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Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve, 2016

I was wondering last night: if Jesus is truly God-with-us, if Emmanuel is fully real . . .

did he know what it felt like to kneel by a privy or a ditch and hurl his guts out? Did he know what it was to lie in bed and shiver from a fever; to bend over from stomach cramps; to splinter or cut his hand in his father's workshop; to twist an ankle, wrench a knee, bang his head; to blow his nose for days from a cold?

If Wesley's last words are right -- "the best of all is, God is with us" -- then Emmanuel finds its truth not just in a manger or on a cross, but in all the bloody, messy, puke-filled vagaries of our lives. Christmas is but the beginning and Good Friday the conclusion of a life utterly like ours in every respect. Every.

And Easter, in Keith Miller's words, is like God's signature scrawled across the end of Jesus' life, saying, "This is mine."

Several Apocryphal/Gnostic gospels attempt to fill in the missing thirty years of Jesus' life with stories of how he made clay animals come to life when he was lonely, how he healed sick friends as a child, and how he struck dead a town bully and then revived him. The Gnostics discounted humanity -- Jesus is Superboy, only worse. That's why the Church, in its wisdom, decided they were apocryphal: they did not represent the fully human Jesus it worshipped. Dan Brown to the contrary, those "gospels" were rejected not because their Jesus was too human, but not enough.

We're having a very incarnate Christmas here at Yellow Tavern, sharing a stomach virus in the way all close and loving families do. We are kneeling, but not at a manger. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh have been replaced by ginger ale, imodium, and Febreeze. We're not following a star: we're looking for some sleep.

And that, it seems to me, is the real meaning of Christmas. Fear not.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Day After Trump

     I was a junior in high school, studying one spring evening at the desk I still use, the radio playing softly in the background. The music was interrupted by a news bulletin -- the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. I listened, then ran to tell my parents. Two months later my mother woke me for school by telling me that Robert Kennedy had been assassinated that evening in California. Between those two slayings by lone assassins, I felt something had changed in America, and in me. We had lost our innocence. Something had broken in me and in the world, and as I watched from the roof of my house as Baltimore burned after King's death, and then watched the riots in Chicago that summer during the Democratic Convention, I knew something inexplicable would never be the same.

     This morning, as I try to imagine my country led by Donald Trump, I feel as though something, again, has changed in me and in America. Instead of murder perpetrated by two individuals, now a majority of voters have done violence not just to where I thought we were heading as a nation, but to the very notions of honor, decency, justice, hospitality, and kindness that I always believed were foundations of our society. We -- and I do mean we -- have chosen a very dark path. 

     Many, no doubt, will view this as another swing of the Hegelian pendulum that will eventually swing back. Maybe so. It feels qualitatively different to me -- that something has fundamentally changed in this country. I've been trying to find a better metaphor than "putting the fox in charge of the henhouse." It's more like making the atheists our priests, or taking the car to the scrapyard for repairs, or -- closer -- hiring a demolition contractor to paint the house. Trump and the Republican Party essentially believe that government has two purposes: local and national security, and the protection of business. The other items in the Preamble to the Constitution -- to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity -- can be covered by those other two priorities. 

     For eighty years Republicans have opposed public welfare, public health care, extension of civil rights, and integrated public schools. They finally learned they couldn't openly kill any of those things because they're too popular. But they learned -- from some very dark historical examples -- that if you slowly increase the demands on an individual or system while slowly decreasing its nourishment, it will eventually collapse. That has been happening for a long time with schools, health care, Social Security, and the like. Now there's the opportunity for our newly elected government to kill those things outright.

     What's different today is that the nation has given them license for that project. In the name of "fixing what's broken," there's the very real probability that what gets undone or demolished in the next two to four years -- or more -- can never be repaired. This is more than Van Jones' excellent term "whitelash" -- it is a repudiation of the outcome of the Civil War. In many ways, I feel, the Union is being dissolved.

     Last week I said to a woman at the church I attend that if Trump were elected, those of us in the progressive wing of Christianity would learn how Christians live in the rest of the world. We would no longer be able to count on the culture or the government to do our work of Kingdom-building for us. That white evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump signals to me that there are now, officially, two Christianities in America: one like the state church in so many countries, allied with the existing powers; and another, counter-cultural church that makes prophetic and sacrificial witness to the God who is above and beyond all earthy powers. 

     We dare not pretend now that, with time, it will all get better. The tectonic plates have shifted.

     In 1845, James Lowell put ink to paper to protest the U.S. imperialistic war with --- Mexico. The poem, still sung in Christian churches, rings still:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Try Easier

 In the spring of 1985 I decided to buy my first personal computer.  The choices were the CP/M machines – represented by Radio Shack and Kaypro; the Microsoft machines – represented by IBM; and two machines from Apple – the then-not ready for prime time Macintosh, and the Apple II series.  The Apple IIc was compact, user-friendly, and came with the glorious integrated word processor/database/spreadsheet program, Appleworks.  I’ve been an Apple guy ever since, in no small part because – to me at least – they’re so much easier to understand and use.  A computer technician at one of my churches admitted to me that had Apple become the dominant platform instead of Microsoft, he probably wouldn’t have had a job – he was constantly rescuing crashed Microsoft computer programs and machines.
During my four decades as a clergyman, I sometimes joked with parishioners that my job was to take a very simple idea – that God loves us – and make it so complex that I and thousands of my colleagues would be assured of careers.  Sunday after Sunday I stood in the pulpit and explained the complications and intricacies of trying to follow Jesus.  And, in all modesty, I was pretty good at it.
During that career, I read dozens of books and attended dozens of workshops and classes led by church consultants, each of whom had their own spin on helping congregations – and whole denominations – discover their vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals.  I even led a few of those workshops.  But, because I never wrote a book or got a Doctor of Ministry degree, my stages were fairly small.  And deservedly so.
Now, having spent two years sitting in the pews of churches listening to some very fine pastors help their congregations as they try to define their vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals, it seems to me that maybe I was more right than I knew about making things more complicated than they really are.  Why, after all, would God make God’s message to the world complicated?  Wouldn’t God make it simple enough for the children and the less educated and the less brilliant and the less nuanced to understand?  One of the first heresies the early Christian Church had to battle was Gnosticism – the belief that salvation came only to those who had received some elite and secret knowledge (gnosis) unavailable to common folk.  There are many ways the Church has been battling aspects of Gnosticism ever since, but perhaps church leaders have been double agents, needlessly complicating what was supposed to be Good News.  Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said that unless we became like children, we could not enter the Kingdom.
Or, in the words of the late, great Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan, sometimes you need to try easier.

My United Methodist denomination, a number of years ago, adopted a new mission statement that stands at the beginning of our church law book.  It says that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ A few years later they added a coda:   . . . for the transformation of the world Ever since, we’ve been wrestling with what it means to make a disciple.  How do we do that?  What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like – especially, can they be gay?  Into what are we transforming the world?  Do we transform the world, or does God transform the world?  The mission statement clarified . . . nothing.
Maybe we need to try easier.
A man once asked Jesus which of the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Hebrew Bible was the most important.  No, there are not just the Big Ten – there are hundreds more dealing with family life and ritual conduct and sex and animals and diet and personal cleanliness and women’s menstruation and wearing blended fabrics and on and on.  This whole God thing is really complicated, Jesus.  Can’t you just boil it down to one phrase?
Ask a run of the mill preacher that and s/he will roll his/her eyes, issue a long sigh, and then explain that it’s much more difficult than that.
Jesus – no run of the mill preacher – boils it down.  The most important thing, Jesus said, was to love the Lord with all your heart and mind and strength.  But – this is where his seminary training peeks out from under the terrycloth robe – there is one more thing:  love your neighbor as you love yourself.  That, he concludes, sums it all up.
Later on, he clarifies that second bullet point a little.  He’s noticed that some of his parishioners don’t love themselves very well, and if they’re going to love others as they love themselves, then the rest of the world is going to be in a heap of trouble.  So, he says, I’m giving you a new commandment:  love others as I have loved you That is, love others to death.  Not theirs – yours.
Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is Biblical – it comes from what’s called The Great Commission.  But it seems to me that being a disciple of Jesus Christ means loving God with everything we’ve got and loving others the way Jesus loved.  If we did those things, the world would be transformed.
Love God, and love others like Jesus loved.
Try easier.

Now, about church vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals:  love God, and love others as Jesus loved.  It’s not that complicated an idea.  But each congregation, like each person, is a little different, and lives out that loving a little differently.  Identity, whether corporate or personal, involves two questions:

1.  Where are we?  The Kentucky poet/novelist/essayist Wendell Berry says we can’t know who we are until we know where we are We are magnificent products of families and regions and cultures and languages and experiences and races and genders and epochs.  Berry insists it’s impossible to “think globally and act locally” – the best any of us can do is to really, really get to know where we are, and act appropriately in that place.  That’s why if you’re in Great Britain you need to drive on the left side of the road, and why you don’t try to grow rice in Montana.  A church, like mine, in the inner city, is in a different place than a church on the open prairie.  And a church with fifty worshippers on a Sunday morning is in a different place than a church with thousands.
         The preacher and teacher Bill Pannell said he believed that when Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves, the first place we should look was to our right and to our left.  I was once on the staff of a church that sat across the street from a major university.  The congregation was trying to define its mission, and decided they were being called to work with homeless people.  There were two problems with that calling:  first, the homeless lived on the other side of the town.  Second, there were eighteen thousand “homeless” students across the street from the church.  There were downtown churches working with their literally homeless neighbors, but no one was embracing the students.  First look to your right and to your left.
The church my wife and I have elected in retirement to join is one of the few Anglo churches that stayed downtown when the complexion of the city changed years ago.  It is committed to ministry in its inner city neighborhood, and feeds one hundred fifty to one hundred eighty homeless people every Friday – a ministry with which I help.  Yet, as the congregation ages and shrinks, it is naturally concerned about its future.  Like many of its members, I drive in from the suburbs because of the music, the liturgy, the preaching, and the mission of that church.  But all around the church is residential redevelopment – a former bookstore and office building next door has become a restaurant and apartments; a skyscraper bank has been turned into condominiums; the street on which the church faces has become “restaurant row.”  We have fascinating neighbors all around us:  that is who we are.  What would it mean for us to first love to our left and to our right?

2.  Who are we?  The late church consultant (I know, I know) Kennon Callahan asked what might happen if we stopped believing that congregations were random assemblies of self-selected individuals. What if, he posited, every congregation is in fact a unique gathering of gifts and graces that God has brought together for a specific purpose?  I once served an aging rural congregation that was enormously jealous of the other, younger, larger church on the same charge.  They were convinced they couldn’t do anything significant because they didn’t have any “young people” (which in that church meant under fifty).  They had tried to reach out to young families, but the young families went, naturally, to churches where there were other young families.  “Then why don’t you become the best Senior Citizen’s church anywhere around?” I asked.  Free from trying to be something they weren’t, they could make use of the gifts they had.  In fact, some of the older members of the second congregation moved to the first, just as some of the younger families had moved in the opposite direction.
At another of my churches, a woman approached me one day and asked if we could start a prayer shawl ministry.  She liked to knit, she said, and she thought it would be nice if there were other people who liked to knit and would be interested in making shawls for the sick.  I managed to avoid rolling my eyes, counted to ten, and blew her off by saying, “I’ll tell you what.  Next Sunday why don’t you make an announcement at the beginning of worship, and invite anybody interested to meet with you during our Wednesday program night activities.”  She made the announcement, and that, I thought, would be the end of that.
The next Wednesday night twenty women gathered in a classroom and began knitting.  And the prayer shawl ministry became a huge ministry in the life of that congregation.  Quarterly, we had to bless the prayer shawls during worship.  People were buried wrapped in their prayer shawls.  Shawls went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers sent us pictures wearing them.  And the shawls opened my eyes to how to discover God’s call in a congregation:  don’t sit in a committee meeting and debate the millions of shoulds Look around the congregation for small groups of people who have passion about a need in the community and in the world.  Those people are not there by accident – they have been called by God to be together to do ministry.  Where two or three are gathered in my name . . . The writer to the Ephesians said that the task of church leadership was to equip the saints for the work of ministry People are in church because, to one degree or another, they care about the work of God.  They are there because they have passions and gifts for ministry.  The function of church leadership is to do what Bishop Joe Pennel used to say when the Virginia Conference was stuck in a parliamentary rut:  Let me try to help you do what you want to do.  You want to feed the hungry -- how can we help you do that?  You want to teach children – how can we help you?  You want to make music . . . you want to rebuild houses . . . you want to end war . . . you want to knit shawls – how can we help you make that happen?  If we’d structure our churches around the passions and gifts of our congregations, we’d have little problem getting people to do the things they already want to do.
And if no one in the congregation wants to do it . . . maybe it shouldn’t be done.  In my last congregation, no one wanted to be the church treasurer.  And, frankly, no one was qualified.  So, we hired a CPA, and it worked beautifully.  Best treasurer I ever had.

Love the Lord your God with all your being.
Love others as Jesus loved you.
Look to your left and to your right.
Follow your gifts – they’re not accidents.

Sometimes, you have to try easier.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Westhampton United Methodist Church,
Richmond, Virginia

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The Weeds and the Wheat 
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!
It’s always dangerous for me to talk about farming in a sermon, since my farming expertise is best illustrated by something I did at about seven years old on my grandparent’s farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  I was staying with them, and went with my grandmother to the store in nearby Seaford, Delaware, where I fell in love with a model of a Palomino horse, just like Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger.  I asked my grandmother if she would buy me the horse, and she answered that I should ask my grandfather.  When we got back to the farm, I asked him, and he asked me what I was going to do to earn the money.  I had no idea, so he suggested I go hoe the soybeans in the field.
The next morning I got out of bed early, got a hoe out of the barn, and started down a row of soybeans behind the garage.  I had no idea how or what to hoe, so, after experimenting with several weeding techniques, I decided the most effective way to do the job was to swing the hoe like a golf club, taking out weeds and not a few soybeans in the process.  A few minutes later my grandfather came out to watch my progress.  When he saw what I was doing, he cried out, “For God's sake, STOP! I’ll pay you the money if you’ll just STOP!”
In the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat, Jesus recognizes that sometimes it’s hard to tell the weeds from the wheat.  Although this story follows hard on the very similar parable of the sower and the seed, the stories have two very different destinations.  The sower and the seed addresses the question of why God’s outpouring of grace in the world receives such very different responses, from nothing to abundance.  The parable of the weeds among the wheat is a story about life within the community of faith – the church.  This is not the hard path or the rocky soil.  We thought this ground was well plowed and cultivated.  There was abundant growth in this field, but now it seems as though not everything here is godly.  In the midst of the church there are – God forbid – sinners.  And not just struggling-with-the-usual-stuff sinners, but people who seem to be genuinely destructive to the work of ministry.  People who keep ministry from coming together; people who unravel the fabric of community and ministry, people who are bad influences upon other people’s lives and faith.  Did God sow bad seed along with the good?  Should we go through and clear out the bad seed, to protect the good?
Like my seven year old self, trying to separate the weeds and the wheat can be dangerous for everyone.  That’s why Jesus says, clearly, that it’s not the job of the wheat – you and I – to separate the two.  The time will come for that, Jesus says.  Just as at the end of the soybean season when my grandfather pulled his Allis-Chalmers combine through the crop, cutting everything off at ground level and separating the beans from the weeds and the rest of the bean plant, so, Jesus said, the angels would come at the end of the world and separate the good from the bad.  It’s not the wheat’s job to judge – that is God’s job, and God’s alone.
There are at least two reasons why the wheat doesn’t make the judgment.  The first reason is because not everything that doesn’t look or act or think like us is a weed.  New Kent County farmer Jimmy Talley says that a weed is just something growing where you don’t want it to grow.  I can remember orphan corn stalks growing in the soybean field the year after that field had been planted in corn, and going out to those random stalks when the corn was ripe and bringing the ears back for supper.  Farmers who used to plow to the edges of their fields are relearning the Biblical principle of leaving hedgerows for erosion and pest control, and for pollination.  I am always impressed, watching the beautiful French countryside during the Tour de France in July, with the incredible diversity of French agriculture.  France is not Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa, with thousands of acres of corn or wheat as far as the eye can see – there is a field of corn next to a field of sunflowers next to a field of beans next to a vineyard. 
Jesus knew all too well the Pharisees who believed that anyone who didn’t look or act or think or believe as they did were wrong, needed to be corrected, or even excluded.  Jesus had been the victim of that theological monoculture, harassed by the Pharisees when he befriended sinners and tax collectors and Roman collaborators and Gentiles and children and women.  The Pharisees were purists, trying to restore Israel to a glory they imagined but which history never revealed: they wanted to make Israel great again.   But Israel had always lived in the tension between what was and what might be, and her greatest days came, in fact, from unlikely combinations of people and circumstances:  Joshua’s triumph was aided by Rahab the Canaanite prostitute; King David was the great-grandchild of a Moabite undocumented immigrant named Ruth; God used Assyria and Babylon to punish his people and a Persian to redeem them; Jesus was born out of wedlock in a barn.  Sometimes what we think doesn’t belong is in fact a gift from God.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a pastor from a different denomination about who is welcome in the church, which ultimately became a conversation about who is a child of God.  He comes from a denomination – oh, heck, he is a Baptist -- which was founded in the sixteenth century specifically to purify what was believed to be a corrupt Christianity.  This pastor recognizes that we are all sinners, but he also believes that certain behaviors disqualify people from church membership.  We’re not talking about anything in the Ten Commandments, or in anything that Jesus taught, mind you.  He doesn’t seem to mind people eating shrimp, or wearing blended fabrics, or associating with women at certain times of the month, or with people who store up treasure in ever-expanding barns while ignoring the needy at their gate, all of which are prohibited in the Bible.  The conversation really came down to who is a child of God.  He believes that only Christians – and, I would suggest, only his kind of Christians -- are God’s children.  He believes everyone else is made in God’s image, but is not a child of God until they personally accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  I agree that people should accept Christ as Lord and Savior, but I also believe that when the Letter to the Ephesians says there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all, all means everyone, not just those who recognize it.  But then, this pastor doesn’t believe in one baptism, either.  I believe that children who die in utero or in infancy, and the mentally challenged who can never make a profession of faith, and people who have never heard the gospel, are all children of the same Father, who loves them all just the same.  God is not our Father and we are not God’s children because we say so – we accept it because it’s already true.  And that’s why I believe this parable is telling us to be very careful about whom we call wheat and whom we call a weed.
The second reason why it’s not our job to separate the wheat and the weeds is because eternal judgment belongs to God and to God alone.  We are expected to be discerning – not everyone in the church can be treasurer, or can work with children, or be a musician, or preach.  But the first and most important act of faith is to say that Jesus Christ is Lord, which means we are not Lord. The judgment of the world is not our call.  Who is saved and who is damned is not our call.  Who is in and who is out is not our call.  Yes, we live amongst the weeds.  We need to put our energies into producing fruit with which God can feed a literally and spiritually starving world, not waste our efforts pointing out the weeds.  The weeds will get taken care of, at the right time, more surely than we ever can manage.  Stop playing God, deciding who is saved and who isn’t.  Make room for all God’s children, and let God do the sorting.  You might discover that that plant next to you, which you thought was a weed because it didn’t look like you, might be wheat and you’re the weed.  Or you might just discover it’s a different strain, and the mixture makes the loaf all the more healthy and delicious.

Every ounce of energy we put into judgment is energy diverted from being fruitful for God.  Yes, there are weeds among the wheat.  That’s not our problem.  Instead, grow and shine and be fruitful for your Heavenly Father, who alone is Lord of the Harvest.