…Love (It Can Mess Up Your Whole Day)

A sermon preached this morning at First Congregational Church of Kittery Point UCC, based on Matthew 9

When he arrives in “his own town,” Jesus has just finished running away from a mob.  He had gone to a town and cast demons out of a man, and the town got together to make it known that he wasn’t wanted there anymore.  So while we may not know what he was intending to do when arriving in his “own town” after that harrowing experience….we could guess that he’s not necessarily looking to work.  After all, after something unexpected, intense, traumatic…many of us have trouble getting back to “business as usual.”  What were Jesus’ plans for that day?   Maybe he was just hoping for some rest?  Maybe looking for a safe space to ease his anxiety? Jesus often retreats from crowds to pray and sleep, perhaps he just needed to return home to do that.  But that’s not what happens.  As it turns out, Jesus can’t just go about business as usual.  When he gets into town, he immediately begins to hear the cries of people who have lived there a long time, he immediately sees them and, unlike anybody else in town, he is not willing to just go about his normal business.  He hears the cries of the people, and he goes to them.

The Paralytic:

I’ve been unable to walk for a long time.  The religious leaders here tell me that it’s because I have sinned against God.  They say that if I allow them to take me to synagogue and make sacrifices to God then God might forgive me and I’ll be healed.

Jesus looks at him and says, “Take heart, son, you are forgiven already.”  The man gets up and walks.  No need to rely on the never-ending system of guilt and sacrifice that keeps him under the control of the religious elite.  Jesus hands him forgiveness directly, and he rises on his own two feet.

The Tax Collector

Everybody hates me.  They see me as the enemy, even though I’ve lived here my whole life.  I collect taxes for the Roman Empire, so what?  Everybody needs a job, right?  Everybody accuses me of taking more money than I’m supposed to, stealing from my neighbors.  They have no proof!  I’m sick of it! 

Jesus sees this man despised by his neighbors, who is most likely cheating them out of their money, and he says, “Follow me.”  Jesus welcomes him to leave his old life of being a hated public official, and to follow him.  Where do they go first?  They go directly to the last place this Tax Collector, by the name of Matthew, would like to be.  Right to a breaking of the fast with the religious elite, The Pharisees.

The Pharisees

We are trying to make sure our community is living in ways pleasing to God.  We are keeping the Sabbath, we fast, and we need to make sure that everyone in town goes where God wants them to go.  Tax Collectors have no business at our table.  Women have no place at our table.  The sick and the sinners need to remain in their homes, where they belong, or else…who knows what might become of us? 

Jesus does not allow the powerful to focus merely on themselves.  When they wonder why a tax collector, and sinners of all kinds are invited to eat with Jesus, he tells them, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor.  Sinners need far more welcome and care than you holy people.”  He speaks truth to power, he insists that they share what they have with those they see as undeserving.  His extravagant welcome to Matthew has a direct changing affect on the power structure of the town.  Jesus shows us time and again that when God is doing miraculous things for an individual, it has an effect on the entire community.

The Man

My daughter has died.  I don’t know what to do.  Please, someone, help, help me!

And even among these systemic illnesses and problems, there is still the all-too-normal personal tragedy.  And Jesus responds to this TOO!  Jesus follows the man out the door, possibly not even sure if there is anything he can do for the man’s daughter, but willing and able to walk with him every step of the way, whatever comes.

The Hemmhoraging Woman

I have lived for 12 years with an illness that causes me to bleed.  Women who bleed are locked away in their own place, not allowed to go into town or see anyone.  I have lived alone and isolated for 12 years.  I want it to stop.  If only I could prove that I am not contagious.  If only i could prove that I am not a danger to society.  If I could touch one person…I really think that might change things for me. 

And she does reach out!  She reaches out and touches Jesus, and what is Jesus’ response?  Does he call her foul and unclean and demand that she be punished and thrown away?  No.  He says, “By your faith, you are made well, sister.”  N.T. Wright says that the word Matthew uses for “made well” in Matthew 9: 21, 22 means “save, rescue.”  Is it possible that there was nothing medically wrong with her at all?  Is it possible that she was not in need of being made “well,” but “rescued” from a society that finds any reason it can to shunt a woman into isolation?  Is it possible that Jesus’ biggest act of healing here is simply allowing himself to be touched, and, in turn, bless her…invalidating the town’s entire purity system that has kept this woman “sick” for so long? 

Jesus could have just gone about his day.  The world had already given up on making any of this stuff better.  They were willing to go about their daily lives and just ignore the cries of these people.  But Jesus is filled with love and compassion….and it messes up his whole day.  But he doesn’t seem to mind.  Because he knows this is how God works.  God empowered him to give forgiveness to those weighed down by guilt, to welcome the outsider, the enemy of the community.  He stood up to the people in power, teaching them a better way, pointing out their blind spots and forcing them to meet people who are different from themselves.  He will follow the mourners, those who cry for help…he doesn’t even know if there is anything he can do to help, but he follows…he lets you know with his own body that you do not walk through this confusing and grieving world alone.  He allows himself to be touched by illness, and he then declares to the world, I am well, she is well, all are well because God does not turn anyone away and neither do I.  And as he does each of these acts, he is not just answering the cries of particular people, he is challenging everyone’s sense of “normal.” 

And, apparently, he was just getting warmed up. 

The “Dead” Girl—

I was laying on the bed, unable to move, and it looked like everyone thought I was dead.  I wanted to scream out, “I’m not dead! I’m alive! I am here!”  But I couldn’t move.  And then this man came in and told them I had only been asleep, and he took my hand.  It was only then that I could sit up. 

2 Blind Men—

My friend and I had not been able to see in a long time.  Everything seemed dark and cloudy, we could not see what many others saw.  When we heard of this man in town healing others, we asked him to have mercy on us.  He asked us a strange question, he asked us if we believed he could help us.  For reasons we are still unsure of, we said yes.  He said, “If you believe it, you will see it.”  And we could suddenly see the world as it is, with God surrounding us.

The Mute Man—

Something had ahold of me.  I could not speak for myself.  Something gripped me tight and terrified me every day…and I could not even whisper for help.  Then a man came through and saw me, heard me without my needing to say a word.  He protected me from the thing that had captured me.  He commanded it to leave me alone.  And then I could speak again.  I will spend every day of my life speaking about what he was able to do, and the God that gave him the power to do it. 

And all of these experiences added up to Jesus looking around the villages of Israel and seeing them so filled with opportunities to spread God’s love, that he declared, “The harvest is so plentiful, and the workers so few.”  And that’s how this story ends.  It doesn’t end with Jesus lamenting how horrible the world is.  It doesn’t end with Jesus praying to God to do something about it.  It ends with Jesus calling DISCIPLES, to go out into the world and bring in the harvest.

Friends, if you walked in here with a heavy heart this morning, you need to know this:  That is love at work.  You aren’t feeling badly because there’s something wrong with the world, even though that seems hard to deny.  You aren’t feeling anxious or scared or heartbroken because there is so much bad in the world.  It’s because there is so much love.  Love is doing exactly what it is supposed to.  The way you are feeling does not reflect on the evil of the world, as much as it reflects the good in you.  That feeling is Love doing its job, to wake up your heart and turn your ears toward the cries…so they can be heard, rather than ignored.  That is love doing what it is supposed to.  It will mess up your day…and, in doing so, it will save this world. 

The harvest is so great…God’s light and love pervades everything…and we need more people to drop what they were doing, to step away from business as usual and help bring in this harvest. 

When we allow cries of injustice and stories of hatred to mess up our regular routines, that happens because we have seen God’s love, we have touched God’s love, we know God’s love is more real than any earthly power that causes such pain and injustice. 

Every imperfect crack, as the late Leonard Coen reminded us, is how God’s light shines into the world.  When light shines it casts a shadow.  This country of ours cracked open on Tuesday.  I don’t care who you voted for, our decision making process on Tuesday left us with statistics and numbers that paint us as a country divided…and you can trust that God’s light is shining right through that crack.  In the days since, we have heard testimonies from those on the fringes and in the shadows, people who have always been suffering, but we had been able to ignore their cries. Not anymore.  The love of God compels us to hear the cries of those who have so long suffered in silence.   There have been, at least, 200 reports of hate crimes and hostilities toward minorities across the country in the last few days…and love also makes us alert to  these cries in the shadows.  The Gospel teaches us that responding to the cries of other people is exactly how you heal the divisions among us. 

If you are moved by the stories of people attacked and marginalized, if your heart breaks when you see injustice, if you find yourself feeling unsettled and ill at ease with the conflict and turmoil we face now, and if you find yourself experiencing anxiety about the future….I have good news for you…that is Love at work.  It’s only because of the light of love that we know there are people living in darkness. It is the gift of love that gives us the tools we need to spread the light to others:  Forgiveness, extravagant welcome, speaking truth to power, following the cries, allowing ourselves to be touched, providing a healing touch for others without fear of breaking social norms, normalizing our belief in love over our experience of hatred, protecting people from evil too dark and powerful to name, and CALLING OUT TO OTHERS, calling for more workers in the field, God’s powerful laborers of love to bring in this plentiful harvest.  It’s Love that will just mess up your whole day.  It will ruin your plans.  It will discourage you from going about business as usual. Love that hopes all things, believes all things, AND ENDURES all things (1 Cor. 13: 7). And as our normal days are interrupted and changed by the influence of love…the world becomes a better place. Thanks be to God. 

BENEDICTION

Remember who you are.  You are beloved by God, sent to love others.  If these days seem dark, know that it is because anger and hatred have the ability to blind us.  It is only with love as our lamp that we can see the world for what it is, the world made by God, blessed by God, kept by God for ALL of God’s Creation.  Go forward from this place.  See clearly.  Love wildly.  Cling to one another for support, and invite everyone to help bring in the harvest. 

Advertisements

…Politics (Divided or United, it’s our Choice)

“When you got skin in the game, you stay in the game. But you don’t get to win unless you play in the game.  Oh, you get love for it.  You get hate for it.  You get nothing if you….Wait for it.” –Alexander Hamilton, “The Room Where it Happens,” Hamilton

Rob Bell summed it up nicely in a recent episode of his podcast, “Politics is how we arrange our shared life together.”

No one is completely self-sufficient, all of us share this world, we all have intersections of common life…politics is simply the process by which we arrange that common life.  It’s not a bad word.

Bell voteinsists, “It’s a Good Word.”  It’s not inherently a “corrupt” system, it isn’t above and beyond anyone’s understanding.  Politics is “how we arrange our shared life together.”

It’s worth remembering that, for people of faith, our entire Holy Text is rooted in politics.  If you believe there is a God, a Creator of All That Is, then you are immediately embroiled in a conversation about the “shared life” of everything that has been created.  If you’ve ever said the Lord’s Prayer, or you’ve ever sung “Jesus Loves Me,” then, Congratulations, and I’m sorry, you can consider yourself a politician.  The only question is–especially if you live in 21st Century America–if you are going to be engaged in the process, to get what you want, or not.

In 1 Samuel Chapter 8, we find Ancient Israel encountering a crisis during the lifetime of the prophet Samuel.  This may be hard to believe, but suddenly the Israelites did not trust their political leaders.  They accused them of being corrupt and only desiring to serve themselves.

I know, it’s difficult to imagine…but stay with me.

This is meant to be fun and not offensive to my Jewish brothers and sisters. What do we think of the Lego Bible anyway?

This is meant to be fun and not offensive to my Jewish brothers and sisters. What do we think of the Lego Bible anyway?

So the elders of Israel went to Samuel and insisted that God give them a King, someone who would fight the battles against their enemies and centralize power so that corruption would not run rampant.  Samuel made the case that this was a foolish thing to ask for, “God freed us from slavery in Egypt so that we could live according to God’s Covenant, not under the rule of another dictator.”  The people pushed back, “We want to be like other nations!  Give us a King!”  To Samuel’s surprise, God was in agreement with the elders.  “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you. They are not rejecting you, but rejecting me, as they’ve done ever since I freed them from Egypt. ..Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”  Walter Bruegemann sees 2 powerful things here: 1) The narrative shows how it is in conversation, dialogue between opposing view points that nations and people navigate political crises, and it is in that conversation that the Voice of God is revealed.  2) God is so committed to Israel’s freedom that God consents to their will.  Bruegemann says, “God is willing to let Israel choose, and then Israel must live with its choice.”  There’s a sadness in this, in Israel rejecting their God…and God does not retaliate, God does not become angry and vindictive…God allows them to choose as they will…but it doesn’t change the covenant that God’s People are expected to uphold.

It is the call, it has always been the call, and it always will be, to Love God with all you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

This is the call that should inform all of our politics.  When we talk about our shared life, we should be discussing how we share love for all of God’s Beloved Children, and all of God’s Creation.  Dr. Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”  We have spent the last year and a half talking a whole lot about Presidential Candidates being “unfit” or “untrustworthy,” whether you look at the media and career politicians, or the FBI and special interest groups, we all see the system as hopelessly “corrupt.”  NONE of this has to do with politics.  These should be seen as obstacles to our ability arrange our shared life in a just way.  The lament is not, “What can anyone possibly do about it?  Look at all these obstacles we are faced with!”  The true mission for a concerned citizen, especially a concerned citizen of faith, is to say, “Look at these obstacles….now, what is possible in spite of them?”

It is worth remembering, from the very beginning of our country, America has never been able to do politics well….without making enemies of one another.

I serve a church in Kittery Point, Maine.  Our church just turned 303 years old this last week.  Our history is quite rooted in the time just before, and during, the American Revolution.  One of the oldest stories we tell in this church is of our famed members and benefactors Sir William and Lady sir-williamMary Pepperrell.  Every year we bring out the silver they gifted our church and we use it in our celebration of communion.  I wonder, though, if we appreciate what this act of remembrance really says about us as a congregation.  William Pepperrell was born here in Kittery, and he was a celebrated soldier in King George’s Army.  He was the first American-born citizen to be made a baronet, a high honor from the British crown.  Sir Pepperrell died before the American Revolution began, but had he been alive he most likely would have been known as a Loyalist. 

It’s a word that often gets left out of our stories when we tell of the Revolution, but we need to remember that when the war began every citizen in America was a British citizen.  When the Continental Congress began pushing our country toward revolution, some citizens supported revolution and made themselves known as “Patriots.”  Other citizens did not support the idea of revolution, largely members of the aristocracy, but also some farmers and tradesmen, and they were known as “Loyalists.”  As much as 20% of America identified as Loyal to the crown, and they were terrorized and largely driven away by “Patriots.”  Angry mobs would tear Loyalists from their homes.  They would literally tar and feather them.  Patriots would burn down the houses of Loyalists and ban them from public places.  Historian Thomas B. Allen calls the American Revolution the “first American Civil War.”  As much as we were fighting the British, we were fighting ourselves, literally turning neighbor against neighbor, fathers against sons…people who had known one another for years or for decades, almost overnight, became the enemy. 

Many Loyalists were members of Episcopalian Churches—the official Church of England—and many Patriots in this part of the world were Presbyterian, and that is very much where colonial society was split during the years of the war.  Presbyterians would attack Episcopal clergy…there are reports of a priest begin shot at during a Sunday morning sermon.  But then there was the Congregational Church, and from what little I’ve found, it seems that the Congregational Church—specifically THIS Congregational Church—was a kind of oddity in that particular time.  Many Loyalists, while faithful to the crown in matters of politics, rejected the idea of the King being the head of the church.  They saw God as sovereign, beyond the power of any human, even the King.  So they became members in the Congregational Church, and as the country began tearing itself apart for the sake of “no taxation without representation,” members of this church continued to seek out the only real source of freedom, our mysterious sovereign God. 

We don’t know a lot of specifics about that time in our history, but we do have artifacts that hint at how our church lived out their identity as God’s People throughout this time of violence and division.  We know that the USS Raleigh, the first ship in the American Navy was built over on Badger’s Island, 2 miles away from our church, in 1775.  Some of our communion silver was given

Hamilton comes out September 25.

Hamilton comes out September 25.

to us by William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and right next to it, on our communion table to this very day, is the silver given to us by William and Mary Pepperrell, Loyalist traitors to the Revolution.  The silver wasn’t melted down and used in a different way, Mary Pepperrell wasn’t attacked, her house remains standing across the street from the church.  At a time in our history when Loyalists were despised and terrorized throughout the colonies, as far as we can tell, they were welcome here.  We also have proof that, around the same time, a free black man and his family were baptized in our sanctuary.  Patriots—also known as Rebels—earned a living and forged a new life for themselves at the shipyard, Loyalists wondered if this new nation had anything awaiting them other than hatred and violence, free black folks, slaves, white Rebels….they were all welcome here.  At a time when 1 in 5 free Americans were divided from one another—not just by ideology, but by war and violence— it appears that even then this sanctuary served as a place of rest and worship for anyone who walked through the doors.

Politics is not a bad word.  It’s a Good Word.  Our political culture happens to be rooted in division and violence…probably to be expected for a nation that had to fight and claw its way to freedom.  It’s what we’ve known.  But it doesn’t have to be anymore.

We can choose to remember that before we are anything, we are Beloved Children of God.  All of us.  We can choose to remember that the only reason for fighting that war in the first place was so that we can have control over how we arrange our shared life.  The Founders and Framers did not intend for that power to be given to everyone.  They did not intend for non-white, non-male, non-landowning people to have a say in how that shared life was arranged.  But to paraphrase fictional President Jed Bartlet, “Thanks for trying…but here we are anyway.”

This is a country that has always vilified and attacked its political enemies.  It’s created a political culture that has lost the confidence of the very people who are supposed to be in charge of it.  And just like our brothers and sisters in Ancient Israel, God is speaking to us through the crisis, “You are free…you get to choose…and you have to live with your choice.”

The call is the same as it ever was:  Love.  Arrange the world so love–justice–can be shared among people and creation.  If you can only do that by making enemies out of your neighbors, you’d do well to remember that we are called to LOVE our enemies as well.

The choice, in the end, isn’t about “them” at all.  It’s about you.  Do you choose to arrange our shared life by coercion and force, by silencing and driving out anyone who doesn’t agree with you…or are you willing to participate in a peaceful process that allows everyone to have a voice, and then continue working beyond election day to help with the project of arranging our shared life together?

 It’s your vote.  It’s your choice.

Happy Election Day.people

Rights…

“The Constitution’s a mess–”

“So it needs amendments–”

“It’s full of contradictions–”

“So is independence!” –Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, “Non-Stop”, Hamilton

Something interesting happened last week…something kind of awesome interesting…which we didn’t hear about because on Saturday night a certain man in Orlando decided to abuse his 2nd Amendment Rights by killing Precious People in a night club with a perfectly legal assault rifle.  Say what you want about Omar Mateen, but the fact is…he was a United States Citizen, exercising his inalienable, constitutional rights…right up until he was killed by police for having shot more than 100 people, murdering at least 49 of them.

There’s a group of 21 young people under the age of 18 who are suing the Federal Government for “violating their constitutional right to life, liberty, and property” by allowing and promoting the extraction of fossil fuels despite the conclusive scientific evidence that CO2 emissions are causing a change to the climate of our planet that endangers the life of every living thing here. The Federal Government–accompanied by the fossil fuel industry–made a motion to dismiss the case, but just last week U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin of the Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon decided in favor of the plaintiffs.  Here’s a direct quote from the court’s decision:

“Plaintiffs are suing the United States … because the government has known for decades that carbon dioxide (C02) pollution has been causing catastrophic climate change and has failed to take necessary action to curtail fossil fuel emissions. Moreover, plaintiffs allege that the government and its agencies have taken action or failed to take action that has resulted in increased carbon pollution through fossil fuel extraction, production, consumption, transportation, and exportation. Plaintiffs allege the current actions and omissions of defendants make it extremely difficult for plaintiffs to protect their vital natural systems and a livable world. Plaintiffs assert the actions and omissions of defendants that increased C02 emissions ‘shock the conscience,’ and are infringing the plaintiffs’ right to life and liberty in violation of their substantive due process rights.”

Now…I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a constitutional scholar…just a rapidly aging white man who is having trouble sleeping this week and listening to a lot of Lin-Manuel Miranda…but see if you can follow me here:

If the court will allow the United States Federal Government to be sued by Citizens of the United States for infringing upon their RIGHT to life and liberty…shouldn’t every single person who has been killed in our country be allowed to sue their murderer for the exact same reason…because they infringed on the deceased’s right to life and liberty in violation of their substantive due process rights?

I suppose the problem is that dead people are unable to sue.  Compounded by the problem that, in a lot of these cases, their murderers wind up dead as well…and you can’t be sued when you’re dead.  Not yet, anyway.  Thank God.  Actually….maybe you can.  For all I know.  Oy.

We have a criminal justice system that is supposed to deal with the repercussions for anyone who commits violent acts…but why do we never hear anyone arguing the obvious:  no citizen is given the right to deny another their right to life and liberty.  It’s probably a moot point because…you know…what with being dead and all.  But it seems to me that as long as some citizens can claim that no one is allowed to make rules and regulations regarding the sale, ownership, and operation of firearms in our country–due to their constitutional rights afforded them by the second amendment–then the rest of us should be able to make a case of our own: NOTHING should be able to infringe on my right, or YOUR right, or the right of ANYONE in the United States to be robbed of their life and liberty.  Period.

When framed in that way, doesn’t the argument become: The Right to Bear Arms vs. The Right to Live?  If an entire argument for how we will conduct ourselves as a nation is predicated on the rights afforded us by our rule of law…aren’t we at a standstill immediately?  We are each of us given a constitutional right to life and liberty, to due process, AND the right to bear arms.  And a gun is designed for one thing only: to kill.  Homer Simpson proved that it’s not super useful for anything else.

I know the idea is that we are given the right to own firearms in order to kill who/what we are supposed to kill, BUT…there are kids pursuing a thus-far successful lawsuit that argues: even me driving to the grocery store is an act that is violating their rights to life and liberty.  And we have to confess: we know that is true.

We just don’t care.  Well…we care…but not enough to suddenly become pedestrians and totally transform our lives just to recognize the rights of some kids in Oregon to live theirs.

And that’s on us.  That’s on me.  Every time I start my car.  Even if it is a hybrid.

If I can admit my complicity in violating the rights of other humans in favor of my right to drive my own vehicle…then surely gun owners can do the same.

(If not…I’ll ask that you kindly remain silent for the duration of our conversation about guns and constitutional rights…because you have demonstrated you are not emotionally prepared to be part of that conversation.)

Look, we have a lot of rights in our country.  If you want to be able to do anything you want in your life without anyone getting in your way too much…America is really a pretty sweet place to be.  Especially if you’re white…and ESPECIALLY if you are white AND male!  We get to do SO MUCH STUFF! Congrats to us.  But it seems pretty obvious to me at this point that our rights are not nearly as important as our responsibility.  Uncle Ben taught us that.  With great power comes great responsibility.  He taught that to his nephew Peter, empowering him to use his spider powers to help others and evolve into a Hero.  The rights we are afforded in our country give each and every one of us a LOT of power.  We are so totally free that we are allowed to do a number of things in our every day lives–nearly every minute of every day–which violate the right of present and future children to their own life and liberty.  That means we possess an awesome responsibility to begin exercising our rights in ways that ensure the safety and tranquility of future generations.  That logically means curbing our own rights in order to fulfill our responsibilities.

It’s what actual adults do.

Have you ever met a parent who insists that it is their right to treat their own children however they wish?  Have you met those people who have children in their care, and they verbally and emotionally abuse those kids because “no one is allowed” to tell them not to?  All the while, they are ensuring that the lives of those children will be more difficult and horrid because their parents are exercising their right to parent how they see fit.

We have freedom of religion in our country, and we know for a fact that so called “religious” people who have made it their business to demonize and spiritually brutalize Precious GLBTQ People have contributed to the likelihood of GLBTQ People being murdered.

How is it any different to claim that anyone’s Second Amendment right to own guns is more important than another citizen’s right to be alive?  That is putting the rights of certain people over the rights of others.  And we actually can’t be allowed to do that…at least, not without our entire nation folding in on itself.

This is what being a truly free person is about…taking on the responsibility of ensuring everyone else’s freedom.  Even if–maybe especially if–it means sacrificing some of the rights and privileges we were handed at birth.

When you can liberate your Pride and honestly confront your Terror…then you can begin to responsibly exercise your Rights. And then…we can get started with the big questions.

Terror…

I think the first time I realized God didn’t want me to be a stand up comic was on September 11, 2001.  Or maybe it was in the days just after.  Comedians are supposed to be able to pick up on the absurdities of culture, and then craft a joke that calls attention to the absurdity in a way that is so uncomfortable, those hearing it give themselves over to laughter.  Or they make a poop joke.  Sometimes it can go either way.

On that particular day and all the days after, I was hyper aware of the absurdities around me…around all of us…and the mix of anxiety and absurdity was making me feel particularly crazy…because I kept laughing.  I wasn’t laughing at the tragedy, I wasn’t laughing at the thousands dead and the thousands more wounded forever.  I was laughing at our reactions to the tragedy.  Everywhere I went I heard people saying, “God bless America,” but they were saying it with such venom in their voice that it sounded like the opposite of a blessing…it seemed like an epithet for a curse word.  To this day, when I stub my toe or someone cuts me off in traffic, I am known to mumble to myself, “God bless America.” The President of the United States gave a speech trying to guide and soothe us in the days after…and he said the best thing we can do is keep the economy going. I remember something about going shopping and taking the family to Disney World.  This tickled me…in an entirely gallows humor sort of way.  The color-coded Terror Alert system at airports and other public spaces.  Remember that?  I swear I was at an airport one day when the Terror Level was at Red…but other than the color of the sign, nothing was different.  The world seemed dark and dangerous and…bizarrely entertaining…and I knew I was never meant to be a stand up comic…because I couldn’t figure out how to make it funny to anybody else.

The #1 thing I have tried to make a joke out of but haven’t been able to: The War on Terror.  I think the reason I can’t make it funny is because it is the most abysmally cynical thing that has ever been created.  It’s not a white rhino having tea time with the Queen kind of absurd…it’s children setting off firearms…it’s tragically absurd.

The word itself means “something that intimidates, an object of fear.”  Going to war with the thing causing our terror would have made sense…not a good idea, but sensical.  But by declaring a War on Terror, we declared a war on our own emotions.  Rather than thinking logically about what happened and how best to respond, we collectively screamed, “We’re scared and we don’t WANT to be!”  and we started shooting anything that seemed dangerous, whether it was or not.  So we need guns to feel safe…because terror is out there waiting to take shape.  Children setting off firearms.

And now we label most everything violent as an Act of Terror, maintaining the need for panic and constant vigilance, painting any object that bothers us as our warring enemy, Terror.

Do the killings at Club Pulse in Orlando give you pause?  Aren’t there enough absurdities and contradictions to bring into sharp focus the blind spots we have lived with for…going on 15 years, at least?

On last night’s Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, we learned that the killer at Club Pulse had gone there before…many times.  He had a profile on a gay dating website.  He pledged allegiance to Isis…but the key issue that drove his violence seems to have nothing to do with fundamentalist religion.  We don’t know everything, there is still more to learn…but does this make you take pause?  There’s the possibility that this young man was just engaged in our War on Terror….and his enemy in the terror war was actually part of himself…and 103 precious GLBTQ people got caught in the crossfire.

If we can’t liberate our Pride…if there is nothing in our life to feel Proud about…then doesn’t everything seem terrifying?  If everything is terrifying…aren’t we then at war with everything?

Someone asked me yesterday, “What do we do about people who want to kill us?”

Perhaps we begin with a confession:  We have supported and promoted the practice of destroying the things that scare us.  We have attempted to solve our emotional problems through means of war and destruction.

Perhaps, then, our response to those who also seek violent means to fixing themselves should be…a little compassion.

We’re all trying to win the same war.

I know…it’s not funny.

Pride…

Pride-Parade

“Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor–let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.” –Psalms 10: 1-2

“I swear your pride will be the death of us all/Beware, it goeth before the fall.”

Aaron Burr, Hamilton

I was in high school when I became aware of White Pride as a thing.  I heard reports on the news of a group of teenage boys claiming to be part of a White Pride group who had taunted and assaulted a student during and after school.  Interestingly, and confusingly, the student they attacked was also white…but he was also perceived to be “gay.”  This was my first introduction to a conversation that would not become clear to me until college…but mainly after college, well into adulthood:  There’s a lot more to being “white” than just skin color.  In college I learned that there was a time when Italian and Irish immigrants to our country were not considered white.  Gay men are still seen as not really white…even if that’s the color of their skin, they are seen as…not quite right and not quite white.  I would then come to find out that males who identified as Feminists–males like myself–were also not really considered White Men…apparently because of faulty programming that made us “weak” and unwilling to take our “rightful” place as dominators and ultimate controllers of the household.  I began taking trips with my church to places like the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where they showed us modern Ku Klux Klan literature which, sure enough, accuse all kinds of people–including women, Jews, and Catholics–of being threats to straight, white men.  Eventually, I began hearing echoes of these White Pride thoughts in many conversations shared among white men.  It’s not very often you hear white men declaring loudly and clearly what White Pride groups declare….but in many conversations, if you listen carefully, you can hear the faint notes, the implicit attitudes and beliefs, which are the little seeds that, if given proper attention, grow into forests of White Pride. Whenever there’s a joke about women being considered equal to men.  Whenever there is gentle ribbing about “who really wears the pants in your family.”  Whenever a male who exhibits “feminine” characteristics is derided or ignored.  Whenever a young woman is seen solely as a sex object, “asking for” the negative attention she receives.  Whenever there are vague comments about “them” taking “our” jobs or “invading” “our” country.  Whenever the fear of who might enter “our” bathrooms becomes more important than the violence that is already happening in our bathrooms.

 

What became most obvious to me was that if you shared in such pride, you were fine…otherwise, you were ashamed.  As a straight white man who did not delight in demeaning women or people of color, a person who wants more diversity in his life rather than less, I found myself excluded from the White Pride club.  And by the nature of my being born a straight white man…I was naturally seen as suspect by all other groups.  Where does a young straight white male go to find pride when it’s naturally denied?  Well…I went to church.  Christianity, strangely–given how many forms of Christianity in our country are regularly used to promotes and defend White Pride–gave me an identity beyond my sexuality, my skin, and my gender.  We read in Galatians 3: 26-28 “In Christ…there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer man or woman, for all are one in Christ Jesus.”  And that was that.  That’s how I was liberated from my shame as a white man with no allegiance to–yet all the benefits of–White Pride…by taking pride in a life lived in love and service of All God’s People…and it has shaped the entire course of my life.  Liberating our pride is where our lives truly begin.pride

At 1:20a.m. on Saturday June 28, 1969 there was a raid on a gay bar called Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.   Raids were not uncommon on gay bars in that time and place, they happened pretty much once a month.  If men were found dressed as women, they would be taken to the bathroom to have their birth gender confirmed, and then they would be arrested.  Gay men and women could be arrested for a host of reasons, and their mugshots could be released to newspapers and posted in public, “outing” them as gay, at which time they would face any number of punishments from society ranging from physical attacks to losing their jobs or being evicted from their homes.  These were all details of a completely formalized system of oppression and shame, to discourage “gay” behavior and encourage “deviants” to get in line and support a well ordered, “straight” society.  On that particular night, however, the folks who had been raided and degraded for their entire lives saw their numbers, they decided together they were tired of simply putting up with what the larger society had declared to be “life” for them, and they began the Stonewall Riots.  A year later, on June 28, 1970, a group of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Queer and other Precious People gathered in the Village to walk peacefully through the streets, to declare that they were not going anywhere, they were not going to hide in the shadows any more, they were out and they were PROUD.  June has since been declared Pride Month.

Well…around 2:00a.m. on Sunday, June 12, 2016 a lone gunman named Omar Mateen walked into a gay club in Orlando, Florida and killed at least 50 precious people.  The gunman declared himself a member of Isis, or at least “allegiant” to the Islamic Fundamentalist group.  The FBI is, as far as I can tell at this point, not actually convinced he had any actual ties to them.  Just a hateful guy who easily purchased an assault rifle a few days ago, and then walked in during Pride Month to remind these members of the GLBTQ community that they are still not wanted, even though our laws have changed.  Just wanted to remind them that they are hated, they deserve to be killed..they should not be proud.

I’m slow to post this because..as is the case with violent tragedy in America…a lot of people are talking right now..and it seems like we might be missing something important.  In many ways, this is a disaster like so many others we’ve seen in recent years…a lonely, angry man buys some guns and goes out to take his hate out on innocent people.  But in some very important ways…this is a totally different thing.  The same way that when Dylann Roof shot 9 innocent people in Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina last year on June 17…just a couple weeks after Black Lives Matter protests in Baltimore…just two days before Juneteenth, an important anniversary of Black Freedom in America…that was also importantly different.  Roof identified as part of a White Pride movement..he did what he did specifically to try to liberate his own sense of Pride.  Mateen declared his allegiance to a Islamic Fundamentalist group…which is a group that also gains members by offering to liberate their Pride…encouraging their followers to defend their pride against all who threaten it by violent means.  Meanwhile…there is a major party nominee for President of the United States whose entire agenda for his presidency has to do with “winning” the War on Terror, defeating Isis, by any means necessary, including killing their families, demonizing and outlawing Muslim immigrants, and shaming people into agreeing with him.  He promises to bring pride back to people, to “Make America Great Again,” but his entire plan for how to do this seems to hinge on shaming, belittling, and obliterating anyone who threatens that pride.

loveSo we find ourselves in a moment that is almost too complex for words, and yet…the intersection of so many things illuminates a particular windy path:  We are a Proud People…and the way American Pride has been shaped in its first 200-something years is fragile and utterly dependent upon shaming those who threaten our pride…which is everyone.

It’s a path where Americans who hate and disapprove of the GLBTQIA community find themselves walking in allegiance with a potential “Muslim Terrorist.”

Conversely, it’s a path when those who hate and fear “Muslim Terrorists” have to decide whether or not to stand against them in solidarity with their GLBTQIA sisters and brothers.

It’s a path where people who are offended by the actions and words of other people come into direct conflict with people who are offended by them.  It’s been said that “a good defense is the best offense.”  We are on a path paved by offenses defended by yet greater offenses.

It’s a path that comes directly out of  the history of systemic violence and oppression against not White Males in America, and causes us to truly question: What is a terrorist, anyway?  In a country full of people who have, for centuries, killed men, women, and children who are not straight white males with nigh impunity–including the Native Peoples of North America–what do we really mean by terrorism?

It’s a path that points toward an inconclusive future…and we have to wonder if we are willing to take action, to promote love and justice, to create a future that we can truly take Pride in.

So…if you need me this week…that’s where I’m going to be.  Walking that narrow path that is only visible for the chaotic forrest in which we find ourselves, where the intersection of so much hate and violence seems to hinge on how we liberate our Pride…and what kind of lives we choose to be Proud of.

I’m a Queer Heterosexual American Feminist Christian Child of God with white skin and pretty blue eyes…and I’m walking here…and I invite you to walk with me.  We shall overcome.

victory

…Fear (I’m not scared of Donald Trump…or the people who vote for him.)

Fear not, for I am with you.  Be not dismayed for I am your God.  I will strengthen you.  I will help you. —Isaiah 41: 10

Do not be afraid, friends.  Do NOT be afraid.  Scripture implores us to not be afraid (below is a picture that collects all the occasions this phrase is used throughout the Bible…it’s difficult to see, but you should Google it, it’s fun). Easier said than done, I know.  Fear is a legitimate emotion that most often does a decent job of keeping us alive.  So why does scripture implore us so frequently fearnot_08272015_72to ignore or somehow shrug off this essential, primal human emotion?  There are at least 3 reasons I can think of immediately:

1) When we fear something, we usually find ourselves trapped in tunnel vision, the source of our fear is all we can see.  This is a good thing if the thing we are afraid of can be dealt with immediately (like if a car is speeding toward you, or you hear a rattlesnake lurking nearby), but tunneling can be an incredibly bad thing when what we fear is systemic, ongoing, or unavoidable (like pollution, climate change, or death).  The call to “not be afraid” can be great advice if the source of our fear can only be dealt with by observing and thinking outside the tunnel.

2)  The call to not be afraid is often given by angels and other messengers of God.  God’s good news is always transformational and life changing.  If it’s good news…then why would we be afraid in the first place?  Because humans fear change.  All the time.  Even if the change is good.  We trust most what we’ve always known, and the new and unexplored is almost always full of anxiety and fear.  God’s messengers would tell us, “Something really amazing is about to happen…but if you are too afraid to enter into a new life, then you will miss the whole thing.”

3)  There are many things in the world–most of them people–who thrive on fear.  They literally require your fear in order to exist.  In the school yard they are called “Bullies.”  In the Roman Empire he was known as “Caesar.”  In the 2016 American Presidential Election, his name is “Trump.”

For all these reasons…we cannot allow ourselves to be afraid of Donald Trump, or the people who would like to elect him as our next President.  Be not afraid…we do not have the time…and your fear only serves to make him stronger.

I see people making comments all day every day about how terrifying the rise of Donald Trump is in Republican Politics.  I then read even more comments about how people fear Trump’s supporters more than they really fear Trump.  I feel a great many things about this event in our country…but none of them are fear.  Trump is an overpaid reality star in the middle of a decades-long ego meltdown (I read a piece yesterday that suggests–for real–that his entire run for the Presidency might be a reaction to President Obama making fun of him at a White House Correspondents Dinner).  There’s nothing scary about the people who follow him, either.  The fact that most of those supporters are white males who are getting excited about public vulgarity, and attacking people of color….that angers me.  That fills me with sadness.  The threat that they pose scares me inasmuch as I don’t want precious people of any kind to face violence or hardship because of a bunch of bigots who can’t properly process their way through their existential crises…but even that is not to be feared as much as…expected.  We can’t forget that America’s past is riddled with race-fueled acts of grotesque violence.  Public lynchings were still in fashion in many areas of the country when my grandparents were born.  When my parents were kids, segregation was legal and public beatings and harassment of Black Americans were commonplace.  Just because we’ve had a few decades of less overt racism…we should not be surprised to find that there are plenty of angry, emotionally stunted people of privilege who will take advantage of an opportunity to feel better about themselves by attacking people they view as “less than.”  It’s all very troubling.  It’s all extremely sad…tragic, I would say.  But…be not afraid.

When Jesus was awoken from a great nap while sailing across the Sea of Galilee because his disciples were convinced a storm was going to kill them, he said, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?”

So I put the question to you:  Why fear this petty man and his misguided followers, when it is exactly our fear that makes them powerful.  Don’t we have faith in something greater than what they claim to stand for?

Our world can be a terrifying place–we see the planet we live on changing right before our eyes, violent extremism runs rampant, our economic systems favor profits over people and nature–and every day it seems there’s something new to fear.  But when we spend our lives in fear, we focus too much on the source of our fear, forgetting that we are God’s Beloved with the power to change much of what scares us.

We need not fear…but hope in our God.  Our God is the only ultimate power in the cosmos.  It’s God who birthed the stars, and it’s God who will, someday, extinguish them.  Be not afraid…that’s part of the plan.  It’s built into the system.

If you see something you don’t like, you have a voice, you have gifts and abilities, you have a world wide web and ever-present digital media network, you have the right to vote, and you probably have the power to direct your money toward campaigns and programs and groups and items that could help make your deepest hopes more real. When we are afraid…we forget all that.  Fear inhibits our ability to hope, and prevents us from taking steps toward transforming sources of fear into sources of new life.  Be not afraid.  There are exciting things in the world I don’t want you to miss out on.

This weekend I read about plastic being made out of carbon dioxide.  I heard about a strain of bacteria that can eat plastic.  I read about a group of people who have developed a process for ridding our oceans of continents-worth of garbage.  Electric cars are now an affordable reality, and soon we could use them to power our homes.  DeRay McKesson, a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, is running for mayor of his hometown Baltimore, Maryland.  My friend Sellus Wilder is running a campaign for Rand Paul’s seat in the U.S. Senate, and the first sentence of his campaign platform reads: I support an economy that values the lives of real people more than profits and power. Oh, and then there’s this video:

 

These are just a few of the things that are currently helping my hope outweigh my fear.  They are powerful reminders of the potential that each of us possess to shape the world as we hope it to be.  Fear prevents us from acting.  Fear prevents us from seeing potential solutions, from articulating goals and dreams, and building the communities required to achieve the kinds of change that are essential for our continued survival.

Be not afraid.  Be hopeful.  When you encounter people whose attitudes and actions make you afraid, teach them how to hope in something better.

 

 

…Identity (Who You Are…Who You Aren’t…You Revealed)

“Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?”– Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack) in High Fidelity

“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”–Luke 4: 28-29

I had a minor identity crisis recently.  I realized that I don’t like Star Wars.  This is a big deal, right?

This actually happened once before.  In the summer of 1999, my closest circle of friends–with whom I had bonded over multiple shared interests, but the strongest of those bonds were built through shared humor and interest in film–began talking about the Star Wars version of Trivial Pursuit, which had just been put on the market to coincide with the release of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.  We spent the entire month of July together, venturing to one summer camp or service trip after another.  For nearly 30 days strait, there would be a regular suggestion offered up by one person or another, “We need to play the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit…for money…and see who wins.”  (Quick sidebar: You have no business judging us.  We were pop culture geeks in the late 90’s.  There was no strong internet culture with easy access to every trivia contest human beings can create.  No cell phones even. Just us five or six young people trying to one-up each other with jokes and movie references.  It was glorious.)  Months later, we finally agreed on a time and place to make this battle happen.  A couple of us had gone off to college, so we had to wait until they were back in town.  We finally sat down together, we picked our individual colors, we put our $25.00 ante into the center of the board.  Game on.

I lasted through two rounds before I quit…due to boredom.  4 hours of work at my part time job, flushed gladly down the tubes when I walked away from the contest as it became immediately clear that I had no business competing in this trivia competition.  I had watched the original three Star Wars films many times. I knew character names and quotes.  But I had no idea that there were names for the various robots, vehicles, planets, and aliens throughout the 3 films.  I knew “Hoth” and “Ewok” (interestingly, my spell check program recognizes “Ewok” but not “Hoth”), but everyone else in the circle was able to note the difference between an AT-AT and a Tai Fighter (among many other things…even now, those are the only things I don’t know about that I can remember) so I folded, awaking to the fact that I wasn’t actually a Star Wars fan at all.  I liked the light saber battles, but I hadn’t internalized a vast encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about a galaxy from a long time ago, far, far away in the manner of a true devotee.  I could retain a lot of pop culture knowledge…but a true love of this particular franchise was apparently not in my heart.  Mind…blown.

f36d84117a50258ad35cb382c106a633-the-best-fan-made-posters-for-star-wars-episode-vii

These are probably the most common moments in which most of us actively reflect on our identities…those moments when we come face to face with who we “aren’t.”  For the most part, we just live our lives, we move from task to task and day to day without staring into our reflection and questioning in Derek Zoolander-style, “Who am I?”   We are what we do.  We are “what we eat.”  We are where we live and who we root for and what clothes we wear and who our friends are…we don’t worry often with “identity” questions because we are, most often, identifying with our lives.  Until we come up against something that has been assumed to be true about ourselves…and we confess, “That’s not me after all.”  For some of us, this is the realization that we are attracted to people who we aren’t “supposed” to find attractive.  For some of us, it’s the realization we don’t really “fit” in particular spaces due to our skin color or economic status.  For some of us, it’s the realization that we feel better when we eat food different from the food that comprises the diet of most of our peers.  And still, for some of us, we learn who we really are when we look at the practices and policies that are commonplace in the world and we genuinely wonder, “How can this possibly be allowed…let alone accepted?”  I think it’s because this is so often how identity formation works–through differentiation, realizing who/what you are by encountering situations that make it very clear who/what you are not–that we so often define ourselves by what we are against rather than what we are for.

So sometime in the very recent past I heard they were making a new Star Wars movie…and before I had even gotten around to thinking much about it…it was released in theaters.  And then I went and saw it.  It was fine.  I was reminded…I’m not a fan.  Not really.  I just go to the movies sometimes.  In the grand scheme of things…this does not matter, I’ll be the first to admit that.  But it remains interesting to me in one specific way:  Before I knew I wasn’t a Star Wars fan, I participated in the same conversations with the same friends with the same frequency and fervor.  And while they never gave me a hard time for quitting that game…that was the first time I intentionally got up and walked away from them.  Shortly after that, we stopped hanging out all together.  Did we stop hanging out because I was no longer assumed to be a Star Wars fan?  Was realizing I wasn’t a Star Wars fan what lead to our eventual silent falling out?  I can’t really say one way or the other.   Because that’s how it works with an identity…you just are who you are, until you become someone else…and very rarely can we track the transformation from one state of being to another…because, very often, you reveal who you are long before you are capable of articulating your identity.  Often, the world knows who you are before you do.

The people of Nazareth assumed they knew exactly who they were.  They thought of themselves as God’s chosen people.  Life wasn’t perfect, but in the end, God had their back.  Or so they assumed.  Until one day when Jesus came home for a visit, read the scroll of Isaiah about “good news to the poor” and “let the oppressed go free,” and said to them, “This scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  The people of Nazareth had just assumed, “Jesus was raised here, he’s one of us.  More evidence that we are doing all the right things.” And then Jesus said to them (essentially), “I am actually incapable of doing for you what I have done for others.  I actually claim an identity as God’s chosen…where as you identify simply as ‘Nazareth.’  I’m here for people who are choosing to be ‘God’s chosen.'”  And they were so offended…that they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Was Nazareth angry at Jesus for not working miracles among them?  Or was Jesus unable to work miracles among them because they refused to allow their assumptions to be challenged?  Who’s to say?  What we know for sure is that Jesus claimed a very specific identity for himself that day–the One who would serve the outsider, the marginalized, the ones with no one else in their corner–and simultaneously refused to be the hometown hero Nazareth wanted him to be.  When he refused to be who Nazareth wanted, so he could serve those in need, he revealed his true identity.  He wasn’t one of them at all…and that made him disposable.

Who we claim to be, and who we refuse to be…that is, in the end, what defines us.  We’re moving past labels and name tags here…who you really are…who you really choose to be in this world is determined by the juxtaposition between what you claim and what you refuse.  The more closely those two things match, the more likely you are to be remembered as a kind of hero…someone who knew who they were and was unafraid to BE that in the world.  The wider the distance between what you claim and what you refuse…the more likely you are to be remembered as a hypocrite, or a deceiver…in the words of Holden Caulfield, “a Phony.”

Just this morning, I came across a blog post by John Pavlovitz, “Maybe I’m not a Christian After All.”   Reacting to the news that big name evangelical leaders Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. have endorsed Donald Trump and his campaign to be the next President of the United States, Pavlovitz is wrestling with identity…what makes a Christian a Christian…is it specifically a labeling issue, or does how we live and how we reflect Jesus’ legacy in the world matter at all?  I’m going to help my brother here a little bit (though, I suspect his post was primarily aiming for satire):  Who we claim to be and what we refuse.  You claim to be a follower of Jesus?  Well, then you should probably refuse partnership with and access to worldly powers, just as Jesus did.  You claim to see Trump as the best possible Christian choice in the upcoming election because he supposedly creates jobs?  Well…Jesus himself encouraged people to quit their jobs…he and his followers refused to spend their time earning an hourly wage…they were homeless and nomadic, depending on friends and believers to take them in.  Their actions matched who they claimed to be.  Unlike Misters Graham and Falwell Jr. who claim to believe in the sovereignty of God, the ultimate power of Jesus Christ, and the action of the Holy Spirit in their lives…Jesus and his followers actually lived out their faith, even when it meant being rejected, even when it meant physical discomfort and torture…even when it meant death on the cross and prison and death by stoning.  This is why an entire world religion was founded on their words, witness, and work.  And it’s why Graham and Falwell and whatever political despots they attempt to align themselves with will be remembered as charlatans…snake oil salesmen.  It’s also why when I meet people like them and their followers…I don’t treat them as I do “Christians.”  Christians are my family, they are my brothers and sisters from around the world who I always feel at home with, in solidarity with, free to speak of God’s love and thirsty for God’s justice for ALL people.  When I meet power-hungry people of privilege who enjoy wrapping themselves in wealth and influence, and put their arms around individuals and institutions that attempt to accrue power by oppressing and enslaving precious people…I treat them like dim-witted children.  I speak slowly and try to educate them about what they are doing wrong.  (Some day I’ll have to tell you about the time my grandmother, my uncle and I spent a week on a cruise ship full of such folks.  It was hilarious.  And kind of sad.)

So let it be known…you can call yourself whatever you want.  But when you claim to be a Christian and refuse to tirelessly stand for and with the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, beautiful and precious people in need of justice and reconciliation…all so you can make nice with a billionaire blow-hard who won’t ever be President any way…you’ve revealed your true identity. Phony Christians.

What you claim/what you refuse…let us all be so warned as we enter into the world as…whatever it is we are.

 

 

 

 

 

…Debt (Hold the Door, Thank the Holders)

2016…a brand new year…entirely dependent on the 2015+ years that came before it.

“You want to talk about reality?  We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century.”–Mr. Robot

…Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.–Matthew 6:12

I had two goals for the 33rd year of my life: 1) get healthy, 2) get out of debt.  That first part…it’s a moving target. I can be proud of certain accomplishments and changes (i.e. cooking at home more, increasing my vegetable and fruit intake, decreasing the number of times a week pizza is ingested, running (!)), and there are other things I could be doing better with (i.e. using chicken nuggets as a delivery system for mayonnaise).  As I’ve begun getting more active about my own health, I’ve begun to understand the process as just that…a process…little changes over the long run can make a huge impact, even though I may not notice a lot of change from one day to another.  Living as healthily as possible is a life-long goal/struggle, and it depends entirely upon setting up a series of daily choices and actions that lead to devouring healthy calories and burning them off at a regular rate, while increasing my lung capacity and strengthening my heart. And also there’s something called “the core,” and it is also important.  And stretching.  There’s a lot that goes into it.

Then there’s the second thing, which I actually find more interesting: Debt.  Climbing out of debt.  I went to college at a small liberal arts school, then attended a small graduate school in New England.  I’m something between a public servant and an independent contractor for non-profit organizations.  I live in one of the most expensive and unequal cities in the country, and recently bought a car. I’ve got some debt.  What I was shocked to discover is that when you pay attention to how you are spending your money (and then you stop doing most of those things you’re paying attention to), it’s actually pretty easy to do…that is, if you’re blessed as I am to have a well-paying job and a huge network of support in generous friends, family, and parishioners.  I’m currently on track to be out of all my major debt (excluding the new car) within the next couple years.  That’s a huge thing.  In a sense, it’s all working the way it was supposed to.  The money that I didn’t have while getting through school is coming back to me now and allowing me to pay off what I borrowed, and spend the rest of my life collecting more money and getting further ahead.

And that’s where we get into trouble.  college-student-debt

Richard Rohr has pointed out that when Jesus teaches his followers the prayer that we commonly refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” the word recorded in scripture translates to “debts” and this is for a very specific reason.  Rohr writes, “Bread and debt are the preoccupation, the entire life, of the peasant class.  how do I have food for tomorrow and how do I pay my bills?…How does the burden of debt–the personal debt people carry in our consumer society, the national debt carried by particularly Third World countries–keep people imprisoned in their own history?” (excerpted from Rohr’s book Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount)

Those who feel the weight of crushing debt are in danger of being “imprisoned in their own history,” as compound interest and chronic underemployment traps poor and working class people (the MAJORITY of humanity) in a cycle of servitude to their creditors.  Those who do not feel imprisoned by their own, individual financial debt have a different danger…they run the risk of thinking that they are indebted to no one.  This is a fallacy.

Everything you are, and everything you have, is all thanks to someone getting here first and preparing it for you.  For some of us, that looked like parents who scrimped and saved in order to give us a financial leg up in the world.  For some of us, it looked like systems and institutions that were established over the course of decades and centuries that presented opportunities for us to take advantage of at the right moment.  For all of us, it looks like the history of human civilization caring for and tending to their own responsibilities so that there was something to pass on to those of us who are here now.  Whether you have eliminated your own financial debts, or your entire adult life relies on one line of credit to pay off another…you eat from plants that were planted by someone else, you live on streets and in houses and in a nation built by those who came before, you benefit every day from a Created World that has taken at least 4 billion years to produce the circumstances in which you currently live.

We live in such debt to those who have come before…that we will never possibly be able to pay back in our own lifetimes.  And that’s ok…because no one is asking us to.  We trust that God forgives our debts, sets us free from our own history, so that we can create a new and glorious future.   And that’s where our hard work comes in: We are expected to pass that same gift on to those who come after us…to make possible a world of opportunity for which future generations can be grateful…rather than imprisoned by our shortfalls.

I think the one thing I do regularly in my life that makes the most difference in the world–I’m not even kidding–is holding a door open for strangers.  If you want to see someone smile and be genuinely, heart-wrenchingly, excited and grateful in the middle of their busy day…just hold a door open for them.  It never fails to amaze me how much this means to people.  It’s such a simple gesture.  How much work does it require to pull a door open?  Not much.  How excited are people when someone goes out of their way to hold a door open for them…to notice them…to participate in easing their pathway through life in even a simple way?  SO EXCITED!  I’ve literally seen people who are so caught up in their own muttering and negativity that they look like they will burst into flames transformed into gregarious and preciously thankful individuals–if only for a moment–all because I took the time to say, “Here you go,” and usher them inside ahead of me.

It’s entirely possible that you were put here on this earth to do nothing more than hold a door open for someone who has yet to arrive…and if you are willing to do it, then you are a hero. While you’re waiting for them, take time to be thankful for all those who held doors open just for you.

Let’s stop pretending that our own personal affairs are either our own or merely personal.  Let’s begin understanding life for what it is–relentlessly interconnected and interdependent–and engage in the meaningful and consequential work of being responsible to more than our own bottom line.  Every tree cut down is one that future generations don’t get to shade under.  Every gallon of gas burned turns into 200 pounds of carbon dioxide that is compounded to our environmental ledger for at least the next 100 years.  Every non-renewable resource we consume takes away from the possibilities of future generations, and makes it more likely that they will be imprisoned by our history.

Gracious God, let me hold the door open for those on their way, as it was held open for me.  Amen.

 

 

 

…Joy (The Neglected Gift)

A sermon delivered at Second Church in Newton UCC on Sunday, December 20, 2015

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is how name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.'” –Luke 1: 39-55

Is it the most wonderful time of the year?  I’m not here to bah-humbug you to death, but I think it’s important to ask: Can we really say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year?  Sure there’s lots of goodies and presents, we have holiday parties, a little time off, it’s all well and good.  But from where I’m sitting there’s also a lot of…bah-humbug that goes along with the season.  Waiting in long lines, our already busy calendars filled with EVEN MORE stuff to do, longer nights and shorter days…there’s a fair amount of stress and hassle in this holiday season.  For those of us who have lost loved ones and experienced tragedy…there may be very little joy to be found in this holiday season.  So maybe it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.  Or…perhaps, even amid all those hurtles and hardships, God somehow breaks into our lives anyway, amazing us all, against all odds…and that’s why it’s most wonderful, most holy.  Or maybe, like most important things in the human experience, it’s both.  Maybe it’s about Joy AND Sadness, Light AND Dark, Wonderful AND Mournful.  Maybe that’s why we have so many powerful, moving and, frankly, heavy and sad Christmas Stories that we tell year after year. 

12360422_10100433930626413_2271286461878984042_n

George Bailey faces a crisis that leads him to wonder if the world wouldn’t be better off if he’d never been born, but in the end he’s surrounded by his loving family and supportive neighbors joyfully singing songs around the tree.  Scrooge spent his entire adult life shutting people out, only to have 3 spirits melt his heart, causing him to run into the streets on Christmas day and take a feast to the house of his employee Bob Cratchett.  Rudolph and Hermey the Elf come back from the island of misfit toys to declare that they belong in their community and they have joyous gifts to share by being their own, diverse, weird selves.  Charlie Brown and his sad little tree are visited by the kids from the christmas pageant, and they sing into the night, celebrating joy and togetherness in the long, dark night.  The Grinch’s heart grows 3 sizes larger, and he’s no longer stealing Christmas, but sharing in it. We see this story over and over again.  Going all the way back to the beginning…

When we remove Mary’s story from the safety of Christmas Pageants and nostalgic celebrations we are forced to recognize that this is a young woman who has been dealt a dirty hand.  She has just begun waking up to her own body, and she is already promised to be the bride of a local man.  To be sure, this is not her decision.  It is a decision that was made for her by her father and her “fiancee,” Joseph.  Mary is not entirely disappointed about this, it’s all she knows. It’s what she has seen happen to every woman she has ever known or heard of.  The good news for her is that Joseph seems like a nice man.  She has seen many of her family and her peers wedded to brutes…harsh men who no one would choose as their own mate…but the law and the culture force them to go anyway.  Young Mary probably was lying awake thinking, “Thank you God for promising me to this good man.”  And then Gabriel appears before her.  “God has chosen you, Mary, above all other women.  God has placed the savior of the world in your womb.  You will give birth to this son and name him Jesus.”  And just as quickly as he appeared, The Voice is gone.  Mary is left with only one thought….”My life is over.”  When Joseph finds out she is pregnant with a baby that is not his…he might kill her…and no one in her town would blame him.  If Joseph is the good man she believes he is…maybe he’ll spare her life…but she will then be stuck at home, an unwed pregnant woman…and maybe her own father will feel the need to take her life.  Her life was ruined forever. 

When we think of the miracle of the Virgin Birth…we always hear it as a miracle against nature…a young woman who has never known a man is pregnant.  We use this image to attest to our God’s ability to create life where life cannot otherwise exist.  It is good news for a people on the brink of extinction.  This, however, may not be nearly as great a miracle as these two facts:  Mary is not killed, and Joseph still marries her, protecting her and the child.  The word “miracle” dates back to the mid-twelfth century, meaning “wondrous work of God.”  Every year, we talk about the Christmas miracle. Given what we know about the world, you have to wonder: What is the real miracle at play here?  That a young woman living in the middle east in the first century became pregnant by mysterious means….or that she AND her baby survived to tell the tale? 

And Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is far too old to have conceived a child…and yet, she has.  Elizabeth doesn’t even have to hear Mary’s news, she sees it in her face, she greets Mary as “mother of my LORD.”  These two women, both blessed and burdened by the new livesimages (3) growing inside them, rejoice together—baby John kicking away inside his mother’s belly—and Mary sets aside her grief and her anxiety about her situation and discovers this song of great joy…the Magnificat.  Suddenly, there is nothing that Mary cannot do, because she remembers that she is with God and God is with her.  “He has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  In community—when Mary’s desperation meets Elizabeth’s celebration—Mary encounters the truth about the Divine:  God overturns God’s own rules all the time.  God causes disorder so that NEW order can emerge.  It’s the blessing of a pregnancy late in life, and it’s the burden of pregnancy that might end a young life.  The result of both of these miraculous births is the declaration of a God who will bring justice for the poor, humility to the privileged, and that somehow JOY will be found for all. 

This is the complex truth of our faith, it’s why Christmas specials brought to you by General Electric can sometimes preach the Gospel message, it’s why a green monster can become a guest at Christmas dinner, it’s why we continue to celebrate Christmas regardless of the stress and anxiety and pain:  When God broke into our world in the form of a human, there was a reversal in the order of things.  Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy became things of flesh, things that humans were capable of being for and giving to one another.  This is important for us to hear, us people of privilege.  For most, if not all, of us in this room, we are living in an age when it has never been easier to be isolated.  Our entire economy is fueled by our deep preference for doing things on our own and for ourselves.  The problem is, that God has not changed.  God is still most powerfully found in community.  For those of us—including myself—who sometimes neglect the joy of Christmas, or, for that matter, the joy of any normal Friday, because we are too consumed with the overwhelming busy nature of our lives…this may be the most important spiritual lesson for us to learn.  The very gifts we are so grateful for that make our lives as wonderful and luxurious as they are, our privilege, may be keeping real Joy at a distance.

Christena Cleveland, a professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, wrote just this last week, “Privilege distances us from systemic pain and tragedy…Privilege distances us from the God of Hope.”  She relays a conversation she shared with a Rwandan friend who said to her, “We pray for you all.  When you have so many material things, you can’t really know what it means to truly turn to God for all that you need:  the power to forgive, food to feed your children, healing from the trauma of genocide, stability in the midst of an unstable society, or hope to keep fighting HIV.”  When I began studying Privilege, the first lesson I learned was actually about physics:  every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Those of us who are blessed with the privileges downloadof meaningful work and high paying jobs, we know that there are costs that accompany those privileges, and most of those costs are paid with our most finite resource: time.  This is a fact of our lives:  We are blessed with certain privileges—plenty to eat, living in beautiful homes, providing our children and loved ones with all they could want and more, we have distance from tragedies that are daily realities for billions of people—and these blessings are forever joined with the burden of losing time with loved ones, losing time to do healthy and good things for ourselves, losing time to spend in community. We are the first people in the history of the world who have the ability to choose whether or not we want to spend our time with other people; and our time is so precious to us that we will often opt out of participating in our community if it looks like it’s going to be too much of a hassle.  So we stop showing up, and when we stop showing up we distance ourselves from all the gifts community has to offer:  The joy of sharing one another’s burdens.  The ability to govern ourselves in responsible ways.  When we lose community we lose trust, we lose forgiveness, we lose health, and pretty soon we lose our identity as a community.  We are blessed with the most wealth and comfort and luxury that any human beings have ever known.  That puts the burden on us to make the time to show up to our lives, to decrease the distance between our desires and our needs, or future generations will not see the convenience and privilege that we have enjoyed. 

It begins like this….no matter what your life looks like…whether you are a successful professional with a jam-packed schedule…or you are a pregnant teenager with no expectations for any kind of future…ours is a God of reconciliation…able to create joy when—and maybe only when—the desperation of one person encounters the deep celebration of another.  The stories we tell at Christmas aren’t just meant to be heartwarming, they are not simply to put us in a nostalgic mood, they are BOLD DECLARATIONS about how the universe really works.  We experience the most joy and the highest quality of living when we live together.  We experience more despair, isolation, anxiety, and fear when we are distanced from one another.  When we attempt to have total control over our lives, we end up becoming slaves to our own isolation.  When we make room in our lives, in our schedules, in our routines for messy, hectic, contrary people and voices…that’s where we discover God and the Joy that only God can bring.  Our images (4)challenge as people of privilege is to choose what is best for us, even when it is not most convenient.  And on some level we know this already: We all treasure the joy that babies bring to our lives, and that joy brings with it the burden of sleepless nights and frustrating afternoons.  We all boast about living in a free society in which we have the power to govern ourselves, and if we don’t take the time to educate ourselves and hold our representatives accountable, then we lose that freedom.  We are most healthy when we are selective about what we eat and intentional about exercising.  When we choose what is best for us, even when it is not most convenient, then we are actively engaging our lives and enjoying the blessings of all we have.  When we choose—whether knowingly or not—what is convenient over what is best…then we are neglecting the blessings we are given and we only experience our burdens. We can only experience the joy of God in community…and we access that joy by choosing to show up…by being able to look one another in the eye and see that they carry God with them.  In choosing to decrease the distance between ourselves and our neighbors, by sacrificing our convenience and our control, by embracing our humility and vulnerability.  As long as we cling to worry and independence, we are neglecting the joy that can only be found in our shared life together.  Christmas is bigger than our nostalgia…it is messier and more terrifying than our stories about it would confess.  Because it is not just a story…it is REALITY…it is the way our God works…here, in this life, among us….every day.  Thanks Be to God and please, have a very Joy-filled Christmas!

…Love (or What I Wouldn’t Do)

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried.  May the Lord to thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” –Ruth 1: 15-17

All the great Love songs are all about “What I’d do for Love.”  “I would do anything for love,” sang Meatloaf.  Pop music has, on countless occasions, defined Love as a thing that exists primarily when people make HUGE, bold, dramatic displays of affection to one another.  All well and good.  But this Advent Season I can’t help but think about the other part of Love…the oft overlooked, or unheard part of any vow…the mysterious antithetical remark Meatloaf ends his famous chorus with, “but I won’t do that.”  I’ve always wondered…what is it?  What will Meatloaf not do?  How does Love inform…not just what I choose to do…but what I won’t do?

handsXSmall

There are, certainly, plenty examples of Love to be offered in our Advent texts and in our holy Christmas stories.  But for my money, there may not be a greater, more powerful example of “Love in Action,” than the hero from the book of Ruth.  Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are utterly alone in the world.  Their husbands have died, their only other relative, Ruth’s sister-in-law, has left for home.  They now face a world that doesn’t think of women as anything other than property, uncertain of how–if at all–they will make their way.  Naomi begs Ruth to return to her home, to try to meet another man who will give her children, so she will be cared for.  Ruth tells Naomi, “Where you go, I will go…your God will be my God…where you die, I will die.”  It is a selfless commitment, born out of nothing but the Love Ruth has for her mother-in-law…and it begins with a plea from Ruth to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you.”

As much as Love inspires us to great acts of kindness, compassion, and justice…that inspiration requires a moment of inaction in order to take root. Love is shown not just through what we choose to do, or how we choose to act…it is also demonstrated…perhaps powerfully so…in what we refuse to do.

My love for my partner begins with….refusing to demean or attempt to control her.

My love for my community begins with…refusing to put my personal wants before our communal needs.meditate

My love for my body begins with…refusing to engage in (in)activity that causes undo harm and suffering for myself as I age.

My love for my neighbor begins with…refusing to think of him/her as anything other than Another Child of God.

My love for my environment, my planet, God’s Creation begins with…refusing to ignore the resources I use, and the effects those uses have on the environment.  Refusing to deny that my behavior has ripple effects far beyond myself.  Refusing to become apathetic or inactive when I think about how daunting the task of living in healthy, productive relationship with the environment can be.

We’re told in scripture that there is no greater act of Love than to “give your life for your friends” (John 15:13).  This may be true.  But this is a season of anticipation…expectation…preparation…of not doing, and naming that as powerful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mary refused to give up her mysteriously conceived baby.  Joseph refused to give up on Mary.  They were both refused a place to sleep at an inn on the night of Jesus’ birth…surely this should demonstrate the power that we have in choosing what and who we refuse.  Who was not refused a room that night?

“Who do you love?”

 

Love forces us to refuse, to forsake, to deny just as much as it requires us to act.  In the moments when you don’t know how Love is calling you to act, try to begin with what you won’t do.  Refuse to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.  Refuse to deny welcome and hospitality to those most in need.  Refuse to turn away Children of God who look, act, or believe differently than you.  Even Jesus tried to turn away someone who didn’t belong…but that woman’s love of her daughter refused to allow him to do it.  Even Jesus needed to be corrected…even he was challenged to look at what he was doing and what he was refusing to do.

Ruth refused to leave Naomi…she walked away from everything she had ever known…into an uncertain future…changed the face of Israel and Judaism forever.

What she did for Love.

What I do for Love.

Refuse to give up. 

Refuse to not care. Refuse to let anger win the day.

Let us refuse, to the best of our abilities,  all actions that are not born of God’s radical Love.when-the-power-of-love-overcomes-the-love-of-power-the-world-will-know-peace-27