go after handful of believers in the Jewish ghettos of Rome. If Prisca and Aquilla (16:3) are recent returnees to Rome, they likely would not want to see another police action similar to that as the recent one under the emperor Claudius. They apparently had been banned, along with many other Jews, because the Romans had grown weary of religious infighting about the identity of the Jewish Messiah. Perhaps Paul's advice is meant to guard against such experiences with advice that leads to a kind of quietism. Such quietism, I might point out, has a rich history in this country among Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, especially with regard to church-state issues and pacifism. Hauerwas' combination of the thought of the Mennonite biblical scholar, John Howard Yoder, with the revisionist virtue ethics of Alisdair MacIntyre, is one example where a mainline Christian ethicist has embraced a contemporary moral narrative of neo-quietism. Practicing such neo-quietism might bring a healthy dose of sanity for those on the Christian right. I suspect many of us would heartily greet their retreat from attempts to assault our common democratic values with their own brand of rabid theocratic ideology.

But if our colleagues on the right nonetheless intend to engage in acts of civil disobedience against what they see as an unjust government, let them take note of two ideas in which Paul's moral thought are grounded. First, Paul, along with the prophets, did indeed believe that God's justice would prevail in the end. This means that any actions one might undertake must line up with God's justice, and most particularly, do no harm.  Actions that harm same-sex families, whether by attempting to deny them their legal rights, or engaging in discrimination in the workplace, or in denying equal goods and services, do not square with God's justice. Such actions cannot be the fruits of conscientious objection, because such acts are unjust and de facto unconscionable.

Furthermore, such actions do not square with the rule of love that Paul describes in the passages
surrounding 13:1-7. Whether 13:1-7 is an interpolation by a later author or not, it is still deeply embedded in a passage about love, patient suffering, harmony, association with the broken and lowly, living peaceably, disavowing vengeance, etc. As Paul sums it up, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

In the past I have engaged in civil disobedience against a nation that has embraced militarism and indeed taught others how to partake in intolerable acts of evil and violence towards innocent people. However, in doing so, I tried to keep in mind Gandhi's thoughts on Ahimsa, which Martin Luther King, Jr. loosely translated as love. Apparently in Sanskrit, Ahimsa meant something like "no injury" or "no striking." Both Gandhi and King embraced it as a leading principle and purifying practice in acts of nonviolent resistance.  If my conservative sisters and brothers are seeking principles for their use of civil disobedience, they must keep in mind that love must be their guide. If their civil disobedience causes harm to their neighbor, they ought to examine their spiritual practice and reflect on whether their motives are driven by purity and God's love, or by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge. If Gandhi and King are too difficult to embrace, maybe they can simply keep in mind John Wesley's three spiritual laws: do all the good you can; do no harm; and stay in love with God.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Marriage Equality and the Bible

Gay Marriage White House Lit 
This past week has been a tremendous one in American history. We saw the Supreme Court uphold the Affordable Care Act. We witnessed perhaps the finest display of presidential oratory, certainly of my lifetime, in Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. We also saw the Supreme Court uphold marriage equality, providing the right for gays and lesbians to marry all across the land.  We have also seen calls for the removal of that hideous symbol of hatred, the confederate battle flag, from monuments and depictions all across the South. Sadly too we have seen a racist backlash, with nonsensical rallies by hate groups, the burning of at least six African American churches, as well as many right wing evangelicals coming out of the woodwork to challenge the Supreme Court's findings on marriage equality.

It is this latter issue that I'd like to engage here. Some of you are familiar with my stance on homosexuality and the Bible from my blog on the now defunct Amendment One that passed in North Carolina. Others may also be familiar with my post for ONScripture on the legacy of Dr. King for our divided culture.  I don't want to repeat myself here on these issues. But I do want to reflect on marriage and what the Bible may have to say on it.

Marriage equality of course is not described anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, the marriages described in the Bible are anything but equal. I teach through these texts year in and year out. I am hard pressed to think of a single case in either Old or New Testament in which there is an egalitarian marriage between male and female. So I'm not sure that the Bible presents us with an egalitarian ideal to emulate, when it comes to marriage. Now, one could argue that the rhetoric of the household codes in the deuteropaulines (see how many assumptions I make when I refer to these passages in Col, Eph, 1 Tim, Titus?) tones down the patriarchal understandings of the Greco-Roman world. I doubt, though, that would be of much comfort to twenty-first century women who are taking the lead in their marriages.

To be honest, I'm not sure what most conservative evangelicals are talking about when they speak of the "biblical view on marriage," as if it were some kind of ideal. When I look at the Bible what I see are stories of human frailty and brokenness. Let's talk briefly about one of the texts many conservative theologians take out of context when they claim that the ideal is marriage between a man and a woman.  It comes from the Yahwistic creation account, the story of Adam and Eve, in Gen 2:24.  "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (NRSV).  As I teach my undergraduates in Old Testament, this is one of the many etiologies that can be found in the Yahwist's stories, particularly in the early chapters of Genesis. An etiology is an explanation about a current reality that is grounded in a narrative retrospectively. As I tell my students, the Yahwist is a master story teller and folklorist. Good folklorists color their stories in such a way that the stories explain a contemporary reality. It is as if  the Yahwist is telling a bedtime story to a child that has asked a question. For example, to the child's question, "how did the animals get their names," the Yahwist tells the story of how Yahweh shaped every animal of the field and bird of the air and gave Adam the chance to name them (Gen 2:18-20). Why did God do this?  Because Adam was lonely and God was seeking to make him a companion. It is a sweet story. Before God took a rib out of Adam to make him a wife, he tried to console Adam's loneliness with parakeets, sheep, and puppy dogs. As etiology and folklore, the story is lovely and charming. But is this the kind of story upon which folks really want to base their ideal for a lifelong commitment?

Some evangelicals are concerned about protecting the sanctity of marriage, or guarding marriage as a biblical institution. I fail to see how marriage equality threatens anything but the most patriarchal, and hierarchical forms of marriage. I'm also not convinced that the marriages presented in the Bible present us with something all that sacred.

How about Father Abraham? OK, he more or less raped his wife's slave-girl, Hagar.  I don't know what else to call it.  Sarai gave Hagar to him to sleep with (Gen 16:2). Hagar was a slave-girl! Given her position in the household and the likely fact that she was a young teen, consent was clearly out of the question. I don't see any marriage ideal here.

Well, what about Jacob?  He married Rachel and Leah; and, uh, they were sisters (Gen 29:15-30)! On top of that, he slept with their slave-girls, Bilhah (Gen 30:4) Zilpah (Gen 30:9), as well. If we are charitable, we might say that the house of Israel was the product of a very messy mixed marriage. Read from contemporary eyes, though, the house of Israel was the product of a horrendous conflict between two sisters who were fighting over a man whom today we probably would prosecute as a bigamist and rapist (could Bilhah and Zilpah have said no?).

I don't believe these stories help us to come up with an ethical ideal for marriage.  For the narrative imagination, actually, I find such biblical stories somewhat of a threat to the ideal of the sanctity of marriage. What I find praiseworthy for the narrative imagination is the kind of love that is shared between two people of the same sex who--in spite all the hardship, oppression, and prejudice they have faced--still want to make a lifelong covenant with one another!  Thank God this is now legal in this nation.

To the social conservatives who oppose it and those who are rejoicing over the Supreme Court ruling, I would offer the same word of caution. Theologically, I believe that the biblical narrative, time and again, portrays human beings as broken, deceitful, sometimes violent, covenant-making/covenant-breaking creatures. Apart from God's love and God's grace, we human beings are incapable of maintaining lifelong covenants; not with God, who has chosen to be in covenant with us, nor with the partners with whom we have chosen to be in covenant. I would caution conservative theologians to think very carefully about what they mean when they praise the sanctity of marriage.  Maintaining a lifelong covenant is a gargantuan task and there are bound to be times when we as humans fail our spouses in one way or another. If theologians are to take the Bible seriously, they ought far more to preach the messiness of marriage and the reality that there will be times when people we love and trust (whether they be spouses, parents, children, siblings, or close friends) will fail us and our expectations of one another. The biblical message is not the sanctity of marriage, but the brokenness of human beings. Only through God's grace can we even begin to attempt fidelity and approach sanctity.

To those who are rejoicing over the recent ruling, I say, I rejoice with you. Same sex couples should not be denied equal status and protection under the law. We should all rejoice that human rights are being expanded in our society; although there is still much to be done. Still, I would caution that marriage is no panacea. It certainly confers legal and economic protection for same-sex families. And for this, one should rejoice. This change of status, however, does not magically make a person any less broken.  It does not automatically heal one from past wounds or unresolved anxieties. As a believer, I think what I have said above holds true for married couples, regardless of whether they are of the same or differing gender. We are all frail and broken creatures. Only with God's grace can we attempt to maintain covenant fidelity to one another. My prayer is that those churches that have not already recognized marriage equality might follow this ruling. Instead of blocking it, the church should be a source for God's grace and comfort. Regardless of whom we love, the church should be in the business of blessing and enriching our covenants with grace and community, not condemning them with fear and lack of knowledge.    


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Slaying Giants

Slaying Giants

The Goliath of Racism in Light of the Shootings in Charleston, S.C.

I Samuel 17:31-49 (NRSV)

31 When the words that David spoke were heard, they repeated them before Saul; and he sent for him. 32 David said to Saul, "Let no one's heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine." 33 Saul said to David, "You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth." 34 But David said to Saul, "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God." 37 David said, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine." So Saul said to David, "Go, and may the LORD be with you!" 38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul's sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, "I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them." So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd's bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. 41 The Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. 43 The Philistine said to David, "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?" And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 The Philistine said to David, "Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field." 45 But David said to the Philistine, "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD's and he will give you into our hand." 48 When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine.
 49 David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground.

Here we are again. With the events of this week in Charleston, S.C. our nation once again has been thrown into the downward spiral of anxiety, hate, and loss after a senseless, violent tragedy that has claimed the lives of innocents and saints  I wasn’t planning on preaching about this topic this weekend, especially since I am a guest in your house of worship and this a particularly difficult and charged topic; but preaching the Word requires us to be timely and prophetic. I know this event has been on all of hearts and minds this week. So if you’ll allow me, I thought I would venture into these difficult and sobering issues in the company of our Old Testament Scripture.

The story of David and Goliath is one that many of us have known since our childhood. I can remember as a little boy hearing this story in church and going back home and finding a forked stick and putting a rubber band on it to make my own slingshot to play David and Goliath. But that memory is vague; and who knows whether maybe some well-meaning children’s church worker got the bright idea to make slingshots with the children as a craft for that Sunday. I’m sure my parents would have been glad that their little boy came home with a weapon and five smooth small stones with which to torment the family dog.  It’s a good thing I was never that good at crafts! But David and Goliath is a romantic story, when told to children. We tend to focus on David as the sweet little shepherd boy whom neither King Saul nor Goliath take all that seriously; the little boy who kills the giant with his slingshot.

From a scholarly point of view, this story may accent the Royal Ideology of the Davidic Kingdom. Viewed from this perspective, the story of David and Goliath is a wonderful piece of propaganda that represents David’s great cunning and resourcefulness as a warrior, as well as his close reliance upon God and the institution of Israel’s religion. The contrast between King Saul, the fearful warrior, and David, the unknown young shepherd boy, is particularly powerful here. As an adult reflecting on it today, I find it astonishing that we have made this into a children’s story. It is a particularly violent text. Not only does David proclaim to Goliath that he is going to cut his head off, after he slays him with the stone, he goes on to defile the giant’s body by cutting his head off. Not only that, he takes the head with him as a trophy to Jerusalem, and with Goliath’s head in his hand, he goes to Abner, the commander of Israel’s army, and King Saul, simply to display his military prowess. At least from the perspective of violence and horror, there is little to redeem this text; and yet we still view it as a children’s story.

I do believe, though, that this text still can speak to us today, particularly during a time of distress such as the one we’re facing after the massacre at Charleston this past week. To do so, we’ll need to read the story as a kind of parable of our own contemporary moral and spiritual dilemmas, embracing what is called a tropological reading of Scripture, a way of reading the echoes back to the ancient church, yet is still commonly practiced in the Black Church tradition. In this sense, Goliath represents for us any giant that we might struggle to slay in our lives. Those giants can be different things for each of us.

As a white worshiping community in the South in the US, even in the 21st century, the events of this week demonstrate very clearly that racism is a giant in our culture and in our own lives. Racism is a Goliath who is threatening to destroy and defeat us, and is acting on his threats to kill our very own brothers and sisters in Christian community. We know that the scourge of racism and the horrors of violence (particularly the gun violence) must be defeated. We know this just as surely as King Saul and the Israelites knew that Goliath must be defeated, if they were to live in peace. Yet, we are riddled and disabled by fear. Saul and the Israelites could not imagine how they were going to defeat this giant.  In the ancient ways of war, Goliath seemed undefeatable. He is portrayed as huge and tall, even by modern standards. He was also armored like a tank, with all the most advanced weaponry. Compared the Isrealites, the ancient Philistines were well known for their technical prowess, especially their metalworking. So a giant 10 feet tall, wearing somewhere around 150 pounds of armor, and able to throw a 25 pound spear, that would have been something to fear!

What’s more amazing is that the sight and words of Goliath caused the leaders of Israel to quake in  terror. This is the kind of terror that seizes you, the keeps you from moving, or acting, or doing anything. No one believes they have the wherewithal to take on Goliath. They are seized and disabled with fear. We’ve all been in situations like this, haven’t we? We may be facing a workplace bully or an addiction problem that seems so huge it is insurmountable. Some of us have been so beaten down and had our self-esteem battered, that we are disabled with fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt that prevents us from even seeing the opportunities ahead of us. When we think about Goliath this way, I think we can also draw a parallel to our own contemporary situation and racism. Racism is a particularly powerful enemy, in that it is something that is both at large in our culture and history, but also insidiously at work within each one of us, oftentimes without our even being aware of it.

What makes racism so powerful, is that it tends to instill, especially among the privileged group in society. a doubling of “otherness.” Not only do we in the majority culture project “otherness” upon the minority culture, it also instill within some of us a sense of moral superiority as we tend to project upon “others,” who act or speak openly on their fears and prejudices, as the “racists.” And we see such project going on in the media today. If we are charitable, this young shooter down in Charleston becomes an “isolated individual,” or is portrayed as a “troubled youth,” or someone who is wrestling with “mental illness.” If we are judgmental, this young man becomes a “redneck hick,” a “racist monster,” or a “vile terrorist.” Either way, we are projecting upon this young man a sense of “otherness.” He is the terrorist.  He is the redneck racist. He is a troubled young man.  We place all the blame on him and take no responsibility at all upon ourselves. And so Goliath continues to play with our minds and our hearts, to trick us into a sense of moral complacency and defeat. We come to believe that racism and violence are giants that just too large for us to confront or defeat.

Maybe we even become defensive. Saul’s approach to the problem of Goliath was a defensive one.   Even after David volunteered to take on Goliath, Saul tried to outfit David with the latest and greatest in Israelite armaments. We have this humorous picture of the young boy David struggling even to walk when wearing Saul’s armor. And yes friends, in my facebook feed these past few days, I’ve seen folks on the defensive. White friends of mine have posted that the battle flag flying over the monument at the South Carolina state capital is just a memorial, is not really a flag that historically represented the Confederacy and, blah, blah, blah—and then you see the fights and nasty comments in the facebook feed, and you begin to feel sad and sorry for everyone (both for and against) in your wider community.

Racism, like Goliath, pushes everyone towards the defensive. I wonder how many of our African American brothers and sisters came to church this morning with at least a slight tinge of fear and defensiveness this morning. I wonder how many of those of us in the white community may have wanted to shout out to the world this past week, “Dylan Roof isn’t me; he doesn’t represent me; he has nothing to do with me. We are different. Our community is loving and peaceable. Our church doesn’t preach hate.”  Or worse, we become part of the silent majority, not unlike the many German Christians whom Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called out for remaining silent, as they saw Jews, Gypsies, Adventists, Socialists, and even activist Christians rounded up by the Nazis for extermination.

With all of these reactions and defenses, we are just throwing ourselves deeper into the clutches of racism. We are like Saul and the Israelites, disabled and broken, unable to confront our giant enemy before us. So David represents for us hope, a hope that we can participate in slaying the giants before us. He starts by acknowledging Goliath as a serious enemy to be defeated.

With racism, this is crucially important. As a member of the white community in the South, I must start by recognizing that all the forces at work in my culture and in our history have made me, whether I was complicit in it or not, into a racist! We must start by recognizing our enemy, as the enemy within.  Racism is like any demonic power or principality that is busily trying to capture and enslave us and our society.  It is part of what liberation theologians call structural sin.   It is bigger than any of us and to combat it, we must recognize that we are in its grasp  Just as the alcoholic cannot truly begin recovery until he or she recognizes that alcohol has power over him/her, we too must recognize that we too are caught up in the clutches of racism, consumerism, materialism, and militarism, and the like that dominate our contemporary American empire.

We cannot begin to embark upon the road to recovery until we recognize the power of the enemy within us and claim the reality that we too are racist. This is the frightening reality of sin that has caught hold of us. It is hard, but we cannot recognize our redemption until we take seriously that we have become beholden to the clutches of sin and death. But I must struggle to recognize that I am not much different than this baby-faced young boy. In many ways, Dylan Roof is me. We cannot begin to be changed by God’s grace, until we recognize the power that hateful messages, the experiences of bullying, and low self-esteem have upon our own broken psyches.

The good news is that we do not need to rely on our own defenses to save ourselves.  As David says to Goliath in the text, “The Lord will deliver you into my hand…that all may know that the LORD does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the LORD’s and he will give you into our hand.” You see, David rejects Saul’s armor. David rejects the standard weapons and defenses of war. David recognizes that God can work through him and his five small stones to defeat Goliath. You see, read allegorically, David’s defeat of Goliath is not unlike Christ’s defeat of Satan and Satan’s empire upon the cross. The forces of death and evil have been defeated through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. We can live again, in the freedom of what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community” because of Christ’s self-sacrificial death on the cross.

Yes, racism is indeed a giant in our culture, a giant that takes a hold of us in our fear and perplexity, and turns us against one another in acts of defeat, and violence, and hatred. But Christ has overcome this giant, and all of Satan’s forces, through the self-sacrificial death on the cross, and he has been resurrected in the Glory of the divine light. Brother and sisters, I say to you today, even when we are in the darkest clutches of any of Satan’s power or principalities, whether it be racism, addictions, struggles with illness, or pain, betrayal, or low self-esteem, the crucified Christ is with us. We are not alone! We are empowered, with Christ, with our brothers and sisters in the African American community, to take on selfless acts of love and self-sacrifice to overcome the bounds of racism and prejudice, and defeat that great old mortal enemy.  It may, it must, start within.  It may, it must, start with the recognition that we too have been joined with the forces of sin as enemies of Christ. But through Christ, through the cross and resurrection, our story ends with Love.  Our story ends in the Beloved Community, where there is no “other.” May we find ways to recognize the enemy within and undertake selfless, self-sacrificial acts of courage and justice, standing up to hate in all its forms, whether within or without, and join in vigil and memory of the countless martyrs who have died for racial reconciliation and transformation in our world today.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Friendship and Fear: Seeking God in a Season of Anxiety

“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.” Psalm 25:14 (NRSV)

Interview with Bishop Angaelos
Huffpo article

Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  This past week, perhaps coincidentally at the beginning of the Lenten season, a gruesome video circulated on the internet from a terrorist group that calls itself the “Islamic State.”  I have not watched the video and refuse to.  Apparently it shows the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya.  The Copts are an ancient Egyptian Christian community that can date its roots back to the earliest history of Christianity.  They have generally not involved themselves with the conflicts in the middle East, were not involved in the medieval crusades, but have been a persistent and quiet Christian presence in a troubled part of the world.  Until recent years, Coptics were known in the US mostly among biblical scholars and church historians, because of the ancient manuscripts and other antiquities they have treasured for centuries in their monasteries and libraries.  Only in recent years have Copts come to the forefront of our media attention, as they have seen some of their churches burnt, beatings, and other persecutions.  But the beheading of these 21 Coptic Christians, because of its brutality, has shocked the world and garnered reaction.  Pope Francis has called these 21 Copts “martyrs.”   Obama sent a declaration of war on ISIS to the congress on Feb. 11. and followed up with remarks about the threat that groups like ISIS pose this past Thursday.  The reactions to the release of this video range the gamut from fear, the desire for military retribution, to outright ignorance and acts of Islamaphobia.

But Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  Now, in his interview with CNN, he said that he does not forgive the violent act that these members of ISIS engaged in, because that act is heinous. “But,” in his words, “we do forgive the killers from the depths of our hearts. Otherwise, we would become consumed by anger and hatred. It becomes a spiral of violence that has no place in this world.”  I hope you are as stunned by this proclamation as I am.  It seems really otherworldly.  Is this man crazy?  Is he somehow betraying of forsaking his brothers and sisters in Egypt who are facing certain persecution, while he jets around from his safe location in England and gives interviews to major media outlets?  Or is he a well meaning, but hopeless idealist with rose colored glasses, whom it is best for us to ignore?  Well, he may or may not be any or all of these things.  But what I want to suggest to you, reflecting on our Scripture reading today from Psalm 25, is that Bishop Angaelos is a true Friend of God.

In the opening and closing verses of Psalm 25, the Psalmist finds himself surrounded by his enemies. In verse 2, he cries to God that his enemies might not put him to shame, that his enemies might not experience exultation at his certain defeat.  In verses 16-20, the Psalmist is crying out that he feels isolated, surrounded by enemies, troubled, afflicted, distressed, with multiple enemies who have violent hatred towards him.  I suspect that this Psalm made its way into this part of the lectionary at the beginning of the Lenten season because of the ancient tradition that associates the Psalmist’s voice with Christ.  While the Psalm itself is attributed to David, who certainly knew what it was to have enemies, since the earliest history of the church Christian interpreters of the Psalms have heard them as expressions Christ’s voice.  It is as if Christ here is crying out from this Psalm, surrounded by enemies, experiencing affliction, anticipating violence and shame.  So at the beginning of the Lenten season we read this Psalm as an anticipation of Christ’s troubles, reminding us of our very human condition as we undertake our journey towards the cross on Good Friday.

But with the news this week, I can’t help but hear in the Psalmist’s terror, the experience of those 21 Coptic martyrs on that beach in Libya.  Just like the Psalmist, I imagined they cried out to God for intervention and to their killers for mercy.  In his interview with CNN, Bishop Angaelos, who also prayed for the captives’ release, was asked how he maintains his faith in God, after experiencing such a horrific outcome.  I have to confess that I struggle with his response.  On one hand, the Bishop reminds us that when one prays, “one should pray for the best outcome, not knowing what that outcome might be.”  I suppose there is wisdom in that, but how the deaths of these martyrs is the “best outcome” is still baffling to me.  He contends that their deaths “brought the imminent deaths of marginalized peoples, not just Christians, but Yaziddis and others in the Middle East, to the attention of the world.”  This is at once a deeply powerful and disturbing claim—and somehow uniquely Christian.

The cross, with which we adorn our homes, our churches, and even perhaps our bodies, is--a its most fundamental—an expression of terror.  It was used as an instrument of terror by the Romans to subjugate and enforce Roman power over marginalized people throughout the Mediterranean basin.
It was a public instrument of terror, much like the video of these beheadings circulating the internet, much like the lynching, cross-burning, and KKK rallies that dominated our region here within living memory of many of us.  But the Christian idea, and it is one that is deeply profound, is that the cross makes us aware of the suffering of marginalized peoples everywhere—and motivates us to acts of loving kindness and forgiveness, seizing the cycle of violence, and sharing love and acts of forgiveness to all who, whether literally or figuratively, are surrounded by enemies, whether these be bullies in the workplace, perpetrators of sexual or emotional violence in our homes and relationships, our own addictions from which we cannot free ourselves, or those who about to lower machetes over our bowed heads.  You see, the experience of shame at the hands of our enemies is grounded in our human reality.  The witness of the cross and the martyrs reminds us that Christ is with us and all marginalized peoples in those moments.  In answering the question whether he doubted the God to whom he had prayed for the captives release states, “I also prayed that, when the moment came, they would have the peace and strength to be able to get through it.”  The testimony of the martyrs is, as the Bishop reminds, one of peace and strength—and I would add, courage.

You see Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  I suspect that this is true because he knows something about courage…and fear.  In our translation of Psalm 25:14, the NRSV translation committee rendered the Hebrew words SOD JHWH as “friendship of the LORD.”  The Hebrew word SOD is often used in contexts implying council, the intimate circle of friends you might surround yourself with, those who support you and tell you the truths you need to hear.  In some cases, this word can also be rendered as counsel, the advice one might receive from one or more dear friends.  Along these lines, one might therefore understand Psalm 25:14 to mean that the intimate counsel—the friendship—of  God is for those who fear God.  But how do we unpack this?  Indeed what kind of friendship is this?  And what does it mean to fear God?

Here I’m going to wrestle a bit because I’m at the limits of my understanding.  Aristotle claimed that true friendship was only possible between two equally high status men (yes he was a sexist, but that was also true of his society), who participated equally in friendship without need or expectation of reciprocity.  He contrasted this supposedly ideal kind of friendship with other kinds of friendship, such as friendships of utility or pleasure.  We all know about those kinds of friendships.  We have friends that we have fun with or whom we use (or who use us) for certain favors and support to get by.  Additionally, friendships of utility and pleasure are often practiced between those of unequal status or of differing need.   Such friendships are generally transactional in nature.  For example, a wealthy patron may purchase for a small poor church a new stained glass window or an organ, so that poorer members of the church can enjoy it.  In exchange that patron enjoys the honor and status that accrues from such an act of friendship.  In another example, you may take your friend out for coffee after she picks you up to do some shopping.  In such cases, Aristotle points out, true friendship is not so much at work in such cases. These are more transactions of utility or pleasure, in which reciprocity is not only expected, but required, if such a friendship is to continue.  Aristotle therefore claims that true friendship can only be practiced between two high status people of virtue, because neither of them truly needs the other, but is simply engaging in friendship for the sake of practicing one’s own virtue.  For his reason, Aristotle believed that friendship between humans and gods were impossible.  The gods have no use for us.  We have nothing to offer.  Such a friendship could only be one-directional, and would lean towards the exploitative.

But the Psalmist’s claim is different, “Friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him and he makes his Covenant known to them.”  This is not so much a claim that humans can befriend God, but that divine friendship can be experienced by us.  The Psalmist mentions God’s covenantal steadfast love multiple times.  The Psalmist also recognizes that he has failed to uphold the human end of the covenant on multiple occasions.  And this is true, too, isn’t it?  We humans are frail and broken creatures, fundamentally on our own unable to maintain the covenant promises to which we are bound.  All of us, in one way or another, recognize that we have fallen short of our covenant relations to one another, whether in our marriages, or towards our parents in their old age, or towards our children, our churches, friends and communities.  The Psalmist recognizes that God’s covenant faithfulness is steadfast and everlasting.  Where we fall short, and we all inevitably do, God remains steadfast in God’s friendship towards us.

Furthermore, God’s intimate counsel is reserved for those who fear God.  Fear is a difficult word for us.  But in sight of our human covenantal frailty, I think it is a normal reaction be fearful of a powerful deity who chooses to loves us, in spite of our utter inability to remain faithful and true, in spite of our utter inability to comprehend God’s power.  With as powerful and perplexingly loving a deity as this, human trepidation and fear is I think a suitable reaction, but it ought not disable us.

You see, Bishop Angaelos is a friend of God.  For it seems to me that God’s friendship is for those who are humbly aware of their own human limitations in comprehending God—yet seek God's will anyway.   God’s friendship is for those who do not rely upon their own cleverness or strength to make their way through the world, but recognize a source of strength, justice and truth deep within that is greater than themselves.  Friendship with God is for those who can master their fears and courageously engage God in dialogue, debate, and council—and be humble enough to listen when life presents them with the greatest of perplexities.  Friendship with God is for those who hear the voice of the martyrs calling out to them to become aware of the plight of marginalized in societal systems of violence, injustice, and exploitation—and are not afraid to call such systems out, in spite of great danger to themselves, their families, and their communities.  Friendship with God is for those who are humble enough to forgive their enemies at the bottom of their hearts, smack in the face of great human terror and even greater human evil.  The friendship of God is for those who rely upon God’s covenant fidelity in their lives, even when they feel the most broken and totally inadequate towards God and their fellow human beings.

In this Lenten season, are we ready to join Bishop Angaelos in his prayer for forgiveness, even when we feel surrounded by our enemies on every side?  Are we ready to reach out with forgiveness to those who have hurt us?  Are we ready to humbly recognize our own inadequacies and brokenness and reach out to those whom we’ve hurt and seek forgiveness?  Are we ready in our day to day lives to seek justice, practice peacemaking, and engage in transformative reconciliation?  Are we ready, too, to become friends of God?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

That the Mountains Might Quake

First Advent 2014

Is 64:1-8
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

            Anger, fear, prejudice, greed, desire, violence, consumerism, terror, suicide bombings, war, luxury, sex, overeating, gluttony—these are some of the images you might have seen if you turned on the television over this holiday weekend.  The protests and riots in Ferguson have dominated television and facebook this holiday weekend.  I’m thankful that Jana and I have decided not to subscribe to cable or satellite TV, because then we truly wouldn’t be able to get away from it.  But even in our visits with friends and discussions with students this past week, we haven’t been able to escape the anger that is seething in our culture, anger between blacks and whites, anger directed at our Hispanic brothers and sisters, or anger at Obama or others who want to extend the hand of welcome to those who are living as strangers among us.  There’s anger that falls along party lines.  Reading some of the posts from my friends over facebook over the past few weeks, I’d think that every Republican was a capitalist Satan worshipper and every Democrat a communist baby killer.  What should be a peaceful celebration of thankfulness and family joy looks like it has turned into a consumeristic quagmire of conflict and anger.  And, watch out, Advent is upon us and Christmas is coming.             
            Yes, today is first advent, and our Scripture reading for the day from Isaiah 64 has a lot to teach us about anger, God’s sovereignty, and how we as human beings may expect God’s guidance in our turbulent lives.  As I was preparing for the sermon today, I was truly struck by how much anger is in this prophetic text.  However, this prophetic text, coming from the end of Isaiah, is strikingly different from many of the other prophetic oracles that one might find, especially from those in the opening third of the book.  First of all, rather than the typical prophetic oracle, in which the prophet speaks in the first person singular as the voice of God, pronouncing judgment and destruction upon Judah, these verses are in first person plural and the prophet is voicing the concerns of his community directly to God.  God is addressed as a “you,” “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
Likewise the voice here is more like that of the Psalmist expressing communal lament, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”  What perfect images for Thanksgiving: Israel’s deeds are like the dirty dish-cloth after the thanksgiving cleanup; all the people fade like leaves blown from the autumn trees.  Yet it is God’s anger that can make the mountains shake.  As the prophet continues, God is praised as the one who can make the nations tremble, whose anger can start forest fires, and boil away the lakes.  With this juxtaposition between human iniquity and God’s anger, the prophet has a lot to say to us in our present circumstance.
            Righteous anger, righteous indignation, punishment and retribution belong properly to God.  Many of us are uncomfortable with the image of an angry God.  We like to imagine God in Christ as a loving and forgiving God.  That’s fine and there’s a place for that message.  But when it comes to social injustice, human exploitation, enslavement and repression, a proper trust in God’s anger is not only well placed, it is part of the prophetic expectation to forsake idolatry and worship God alone.  As the prophet says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”  The prophets believed in a God who was actively involved in the affairs of human history, a God who brings about radical change and transformation, even when it is painful.  This is a God who calls out human idolatry and injustice, and brings about corrective action, even using Israel’s foes to bring punishment and retribution for the oppression of the poor, the fatherless, and the widows.  
            Does this mean that we can’t be angry?  No, psychologists tell us that, when properly engaged, anger is actually healthy and normal.  Anger is a proper emotional response when something is perceived as wrong or when some need is not being adequately met.    Anger can activate us and those around us to get primal needs met.  I am not a parent.  So it is amazing to me to see how calmly and sweetly many mothers come to the angry screams of their infants with warm milk, instantly calming the child.  In family, community, and friendship, the expression of anger can actually have a restorative role in redressing wrongs and meeting needs.  Learning to get in touch with our own anger and learning how to express it properly are important steps for folks who are engaging in nonviolent conflict resolution.
            But what the prophet is voicing is that our festering, seething anger can become a form of idolatry.   In such a case, our role is to repent from such idolatry and place such anger in Yahweh’s hands.   I suspect that there is a great deal of festering, seething anger in our society today.   I also suspect that there are malevolent forces at work that, perhaps even consciously, are using media and other methods of communication to keep that anger and fear alive like a festering sore.  Our limbic system has developed over the generations to help us react to extraordinary situations of fight of flight.  Yet it is these same impulse systems that make us into great consumers.  I find it a fascinating and rich irony to see that the protestors in the Michael Brown case have now turned to the malls to confront folks there on “Black Friday” with a “Brown Friday.”  That seething anger, stirred up by images on TV that steam over and over again, burning cars, angry shouting, marching and protesting, all of that seething anger ironically makes us into great consumers and help to drive our idolatrous economy.  The outburst and brawls over the Thanksgiving doorbusters have become commonplace. 
Flight or fight, even in our every day, makes us into cooperative consumers.  On Monday nights, after driving through rush hour traffic to get to my Charlotte class--now that’s fight or flight—how often do I find myself in the drive through at Chick-fil-a, ready to order my milkshake Monday meal?  When our lizard brains control us, malevolent forces can easily take advantage of us, set up idols for us to worship.  In such cases our racial identity, our adherence to a political party, even our identification with our favorite athletic team, cease to become healthy markers of diversity.  Instead, we become enslaved to them, sometimes unconsciously, with an impulse to dismiss, fear, or even hate those who are not like us.   This is not healthy.  Not only that, when these idols control us, we become susceptible to forces that diminish our self-worth and that of others, so that we become slaves to racism, consumerism, and unknowing ideologues for demonic powers whose sole purpose is to exploit, dominate, and destroy.
Seeing such forces at work, the prophet calls out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!”  Can this become our advent prayer?  This is the time of year when Christians remind themselves of Israel’s yearning for a coming king, a coming Messiah.  With all the pastoral images of a sweet infant Jesus born in a manger, perhaps we’ve lost sight of Israel’s yearning for a powerful king, one whose coming would shake the foundations of the mountains.  If we can also say this prayer, together with the prophet, perhaps—in spite of all the anger and turmoil, stress and fear—we might be able to return to a God who is our father and potter, in whose hands we are clay to be molded and transformed into new creations.  Perhaps when we recognize God’s power and come to rely upon God’s anger to intervene against our own injustices, we might also pray, together with the prophet,  “Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever.  Now consider, we are all your people!”
Let us pray,
“Lord, we are all your people…”

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Day of the Lord: Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Day of the Lord
Texts: 1 Thess 4:13-16; Amos 5:18-24
            Autumn is my favorite time of year.  I love the cool, crisp air, the beauty of the changing colors, and the smell of burning leaves.  And while it is always a busy time of year for me as a professor, the shortening days, the seeming stillness in the air, gives me pause to reflect, to think about the echoes of falls past.  When I take time to meditate and breathe, I find myself in awe and wonder at the passing of time itself.  When I have a few moments to relax, sometimes I might put on my earphones and listen to a symphony like Brahm’s first, or any number of Bach’s works, or to a fine jazz musician.   I find myself wondering at their artistic reflections on time, while I listen to the beats and rhythms, both slow and fast, and watch the shadows grow long as autumn afternoon transitions into eve.
          Both of the biblical texts we read today are in their own way reflections on time and the human inability to comprehend it.  In the Amos passage, the prophet is warning the people of Israel who are looking forward to the “day of the Lord,” envisioning that day as a day of triumph and vindication, likely over their Assyrian enemies.  Instead the prophet turns their expectation on its head.  The Day of the Lord will not be a day of vindication, but a day of judgment for Israel’s neglect of the poor and the widows and others in their society, while prioritizing expensive shows of flashy worship.       In the 1 Thess text, Paul is correcting the Thessalonians misunderstanding about grief and loss.  In Paul’s early congregations, people were expecting Christ to return at any moment.  Apparently they hadn’t given any thought to what would happen to those who pass away before Christ’s return.  They were now concerned about those who passed away, that they had somehow missed their opportunity for seeing the eschaton, that they would be lost forever to the sands of time.  This was clearly compounding their grief for their lost loved ones.  Paul does not tell them not to grieve.  Instead, he comforts them by assuring them in a grief abiding in hope.  “Soon,” he tells the Thessalonians, “Christ would return and on that day, the dead in Christ would rise first and those of us who remain would rise up into the heavens to meet them.”  For Paul and the Thessalonians, the Day of the Lord meant resurrection and reunion, reunion with lost loved ones, union with the returning savior—and the entire transformation of all creation.
          You see, both Amos and Paul are correcting our misperceptions of time.  Because of our human limitations, we have only an inkling of the true nature of time.  Only in the past century, since Einstein, have we become aware that time itself is not a constant, but is relative.  For those who travel at high speed, time passes--imperceptibly to all but the most accurate of clocks—a little more slowly in relation to those who are not travelling so quickly.  Psychologists also tell us that the human perception of time shifts as we age, as time seems to pass more quickly for those of us who are older, than it does for the youth.  Can you remember the times when you as children waited in the wee hours of Christmas morning for time to pass before opening presents?  Or can you remember how long time seemed to drag on before the dismissal bell at school?   I can see it in the faces of my students when I teach.  Fifty minutes seems for them an eternity—and for this aging scholar that time is only the passing of an instant.  Of course, one constant that never changes is the allotment of time for a preacher’s sermon.  It doesn’t matter how old the congregation member it is, the preacher always preaches too long, am I right?
          But the Day of the Lord that both these texts refer to, that is another matter altogether.  While in the human experience of time, the days may seem to blend together, and one day may seem to be very much like another, there are certain days in which everything, all of history, seems to shift.  Many of us can remember that fateful fall morning in September when two airliners crashed in the World Trade Center.  
For me and my experience, this day today, Nov. 9, also is an important day in history.  On Nov. 9, 25 years ago, the Berlin wall opened, allowing East Germans to travel freely into West Berlin.  With the opening of the Berlin wall, the entire communist block of Eastern Europe unraveled, as nation after nation transformed into capitalistic economies with parliamentary style democracies.  It was a transformational day for millions of people in Eastern Europe and as a young college student studying German at the time, I was glued to the television set, watching as the wall came down.  I couldn’t wait to get to Berlin and was thrilled the following summer to be present for the day of economic unification, when all the shops in East Berlin transformed overnight, reopening the next day with Western goods in the aisles for the first time and accepting only West German money.  I can remember strolling through the aisles of the largest East Berlin department store on Alexanderplatz, eavesdropping on a young couple looking at the jeans and other western apparel.  I can remember the young woman saying to her husband, “but I don’t like the jeans; this just is not my style,” and her husband saying in an authoritative voice, “but you have to buy it, dear, that is the now expectation for everyone to wear.”  Apparently they hadn’t quite learned that capitalistic consumer mentality of demanding choice.   I remember another patron in the store paying for his items and when he received East German coins back as change, he threw them back at the poor cashier.  On the day of economic reunification, the banks and shops had only been able to change out the bills, but the Eastern German coinage would remain in circulation for several months, because it took time for new coins to be minted. 
          You see, those fateful days in 1989 and 1990, changed the world in dramatic ways.  There is slim chance that I and my wife, who was born and grew up in Czechoslovakia, would never have met, if it had not been for the actions of the one boarder guard at the Berlin wall who in a somewhat impulsive moment of disobeying the orders of his superiors, decided to open the border crossing to the swelling crowds of protestors who had gathered before his gate to West Berlin.
          Later, in 1992, after finishing college, I went back to East Berlin to live and work among the pastors who had been instrumental in the 10 year ecumenical process of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation to bring about change and renewal in their congregations and communities.  You see, this is where I received my real theological training, working with pastors for whom the Amos text we read today meant so much, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream.”  We all live for those transformational days like Nov. 9th when all of history changes.  But such transformational moments are often the product of years of and years of quiet, unseen patient work. 
          The results of such transformational days reflect the character of the slow and steady work in preparing for them.  Sometimes they are positive, like in 1989 when the Berlin wall fell.  However, many years earlier, in 1938, Nov. 9 represented something darker and far more sinister for Germany,  the Kristallnacht, the day the Nazis had been preparing for year, the day that marks the formal beginning of the Holocaust.   Individually, we too can all remember important days, when we are baptized, married, when children were born, or when loved ones passed away.  But these momentous shifts in time only occur only after periods of preparation.
          Like Paul’s congregants or Amos’ audience in Israel, we long for these transformational days, without really knowing exactly what they might bring.  What both Paul and Amos agree upon is that such transformative days in history belong to God and not us. We as humans are too frail to comprehend the changes such days might bring; and often are quite incapable of coping with their aftermath.  Indeed, much of our corporate culture is centered around such “days of the Lord.”  Corporations large and small are looking for the next ipad, iphone, or Google, the next “revolutionary” product that will transform stale businesses into competitive, thriving enterprises.  Many of them have entire divisions dedicated to research and development, hoping to come up with the “next big thing.”  Nonprofits, even small ones like the educational institution in which I serve, have administrators who are looking for breakaway strategies, and transformational donors, people who can come in and make such a substantial gift to the institution that it will stand out from among its peers.  Yes, church, I submit to you today, that many of us are looking for that “Day of the Lord.”  But let us take Amos’ caution and Paul’s word of comfort to heart.  Amos says, “Let Justice Flow down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  Our task is to fill the waters, the everflowing stream of time, with moments of purpose in service to God’s justice, this justice that is written in our hearts and that we know is part of the very structure of the universe.  Shortly before the verses we read today, Paul tells the Thessalonians to live quietly, mind their own affairs, and to work with their hands—and they will see soon, very soon, the Lord coming together with those loved ones who have passed away.  We are reminded that what we do in the day-to-day matters, whether it is giving time to listen to someone who is distraught, or taking time to mentor a disadvantaged child.  You see folks, we can’t say when the Day of the Lord is coming. We don’t know when that transformational day might take place; but we can live meaningful lives by minding God’s justice in our day-to-day.  While it is true that the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9th, that transformational day was prepared for by pastors throughout East Germany for almost a decade, as they formed small groups dedicated to issues of justice, peace, and ecological vitality.  Sometimes those groups were small, as small as this little congregation gathered here, because all of this had to be done under the watchful eye of the East German authorities.  But they did it nonetheless, patiently meeting week in and week out, providing in their congregations spaces for open conversation and discussion about God’s justice and how this justice looked so different from their experience behind the iron curtain.  Gradually this movement began to grow, from a handful of pastors and dedicated congregation members, to thousands who would meet in the churches for prayers for peace and justice, light candles and silently, peacefully, march out into the streets of Leipzig, Berlin, and throughout East Germany to protest injustice and pray for peace and justice.  You see, real change, God’s authentic change, comes from the margins through daily, quiet, and patient dedication to gentle acts of kindness and fearless dedication to justice and righteousness, all grounded in God’s worship—subsumed  in God’s time. 

          I know we all long for the day of the Lord.  I am here to proclaim to you that God’s time is our time—and the full dimension of that time are so much beyond our imagination.  But if, on an autumn day, you are able to stop and listen for just a moment, perhaps you can hear the heartbeat of God’s Justice, the rhythm of God’s righteous deep in our bones.  The day of the Lord is coming. The early Christians opened and ended their worship with the words, “Maranatha,” which means, “Come, Lord, Come.”  May the Peace of Christ be with all of you on this, the Day of the Lord.       

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hostesses with the Mostest: Mother's Day Sermon, 2014

Mother’s Day Sermon 2014
“The Hostesses with the Mostest: Images of Maternal Hospitality 
Acts 2:41-47
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
            Blessings upon all of you and Happy Mother’s day!  It is certainly a joy for me to be here this morning and I’m especially grateful for the connections this congregation has had to Pfeiffer University through the year, through all the Pfeiffer grads you’ve employed over the years, and now by sharing Mike and Donna with us.  We are truly thankful for congregations such as this and am pleased to have been asked to preach here this Sunday on such a special day. 
            When I looked up the lectionary text for this Sunday, I was quite surprised and pleased to see that it was the text on which I wrote my dissertation.  This text only comes around in the lectionary every three years, so imagine my delight at seeing it for today.  When Sherri Barnes, our director of church relations, found out I was preaching on this text, she already began praying for you.  I don’t know why.  My dissertation was rather short, only 230 or so pages and my defense didn’t last but 2 hours.  So I’m sure we can get out of here by 2PM.
            All joking aside, this text paints a portrait of the early Christian community in Jerusalem within only months of Jesus’ ascension.  It’s a lovely picture, just like the pictures of smiling graduates we posted on facebook yesterday.  Everything is perfect, abounding promise.  The church at this point is experiencing great joy, growing by leaps and bounds, sharing all their possessions, sharing meals together, worshipping with great joy and warmth, and caring, growing by teaching, studying, and listening to the Apostles, and even speaking bold truths to the community around it.  It is a picture not only of what the church was, but of what it could be, maybe even what it should be.  It is about the kinds of distinctive friendship we practice in Christian community, sharing our possessions across class and status lines, speaking bold, difficult and life-transformative truths to a broken world around us, and, yes, sharing acts of radical hospitality. 
            Since it is mother’s day, I thought I’d focus a little on this distinctive friendship practice, the practice of hospitality, that which so many of our mothers know so much about, especially if they practice the more traditional roles of nurturing and preparing meals.  And, since it is mother’s day, I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on my own mother, as many of us are today.  My mom passed away about a year and half ago.  And in her waning years, my mother struggled some with a light dementia, as so many of us do as we age.  But one gift of hospitality my mother left for us was a spiritual journal in which she reflected about her life.  It was something you can sometimes find in a Christian bookstore, a hardbound volume that asks someone to reflect on their upbringing, their life, their experiences, something that a mother would want her children to keep and reflect on after she passed away.  Now my mom wasn’t so talkative as the dementia set in.  But one way to get her talking and thinking about the past was to read this spiritual journal with her.  And I remember one section, a section in which she was had written about her father, a deeply Christian man.  You see my mother lost her own mother at a very young age and my grandfather was a widower, having to take care of four children during the depression.  But he was determined to raise them in a home that was actively evangelical.  Evangelicalism at that time, at least in the North, in Philadelphia where my mom grew up, meant also having what we call today a social conscience.  So my mom wrote in her diary about how, during the depression, my grandfather took the four children every Sunday to downtown Philadelphia to hand out sandwiches and coffee to the homeless.  And I can still remember, months before she passed, asking my mom about this and her telling me, reverting back into the accepted language of her youth, “Oh, those bums loved Dad, and he loved them right back.”  Hospitality, radical hospitality.  As I’ve told that story in different contexts, folks have shared with me how in the depression, their parents would take in the homeless men who were wandering from place to place, or share with them a meal.  One woman whose family lived on a farm during the depression told me how her mother always set an extra place at the table for hungry strangers.  That was part of the depression era mentality, I guess.  But whatever happened to that radical practice of hospitality.
            I suspect that many of us tend to find hospitality hard because it requires us to be vulnerable.  I know I’m in Andy Griffith country, so I can’t preach a sermon without some kind of reference to that show.  I’m sure you all remember the character of Aunt Bee, who by the way, isn’t herself a mother, but certainly seems to fill that role in Andy’s atypical family.  She’s always preparing or doing for others and yet so often you see in her face a certain vulnerability.  When we open ourselves to radical hospitality, when we share with the stranger, with the other, sometimes we have to be prepared to be hurt.  I recall one show where Aunt Bee picks up with an elderly widower who was a suitor from her past.  As the show progresses, Andy gradually comes to have suspicions that this gentleman caller isn’t exactly what he claims to be, and is instead after Aunt Bee’s money.  One show after another, the plot revolves around Aunt Bee’s good natured hospitality being potentially taken advantage of by a stranger—and Andy has to find a solution without hurting Aunt Bee or shaming her dignity.
            You see, there’s a double sided risk to hospitality.  On the one hand, the host has to risk his or her own vulnerability with the possibility of being taken advantage of, all while trying to make sure that the guest’s vulnerabilities are protected and dignified.  And this is the character trait we honor during mothers day.  Those of you who are mothers know what it means to be exhausted beyond exhaustion in caring for the family around you—and yet you still give.  And all of us have mothers and know what its like to have had our needs met while also retaining a sense of dignity and self-worth in the process. And that’s what mothers do best, they give us all the dignity and self-worth that they can possibly give.  They meet us in the depths of our vulnerability, without making us feel unworthy, even though we couldn’t possibly do anything to earn or merit their love.  That radical practice of hospitality is a virtue that we can all engage in, regardless of our gender or status in the family and community.
            Again and again we see examples of radical hospitality in Acts.  As the church grows, we learn of an incident in chapter six in which the Hellenists complained that their widows were being “passed over” in the daily distribution of meals.  We learn two things from this passage.  First, that the church continues in its ministry of hospitality.  Furthermore, this ministry of hospitality seems to be vital for the survival of various ethnic and class groups in the congregation.  People need these meals and the church is sharing them.  Secondly, it would appear the Hellenist’s widows are being “passed over” in this act of hospitality.  Recent scholars looking at this text have demonstrated that the male scholars who have been interpreting this text throughout the years have mistranslated the word “passed-over.”  The widows are not mad because they aren’t getting food distributed to them, they’re mad because their ability to engage in acts hospitality is being “passed-over” by the dominant ethnic faction in the church.  What this means is that women were playing a key role in the survival of the ancient church, they were providing the hospitality the not only functioned as a social glue—we all connect over meals—but also was keeping vulnerable members in the church alive.  The church could not have survived without this ministry and these mothers certainly must have had honored roles in this community. 
Think of the story of Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, in chapter nine.  Her ministry was making clothes. When Peter gets to Joppa, he is rushed first thing to Dorcas’ household where he finds a group of women who lived and worked with her holding up the garments she and the women of her household were making for the poor in their community.  This too is an act of hospitality.  Clothing protects the dignity of the vulnerable.  Yesterday, it was such a joy to watch the “mothers” of our faculty help those of us who are less inclined in straightening out ours and our students’ caps, and gowns, and hoods.  Yes, hospitality.  Later on in Acts, Paul has a vision of a Macedonian man calling him to come over to Europe and spread his ministry there.  But when he arrives in Philippi, who does he find but Lydia, a wealthy merchant from Thyatira?  Whose house do you think he stays in that night?  Time and again we find in Acts mothers and mother figures whose hospitality is vitally important to spreading the ministry of the church.   
            I could go on and on, but I guess what I want to call you to do, as we reflect on and honor our mothers, is to think about how and where you might be able to engage in a radical act of hospitality.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It is in small acts of kindness, the kinds of acts that our mothers do quietly, thanklessly, day in and day out that we find the best practice of hospitality.  These are the kinds of quiet, unrecognized acts that build community, one piece at a time.  Jean Vanier is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.  He is the founder of the international L’Arche movement, a movement that creates intentional communities where people with mental disabilities live, work, and worship with those who are more abled.  I want to close this sermon with his words today, as I think it shows us that the practice of maternal hospitality is something we can all engage in. 
“A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets. Community is only being created when they have recognized that the greatness of a person is to accept insignificance, the human condition and the earth, and to thank God for having put in a finite body the seeds of eternity which are visible in small and daily gestures of love and forgiveness. The beauty of humanity is in this fidelity to the wonder of each day.” 

Are you ready to embrace community?  Are you ready to embrace acts of hospitality each day?  Are you ready to embrace the wonder of each day?