Tuesday, June 06, 2017

All Flesh? You Must Be Kidding

Numbers 11:24-30

June 4, 2017
Last Wednesday that Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn insisting that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
Such a belief about international relations rests on a similar conviction about personal relations and the motivations of individuals, and from such convictions grow controlling ideas about scarcity and personal choices driven by fear that the other – every other – is always out to get you.
That afternoon I was sitting in a coffee shop reading. I know, quelle surprise, right? In any case, a young woman walked up and asked if the table next to me was available. I wasn’t paying attention to the folks who had, apparently, left and left behind their dishes. The young woman wanted to know if they’d left for good.
I honestly had no idea, but from the looks of the table I actually thought they were probably coming back. My first impulse was simply to say that and return to my reading.
But I was reading a spiritual memoir whose introduction concludes with these words: “Faith, for me, isn’t an argument, a catechism, a philosophical ‘proof.’ It is instead a lens, a way of experiencing life, and a willingness to act.”[1]
So, I gestured at the other half of the round café table I was occupying and said, “I don’t know, but you’re welcome to share this table if you like.” Now, I’d love to tell you that we then had this long, earth-shaking, world-changing conversation that will lead to peace on earth and the end of slow internet connections, but actually she set her things down, went to the restroom, and, when she came back she rightly concluded that the other folks were gone for good and so she took that table. We never exchanged more than those few words and gestures.
But it struck me in that incredibly simple and utterly insignificant exchange that we were actually dancing quite close to the heart of the gospel there in the coffee shop. Sara Miles, whose memoir I was reading, writes that in embracing Christianity, she “discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.” (1)
I was certainly not welcoming the despised and the outcast in the coffee shop last week. On the other hand, as a woman of color the person I invited to share my table had no doubt be taught, at some level, to be suspicious of men of pallor, and, as a white man I have been taught to be suspicious of people of color.
Gestures of hospitality that create tables of welcome are the heart of the gospel. It doesn’t take a great saint, a bishop, an ordained officer of the church to articulate the heart of the gospel and to practice the deepest aspects of the faith. The heart of the gospel is for all flesh.
In fact, that simple message is the heart of the reading from Numbers, as well as the heart of the story of Pentecost. The gift of the spirit is not reserved for the few, the proud. The gift of the spirit is for every child of God. The call of God goes out to all flesh.
As the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatian church, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things,” he went on, “there is no law.” And, he could have added, no limit. These gifts are neither scarce not controlled by a few, but, rather, abundant and available to all.
The charge to the church implied in the story of Pentecost is simple: go into all the world and share this good news: God’s love is for all the world, and the gifts of the spirit are for everyone. Go out and use them! Use them all the time because you can’t use them up!
Use them whether you are young or old, part of the in crowd or an outsider, one of us or one of them, a leader or a follower. Use them on behalf of those who most need love, those who most need to experience a little joy, those who live far from peace, those who do not experience much of the goodness of creation.
Use the gifts of the spirit to create and sustain communities in which the light of love shines through every darkness, through which the waters of justice roll to parch every thirst, and across which the wind of the spirit blows to bring life-giving breath to every constricted soul.
That’s all beautiful and metaphorical and there’s nothing wrong with such poetry. But, as a dear member of the first congregation I served was fond of saying, “Ensign, you’re too subtle.” So let me be clear:
The Spirit of God is blowing through the church these days calling us to be bold in specific ways:
It’s June – Pride month in many communities – so let’s be clear: God is calling us to stand on the side of love and continue to be a witness for justice and equality for our GLBTQ friends. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen domestically under the present administration, so we’ll live with eyes wide open at home particularly, these days, with respect to policies in schools. Beyond our borders, we know that sexual minorities are under threat and repression in many nations. The Spirit of God is calling us to stand in solidarity, and to press our public officials to take action for justice wherever GLBTQ persons are being persecuted and oppressed. And a friendly tweet from the president’s daughter won’t cut it.
It’s June – summer in our part of the world, and we’ll be reminded more than once in the coming months, I suspect, that it’s hot outside. Our president just declared that against the global scientific consensus and common commitment to confront the climate crisis, the United States is going to withdraw from the Paris Accord. The Spirit of God is calling us to care for creation and to pursue political and economic policies that shift us away from dependence upon fossil fuels. There are plenty of actions each of us can take – I posted one list of such actions on the church’s Facebook page last week. But it takes more than that; it takes a serious politics that takes serious issues seriously. Remember that when election day rolls around again.
It’s June, the garden is growing, and we are harvesting fresh food for hungry neighbors. Meanwhile, our nation’s leaders are considering budget proposals that will drastically cut funding for basic food support programs. The Spirit of God is calling us to proclaim clearly that access to healthy food and to clean water is a fundamental and universal human right not a privilege reserved for the affluent. If we make such a proclamation, we are called to live into it by championing policies that move beyond the aspirational to the implementable. Our acts of charity – in the garden, at AFAC, with A-SPAN – are good and right and appropriate, but we must act also for food justice.
If we are a people who gather at a “table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored,” then that table is where we begin to put flesh on these dreams of a future otherwise, these aspirations to live in a world that is more than an endless cycle of often violent competition for ever-dwindling resources.
Mr. McMasters and Mr. Cohn have chosen a particular lens through which to view the world. Never forget the simple truth that the way you look at something determines what you see. Their lens is not the only lens available, nor, it seems to me, is it the clearest one.
As for me, I shall choose the lens of faith, and when I look through it I see a table with a place for everyone born. Let us gather at that table and celebrate that faith. Amen.

[1] Take This Bread, 2

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Of Memorials and Forgetting

John 17:1-11
May 28, 2017
The reading from John this morning comes from what is known as the Priestly Prayer – the prayer that Jesus offers around the table in the upper room where he shared the Last Supper, when he knows his is about to be betrayed, when he knows what his disciples will soon know. He offers this prayer for them, for his disciples – of his time and for all time.
It’s an interesting fact of Christian life and practice that almost all followers of Jesus come to memorize the Lord’s Prayer and that almost none of us remember the words Jesus prayed at the Last Supper.
What we choose to remember says something about us; as does what we choose to forget.
Jesus prays, “protect them … that they may be as one.” Keep them together. Keep them whole, even though the world would tear them apart.
Perhaps we choose to remember, “give us this day our daily bread” because bread at least sounds easy. We know that unity, on the other hand, is difficult. It may sound as nice as bread, but we know how hard it is to achieve. We know this truth because we know ourselves.
We are fractious. We are disputatious. We are proud. And that’s the best of us … sometimes even at our best.
Unity rarely comes easily, and sometimes we humans are at our worst when we are unified. “Mob mentality” is only a well-known term because it is a well-known phenomenon, and a dangerous one. Cults are known for their unity, for “being as one,” but that’s about the only positive thing that can be said for them.
Listening to reporting on the terrorists responsible for last week’s bombing in Manchester, I was struck by the observation that young men are drawn into terror cells because they want a sense of belonging, of community, of unity. Obviously, there is a shadow side.
On the other hand, life is a long journey and, as the proverb puts it, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Together, we can accomplish so much more than any one of us can manage alone. We can create more. We can nourish more. We can protect more.
The whole of the gospel narrative is about creating a new kind of community in the world. The richly metaphorical writing in John’s gospel is crucial on this point, especially in the Priestly Prayer. A few verses further along than this morning’s text, Jesus continues in the part of the prayer that I call the “goo goo g’joob” section (you know: “I am the egg man; they are the egg men; I am the walrus” … anyway):
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 
The community that Christ founds – the church – will be marked by this spiritual unity, this unity of spirit. Just as Jesus is one with the Divine, so shall we be one with him. If, as the apostle Paul put it, the church is the body of Christ in the world, then the only way that followers of Jesus can have “a personal relationship” with Jesus is through the church. The only way to “know Jesus” in the world is by knowing the community gathered in his name as it tries to follow his way in the world.
The whole thing gets tricky as we try to follow that way. Jesus prays for protection for his followers because they remain “in the world.” He understands that the world will no more welcome those who try to live as he lived than it welcomed him.
He understands the opposition that has arisen against him, and he knows the only options left to him that night are to run away or confront an overwhelming power that seeks to crush him. He knows that his followers will soon know this, as well.
Jesus prays, “Now they know … protect them.” Now they know the truth, and, while the truth will set them free, the promise of liberation in this world is always fraught.
This prayer is about living liberating community in a world where freedom is a dangerous thing and authentic community a rare one.
The whole long struggle over how to remember the American Civil War testifies to that danger, and underscores, as well, the timely importance of what we remember and what we choose to forget. In the remarkable speech given when monuments to leaders of “the Lost Cause” were removed from their pedestals in New Orleans, that city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, asked,
“why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.”
Those markers were removed in New Orleans because the city recognized, at long last, that what we choose to remember about the past shapes how we act in the present and informs how we create the future.
The weekend of Memorial Day seems like a good time to acknowledge that truth. There are memories that we hold onto that hold onto us. There are pasts we cannot get past until we put them in their proper place.
Individually, every one who grows into adulthood recognizes this truth, and the entire profession of psychological counseling rests on it. But we are not in group therapy today; we are the church of Jesus Christ gathered in worship. Thus, for the moment, I am less interested in personal stories than I am in community histories.
And I am wondering, what stories of the past do we need to reconsider? What monuments do we need to remove? What forgotten stories do we need to memorialize properly?
I’m thinking about this on several levels. We’ve been talking this year about the Reformation, and as we think about reforming the church again and anew, what monuments do we need to remove? What forgotten stories do we need to resurrect?
How about on the broader community level here in Arlington and the metro area?
What about at the state and the national level?
Let us pray: God of our time and of all time, teach us how to use well the time we have been given. Give us the wisdom to honor the stories of our forebears and to learn well from them, and open our hearts to your spirit calling us to create the future you imagine. Guard and protect us as we walk you way in your world, and, as together, we try to build the Beloved Community. Amen.

John 17:1-11
After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.
And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Free to Be ... What?

1 Peter 2:2-10; Micah 6:8; texts from John on truth
May 14, 2017
It’s Mothers Day, so a happy day to every child born of a woman. Mothers Day can be a mixed bag, for sure. Some of us have or had rich, joyous, loving relationships with our mothers; others of us have or had challenging or even painful, hurtful relationships. Some women love being mothers; others find it challenging in ways to bring more grief than joy. Many choose never to become mothers, and yet others wish desperately that they could be but circumstances prevent it. So, yeah, Mothers Day can be a mixed bag.
At its best, that first relationship is a treasured one remembered with deep love that provides a foundation for life. At its worst, that first relationship is a primal example of a past from which we need liberation. Heck, did you see the article in the Post last week about George Washington’s relationship with his mother? The Father of Our Country had some issues with his mother.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of pasts we need to let go of.
I found myself engaged briefly in a couple of social media threads last week that got me thinking about our complicated relationships to the past. One thread began with a friend’s post encouraging people to send letters to Speaker Ryan’s home voicing opinions on the health care bill – remember the simpler times when that was in the news … a week ago?
In any case, someone was moved to post this comment: “Right now we need to pray for our nation.” Sadly, I tend to roll my eyes when a comment begins that way. This one went on to say, “When men can go in women’s restrooms […] in the name of born the wrong gender we have a huge problem. Pretty sure you can look at your self in the mirror and figure out if you were born a man or a woman.”
Having just preached a sermon quoting the line in A Brief Statement of Faith about hearing the voices of peoples long silenced, I felt compelled to offer a different perspective, so I wrote:
Do you actually know any transgender persons? Have you ever sat down with someone who is transgender and listened to their story? Have you ever spoken with someone who was born intersex? The world is not black and white, and gender is not a simple binary.
As you might expect on social media the conversation didn’t go far, but it left me wondering just what the other person was afraid of and why. What had happened in his life that left him with such a constricted lens for seeing the world? From what did he need to be free? What scars did he bear from what ancient wounds?
Social media is the last place in the world one should look for social change or even the slightest change in the mind of any individual, and when I engage threads it is usually for the sake of clarifying my own thought. We may be free to express ourselves, but our expressions seldom lead to liberation. Even as I express myself, I am constantly reminded that most of need to be freed from some parts of own past and the stories we tell ourselves about what really happened.
So I wondered about the person seeking prayers for the nation: what god does he think we need to pray to, and what texts taught him about that god?
Those questions popped up again for me yesterday morning when I got a FB message saying: “So, send me some prayers. I’m giving dad his first progressive Christian book to read this weekend.”
The dad in question is a high school buddy of mine. I connected with the young man via FB a few years ago when he was struggling to come to grips with the United Methodist church’s treatment of gay seminarians such as himself. I saw something in an exchange with his dad at the time and chimed in with some progressive pastoral support that apparently meant a good deal to both father and son.
In offering a supportive word to a friend’s young-adult son, I suppose I was also trying to say, “the love of the gospel is more important than any other word; and if other readings of the text have oppressed you then those readings are not the truth and you should be liberated from them.”
In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers, “if you follow my way in the world you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
At a moment in our country when so many misconstrue religious liberty for the freedom to discriminate, it’s important that we understand what freedom is for. At a moment in our country’s history when truth, itself, is under assault, and when our nation’s leaders regularly and obviously lie to us, it is important that we understand what truth is, as well, for we long for the liberation that comes when we know the truth.
Our particular moment feels more fraught than many, to be sure. I am not downplaying the seriousness of the current leadership crisis in America by noting that, in many ways, this is nothing new under the sun.
Every season of momentous change is marked by questions of truth and liberation. Jesus clearly understood this, and so did Herod. “What is truth?” is not only a lofty and abstract philosophical question, it is also an everyday existential one, as well.
Truth was at stake in the Reformation, when early democratic impulses led Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers to question the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly on “truth.” The translation of scripture from the Latin insisted upon by the church to the common idiom of the people rested on a core conviction held by the Reformers that the people could be trusted to discern the truth.
Similarly, it’s no accident that when the Founders of the American experiment in self-government articulated their impulse for independence they did so by declaring certain truths to be self-evident. Those truths, they insisted, shall set us free.
Of course, whenever “truth” is given voice there’s a better than even-money chance that the “truth” spoken will be shaded in the direction of the speaker. In other words, if you have the power to articulate “truth” for the public, odds are you will articulate only that part of the truth that maintains your own privilege to speak it.
That’s why the Elizabeth Schuyler character in the musical Hamilton sings, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal … and when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel.”
The first Christians, the Reformers, the Founding Fathers and Mothers were all trying to throw off the shackles of an oppressive past while articulating a renewed understanding of the truth. Being human, though, they were – just as we are – prisoners of our own time and circumstance.
So, what oppressive past do we need to cast off? What in your own history do you need to let go of? What does the church need to be freed from? What in the broader social, economic, and political life of the commonweal do we need to be liberated from?
Those are starting places, and questions for renewal and reformation. But if you don’t have some sense of where you want to wind up, any road will get you there. So, what is liberation for? Is it liberty for the sake of libertines? No rules? No broader purpose?
That way is always a theoretical option, but it is never the way of Jesus. In other words, when Jesus said, “if you follow my way you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” he was pointing toward a way of living that is liberating.
Moreover, when he later insists “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he both underscores and gives contour to the way toward which he points, from which he beckons. His very life, into which he invites his followers, is the way into liberating truth.
It’s not a way marked by signposts of particular belief systems. The gate to the way is not some creedal or confessional statement. When Jesus speaks of this way in John it sounds like this: “they will know you are my followers by the way you love one another.”
Freedom is a beautiful idea. Freedom is coming. Freedom is coming. Freedom is coming, oh yes, I know. But freedom for what?
Earlier in worship we sang the best answer I know: “to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Personally speaking, I learned that lesson first and best from my mother. So that’s not a past from which I need particular liberation. There are, of course, other demons and fears and scars from which I need liberation in order to live more fully into the freedom that Micah articulated and into which Jesus invites.
I’m living into that step by step. Letting go of what needs to be let go of, and holding on to that which liberates. I hope you are, too.

More than that, I hope the we, as a people of hope, are always a place of liberation for one another, that, together, we are known by how we bind together love and justice. For that is what true religious liberty is all about. That is what we are freed for. Amen.