Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Mission

Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
January 29, 2017
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there. That line is often attributed to Lewis Carroll, though it’s likely a paraphrase of a conversation between Alice and the Cat in Wonderland. It’s not, as I’ve heard suggested recently, the mission statement of the new administration.
Indeed, as a mission statement it makes a better warning. As does a similar line attributed to the late Yogi Berra: If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.
It is always good to know where you’re going when you set out on a journey. Of course, if the trip is further than, say, the grocery store, chances are pretty good things are not going to go as you planned. Heck, even trips to the grocery store get derailed. How many of you go “off-list” at the grocery store? Deeper confession time: how many of you go to the grocery store without a list at all?
Yeah, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else. I tend to end up in the cookie aisle.
So, this Sunday of our annual winter congregational meeting seems like a good time to ask, where are we going as church?
On the one hand, the church is not a public conveyance – that is to say, it’s not going anywhere – on the other hand, the church is spiritual gathering. As I have noted often, the church is both institution and movement. As nothing makes more obvious than an annual meeting with budgets and nominating committees and statistical reports, the church is an institution.
If, however, that is all we are then we have far outlived our usefulness in the world. If we are not part of the movement of the living God in the world – a movement of the Holy Spirit – then we really ought to close up shop, sell the property, give the money to somebody doing some good in the world, and just go to brunch on Sunday mornings. Late brunch, please.
The apostle Paul famously called the church “the body of Christ in the world.” A body that does not move is dead, or soon to be so.
I do not believe that the body of Christ in the world is dead, nor is this small instance of it here at Clarendon. No, the body of Christ at Clarendon is vibrant, and, in that vibrancy, we continue to shake things up in our part of the world. That is as it should be.
Nonetheless, it is also good and right and appropriate from time to time to check in, to take stock, to make sure that we’re going in the right general direction. It is good to check the sign posts to see if we’re on the right track.
That’s where this morning’s readings are crucial. We could do way worse than saying, simply, that the mission of the church is “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”
If that’s the mission statement for the people of God, then we could do way worse than saying that the Beatitudes are our strategic plan. In other words, what does it look like to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God?
Well, it looks like this:
·      Mourners are comforted.
·      The meek are inheriting the earth.
·      The hungry are fed, and those who hunger for justice are filled.
·      The merciful receive mercy.
·      The peacemakers are honored and called children of God.
That’s a pretty good strategic plan for our current context. For when we look around these days we see plenty of grief, and thus, plenty of mourners who need comfort. We don’t need to look further than the tragic photographs of Syrian children to understand this, nor do we need to look beyond the words of the Torah to know clearly that immigration policy is a Biblical issue: “God loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 CEB); and “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien residing with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34, NRSV).
So blessed are those immigrants who are mourning, stuck in airports or refugee camps this week, but they are blessed only if we offer welcome and comfort and solidarity, and if we do not condition that welcome and comfort and solidarity on things like race, or tribe, or gender, or religion, or country of origin, or any of the dozens of other ways we divide the earth and all its people.
When we look at the earth – well, I don’t know about you but to me it does not look as if the meek are inheriting it. It looks to me as if those who hunger for money and power are pillaging the only planet we have. While I love the work that George Tahu and his NASA colleagues are doing these days, for the foreseeable future there is no planet B. Thus it looks to me as if we Presbyterians got it pretty close to right back in the late 1980s when we said, in our Brief Statement of Faith, that “we threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.” Care for creation and outspoken advocacy on behalf of our natural environment must be part of the church’s agenda. Blessed are the meek, and, well, sometimes the meek must rise up lest the inheritance of our earth be squandered.
Sometimes outspoken advocacy moves beyond postcards and phone calls to protests – after all, we are Protestants. And when lawmakers propose crackdowns on civil disobedience and peaceful protest the church is called to stand on the side of those who are hungering for justice. That is a none-too-subtle notice that we might just have to gin up the pastor’s bail fund in the days to come.
For it looks so very far from mercy when the nation’s commander-in-chief proudly and loudly proclaims that “torture works,” and calls for reinstating practices that brought profound shame on us all. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
As if that is not troubling enough, our nation remains engaged in the longest running war in our history. It is impossible to discern if the peacemakers shall be called the children of God because it is damn near impossible to identify any makers of peace these days.
Yes, we have our work cut out for us on these, and a whole raft of other crucial concerns. For if we are to take as our mission “to do justice” then we’d best recall Walter Brueggemann’s observation that in scripture justice really comes down to this: sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it.
In practice, in 2017, this means, first and foremost, insisting that gospel values still matter in the world. We are not, as American political scientist Corey Robin put it in the current edition of Harpers, “huddling around the campfire of our dread,” but, instead, we “mass and march toward a distant light.”
Our story begins, after all, with the One who said, “let there be light” and continues through to the light that shines in the darkness. That light of love belongs to all people who dwell in deep darkness.
We claim our place in that light of love by affirming as self-evident these truths concerning what belongs to whom and these commitments to seeing that it is returned and remains with whom it belong:
Marriage rights belong to couples whose love draws them into covenantal relationships, and we shall not stand idly by when anyone tries to undo it through the courts or the congress.
Health care belongs to those who are trying to stay well, and to those who are sick or injured, and we shall not stand idly by when anyone tries to deny it by defunding it.
Bodily autonomy belongs to those who have bodies, no matter what gender. Her choice belongs to her body. We shall not stand idly by when a bunch of men sign orders to deny that constitutional right to choose. And, hey, bathrooms belong to those who have to pee and it just shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out how to make that work for everyone. We shall not stand by silently in the face of anti-trans bigotry.
Good schools belong to all children, and we shall not stand idly by when anyone tries to sell off the public schoolhouse door to the highest bidder because we have seen the results and the results are not just.
Clean water belongs to those who thirst whether they live in the affluence of Arlington, the hardship of Flint, or the straits of Standing Rock. Good food belongs to those who are hungry. Shelter belongs to the homeless. Clean air belongs to those who breathe. Peace belongs to us all.
If justice is our mission, then blessing is our strategy – and, moreover, blessing those whom God blesses. Blessing them in word and in deed. Blessing through political engagement, blessing by way of radical hospitality, blessing through generosity that does not count the costs, blessing by creating beauty for beauty’s sake, and joy for the sake of human fulfillment.

Friends, this is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in the world in 2017.  Our destination is the beloved community; our path is a highway for our God through the wilderness of our time. Let us be the church – today, tomorrow, and for as long as we draw breath – inhaling hope and voicing praise. Hallelujah, and amen!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Good News

Psalm 146
January 15, 2017
Eight years ago, on the Sunday prior to inauguration day, I preached a sermon entitled “Inaugurating Hope.” I was, I confess, tempted to call this morning’s homily “Inaugurating Fear.”
But then I recalled that on that Sunday in January, 2009, I noted the same Psalm we recited together moments ago, with its timeless reminder that the plans of princes and presidents are, like those of all mortals, as fleeting as breath. We did not elect a messiah in November, 2008, nor in November, 2016. We did not elect a savior or, even, a ruler.
Indeed, last fall we elected a frail and broken human being to the office of chief executive; just as this nation has done 44 times before. So, no matter whom you voted for, whom you longed for, whom you feared, or whom you loathed, hear this good news: 
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.”
There is more than enough fearfulness in our current context, but there is also more than more than enough good news.
As I have noted and will continue to note throughout this 500th anniversary year of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, we are living through a period of rapid and fundamental change whose breadth, depth, and speed would have shocked Martin Luther. The week which sees the peaceful transfer of power in the country that proudly calls itself the world oldest democracy is the perfect time to acknowledge that political systems around the world are in turmoil and flux, and democracy is threatened on many fronts.
When voting rights are under assault in dozens of states, big money dominates our politics at all levels, and voters reject one party’s nominee for president because they don’t trust her while electing a man whose own ethics are, at the very least, highly questionable, it’s not difficult to see why many feel that democracy is also threatened right here at home.
The news from across the river this week has been almost uniformly ugly – even tawdry. It is also deeply troubling. I cannot see any of it as good, and it portends a challenging season to come. To the extent possible, I do not make that assessment as a proud liberal, but rather as a committed citizen. The state of the nation’s politics is not good.
I could point the finger at particular contemporary politicians, but, instead, let’s point back a ways – a long ways – and place some blame on Martin Luther, himself. For, you see, there was always a shadow side to the impulses given voice and power through the Reformation. As Texas writer Jonathan Malesic noted for Religion Dispatches this week,
The sovereignty of individual conscience, awakened by Reformation-era distrust of knowledge experts backed by political power, was an essential component of the revolutions that created modern democracy. But that same sovereignty [of individual conscience] now threatens to fracture our democratic polity. Seemingly every sphere of knowledge expertise—science, the news media, and even the national intelligence services—is currently distrusted by those on the political right. They have ridden that distrust to power on every level of government.[1]
In other words, if you say that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” you may just open the door to the inevitable argument that one perspective is as valid as another no matter the foundation or lack thereof, no matter what powerful institution supports any particular perspective on any given matter.
Nevertheless, even though Reformation impulses have their shadow sides, the good news remains: we have in those same impulses great resources for the present time; those resources also provide guidance to the church in its contemporary circumstance. In other words, we have what we need to do the work to which we are called, and that is very good news, indeed.
Let’s take a look. In fact, let’s start with that foundational principle of Presbyterian polity, articulated prior to the founding general assembly of our predecessor denomination way back in 1788: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men [sic] which are in anything contrary to his [sic] Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”
That principle led our Presbyterian forebears to proclaim abiding support of religious freedom, and to the separation of church and state. It also led them to place deep faith in the power of people to make decisions through processes that guaranteed protection to minority voices while assuring that the majority will govern the body.
All of that, it seems to me, continues to make good sense. But notice the appeal is not merely to individual human conscience, but, rather, to God. Thus it matters deeply how we understand the Divine.
Having begun with Psalm 146, let’s return to that text. What is the nature of the God in whom we are to put our trust? The psalmist proclaims that God is the one
who keeps faith for ever;
   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.
who sets the prisoners free;
   who opens the eyes of the blind.
who lifts up those who are bowed down;
   who loves the righteous.
who watches over the strangers;
   and upholds the orphan and the widow.
If that is the God who is the lord of individual conscience then justice, human freedom, liberation, and well-being seem to be God’s priorities. In the gospels, we see these priorities made flesh in the person of Jesus. As we contemporary Presbyterians confess in our Brief Statement of Faith, this “Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.”
The church is called to give flesh to that same calling in its own time. This side of the beloved community, the reign of God is always incomplete, thus the prophetic role of the church, in every time and place, is to call political leaders to account when their policies or behaviors do note advance the cause of justice, freedom, liberation, and human well-being. The prophetic role of the church is the resist all that stands against that cause, and to stand in solidarity with those who are victims of injustice, whose well-being is under threat.
This prophetic role is not merely that of critic. We are not the ones who simply complain about the plumbing in, oh, I don’t know, places like Flint, perhaps. We are the ones charged with calling for justice to roll down like a mighty water. We are not called to complain about the flatness of the bread, but rather to be its leaven. We are not called to note the darkness and be bitter, but rather to be a light in the darkness.
In other words, we are called to give voice to a vision of hope, and to call power to bear upon that vision. We are not called to complain about the leader’s lack of vision; we are called to provide the vision for where there is no vision the people perish.
We have some difficult days ahead of us, but we have, also, a great gift to offer: the gift of love. For what else is our ultimate calling as followers of Jesus than to offer to the world our love?
I find the confluence of Inauguration Day and the King Day holiday instructive. In the days just before we witness the transfer of American power, we celebrate our finest critic of that power. Dr. King understood well the difficult weave of power, justice, and love. As he said toward the end of his life, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Followers of Jesus in every moment are called to exercise just such power as we work to do justice, to make peace, to welcome the stranger and care for the least of these our neighbors, to bind up the broken, to comfort the brokenhearted, and to love one another always.
This remains our calling, and our present circumstance demands renewed vigor and focus such that we recognize in this moment the kairos time of God’s eternal hope, that we give that hope voice and substance, and that, hearts filled with God’s hope, we lift every voice and sing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The True Kirk

John 10: 5, 27-28
The Scotts Confession, from chapter 18
January 8, 2017
Ah, those Scotsmen of the 1500s knew how to talk about their opponents, eh? The “horrible harlot, the church malignant” – now that’s a confession of the faith a true Scot can get behind!
Sometimes it’s fun to step into the way-back machine! And pretty soon I will have said this often enough that almost everyone here will recognize the way-back machine as the context for much that we talk about together this year. But the year has barely begun, so it’s still necessary and worth saying: 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of what we now call the Protestant Reformation in western Europe.
The Scots Confession, written in part by John Knox – the father of Presbyterian tradition – and ratified by the Scottish Parliament in 1560, emerged in the midst of the ongoing Reformation.
We are a church, not a college history class. Why, you rightly ask, do these roadside historical markers from Europe of the 16th century matter to us North American Christians of the 21st century?
As Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in the introduction to his magisterial history of the Reformation, “American life is fired by a continuing energy of Protestant religious practice derived from the sixteenth century. So the Reformation, particularly in its English Protestant form, has created the ideology dominant in the world’s one remaining superpower.”[1]
At a moment when everything in American life – including that foundational ideological impulse – is unsettled, it’s critical to understand how we got here. I don’t know if it’s true that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, but I do believe that if we don’t know how we arrived where we are then we’ll make lousy decisions concerning where we want to go from this point.
Life in Western Europe 500 years ago was far more unsettled – and far more dangerous – than 21st-century American life. While it was not quite Hobbesian, it was often nasty, brutish, and short. Life expectancy at birth in 1500s Europe was about 30 years. If you avoided war, disease, and giving birth, you’d probably make it to about 70. That was, of course, a big if. Infant mortality, maternal mortality, widespread disease were the norm.
In that context, how to get to heaven was a pressing existential concern. After all, when so many lives were cut so short and the work for those who lived longer than their life expectancy at birth was usually harsh and often brutal, it’s not difficult to imagine that human beings longed for something more than what this mortal coil had to offer.
The church offered salvation – eternal life beyond the sickness and strife of this one. It also claimed for itself the role of gate keeper. That is to say, the church proclaimed as an essential tenet of the faith that the church itself was the only way to the eternal salvation promised by the faith. Clever marketing under the guise of theological conviction? Perhaps.
When your eternal salvation was your key concern and receiving it depended upon your church membership, it was crucial to be part of the true church and not some false and pale facsimile. Thus the various reformers – from Luther to Calvin, Zwingli to Knox, Anabaptists to Moravians – as well as the counter-reforming Roman Catholic bishops and popes – all made claims to the truth of their own ideas about church.
Often, in their claims, they cited Jesus’ words from the gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” If, as both scripture and the church had proclaimed, the church of Jesus Christ is the body of Christ in the world, then the true church was the true body, and true believers would follow faithfully.
Ah, but what is truth?
The various reformations and counter-reformations pointed to various practices and beliefs to stake their various claims to truth, but for those who led what came to be called the Reformed Church – in whose line we stand – church discipline and right administration was a consistent through-line. It is not the sole or even central tenet of Reformed faith, but it has always been a significant part of the tradition.
We Presbyterians often joke about our preoccupation with being “decent and in order in all things,” but the underlying truth is that we value order in the life of the church. The original impulse toward church order arose in response to widespread corruption in church leadership, but it also reflected a fundamental conviction about the nature of human life and the reality of God.
In Calvin’s famous phrase, the Reformers believed in the total depravity of human kind and the grace of God. Orderly structures in the church are necessary because absent them human beings will, in their depravity, pursue narrow self-interests over the best interest of the community.
We may not like old John’s word choice these days, but truth still lingers in them. We speak more often now of human brokenness than we do of depravity, and we celebrate the belief that our brokenness is not the whole story of who we are.
Nevertheless, we hold on to the necessity of ecclesiastical discipline and order because we still recognize the danger of unchecked power within any human system. It’s not like no human beings prior to the Reformation understood this, but the reformers’ emphasis on the universality of human brokenness and the logical necessity of checks on human power stood in stark contract to an ecclesiastical system with an infallible pope and a political system that rested upon the divine right of kings.
You can see where that led, right?
Today, five centuries into the whole reformation enterprise, we face a different set of concerns.
The global wars and genocides of the past century have raised a new set of existential concerns as well. In place of a deep desire for eternal life in the face of limited expectations for long life or the inescapable drudgery of brutal toil, today we experience a widespread desire for deeper meaning in the face of the capriciousness of life lived with expectations of much longer spans and far great human freedom. When meaning is the deepest concern, what practices and convictions should shape our faith lives and communities? What implications would such practices and beliefs have for other systems – political, social, economic ones?
Reformation – or whatever we come to call this season of profound and global change – does not mean throwing out everything. It was no accident that we focused on church order on a day when we elected, ordained, and installed elders to lead this congregation. Even if you believe more in original blessing than in original sin, that doesn’t mean that any one of us is perfect, that any one of us is immune from temptation, that any one of us is infallible.
Whatever we are, a people who long for connection and for love, and for our voices to be heard. Let us lift our voices and express those longings in prayer.

[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003) xxii.